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Oliver Hughes – “It’s all about SEOs and survival…”

Porterhouse Group Managing Director Oliver Hughes is the new Chairman of The Nightclubs Industry Association. Pat Nolan spoke to him about the industry's plight.

Oliver Hughes has run a late bar and nightclub in Bray for “donkey’s years” so he’s well used to commenting on the night-time economy.

Now, as co-proprietor of Lillies Bordello and as INIA Chairman, he appreciates that nightclubs are not all the same and is not slow to crow about his own.

“It’s a completely different animal,” he states, “A regular nightclub has more similarities to a bar than Lillies has to a nightclub.
“The expectations are higher for a start because of its reputation and so they have to be lived up to.”

A firm believer in nightclubs treating their clientele above the norm, he recalls (in some disgust) being given a large G&T in a nightclub recently in a nonik pint glass, no less, with a few cubes of ice!

“In Lillies, we have our cocktails, our mixologists and our hosts to greet people — as I said, a completely different animal.”

The INIA’s recent report on the damage being done to the industry by the extortionate cost of a Special Exemption Order reminds Oliver that the licensing laws are archaic. Anyway, those laws are not being observed properly so nightclubs paying €400 a night are closing up before some regular pubs which are operating late illegally, he claims, fixing me in the eye and daring me to argue.

But there are other irritants affecting the nightclub industry.

“Obviously the Tescos of this world is one of them,” he says, “People are just getting hammered and expecting us guys to be there as a source of relatively free entertainment.

“Our Irish obsession with the price offer…. I've never come across it anywhere else in the world.” - Oliver Hughes.

“Our Irish obsession with the price offer…. I’ve never come across it anywhere else in the world.” – Oliver Hughes.

He also believes that the concentration on price comparisons distracts consumers from the reality of the situation in regard to the price of the pint.

By way of contrast with Ireland, he cites the price of the Spanish/Portuguese ‘pint’ (500 ml).

“Say you pay €3 for a ‘demi-litre’ in Portugal. Do the maths,” he urges me, “This works out at €3.40 a pint as they’ve no excise duty there and lower VAT. Now take our average industrial wage of €850 a week. In Portugal it’s €112.50 a week. So would the consumer prefer the €3 ‘demi’ on €112.50 a week or pay €4 on €850 a week? That’s a hard one!” he winks, “For myself, if my wages bill was slashed by 75 per cent, I’d gladly sell a pint for €3.40 – or even less.”

It has not escaped his notice either that pubs too are looking to open later as part of their normal day’s activities. So where, ideally, can the nightclubs fit into the night-time economy in terms of opening hours?

“We need a three-tier licensing system catering for regular hours, half-two hours and four o’clock hours, price dependent on the SEO necessary – a €200 SEO or a €400 SEO to 4am,” he suggests.

He doesn’t particularly favour the 24-hour opening introduced to such disappointing results across the water in the UK either.
“Anything beyond four o’clock goes into the realm of the Twilight Zone,” he comments darkly.

As INIA Chairman he sees it as his priority to persuade Government that taking small money from foreign supermarkets is infinitely inferior to taking large money from indigenous Irish businesses who provide jobs. Think about that.

“It’s the licence cost issue,” he explains, “A nightclub opening seven nights a week, 360 nights of the year, pays €145,000 per annum, pays VAT at 21 per cent on every beer at €4.50 a pint and provides proportionately more jobs to the local economy.
“To quote the Bee Gees, it’s ‘staying alive’ and that’s it. It’s all about SEOs and survival.”

As all eyes turn to the looming Sale of Alcohol Bill, Oliver hopes that it will be about “common sense”.

“Cheap alcohol is the opium of the people but it does lead to a heavy burden on our health system and it contributes towards domestic violence and criminality on our streets.

“All this could be solved with moderate consumption and a supervised environment. We Irish have always been known for our friendliness and hospitality. That’s not much in evidence as one gets obese sitting on a couch, eating pizza and downing a €10 bottle of vodka. The Bill needs to put sociability back into our communities – especially in rural areas – which in turn, attracts tourism.”

He looks to nightclubs such as those in New York where the bars stay open until 4am “with no big issues”.

“There are all sorts of different scenes and environments which add to the vibrancy of the night-time economy without trouble over there as the police are evident on the ground and support a ‘Zero Tolerance’ attitude.”

As I pack my bags in the quiet of Porterhouse Central this morning, Oliver has a chance to ponder what he’s learned thus far for being INIA Chairman.

“…. How different and what a lack of understanding of other industry’s issues actually exists between restaurants, pubs and nightclubs”.

Food for thought there for all involved, I would have thought.

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