Gerard Barron – Common Room Bar Business Marketing Interview 5

We talk about word of mouth marketing, organic growth and target market filtering. – Gerard Barron / Common Room.

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The Ryan Marketing Show

Gerard Barron – Founder Common Room – EPISODE 5

Voice over: Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one, fire.

Ryan Jennings: [inaudible] go from there. This is The Ryan Digital Marketing– it’s not The Ryan Digital Marketing Show, it’s The Ryan Marketing Show.

Gerard Barron: [the? 0:00:35.4] point right there.

RJ: This is episode five of one hundred, and with me today is Gerard Barron from the Common Room in Hastings.

GB: Hello.

RJ: Welcome, Gerard. So, I’m going to go deep straightaway, right off the bat, and ask you what was it like the first time someone walked into your bar and ordered a drink? Do you remember that moment when it all became real?

GB: Very much so. Well, it was opening night, so we invited every rent-a-friend we possibly could, so it felt great, mate. Hey, we started off with a bag. It was the next four to five months that were the tough part. The reception right from the start was great, in terms of the space and the space it was filling in the market, but it took a while for the word to spread, so very much word of mouth.

RJ: So, you started with the people you knew, so friends, family, local people, local businesses as well?

GB: Very much– yeah. We didn’t have a marketing budget, so it was very much word of mouth. But in a lot of respects, even if we’d had a big marketing budget, I don’t know how much we would’ve done differently. It’s a slow burn with the word of mouth side of things, but I think you really get a bigger chunk of your target market that way. I seem to think that if someone finds somewhere great, they don’t tend to go tell all their dickhead mates about it; they tend to tell like-minded people about it, or, “Hey, I found a bar that you’d really like.” So, the trick is to put those filters in place in terms of how to get your target market.

RJ: Interesting.

GB: So, for me, the aesthetic is a filter. For me, the product – the wine, the types of beer, the craft beers, they’re all a filter, the music I play is a filter, the price point is a filter, so the Common Room, per se, can look very chaotic in terms of its aesthetic and the way it’s put together, but there’s a lot of thought into– it’s organized chaos. There’s a lot of little grabs from a lot of little bars all over the world, and it’s about creating an atmosphere, and that’s the key to any bar. So, for me, starting off small was– well, it ticked a few boxes; it allowed me to dip my toe into a market, especially in Hastings here, that hasn’t been served for a long time. The big thing sort of prior to opening was you’d have the comment, “You’re mad – there’s nothing there,” but it was such an easy comment to go back to, because you’d just repeat it back to them. “You’re mad – there’s nothing there.” And we live in a town with the same population as Napier, and Napier’s got– I don’t know, how many bars in Napier? Twenty? Thirty? Hastings doesn’t have any that cater for that sort of creative professional demographic. I mean, there’s fried food joints and there’s chain places and stuff and there’s traditional old pubs where you can buy your [tooey? 0:04:48.0] and your [digley? 0:04:49.1] export, but there’s nothing catered for that, so for me it was very easy to move to Hastings. I moved here five years ago or so, and I just kept meeting all these creative professional people living in Hastings that had to either head up to Havelock or head across to Napier, just to find an environment where they felt that they could have a drink, have a meal, listen to some music, whatever it may be, in an environment that they felt comfortable in. And then I actually looked at what was in Havelock and what was in Napier and thought, “Geez, I think we can do better in Hastings.” And it wasn’t so much a niche in the market; it was a bloody grand canyon.

RJ: So, it was all green fields because there was no bar that was like what you wanted to set up, but it was bigger than that; there was no bar.

GB: That I personally wanted to go and spend time at. The bars all seemed rather soulless that I would go to. I’ve spent a lot of my life traveling and I’ve been in a lot of great, great bars, and there’s just some fundamentals that were getting missed, and it all comes down to that atmosphere. You start small, and even now that we’ve expanded and we started off with one little room and then we turned the concrete pad at the back of the building and the rear car parks into a garden bar, then we had two rooms, and then all of a sudden we’re giving people two spaces that they can feel they can move between. Now we’ve taken over the building next door and we’ve got three, four rooms, but it’s all about rooms; it’s all about keeping the spaces small and creating atmosphere. And atmosphere’s what we want in a bar; you want it to be safe and you want a good atmosphere. And the aesthetics, yeah, they come into it, they help create it, but if there’s a good vibe– at all those bars that always – around the world – always been at the slightly neglected end of town – the up and coming town, the slightly edgy end of town – and they’re always by direction: “Oh, look, you head down that street, turn right, second left, down the alleyway. It’s got a blue door and there’s a red light above it,” or whatever it may be – whatever the direction was. And you’d go through this door and head up the set of stairs, and next minute there’s a mad Cuban brass band playing and the place is jumping, and it’s got atmosphere. I mean, it’s the same as putting 10,000 people in McLean Park and you’ve got a good crowd. Put 10,000 at Eden Park, it’s dead.

RJ: Yeah, it’s a drop in the ocean.

GB: Absolutely. So, there’s a lot of big beer bars around, big sports bars around, and they’re great at midnight when they’re absolutely packed and chock full of young drunk people and whatever [affects you bag? 0:07:52.8], but when we started, you could put six people in the bar and it felt good. So, you create that right from the start, and the trick with the expansion was not to lose that.

RJ: Right, because going back to what you said around the culture side of things and having all of these filters in play, it can be very easy to kind of lose that as you expand either products or size of a place, or maybe it just expands the audience and you don’t control that, because you can’t necessarily control everyone who comes in. So, how do you manage that?

GB: Very much so. I think you’ve just gotta trust– I think building that broad base at the start, that loyal base–

RJ: Do you think they then start self-regulating for the next–?

GB: Very much so. I mean, we have– I call my locals the Commoners and have done right from the start, and I’ve got a really good core base of people that drink here, not necessarily every week or everything, but when they come, they feel like they’re part of something, and it’s been a very organic growth. The other big part, which gets lost on a bigger chain bars, and this will be the challenge moving forward, is that interacting with the public. Again, a deliberate policy in terms of me being the front man for this for the first few years has been that everybody that walks in that door, they get looked in the eye, the get a handshake, like, “G’day, mate, how you going? Hello, and good to see you,” you know? “How’s the kids?” In a very generic kind of way, but you’re greeting people as they walk in the door. So, now it’s really about transferring that as a guide, as an ethos, to the staff that I have now. So, when I’m training staff up, it’s not about how good a bar person they are, it’s about looking for somebody who’s engaging, looking for someone who’s got initiative. You can’t teach those things. You can teach someone how to pour a G&T – that’s easy, and I’m very big on saying, “Hey look, we’re going to make mistakes. You’re going to pour the wrong drink, you’re going to charge the wrong price, you’re going to drop things – all that will come. What I’m looking for is that when we’re five deep at the bar, you’re serving the person you’re serving, but while you’re doing it, you’re looking at the next two behind them, look them in the eye and say, ‘Hey, I see you there.'” I mean, we’ve all been in bar situations where that bar staff, all they did was focus on that one drink, and trying to get eye contact. So, you give attention waiting in that line – you get that hustle, that slight push, the shoulder, “I want to get ahead of this person,” and it creates not a good atmosphere. The moment you’ve got eye contact with the bar staff and they acknowledge where you are in that line, you sit back. You breathe, you start talking to the person beside you, it’s not a problem if you know you’re going to get served. So, those are just simple little tools, so that really comes down to staff training, that comes down to spending the time with the new staff and engaging them and getting that understanding with them so that they got the expectations of what they’re needing to be doing. I’d rather that and lose a few drinks than I would have it the other way around.

RJ: I guess that’s quite exciting for the Common Room, because they will interpret those guidelines in their own personal way to how they behave or interact with people, so you then grow it in a different, organic way so you’ve now got more Common Room staff working to the guideline in their own way.

GB: In their own way, and that’s really specific, because you can’t clone me, in terms of a long-term business model. I mean, it was a great way to start things out and set the tone, but you can’t clone me, and there’s going to be a time just physical hours that I need to step back and not be here seven days a week, which I have done for the first few years. But I like employing quirky people. You’ve seen my staff, Ryan, they’re not the little blondies that you get in bars with big tits or what have you; they’re all individual kind of people. And they do – they bring their own quirks to the trade and to the game and to the way we interact with the staff, but as long as it’s within those set parameters. You sort of translate it almost to bringing up kids, in terms of your kids are all going to be different people, but as long as they’ve got that moral compass, then you’ve done your job well as a parent. Now, it’s the same with staff: as long as they know when the tram tracks are in terms of what the expectations are, then you’re doing okay. So, fingers crossed – it’s worked so far. Yeah, so that’s kind of what we’re doing, really.

RJ: On the product side of things and where the market was at for bars in Hawke’s Bay, do you think there’s been some either flow-on or complementary effects where there’s some bigger things in play with how drinking habits are changing and evolving? Do you think you’ve either been the catalyst for that, or being able to take advantage of some of those changes?

GB: Very much so, yeah, absolutely. And it was a big driver watching the industry before I decided to step into it – seeing where it was going. It’s understanding the big picture, but also adapting the whole time as you go along. It’s not being set in stone with what you provide. Product-wise, the restrictions on drunk driving, also just the maturity as a drinking nation, it’s like an oil tanker: it’s turning, but it’s taking a long time to get the bloody nose around. And this is even with the younger ones now, I find that I get– when the uni students come back from Wellington or Auckland for the summer holidays and what have you, the ones that come here are the ones that, yeah, they’re all broke – they maybe got four bucks in their pocket. Well, instead of going to a young person’s bar and getting eight to ten RTDs for their price, or cheap beers for that price somewhere else, I find they’ll come in here and buy four glasses of nice wine.

RJ: Right, so less volume, but higher quality.

GB: Higher quality. And I think you see that in the younger generation more and more compared to the older generation. I mean, the juxtaposition1s here between an older crowd in one room and a younger crowd’s in another, and the politeness is markedly different.

RJ: With the younger generation taking the lead.

GB: Yeah. I mean, I’ve had theatre crowds come in after a show and completely populate the front bar, and I’ve had a drum and bass DJ in the garden bar. And when you’d walk out into the garden bar to get glasses and they’ll all step aside, “Hey, can I pick that up for you?” “Excuse me, excuse me,” not a problem. Walk through that bar and it’s like you’re not even there. They won’t move – it’s that sense of entitlement, and the drinking culture that has been established over fifty years of those people’s lives, so there’s a real difference, I think, in the younger people coming through. You hear the bad stories; there’s always going to be young kids that are going to drink way too much and drive their cars, but there always has been. I do think that that is changing. I think the craft beer market is long overdue; I think people are sick of swilling a dozen bloody cans of brown water and would much rather, just for all sorts of different reasons – for health reasons, for getting up the next day and going to work reasons, and most importantly just for taste reasons. So, Hawke’s Bay has this burgeoning craft beer industry. We’ve got people jumping on board the cider thing, so we’ve got these craft ciders happening. These are the things we should own in Hawke’s Bay. We’ve got great climate, all of that’s pretty much a no-brainer, really. But when you keep adapting– I mean, since we opened, one of the big parts of the original location choice was the opera house here, and we were looking at the new management team that are taking the opera house over, they’ve brought in someone from overseas as a CEO that were driving the axe regular, that were getting through, it was getting really, really popular, and then bang, overnight, earthquake regulations shut the opera house.

RJ: So, how did you react to that if that’s the core part of how you’re going to get the [flown effects? 0:17:15.1]?

GB: We had just got to the point we’ve sort of established ourself as the go-to place for pre and after show drinks. We were getting the talent from these things. I remember having the Italian cast of La Traviata singing opera around this table we’re sitting around here; big Italian men and women blasting it at two o’clock in the morning, and it was an incredible thing. We’ve had comedians and musicians, and they’d come back here and have a drink, and then overnight, that was gone, and it was like, crap – I think – did the numbers at the time, “35% of my turnout in those early days, and it was like, okay, well, what the hell do we do now? So we adapt; you go sideways and then you start to go around the problem, and that’s the key. And we have now morphed into being a venue in our own right. Over the last two years, we’ve been shoehorning people into this tiny, little bar – you know, six piece bands, where they take up 30% of the floor space.

RJ: Do you think it ended up being a blessing in disguise having the opera house close? Because people were still looking to go out and you were the pseudo next best place for live music.

GB: Yeah. And it became that quirky, cool little place that was like a sweaty nightclub in Calais sometimes. It was packed, it was hot, but the vibe was incredible, and that intimacy between– just being able to see some incredibly talented musicians that come through on these New Zealand tours that close and personal really blew a lot of people away. So, yeah, I mean, again, just adapting. You’ve gotta just say, okay, well Hastings itself doesn’t have anything else open at night. It’s not like I have foot traffic – it’s not Cuba Street or Courtney Place; you’ve got to give people the reason to come into Heretaunga St, East at night, because there’s nothing else for them to do here; it’s either Common Room or it’s nothing at the moment. And the trick with this end of town is somebody had to go first.

RJ: And you were that trailblazer.

GB: Well, you can call it what you like, but I look at this space as these two hundred block from here down to the fountain, and I see it as Hawke’s Bay’s Cuba Street in the next five years. We’ve got just cool new craft shop, we’ve got our great sex shop, we’ve got a French chocolatier just opening up, we’ve got some marketing guys and we’ve got a great second-hand bookshop, we’ve got an organic café, we’ve got a great sort of funky, hipster bar we’re just opening up across the road, we’ve got– you’ve got your ethnic, you’ve got your Turkish, you’ve got the cinema totally refurbed, and since I’ve been here opened up again, and it’s fantastic, you’ve Indian restaurants. There’s all these cool things. There’s a couple of really exciting things happening in the next few months that I won’t talk about, because it’s probably not my place to talk about them until they’re there, but yeah, in terms of other things being open at night. So, it’s a cool part of town.

RJ: It’s been fascinating to watch from a lot of for lease signs out this end of town a few years ago, to seeing the change. Once you’ve got that masthead, I think the local council here should be paying you an annuity, having done one of the best rejuvenation jobs of any of the projects – not that it was theirs to start with. Do you get a lot of support from councils or areas? Because this is kind of unique in that you’re a regulated business. Do you have that support, or is it more at arm’s length?

GB: No, it’s very much arm’s length, yeah. But saying that and being a diehard NT authoritarian from birth, as much as it sticks in my core to say it, the council were actually quite helpful in this latest expansion – taking through the new bar, the new room, et cetera, et cetera. I walked in there the first day, first meeting with the council planners, and my opening statement was, “Look, as a business model, I need to expand. If I don’t, I’ll close it up and move it to Napier.” I mean, it was an empty threat, but that was my opening gambit, and their response was, “Shit, we can’t have that happen. What can we do to make this happen?” So, especially post-Christchurch, all buildings in terms of your earthquake strengthening and everything, there’s so much there now that wasn’t there, even five years ago, so they were very helpful in keeping me under certain thresholds that then triggered a lot bigger works. So, in that respect, very helpful, and the planning guys on the ground, the final inspections, all those type of things, they worked to see– I mean, three’s certain rules they can’t bend, but they were very hopeful in telling me how to keep within those rules, if that makes any sense. But in terms of the marketing and the planning, I don’t really hear from them. The local business association I think does quite a good job – I mean, the new Albert Park regeneration, they’re trialing things like the night markets every Thursday – it’s great. Anything that brings people into town should be applauded, but there’s always going to be people on the sidelines that sit there and throw stones and what have you. And it’s not always packed, but some nights it’s absolutely humming down there. They have bands and music and food stalls, and it’s a really positive thing. It’s a really positive thing. So, they’re doing what they can. The Albert Park I think is like a little jewel in the crown; you can sit there and eat your lunch during the day, they have the container stage there, they’ve always got live music through the summer – it’s cool. It’s a cool space.

RJ: And as part of– just picking up on the renovations park in an earthquake, making sure you’re below those thresholds, I remember a lot of your Commoners actually helping out. How did you manage the financial side of taking on a bigger space and the investment that goes into growing a business?

GB: Well, I did it exactly the same way as I did the first one: I did pretty much the whole lot myself. There’s certain things you can’t do – electrickery was one; it’s invisible and it will kill you. There’s certain things that you’ve got to get tradespeople in to do, but the majority of it I did myself, as I did with the first bar. I’m lucky enough to have a few handyman skills, so I can do basic things. I could never have done it without the Commoners – without the locals that I have, though. I mean, I would be calling– I’d call them working bees on a Sunday and I’d have more people here than I knew what to do with, which explains the paint jobs and the toilet.

RJ: I figured it’s kind of smart, because not only did you get the help and the relief on the labor costs, those same people feel literally like they’ve contributed to the growing of the bar.

GB: I mean, it was crazy. I’d be here on a ladder and it’d be midnight and I’d be up putting some paint on a high wall or something like that, and people would just drive by, say, “Oh, I saw the lights on – do you need a hand?” And they’d leave at 2:30 in the morning. “I could just sand that bloody bench down for me,” or, “Chuck some paint–” it was incredible, and it was just ongoing. And everybody did – they got the sense of buy-in. I think there’s a real sense of ownership here of the locals that do drink here, and I think there is a sense of – even the ones that don’t drink here regularly – the comments are always, “Hey, you’re doing a great thing for Hastings.” And I think when you move to a new town or a new place and you don’t know people suchly, I think you’ve got to get in the game; you’ve got to be part of the conversation. You can’t sit on the sidelines and throw stones, you’ve got to get in the conversation to be part of it to try and change the conversation – well, not even change it, but just contribute to the conversation. So, it’s been a really, really fun process in that respect, and basically all I just did was pay. I’d earn enough cash one week to buy some four-by-two the next week.

RJ: So, literally hand-to-mouth for materials.

GB: Paid this bar off week by week, yeah. And we got to the end of the whole process and we haven’t taken on additional borrowing. I’ve probably got a few k outstanding, which I need to clear up, and that’ll be done in the next few weeks, and we’re good to go. And we’re not burdened with additional costs, et cetera, et cetera. So, for me, in this particular model, and this particular aesthetic and style, it works.

RJ: I think it’s a fantastic model, and you’ve done a great thing for Hawke’s Bay and bringing life back into Hastings. I grew up here, so I do remember when Hastings was humming with bars back in the ’90s, and then there was a lost decade, so you’ve kind of turned that around and it has got a big population, so it’s good to see that it’s now served and that it’s growing through what you’re doing for Hastings.

GB: Yeah. Well, it’s a cool town and there’s a lot of cool people living here. A lot of cool, creative– and there’s this amazing strata of things and events and ideas going on in Hawke’s Bay – not just Hastings, but Hawke’s Bay in general – that people just don’t know about, and it comes down to creating hubs within a community; places where like-minded people can come together and have a conversation, cross-pollenate ideas. That, to me, is what’s lacking in Hawke’s Bay. There’s all this neat stuff happening, but there doesn’t seem to be any of these little places where those ideas can be exchanged, networked, connected, and that’s the very first thing I did after I plied my wife with alcohol and said, “Hey honey, I’ve got an idea.” The napkin thing we wrote down – the very first thing we wrote down was the fine art of conversation. And we talk about those filters or the– unless it’s live music, the piped music through the stereo system and stuff is always below the level of the conversation; it’s never above. Conversation is the focus unless it’s live music, and then the live music is the focus. So, you’re never going to walk in here and hear my stereo blasting away and you’ll not be able to talk, because it goes back to what do I find the best about bars? Well, one is when I go to a bar with a bunch of friends, I’m going there to have a chat with my friends, not to yell at them or not even be able to hear them. So, that’s all, again, part of what makes a great bar, in my opinion.

RJ: And I think you’re onto something there. The big companies in the U.S. and Silicon Valley are always looking to create spaces that allow for serendipity and allow for cross-pollination of ideas through connections of different groups of people in different areas of the business, and I’m sure there’s been conversations that have started here through people who have a shared interest or overhear something that has flipped the needle on what Hawke’s Bay’s doing in completely separate areas. Certainly Common Room has that effect, and that’s why I enjoy coming here is to meet people from different walks of life where we can trade not only jokes, but share value on what we’re up to.

GB: There’s numerous, numerous stories I could tell, but one of the sort of overriding threads here is a lot of people have been away from Hawke’s Bay for a while, come in here and go, “Thank god. Shit, I could actually move back. I was dreading coming back for the summer holidays, but thank god you’re here.” And that is a common thing. “Jesus, this is just like Wellington,” or, “This is just like Melbourne,” or whatever it may be where they’re– so, all of a sudden– and then they see the people here – they see all these different types of people that are doing all these amazing things, and they start talking, and there’s been numerous deals done or commissions made and jobs scored, and what have you, through just that exact that – that cross-pollination of ideas and just conversation.

RJ: I was talking to Tony Bish earlier this week and he said there’s been a study done in business, and the best return on investment you can get for any type of sales work is going for a drink, doing lunches, going out and meeting people. And I think that’s kind of part of the secret here, is you make it easy to do that and have those conversations amongst people that may not know each other.

GB: Yeah. Well, it’s not rocket science, is it? You know?

RJ: It’s social science.

GB: Really. I mean, create a comfortable environment that people can talk in and feel comfortable in, and ply them with alcohol.

RJ: And that’s the formula right there, guys.

GB: There you go. You’ve got it. That’s the money. Well, we’ll see – give me another couple of years to see if I actually make any money. Everything’s been reinvested back in, but yeah. To me, that’s the way a bar should be.

RJ: Well, thanks very much for your time today, Gerard. And I’ll tell you what – it’s about thirty degrees here and I think it’s time I head to the bar and enjoy something off your tap.

GB: I shall grab you something I’ve prepared earlier.

RJ: Thanks a lot. Cheers.

GB: Absolute pleasure. Cheers, mate.

RJ: That’s good.

GB: Well done.

RJ: That’s good.

GB: Blah, blah, blah.

2 thoughts on “Gerard Barron – Common Room Bar Business Marketing Interview 5

  1. Just sat and listened to the interview. Excellent interview. I think what impresses me most, and what I enjoy most about the Common Room is the fact that it is all done with passion and personality, no compromise to mainstream or stylize it. I recently spent a few days in Melbourne, and, being with my 21 year old daughter, we went to a bunch of bars. Some were impressive, but none had the courage of the Common Room. They all seemed themed, styled to create an impression. I admire Gerard’s ability to create a space that reflects his own quirkiness without slipping into pretension. In doing so he has created a space where it feels that patrons seem to be free to relax and be less pretentious than they might otherwise be in a bar setting! It’s taken guts, perseverance and a whole lot of hard work on his part, but I think he has created something not only unique, but that also has added an incredibly valuable social asset not only to Hastings but to the wider region. Hat’s off to Gerard and to Ryan Marketing for acknowledging it with this interview.

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