readingthe smokesignals

Thursday 28th April 1994 00:00

ON NO Smoking Day last month some 50,000 people are reported to have given up smoking for good. There are around 14 million adult smokers in the UK - about 28% of the adult population. Yet despite this, hoteliers and restaurateurs who allocate smoking and no-smoking divisions to reflect these statistics are few and far between.

The possibility of alienating smokers at a time when the industry is just beginning to pull out of recession is an understandable worry for many businesses.

Yet, increasing pressure from lobby groups for cleaner air, coupled with the Government's much-publicised campaign to achieve effective no-smoking policies in 80% of public places by the end of 1994, is beginning to turn the tide, with players both small and large forced to review their policies.

One group which does aim to reflect market trends is Country Club Hotels. Following nine months of research with its customers, the 28-strong group has just revised its smoking policy in favour of the non-smoker, with a massive increase from 25% to 75% no-smoking rooms. It has also implemented a complete smoking ban in all its main restaurants and 75% of the poolside grills.

Quality service manager Jane Neil says she was amazed at how important smoking policies were to the group's customers.

Neil reports that in the two months since the policy was introduced, customer satisfaction on the group's rating system has moved forward considerably, and, more importantly, adverse comments about smoking have more or less stopped.

Country Club aims to achieve the 75% target by the beginning of 1995. For many outlets the conversion will be part of a refurbishment programme, so the cost of achieving this goal is hard to gauge. However, at the St Pierre in Chepstow, Gwent, a recent refurbishment programme which included the transition to a 75% no-smoking-room allocation set the group back some £2m.

Other larger players are beginning to take up the challenge in favour of the non-smoker, although again the transition is a gradual one. Holiday Inn is currently reviewing its policy and one recommendation is that the percentage of no-smoking bedrooms should be 25% minimum and 75% maximum. This suggestion has still to be approved.

Where complete smoking bans have been introduced hoteliers and restaurateurs generally testify to increased rather than reduced business.

One hotel which has made an effective marketing tool out of no-smoking is the Nottingham Moat House, which, when it refurbished one of its restaurants 18 months ago, decided to make it totally no-smoking. While the new restaurant was still in the blueprint stage, customers in the hotel's other two restaurants were asked to fill in a short questionnaire giving their views on smoking.

"We were overwhelmed by the number of people who filled them in. A vast majority favoured a total no-smoking restaurant," recalls house manager Trevor Cummings.

Consequently, the restaurant's designers were able to select high-quality fabrics and pastel shades which they knew would not be damaged by smoke. Advertising in the local paper helped promote the new 116-seat restaurant and publicise the no-smoking message. Cummings says one of the most noticeable effects of the policy has been increased business from outside the hotel. On Friday and Saturday around 85% of diners are non-residents, and these nights are generally fully booked about one week ahead.

The hotel's two other restaurants still permit smoking, although even here non-smokers have the majority share of some 65% of tables. It's an allocation which Cummings predicts will increase as pressure mounts on smokers to give way to the majority. "In three or four years time these restaurants might be no-smoking as well. I don't think the bars will ever change though."

Clearly, whether effective smoking policies can be achieved or not depends on the type and layout of the business.

Pubs are currently at the centre of a row which has provoked enraged statements from both Action on Smoking and Health (Ash) and counter pressure group Freedom Organisation for the Right to Enjoy Smoking Tobacco (Forest).

Ash claims that pubs which adopt a partial or total smoking ban are not in danger of losing business and cites a number of publicans who are prepared to go on the record to back this up.

However, according to Forest, which has just carried out a survey of 100 publicans, 71% of landlords fear they would lose custom if smoking were banned on their premises. Around 12% expect that trade would remain the same and 17% think they would have difficulty in enforcing the ban. Forest estimates that among regular pub-goers some 65% are smokers.

One pub/restaurant which has had its fingers burned by trying to implement a complete smoking ban in a one-room operation is the Smugglers in Roker, Sunderland. The ban operated for five months, during which time the pub lost £14,000-worth of business as a result of regulars going elsewhere. The ban has since been lifted and the pub is now under new management, but although a non-smoker himself, manager John Barkel says there are no plans to rerun the experiment.

"Pubs and smoking seem to go together. If we had two rooms it could work. I would be a great follower of a ban if it were made law but that's the only way it could work. Then we would all have the same chance of success or failure."

Worldwide experience would also seem to suggest that total smoking bans may be easier said than done. At the end of last month Los Angeles City Council announced that it is to reconsider its restaurant smoking ban introduced last August after a survey found that eating-out trade had dropped by a quarter in many establishments.

Of 300 people polled more than half said business had dropped by 24% (around £7,600 per month). One in six restaurateurs said they had laid off staff as a result.

COMPROMISE

The decision to review smoking policies is also one which needs to be carefully matched against customer profiles. One restaurateur who claims to have found a compromise is David Gibbon, proprietor of the 40-seat Bootham Bistro in York.

Gibbon's two-room operation gives a 40% allocation for smokers in the smaller room. However, in the tourist season after 6pm the restaurant becomes totally no-smoking.

"Before I implemented this policy three years ago I had people queuing outside for a no-smoking table and only about two or three tables full for smokers," says Gibbon.

However, recognising that business before 6pm was drawn substantially from businessmen wanting a quick snack and a cigarette before returning to work, Gibbon decided that it was not practical to ban smoking altogether.

Extractor fans are put on full blast in the smoking area before the evening business begins and Gibbon fills the no-smoking area first, so that by the time the smoking area is needed the smell of smoke has faded.

The policy has also provided the bistro with valuable free publicity. Gibbon has been interviewed three times by local radio and appeared in the local paper.

AWARENESS

The no-smoking camp believes it is precisely this sort of publicity, along with test cases on passive smoking and celebrities endorsing the concept of the clean air campaign, which will force hoteliers and restaurateurs down an increasingly smoke-free route. Indeed, many hoteliers and restaurateurs interviewed for this article reported a heightened awareness, with customers asking for no-smoking rooms in hotels or tables in restaurants, instead of just accepting what they were given.

It is an awareness that is being fuelled by an increasing crop of guides for the no-smoker.

The West Yorkshire division of Ash has just produced 20,000 free booklets entitled Smoke-Free Eating and Drinking, which it intends to circulate to tourist offices, public libraries, leisure centres and theatres. The guide includes some 250 establishments which are totally smoke-free or provide a smoke-free room.

Businesses which meet these criteria are given a Good Air Award endorsed by celebrity Roy Castle to display in their windows. Small players form the majority of the entrants, but chains such as HolidayInn and Hilton National also qualify.

So far the scheme is regional but campaign manager David Reed hopes that as the idea gathers momentum it might be taken up by other areas. He anticipates that by the time the guide is reprinted next year the number of outlets in the guide will have doubled as businesses see it as a marketing tool.

The Eat, Drink & Sleep Smoke-Free guidebook now going into its fourth edition has a readership of around 10,000.

Editor Catherine Mooney says that although the number of entries has remained about the same - some 2,000 since the guide was first published - the number of places offering 100% no-smoking operations has increased from around 50% to 85%.

CONFERENCES

A potential problem for a hotelier implementing a high percentage of no-smoking rooms is the misuse of rooms when an unexpectedly large number of smokers book in, or when a conference party arrives and rooms have been allocated without prior knowledge of the percentage of smokers and non-smokers. Faced with this situation, the smoker generally wins the day.

"We try to re-accommodate people when this happens," says Nicky Cann, conference and banqueting coordinator at the Stoke-on-Trent Moat House. "But it does presentproblems and we can't stop people smoking in no-smoking rooms."

When the system is abused it can cost the hotelier dear. Chambermaids in the Stoke-on-Trent Moat House are instructed to spray curtains, bedspreads, carpets and all fabrics when a no-smoking room has been used by a smoker. Although this may only take an extra five minutes per room, this labour-intensive operation can add a high percentage to wage costs.

Good news for the hotelier is that there is evidence to suggest that an increasing number of conferences are specifying their requirements, with many coming down in favour of no-smoking.

According to a recent survey among 80 organisers by conference reservation agency Banks Sadler, 70% ofrespondents said they had specifically requested no-smoking bedrooms in hotels for their delegates and 81% said they were increasingly likely to do so. Some 85% said that meetings rooms should also be designated as no-smoking areas.

A straw poll carried out for this article among Hilton National conference and banqueting managers comes up with similar findings.

Most agree that the number of organisers requesting no-smoking meetings is increasing. More formal meeting and larger conferences tend to be no-smoking, while smaller meetings up to 12 still usually allow smoking. At the Hilton National, London, where in February this year the new Westminster suite was opened, 85% of all meetings and conferences are now no-smoking.

The decision to increase no-smoking clearly has to be one dictated by the constraints of running a business. Many smaller hotels and restaurants operate successful total no-smoking operations.

But the traditional argument that it is more difficult for larger groups to increase their no-smoking provision because of their wider customer base, is fast going up in smoke. If hoteliers and restaurateurs fail to comply with market trends the 72% of the population who don't smoke may well take their business elsewhere. o


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