Improved standards in Ireland’s pubs, hackney services in rural areas and diversifying pubs’ offerings are all on the agenda as Kilkenny man Gerry Rafter prepares to take up the reins as president of the Vintners Federation of Ireland next month.
His two-year term as president will begin as he is handed the chain of office during the VFI’s annual general meeting, which will be held in Hotel Kilkenny from May 14-16, the first time it has been held in Kilkenny since 1996, and an expected boost of bringing up to 5,000 delegates to the city for three or four days.
As his time at the helm approaches, Mr Rafter, proprietor of Rafter Dempsey’s pub on Friary Street in the city and president-elect of the VFI since April of last year, outlined some of his goals in the organisation for the coming years.
First of all, he said, “I would like to see help from the Government with regards to rural transport,” in particular the easing of restrictions for getting hackney services in rural areas.
With rural pubs struggling and the tightening of blood-alcohol limits in the drink-driving laws, such a provision could help ensure that people in rural areas, especially isolated ones, could continue to socialise safely in their rural pubs.
“Another issue the VFI has been working on for the past three years is to raise the standards of pubs across the board,” he added.
Many pubs in Kilkenny have made progress in this area in recent years, but across the country there are pubs that still have room for improvement, he said, from the attractiveness of the outside of the building, to the cleanliness of the toilets and the friendliness of the staff.
With a focus on the customer’s experience “from Fáilte to Sláinte,” he said, the goal is to raise the bar in all areas of decor and ambiance.
“That will be a huge help for tourism, which is the way forward,” he said.
For both tourists and local customers, Mr Rafter also wants to see further development in the offering of events at pubs, from poker classes, bingo and table quizzes to music nights, and the VFI is hoping to bring out a booklet of 1,000 event ideas for pubs of various kinds.
“If you go back 15 years when everything was flying in this country, people may have taken for granted that if they just opened their doors people would come flooding in, but now you have to drive it and give people a reason to come to the pub,” he said.
And while broadening the types of activities taking place in pubs, he also wants to see members diversifying their offering, including food and accommodation.
As such changes take place to increase customers’ satisfaction with Irish pubs, Mr Rafter said he and the VFI would be “encouraging customers to come back to the pub.”
With health issues being highlighted at the moment, from binge drinking to drink driving, he said: “We need to instill in our customers’ minds that the most controlled environment for consuming alcohol is the pub.” And he noted that the smoking ban has made pubs a healthier place too.
And while pubs, like so many businesses, are struggling in the recession, he is hopeful that the pub trade can continue to be a vibrant addition to Irish life.
“We are in a tough place at the moment,” he said, “but I am not afraid of a challenge. I have been in the pub trade all my life, and I am not afraid of hard work. I am really looking forward to it.”