Have pubs finished changing with the times?

Today’s news that yet another retail monolith has hit the dirt is a reminder of how fast the world is changing and that those who fail to keep pace do so at their peril. It got me on to thinking about other industries that have had to adapt fast in recent times – and in particular pubs.

The smoking ban, ever increasing prices, harsher penalties for serving the underage, and government interference in what constitutes responsible drinks promotions have all combined to push many a pub out of business. Those that have survived have evolved into swanky gastro pubs and developed comfortable outdoor smoking areas. Gone the sticky carpets and yellow ceilings. Gone the soggy beer mats and stifling smog of regurgitated smoke. Gone the general air of greyness and ill-health.

The pub of today is a place I would be more than happy to take my children without fear of stunting their growth and having them ripped away from me by social services. It seems to me, however, that the pub industry is missing a bit of a trick here. While many pubs have outdoor play areas that are great for summer, a negligible number offer any kind of indoor distractions for children.

What would I give, on a freezing cold, rainy winter’s day, to be able to combine taking my children out and meeting up with childless friends? The options are few and far between and largely unappealing.

The soft play centres are all very well, but they’re generally not that well set up for adult enjoyment – under-staffed cafes, plastic chairs, nasty strip lighting – and just try convincing childless friends to meet you there. Going for a walk – the standard fallback position for occupying children and meeting other adults who are less than enthusiastic about joining you at a playgroup – is redundant in much of our winter weather, and a particularly messy option when the parks are oozing with mud as currently. So you try a café or a pub and after the first 10 minutes spend your time running around after your bored and fractious offspring trying to stop them injuring themselves or the furniture.

I’m not an alcoholic. This is not about wanting to take my kids somewhere where I can get drunk while not paying them full attention. This is about wanting options at the weekend when the weather precludes outdoors entertainment. This is about wanting activities that are mutually beneficial for both kids and parents. This is about giving the kids a change of scenery and some fun stuff to do, while also letting mum and dad hang out with some other grown ups.

Nor am I suggesting that every pub should open themselves up more fully to young families. Nine times out of ten, these childless friends whom I am so keen to meet would probably rather go to a pub that is free from multi-coloured plastic and screeching kids (OK, who am I kidding – 99 times out of 100). And they’re the core demographic for the breweries, so I can understand there might be a reluctance to alienate them by polluting their havens of tranquillity with ghastly, smelly children. (Mine of course are neither ghastly or smelly, being perfect and adorable). But please, please, please, could we have a couple?

Is it a licensing issue? Or is it a general lack of interest from the publicans and/or breweries? Is it a business opportunity for a family minded licensee?

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