Viewpoint: Claire Burgess

March 5, 2020

A chance meeting between North East Times’ property writer Chris Dobson and Claire Burgess, chief financial officer at The Inn Collection Group, set off an interesting discussion about the future of the ‘local’

Naturally, when in my 20s, pubs were very much part of life. These days, however, I have not been in a ‘local’ for a long time and would struggle to recommend one. Has the ‘local’ lost its way?

I think people’s expectations have changed as to what makes a ‘local’ and pubs must evolve to survive along the way. People’s expectations are so much higher – we want a lovely environment to spend our hard-earned money and our precious time in – and rightly, demand first-rate customer service as standard.

We take a lot of pride in our offering, which is cracking pubs with rooms, serving Great British classics, having in place excellent cellar management and a team of staff who take pride in what they do.

It’s about listening and being responsive to your market, whether that’s making sure you can offer a winning barista coffee during your daytime trade, catering for your visitors who want to eat and drink local products yet have their trusted brands available on tap.

You refer to quality and perfect places to eat, drink, sleep and explore. Are you in the process of re-inventing the ‘local’?

The secret to our success is staying true to our values and ethos of what makes the perfect pub to eat, drink, sleep and explore from. Who doesn’t love a pub? It’s that cosy atmosphere, relaxed enough to make you feel at home and not on ceremony, it’s an environment where you can have your favourite drink, a tasty meal made for you – and a place where you get people from all walks of life under one roof.

Step inside a pub from The Inn Collection Group and you immediately feel at home and know you’ll be looked after. Yes, we’ll look at industry trends, whether that’s serving goblets of speciality gins and flavoured tonics, but our offering is timeless and traditional with good food and service.

When did all of this start and what is the size and location of your portfolio?

The Inn Collection Group evolved from a single pub with rooms as The Lindisfarne Inn over 13 years ago as the brainchild of our chief executive Keith Liddell. Staying true to its pub with rooms philosophy, the group has strategically grown into a ten-strong trading estate, with units operating in Northumberland, County Durham, Yorkshire and, most recently, the Lake District.

We’re building a new development on the seafront in Seaburn, Sunderland, which, alongside a number of exciting new acquisitions in the Lakes and Yorkshire, accompanies a new strategic direction to develop a completely freehold estate as we are on target to more than double our portfolio of pubs with rooms by 2022.

Your specialism is both the acquisition and management of successful pubs across the North of England – what USPs are you delivering?

We stay absolutely true to our pubs with rooms model. We’re not hotels, we’re not gastropubs or boutique hotels. We’re about providing timeless, traditional places where you can enjoy good food, drink and rooms.

The key to our success is multi-pronged – yes, it’s identifying units that will fit with our model and have in place our criteria for success, but fundamentally it’s down to our people. We invest heavily in staff training and development across all levels of the company.

Do you believe pubs have an important role to play in their neighbourhoods?

Without a shadow of a doubt. Pubs add value to communities in so many ways, emotionally and physically. They form hubs within our communities, they add value to house prices, and for home buyers they can make all the difference about whether you choose to move into a particular area.

All too often villages or communities lose shops and post offices, yet pubs continue to thrive. Pubs offer a warm and secure environment where there’s no stigma about going in by yourself.

Everyone is welcome and there’s always a friendly face. They’re a great way to meet new people and our staff are encouraged to look out for people who are by themselves and take time to have a chat. In an age where people often don’t know their neighbours, pubs are strongholds in cementing community values.

The age-old complaint about pubs is poor service and indifferent food. What steps are you taking to counter this?

Quite simply, we create places where we would like to eat, drink and stay ourselves – and our staff share this vision. It’s all about training and helping our staff understand what makes great service and not just adequate service.

We partner with organisations, such as Visit Northumberland, and invest in our staff to become Northumberland Ambassadors so they are equipped with the knowledge about attractions in the areas around, not only their own inns but our sister inns too.

We also look after our staff well with good salaries, bonuses, friends and family discounts across all our inns, subsidised staff meals and more.

This paints a very positive picture. Do you have the financial clout to carry this through?

The Inn Collection Group is backed by Alchemy partners with new acquisitions funded by the private equity group and OakNorth Bank.

My final question concerns accreditations. Are the group’s efforts being recognised independently?

We need to get a new trophy shelf! We consistently punch above our weight in awards and recognitions. Currently the UK’s Best Pub Employer of up to 500 employees in the national Publican Awards, we have been shortlisted for a fourth consecutive year for the awards, in the same category and as best accommodation operator.

We have won gold in the North East England Tourism Awards, were finalists in the recent Great British Pub Awards across three categories.

All our pubs hold AA Diners Awards and Cask Marque accreditations for the quality of our beers, while our inns are purposefully AA three-star Gold standard. Third-party endorsement is fantastic and cements our mantra that the local is well and truly alive and kicking.

The Inn Collection Group 

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