‘Hard-nosed’ business decisions are the key to keeping Sheffield’s surviving working men’s clubs alive as they face financial challenges, the manager of a popular city social club has said.
Maurice Champeau, the bar and events manager at Crookes Social Club on Mulehouse Road, said the club has had to make tough decisions to survive after being ‘virtually bankrupt’ just two-and-a-half years ago.
Despite recently being used as one of the locations for ITV1 comedy-drama Brief Encounter, the club is still having to be stringent in balancing its books - making decisions such as hiring rooms out to public for weekend functions rather than just being dedicated to members.
Mr Champeau said: “If we weren’t more hard-nosed about the choices we’re making, it will close, because like anything it has to earn its money and pay its own way.
“We’ve had to make changes because of that and we have lost members because of the changes that we’ve made. The fact that not every Saturday night is dedicated to the members in the concert room, but that we do have functions in there that takes that room away from them on a Saturday night has lost us members as a result of doing that.
“But it was a commercial decision that we’re going to earn more from losing those few customers and actually be generating some income from that room.”
He said the club still has a promising future but has faced a variety of challenges to survive to this point.
He said: “Two and a half years ago this club was virtually bankrupt. Like many of the other working men’s clubs in the area, it was struggling. It was hard work. There wasn’t enough money coming in from the members, memberships dwindled and the club was really, really struggling.
“I joined the club about two and a half years ago and the specific brief I came in with was to turn it around. I had to look at everything the club was doing from a commercial perspective, so ‘Are we making money out of doing that, and if we’re not, then why are we doing it?’
“That’s not to say that everything that we do now makes money, because there are still functions and events that happen for the members and that’s because of the loyal membership and we like to keep looking after them, but I have to look at it from a commercial perspective and say ‘Are we making the best use of the facilities we’ve got?’ If we’re not, change it and make something else out of it.
“We’ve got one of the best dance floors in Sheffield. We’ve got a 500 capacity concert room and it was being used one night a week. So we looked at what else we can do with that space, and we use it for a lot more outside functions so bands coming in and playing, charity events, weddings, bar mitzvahs, funerals - you name it. If they are willing to pay money across the bar, I will put them in the club somewhere.
“We have lots of people running different classes from here, so dance classes, martial arts classes, boxing lessons, running groups, cycling groups. They all originate from here, which means that we’ve got more people coming in and although the membership is dropping, we see more and more of the general public coming in and using the facilities that we’ve got.
“We’ve also spent a lot of time looking at all of our supply contracts and saying ‘Are these commercially viable, am I getting the beer at the cheapest price I can buy it from, am I electric at the cheapest price I can buy it?’. Although electric prices have gone up, our electricity costs have now gone down by over 20 per cent in the last two years. That makes a big difference in a place like this.
“A lot of the members are people who have been coming here for 30 to 40 years, and they sit in the same seat on the same night and drink the same beer, and that’s what I call the ‘bread and butter’ - that’s the loyal customer base that we have to keep maintaining.
“We’re all over Twitter and Facebook on a regular basis, which helps us attract a slightly younger customer base and it helps people stop thinking that it’s an old man’s place. The perception is that working men’s clubs are; I’m just under 50, I’m probably the youngest manager that they’ve had here in the past 30 years, and having said that I’m getting on myself a little bit!
“But we try and do more stuff to attract a younger crowd into the place to make it slightly more attractive for younger people to come in. Silly things like adding a pool table and a jukebox, which makes a difference to people who don’t just want to come in, drink their two pints and play bingo, which is the tradition in these places unfortunately.
“It’s all about money. I hate to sound like a bread-head, but it’s all about money. It’s all about decent service, quality products and at the end of the day we’re only selling beer! But you have a good pint or you can have a bad pint, so I make sure that the beer is good and have some help from local suppliers. Our cask ales always come from a Sheffield brewery whenever we can, which the local people here tend to like.
“Things like home entertainment and the smoking ban are still effecting the license trade, because there is a proportion of customers who will sit at home and drink their reduced price beer from the supermarket and be able to sit in front of the telly and smoke and watch Sky Sports and those sorts of things. We can’t afford to have Sky Sports on in here - I’d love to put it on and fill this place with people watching football, but it’s never going to happen simply because we don’t get the revenue back from that sort of investment.
“We’re very price sensitive - the money that people have to spend is limited, and do they chose to spend that on their homes or do they chose to come in here and spend it on beer? There are less and less people coming out and spending their money on beer.
“Which is why we have to give them a reason to come out - people don’t just go to the pub on a Wednesday night anymore, there’s got to be a reason to bring them in, and bingo unfortunately, as it was able to bring people in historically, doesn’t anymore. So we’ve got to try and do other things: we run pool leagues, we run darts leagues, we organise 80s nights where all the bar staff will dress up in ridiculous costumes. But it gives people a reason to come in.
“Our unique selling point now, the things that brings people in here are the function room, which is a magnet and there’s nothing else like it in Sheffield, and secondly it’s the service that people get. When we’re organising a wedding, we take away the pain and the hassle, we make them feel welcome. Anybody who walks through the door here is made to feel welcome, you’ve got to mix in with everybody, everybody’s got to gel together, so our unique selling point is that we’re giving better service and we’re making it a nicer place to be than going to the pub down the road.
“Watch this space because there’s a lot more to come from Crookes Social Club!”