Setting the bars too high?

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Fighting for the bars

College bars are continuing to struggle under the new centralised management, making significant financial losses. Whilst seen as an integral part of the collegiate system, student participation remains low and social spaces fail to be fully utilised.

In January 2009 the ‘Save Our College Bars’ campaign, led by the Labour Club, encouraged students to boycott University catering outlets to illustrate their displeasure at the centralisation of the bars. This centralisation has given the Director of Commercial Services, David Peeks, control over the bars, allowing him to raise drinks prices and rent out the bars for non-student events.

The campaign highlighted the importance of the bars, demonstrating that students value these social spaces and want them to retain their individuality, rather than becoming a commercial chain. However, the University stepped in because the bars were seen to be suffering financially and the new management system aimed to make the bars more profitable.

Despite this, LUSU President Michael Payne has said “it is clear to see from the financial information in the Gold Report that the college bars are not doing markedly better under this management system than they were under the previous system.”

He added: “I don’t think the colleges bars should be here to make money. I think they should be here as a service to students. I also don’t think they should be here to drain money from the organisation or making significant losses.”

However, the current figures show that significant losses are being made. Students are not taking full advantage of the bars, choosing instead to drink in their flats.

County bar’s licensee, Jeremy Bethell, commented: “the bars do well when everyone needs a friend,” referring to Freshers’ Week. “People don’t do social drinking anymore and are more isolated choosing to drink at home instead. The culture of drinking has totally changed,” he added.

For many the bars are seen as too expensive in comparison with establishments such as Wetherspoons. Although there are promotions and discounts available, most students are unaware of what is on offer.

“The college bars are still one of the cheapest places to drink in Lancaster and I think a lot of people aren’t aware of that,” said Payne. “The University is trying to aspirationally bench mark itself against Wetherspoons and I think has done a fairly good job at that, but I think discounts and promotions need to be looked at.”

“We’ve got a strong brand on campus that is utilised in the purple card and the University has taken that on board but I don’t think those promotions are articulated in the right way,” he added. “I don’t think the promotions and discounts are on the right products.”

With soft drinks costing almost as much as a pint of larger the LUSU policy ‘pause for a soft drink’ appears to be being undermined. The centralised bar prices creates consistency across campus but also reduces variation between the bars. This means that not only are the prices the same but the drinks on offer are limited. For many the range of ales in Graduate College’s bar is what makes it appealing, yet David Peeks has designs to limit the spectrum of drinks available if they are not seen as commercially viable.

“One thing that does need to be looked at in terms of pricing […] is differential pricing,” said Payne. “Should Bowland bar if it is a slightly less refurbished bar than Lonsdale, and therefore offering a different offer than what Lonsdale offers, which is a late night venue, be charging different prices to Lonsdale, as you would have in a town or supermarket [creating] healthy competition?”

Each bar has its own characteristics and investment from the University continues to update these social spaces to improve the facilities for students. The recent refurbishment of Grizedale bar and the current plans for the remodelling of Bowland bar illustrate the importance of the bars both to the University and the students.

Nonetheless, Payne believes that “There is a lack of strategic view about what should happen with the college bars. I think that people plan for the here and now and make head hot decisions that have no real strategic plan to them.”

Even Furness bar, which has been voted the most popular bar by students, fails to be fully utilised.

Ian Thompson, Bowland bar’s licensee, said “reducing the bar prices would encourage more students to use the bars, but then the bars are seen to promote binge drinking.”

LUSU believe that the nine bar model can work but strategic measures that may not satisfy everyone will have to be put in place. The Bar Monitoring Group has discussed a number of promotions and initiatives this term in order to sustain the college bars.

The Vice Chancellor, Professor Paul Wellings, has publicly committed to there being nine bars on campus, asserting in the 2011 prospectus that Lancaster ‘has its own thriving community based around the nine colleges,’ of which the bars are the centre.

“It is absolutely vital that it is pointed out and remembered that the bars are within a college and the colleges are not within a bar,” Payne commented.

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