VFI President Gerry Rafter — something to shout about

“It’s not a particularly difficult time to be VFI President but it is to be a publican” - VFI President Gerry Rafter.
“It’s not a particularly difficult time to be VFI President but it is to be a publican” - VFI President Gerry Rafter.

Pat Nolan talks to the VFI President who’s half-way through his period in office.



20 May 2013

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One year down the road, another to go, VFI President Gerry Rafter takes a philosophical view when I enquire if it’s a difficult time to be President.
“It’s not a particularly difficult time to be VFI President” he responds, “but it is to be a publican. In the last five years trade’s down 34% and we’re looking at another drop in turnover again this year.
“We need to find ways to renew ourselves, to make ourselves relevant to a very discerning customer who has less money to spend.”
Gerry, has spent 30 years in the trade, owning his own premises The Rafter Dempseys in Kilkenny since 1995. Before that he spent 10 years in Christy Maye’s Greville Arms Hotel in Mullingar having working in bars in various locations since he was 19.
Over the next year he intends to follow through his commitment to members to get to every county, meet publicans on the ground in their own locality and hear their problems, concerns and issues. Having already visited four counties, he sets off for Donegal after this interview where he’ll stay the rest of the week.

Next week he visits Cork before the AGM in Trim.

“The big issue emerging is lack of footfall, the huge loss in turnover and the effects of this on staff employment and families,” he explains. In lots of cases his members are very family-based.

Gerry admires those publicans around the country making an effort to re-invent themselves, raise their standards and invent new ways to bring customers into their premises – particularly those getting customers through their doors on midweek nights.
“It takes a huge effort without any guaranteed result,” he points out, “But I’ve a firm belief that we all have to be positive and try our utmost to make that happen.”

Government posturing
Despite intensive industry lobbying, sometimes it feels like Government’s simply not listening. But it’s not for want of offering solutions on a variety of topics.

“I’ve heard a lot in the past month from the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland and various strands of the health lobby about the damage alcohol is doing to young people in particular. And we’ve been strongly challenging the Government to do something positive about the abuse of alcohol for some time.

“We, as a national trade federation, are very happy to take a positive role in that debate.

“The Government are posturing, telling us that they’re listening, that they’re going to do something about it and are in agreement with the health lobbies that abuse of alcohol has to be tackled. But nothing is being done.

“There’re no moves on pricing and as for sponsorship, Leo Varadkar is in the middle of this debate.

“We feel that sport and festivals in this country are strongly supported by the drinks industry in terms of sponsorship. These events very much need that support.”

Lid Levy
The Lid Levy put before Government last Christmas would have satisfied the health lobby, he believes, in trying to control the misuse of cheap alcohol coming through the supermarkets. It’d also raise €250,000 per annum in tax based on revenue figures for the off-trade in 2011.

“Our proposal was that this money would be ring-fenced to support sporting events and festivals that would be endangered by a lack of support from the drinks industry.”

Raising the game
With current turnover levels remaining unsustainable, there’re likely to be less pubs, particularly in rural Ireland, but Gerry would encourage pubs to be at the top of their game in terms of offering and diversification, “… raising the standards so that not just tourists coming to Ireland understand that the Irish pub is a fantastic place to go and socialise, but our indigenous population too must see that the pub has a huge role to play in their social life.

“Those pubs that really make the effort and go that extra mile to provide facilities and value, fulfilling their customers’ expectations, are the ones that will not only survive but will thrive despite the current state of the economy.”

He agrees it’s very difficult to see the potential for growth in the pub trade when you consider the 34% downturn in past five years.

“Certainly there’s room in the area of food, accommodation and entertainment – no matter what form of entertainment… the pub catering for the family gathering, the card game or the snug in which to meet friends and have a quiet pint.”

The already huge excise on alcohol doesn’t help matters.

“We’re one of the most heavily-taxed countries in Europe. The Government needs to look at that and they need to look at commercial rates which have no built-in ability to envisage a rates reduction based on financial circumstances.

“The way to help the pub trade is to have the Government get up off their backsides and do something about the minimum price of alcohol, segregation of alcohol in supermarkets and price-based advertising as well as limiting the massive availability of cheap alcohol that’s doing serious harm to our young population.”

In his view alcohol is a special substance requiring a sales licence.

He remembers in his teens and 20s having to go to a pub or restaurant to get alcohol, “….. but now every petrol station seems to sell it. The special nature of alcohol has gone and that’s part of the reason for the abuse of it,” he claims.

He’d consider his period in office to have been particularly worthwhile if, on leaving, he was able to say that he’d been influential in reinvigorating grass roots members to be more involved in the Federation and to have helped them drive their business as a result.

“I feel that we’ve become entrenched behind our own bars and sometimes can find it difficult to differentiate the wood from the trees,” he explains, “I’d like our members to be able to help us guide the Federation in terms of being more relevant and guide the strategy for the future of the Federation.”

Plenty to shout about
One of the themes the Federation will have going into conference is ‘Plenty to shout about’ – about the inaction of the Government, their inaction on prices, the lid levy proposal etc.

“But the other side of that is that we’re not going to give up shouting about the fact that we’ve a fantastic product, that Fáilte Ireland agrees that the Irish pub is a fantastic place to be,” he adds, “When tourists go home they’ve all visited an Irish pub. We have to keep shouting about how good the pub is for the local Irish population too. We have to shout about the local customers feeling every bit as good about the local pub as our tourists do”.

With all that shouting, let’s hope he doesn’t make himself hoarse before this year’s Trim conference……

“It’s not a particularly difficult time to be VFI President but it is to be a publican” - VFI President Gerry Rafter.

“It’s not a particularly difficult time to be VFI President but it is to be a publican” – VFI President Gerry Rafter.



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