I’m not a member of the Soho House Group – I am not rich nor cool enough. But some of my close friends are. As members, they are permitted to sign in guests at any ‘house’ of which they’re a member, allowing freeloaders like myself a glimpse and a taste of where gorgeous, successful, creative types go to eat, drink, work, exercise, date, socialise, attend events… you name it. It’s all there.
Last month I was lucky enough to visit the Soho House on Greek Street in London. The number of people crammed into the five converted Georgian townhouses on a Saturday night was mesmerising. While London is very much its own entity, the prosperity of modern-day membership clubs was there to witness in droves. Yes, the exclusivity of such socialising is a massive draw (where else would you spot Keith Lemon AND former Man United player Mikaël Silvestre under the same roof?), but there is also the reassurance of knowing what level of hospitality you’re going to get when visiting any one of the Soho House sites around the world. This group’s brand reliability is what is making it one of the most influential hospitality businesses on the planet – and that is no exaggeration.
It’s that notion of brand reliability that first drew me to The Epicurean Club, a group of 21 boutique inns set in countryside or traditional village locations, as well as five premium pubs in London. Essentially, it’s a membership club for pubs and customers. It was started by Cirrus Inns founder Alexander Langlands Pearse, known to most as Langy. Understandably, the Cirrus sites are members of Epicurean, but the two businesses are run completely separately. Pubs that are members will have their venues promoted to the sizeable database of Epicurean ‘friends’ (the consumers), who will be encouraged to book visits, stays and experiences via the Epicurean platform. A few of our National Pub & Bar Award winners are part of The Epicurean Club, most notably the 2018 National Pub & Bar of the Year, The White Horse in Chilgrove (also part of Cirrus). It was when judging last year’s awards that I first took proper note of this organisation. From then on, each venue I visited under the Epicurean banner seemed to live up to the standards its fellow members had previously displayed – it was delivering brand reliability despite each pub being a unique proposition.
So it got me thinking… could the prosperity of certain parts of the pub industry be supported via the club mentality? Structures that allow guests not only to have confidence in the service they’re going to receive, but also pride in the belonging to an elite group. I’m aware that many multiple pub operators have customer memberships and loyalty programmes, but are they far-reaching enough and do they help deliver consistency from site to site or, indeed, across the whole sector? Not always. It seems that with The Epicurean Club, standards need to be met in order to join. Now, as the organisation looks to grow its pub and guest memberships, Langy has brought in David Hancock (pictured), founder of the Inn Places pub guide, to act as ‘inn curator’. It will be his job to not only grow the number of pubs within The Epicurean Club, but to make sure they fit the bill and don’t leave any of the club’s ‘friends’ disappointed once they’ve booked in a visit. I caught up with Hancock last month to talk more about the task ahead.
P&B: OK, bring us up to speed…
DH: Epicurean has taken over Inn Places, which will now cease to exist. I have built up good relationships with a lot of the operators, so I’m now speaking to all the Inn Places owners and inviting them over into The Epicurean Club. There’s a new website being developed at the moment and we’ll soon be moving forward as The Epicurean Club with a collection of inns. From there, I’ve got lots of new places to approach that will also help to build the club. There’s a lot of synergy between what I was doing with Inn Places, and Langy and what he’s doing with The Epicurean Club and Cirrus. Synergy and values and ethos – it’s a very similar thing.
P&B: What sort of venues would suit The Epicurean Club then?
DH: There is no set criteria – we look at pride, passion and pleasure at the venue being displayed by the owner. It’s about passion from the pub and driving the guest experience. We’re not looking purely at countryside, as we’re also looking at cities and towns. They want to build the collection wherever the location – the key thing is the experience side of things. People don’t want to go somewhere and stay in that venue all day – they want to do something, like walking, vineyard tours, etc. It’s about picking out select experiences, and we’ll partner up with them and customers can book those when they book the room online. It’s all set up for that extra dimension to visit The Epicurean Club inns. The idea is to celebrate the great British pub, so the sites don’t need to have rooms. We want to build that network of inns, but then spread out to other pubs as well.
P&B: Why would pubs want to be a part of The Epicurean Club?
DH: It’s about the database that has been collated. It’s about building a community of inns. It’s about driving people to come and stay, eat and do some of the experiences. Customers can opt in or out of the comms. We have a 155,000-strong membership already, and what we’ll be doing is marketing all the properties that are coming on board with newsletters on venues and experiences, events and themes. There’s no data transfer to the inns themselves, but the benefit is that we can market their properties to a much wider audience. Then the owners shout about The Epicurean Club and that they’re part of it. Some of the owners might tell guests about it when they check out, saying: ‘If you like what we do, you’ll love the rest of these pubs.’
P&B: So how many pubs do you want to try to attract?
DH: We have to build it up with the quality out there, but I’m confident we’ll get it to 300 within a year – 200 are coming over from Inn Places and then we’ll get the message out to new businesses. We want owners to embrace it and shout about it and that will build the database of customers. That will push more bookings and interest.
P&B: Wow, 300 pubs is a lot. How can you be sure that all of those will live up to the standards displayed by the current Epicurean sites?
DH: That is my job. Some of the Cirrus ones may not be good enough, for example. I will have to go and look at them and pinpoint where they need to improve. We have ambassadors out across the country doing the same thing, who all know their area very well. I should stress, though, that Cirrus is completely separate from The Epicurean Club. Langy understands that if they [Cirrus Inns sites] don’t come up to scratch, I’ll suggest where they need to improve.
P&B: Let’s talk business then – who is making money out of all of this?
DH: It’s free to join – there is no membership fee for the pubs or customers. We just take 10% through the booking platform when someone books in at a pub. With the experiences, we’re looking at 15% because there’s more admin and work involved in partnerships with the operators of the experiences. At the moment, spend is up about 23% with those who have booked through The Epicurean Club – that’s the return the inns are seeing. When customers book through The Epicurean Club, they get the benefits too. They may get a free gin and tonic when they get there or something like that. Things like that encourage the loyalty to book through the platform.
P&B: What does the immediate future hold?
DH: The merger only happened in May, so we’re still evolving. For now, it’s about getting current members into The Epicurean Club. It is invite only, and it’s about attracting likeminded owners – my job will revolve around quality and curation, and building on the culture of the club.