Paul Clancy, the new CEO at the Vintners’ Federation of Ireland, is on a mission to remind everyone how integral the pub is to the Irish psyche

Paul Clancy took over the role of CEO at the Vintners’ Federation of Ireland just a few weeks ago but despite the short timeframe, he has already set out his stall in terms of what he wants to achieve in the role. Having met a significant number of members since taking up the position in May, he knows how publicans around the country are faring in our new post-Covid  ‘normal’. “I think a lot of members thought they wouldn’t be trading today, given the challenges that Covid has presented over the past couple of years. Publicans are reaping the benefits of the pent-up demand that’s there at the moment, particularly during the summer season. There is of course some concern there about the future; energy costs are set to become even more of an issue, the availability of labour is making trading difficult and the threat of a potential recession is ever looming. But, there’s definitely a feeling that publicans are making hay while the sun shines right now and building a fighting fund for the tough times that lie ahead,” said Paul.

Those tough times are already being felt by many across the trade. A tough budget is in the works, while rising inflation costs are making disposable income little more than a pipedream. Particularly in rural areas, some pubs are unable to open seven days a week due to staff shortages. “We’re also hearing anecdotally from tourists travelling around the country that can’t find a pub that’s open on a Monday or Tuesday evening. If they are open, their food offering is perhaps less than what it normally is.” People from EU states who want to work in Ireland could help ease the staffing pressures, says Paul. “We’re also working with COG and Fáilte Ireland to explore whether people who might have retired early from the industry might be interested in returning. We’re working with various agencies to try and attract people of all ages into the trade; I think the hours may be off-putting to some, but it’s crucial that we communicate the career opportunities that exist within the industry.” VFI members are making great efforts to attract and retain staff by offering enhanced wages and greater flexibility, while industry bodies are working to ensure career progression within the trade through the likes of the bar manager apprenticeship degree programme. “There’s a livelihood and a career to be made in this industry, there’s a pathway to becoming an entrepreneur with your own business. We believe there’s a future in this industry; we just need to get that message across.”

Earlier this year, ‘Pubs as Community Hubs’ was launched, a new initiative designed to support rural pubs and communities. Initially running on a pilot basis, the initiative will see financial supports provided to publicans in rural areas to diversify their facilities for community use. Pubs will be used as digital hubs, community cinemas, book clubs, arts and crafts workshops and community meeting spaces during quiet trading times. Funding of €50,000 has been provided to the VFI, which has selected four pubs as part of the pilot programme. It’s hoped that the initiative will be expanded to other parts of the country if successful. So far, feedback has been very positive. “It’s an excellent initiative that really emphasises the role of the pub in the community and its standing in rural Ireland. From meeting members over the past few weeks, I’ve been struck by the innovation that publicans have shown over the past two years in coping with Covid. They changed up their business model, they’re not afraid to adapt and grow. This initiative is all about evolving and getting people through the door.”

Before taking up the role of CEO at the VFI, Paul held a number of senior management roles in the agri, food, drinks and manufacturing industries in Ireland, the UK and Scandinavia. Previous positions include Marketing Director and Managing Director of the Derry Chamber of Commerce. Past experience with membership organisations has informed his new role at the VFI, says Paul. “My ambition is very much rooted around helping publicans to succeed, whether that’s through lobbying or practical training such as the degree programme. Throughout my career, I’ve been very fortunate to live and work in various countries. I think it’s only when you’re away from home that you realise how important the Irish pub is to you. Certainly when I came home, the first thing I wanted to do was get back into that environment.” Lowering commercial rates, reducing VAT on fuel as well as excise duties and increasing footfall in rural pubs are also on his wishlist. “It’s great that the night-time economy grant has been extended, it’s a great first step. But we’ll be asking government to implement these supports and do what it can to get more money in the pocket for the publican so they can reinvest in their business.”

It’s time to remember how much of a part the local pub is in our DNA. “Tourists come to Ireland for the scenery, to discover the folklore and the music and the dance but when they leave, more often than not they talk about the people they met in the pubs or the hotels they stayed in. That’s why the Irish pub is such an important part of the fabric of our tourism. It’s so important that we don’t lose that, that we don’t see more pubs closing. It’s a challenge, but it’s one I’m more than happy to take up.”