As Revolution Bars Group celebrates its 21st birthday, it seems only right to head to its Beaconsfield site to chat to its CEO Mark McQuater. The Scotsman joined five years ago, following a stint at Scottish and Newcastle, four years in investment banking and the founding of his own bar company Barracuda Group. Under his stewardship, the company has undergone significant changes, not least its most recent phase of ownership.
When he arrived, Revolution was getting ready for the unusual move from private equity ownership to the open stock market, which happened in 2015. The company had potential for growth, which investors liked. They also appreciated the two complementary brands and the differentiated proposition of food, drink and late night entertainment that Revolution offers – that and the fact that the company was carrying no debt. Revolution Bars Group raised £100m at the float and is now a public company, with plenty of shareholders, 67 leasehold sites and two more due to open soon.
“The growth has been funded by the cashflow,” says McQuater. “We’re a cash generative business and that cash generation is enough to pay our dividend, pay our refurbs and build five bars a year, so we don’t need to go to the bank.”
Revolution Bars Group has had two different brands since 2011, when the first Revolución de Cuba opened, and this allows them to target different places and people. And while there are similarities, each concept has a universal theme that runs through that estate. In addition, however, there is a level of individuality specific to each site, as the company looks to evolve and improve its offer with every refurbishment or acquisition. Revolution sends teams to America twice a year to get ideas, bringing them back to be adapted and used as the venues continue to evolve and improve.
“The biggest thing you’ve got to do as a retailer is have a strong vision of what you’re trying to present to your customers and what your customers want,” says McQuater. “You can’t just keep doing the same thing and be too cautious. You’ve got to be constantly moving, constantly looking for ways to do things better and keep up with customer expectations.”
The aim for both venues is to create a destination that fulfils every part of the customer experience. You want to eat? You want to drink? You want to have a party? Revolution has it covered. As such, customers shouldn’t feel the need to leave after they’ve eaten or head off after a cocktail to find food. For McQuater, it’s about making the venues appealing throughout an entire evening. He identifies two major trends in the industry – less regular but bigger visits, and the growing experiential expectations that follow – and how Revolution has worked to capitalise on them.
“People are preorganising bigger nights out more than they used to,” he says. “You’ve got to entertain people. Just giving them a meal – I don’t think that’s enough. And because we do things on a bigger scale, it gives us more scope. If you come on a Saturday night, we can set it up with balloons, confetti cannons and birthday celebrations, and you can have your party in the middle of this busy bar, but there’s room for something else to be going on. The staff like to go to that next level, and that comes from the people that we’ve got.”
Trends are followed, adapted or even set by Revolution. A regularly changing range of craft beers adorns the bars, and attention has turned to the burgeoning brunch trade. Revolución de Cuba now stocks Cuban coffee as it follows the caffeine trend. Cocktails are the biggest selling product across both brands and, as well as investing in the equipment and training to ensure consistently high standards at a swift pace, innovations like cocktails made in blenders and cocktail masterclasses are at the forefront of company thinking.
“Depending on what customers ask for, you want to give them the very best,” says McQuater. “Cocktail masterclasses are really successful, but we’re evolving it. With every cocktail that you make, we now have accompanying food. We’ve also structured something around a corporate cocktail masterclass for an office group of colleagues coming out.”
The preorganisation of nights out links to perhaps the biggest revolution that McQuater has overseen – digital. Customer engagement is a major part of the company as a whole, but also on a site-by-site basis. The websites receive millions of visitors a year, while the company has over 750,000 Facebook fans. All of this allows the company to market itself to its target audience effectively. It has hired professionals to ensure it is done to the highest standards. Revolution is also looking at an app to open another portal to reaching customers.
“The speed at which we’ve pushed on with digital marketing has been impressive,” says McQuater. “We’ve done that by contracting it out, but working in partnership – by getting in with people who specialise in that area and live in that world. As an operator we’ve been able to move a lot more quickly than if we’d brought it in-house.”
However, the human element remains critical as well. Each site’s Facebook page will have 50% of content from head office and 50% local content. Many sales come through prebooking, and while enquiries might come through digitally, Revolution prefers to close the deal with a chat over the phone, especially if it’s a larger party where they can talk through the entire experience. To that end, the company employs five people on an essential sales desk, while every site has its own salesperson as well to make sure that every booking is correctly managed.
As well as engaging with customers before they visit, Revolution also works to keep the conversation going after they have left. A Rate Revolution system allows customers to go online and provide feedback about their experience – around 1,000 comments come through every week. Mystery visits are common, and the company also has its own ‘internal Twitter’ where people can feed comments back to bars.
“I can put out a 200-word commentary back to the bar and everyone else can read it,” says McQuater. “There’s loads of feedback going on. Sitting here, we know what’s happening in Wigan, what the customers are up to, which area managers are in there. That’s how you mesh it together. They’ve got to be part of one family, one network.”
That engagement also goes the other way, with all staff members filling in anonymous surveys every four months, communicating complaints, ideas and approval. Revolution is constantly looking for any improvements, however incremental, for the business. This comes from the trips to America, customer feedback, but also from communication and training. The company has been in the Sunday Times Top 100 Employers regularly over the last 10 years and McQuater believes that communication and nurturing are the cornerstones of this. Training is done online, on the job and more centrally, to ensure that staff are learning and progressing.
“We’re trying to recruit the types who we think will thrive within our culture,” he says. “Every staff member has a My Career portfolio, and we consciously make sure that their bank of knowledge is built up. It’s a fast-moving environment. The bars are complicated, multi-functional, multi-million-pound businesses and our general managers have to be smart and they need to be trained.”
The company has grown significantly since McQuater joined. His influence now runs from Aberdeen to Brighton, from Norwich to its latest opening in Torquay. With the Belfast opening, Revolution will be in all four countries of the union, although it has yet to stray too far into central London, with only five branches in the capital. Revolution is careful about where it chooses sites because the model needs plenty of space and customers. Demographic studies play a huge role, but there are areas where McQuater knows the brand will work because it’s already thriving there.
“We’ve got a great team and they’ve been doing this for a long time,” he says. “We know a lot of these towns. For example, we’ve had a Revolution in Reading for 10 years, we know how it works because we’re in and out of that town. We know the demographic there has got the type of customers who want a Revolución de Cuba.”
Running and controlling such a national business is a challenge and relies on three factors – an overarching set of systems and procedures across the entire estate; a significant amount of travel from senior management; and a training regime that sees internal promotion and employees moved around as they move up in the company. Most managers have been promoted internally and trained thoroughly, gaining experience at different bars as they move up through the company.
“It wouldn’t be unusual for an assistant manager in Glasgow to move down to Brighton to be the deputy manager because all the systems are the same,” says McQuater. “For them to get the experience they need to build their career, they will do that. This industry is built on controls and operating procedures that keep the environment safe, keep stock and cash controlled, and keep people trained, and that’s an area we’re really big in.”
Further expansion is expected, with a theoretical target of 140 sites set – although there is no time limit on that. McQuater is confident that there are new towns to explore, but also places where Revolution already has a presence and can cluster sites. While he doesn’t believe the company needs a third brand – one that targets a different customer or the same customers at a different time in their week – it is certainly not off the table as he continues to revolutionise through
“Our returns from our Harrogate site are very good and there are other affluent towns and suburbs where what we do could be done on a slighter smaller scale,” McQuater concludes. “This sector has been constantly changing over the last 20 years and you’ve got to be able to adapt and positively think things through. I don’t think there’s anything that’s insurmountable. The overall outlook