So we are down to just two karaoke nights on the circuit now, on Thursday and Sunday.
Back in 2003, when the White Horse changed their name to the Mustang (NB: changing pub names is never a good idea when will they learn!), stopped their Sunday night quizzes (as they wanted to attract a younger element), we stopped going down there. For a while we had our own quizzes at home and got pissed on cheap wine instead. Then we found a new pop music quiz over at the Bull at Launton which I frequented through to 2008 when I stopped as I began doing karaoke on Sunday nights and have continued more or less uninterrupted ever since.
Eventually the "Mustang" realised their mistake, they were not a YPV (Nielsen term - Young Person's Venue) in the middle of town, they were a community pub and re-instated their quizzes. But we were long gone, never to return.
I think most pub owners realise that these days it's not enough to just open the doors and expect the drinkers to flood in - those days are long gone. You have to make yourself attractive to the type of people you want through your doors. The pub trade has suffered onslaught after onslaught over recent years. A lot of this stems back to the Beer Orders act of 1989, I won't go into the details of what that was all about, but it was primarily brought about by CAMRA (a minority group) who wanted more variety of real ales in pubs and made a big song and dance about it. This significantly reduced the power of the brewers to control what was sold in their pubs and led to a lot being sold off - this is what led to the rise of the big faceless managed pub chains that we see today (Yates, Wetherspoons etc etc).
I don't care what anyone says, but these managed chains are soulless compared to pubs where it is the tenants business - i.e. traditional landlords. When you are in a pub like the White Hart you know you are somewhere where the business owner lives on the premises, runs their own business, it's their livelihood and they are interested in and care about the people who provide them with the livelihood. Whereas go into any big chain pub and no-one cares, all you are to the faceless manager is a statistic towards their sales target. Well that's how it seems to me anyway.
Pubs have been under all sorts of pressure in recent years. The smoking ban did not help, however was not quite the death knell that some were predicting. I mentioned earlier that it's not just enough to throw open your doors and expect people to come flooding in. Now a generation ago it was different - there was nowhere near the amount of alcohol available in the off trade as there is now - and the price differential was far less then than now. Over time, beer from supermarkets has got easier to get hold of (restrictions on licensing hours removed) and progressively cheaper to purchase. Whereas pubs, faced with every rising costs and some (not all) pub companies determined to screw every possible penny out of their tenants, have had to keep raising prices just to stay afloat.
That's where the Star fell down - having actually made a good go of turning round what has been, let's be honest, a pretty average estate pub, the tenants were punished for their success by having the pub company put up the rent money by several thousand.
Pubs also face a great deal of competition from home entertainment now as well - it's not just 3 TV channels and if nothing on we'll go out - there's PS3's, internet, etc etc. Plenty of things to keep people entertained at home.
But that's the negative side. Going to the pub or having a drink at home has never been purely about price, people still go out because it's fun to socialise! And it's fun to have something to do while you socialise. Now Friday and Saturday night are all well and good - it's busy and you can have a laugh, but what about the rest of the week? Well that's where the entertainment comes in. Quizzes, karaoke, live music, they've never been more popular as people want added value from their nights out.
I have probably about 15 core regulars who come to my Sunday night, but the pub is a lot busier than that - as lots of people come in who have no intention of doing karaoke they just enjoy being in a pub where there is something going on. I don't pretend that we're rammed, we're not, but I like to think it's a reasonable night's trade. By all accounts more or less everywhere else has given up on Sundays. I have a few little tricks I use to try and pull a few more people in - like projecting my lights out onto Sheep Street so anyone wandering around, maybe who doesn't normally go out on a Sunday will see the lights and think "oh looks like there is something going on there". The fact that all the karaoke people are down at the front also gives the appearance that the pub is perhaps busier than it really is. This is also good - as I am a great believer in "critical mass", or if you prefer a "snowball effect" in that the busier the pub becomes, the more people will be attracted in to it with a kind of "looks busy in there - must be a good night".
I've been there 3 years now and it has got progressively better during that time. It does take a long time to build something up from scratch, to build loyalty and a following but perseverance has paid off. Long may it continue.
I do so enjoy working in the White Hart, of all the regular venues I have had over the past six years or so it is by far the best, nice people, nice staff, just a general all round nice atmos. Without a doubt the best pub in Bicester and Aidan & Cathy have got the place just right. How anyone can want to have a drink in some of the other bland soulless venues up the other end of the street when you've got a thriving local like the Hart as an alternative is beyond me.
I normally spend my birthday evening in the White Hart, however, I will be making an exception this year, as my birthday next week falls on a a Thursday. Which means that most of my friends will be in the Kings Arms at Mike's karaoke night, so that's where I'll be, I think my bestie may be preparing something special for me, and I've promised her I will be there for it so I cannot let her down. I've got a good day planned as we are out for lunch in Oxford in the day and will go out for a bite in the evening as well before we get to karaoke. So I shall probably be a bottle of wine to the good by the time I get there!
As for the Star and Fridays, hopefully whoever takes over the Star will recognise how popular Duncan's karaoke nights were and will re-instate them. I don't get to go up there that often due to childcare and work commitments (same with Thursdays) but it's always nice to have the option to go when I can.
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