Yesterday’s report released from the Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (BOCSAR) showing that there has been a statistically significant increase in assaults in areas next to or within easy reach of the lockout areas is being hailed as a win for those who argued that the lockouts would only displace the violence. However, it is now more important than ever for the licensed venue industry to put in their own initiatives to make implementation of the lockouts unnecessary as the report also shows that the drop in assaults inside the lockout areas is still much greater than the increase of assaults in the surrounding areas i.e. it shows a net reduction. If past form is anything to go by this means that the authorities will see this overall decrease as validation for spreading the lockout laws to other areas.
For seven years now I’ve been working on trying to get the licensed venue industry to put in measures that would firstly protect them from the incoming lockouts, which then moved to trying to get the industry to put in the same measures to roll them back and also to not have them spread to surrounding areas. Those measures equate to an increase in hospitality service along with decreased negative incidents of all kinds achieved by implementing “Special Alcohol Management Service” (SAMS).
SAMS is something that the highest levels of Liquor & Gaming NSW knows about and rates, saying in one meeting with me that it’s beyond what they consider best practice. Not only that but it also increases hospitality, revenue etc. SAMS is not nanny state, it represents an adult state. I’ve spoken a lot about SAMS in the past so today I thought I’d share the story of how it proved itself to me as being the answer.
In 2009 I was part of a project that begun at the Coogee Bay Hotel (CBH). The idea was to stop who they semi-joked were their best customers, i.e. the ones who drank the most alcohol, being asked to leave for reaching intoxication. This was a general idea rather than having specific people in mind. The idea was to intercept the drinker before they reached intoxication, assist them not to do so and thus keep them onsite.
So the project began. I was it’s first employee and for the most part it’s only employee.
Back in the day I used to put on parties, launches, night club events and so on. I finished that side of things in about 2007, happy that I’d achieved for the most part what I’d set out to do.
Whilst putting on these events, something that had been an occasionally recurring question for me whilst doing them was; “Is it possible to assist patrons to have an awesome night out without some of them entering into the land of regrets the next day?” i.e. waking up with a bad hangover or having done something they wish they hadn’t. I’d all too often seen patrons very much the worse for wear, or patrons who’d been in fights, or mess up with a girl and so on and so on. I couldn’t see a way of achieving the answer to this question though without annoying the patrons by over babysitting them or by losing $ for the business so I left it be.
So here I am at the CBH beginning this project in December 2009, which I basically had to work out how to achieve as I went along. There was no manual.
The first night I was asked to wear a uniform which had me stick out like a sore thumb and so wasn’t good. It embarrassed the patrons when I spoke to them as everyone around us could see that I was speaking to them, and it also had them not relax when I was anywhere near their vicinity. They’d sit up straight as I walked past and watch me out of the corner of their eye until I was gone. A hospitality fail.
So after that first night I lost the uniform, dressed normally but with a radio on my belt complete with an earpiece and identification badge I wore slung over the antenna of the said radio. This showed the patron who I was actually talking to that I worked there but was subtle enough so that no one else around us would know that they were being spoken to by staff. This one little thing, i.e. camouflage as opposed to a stand out uniform, immediately keeps a patron relaxed as well as, in general, the patrons overall.
The uniform adds agitation, a reason why it’s clearly not a hospitality person who said that RSA Marshals must wear them. Making RSA Marshals wear a uniform is as big a failure as are their names i.e. Marshal, we used to call them “Hosts” so that they would be in a hospitality frame of mind. A marshal is like a cop, it’s not hospitality, except in an abstract, roundabout way.
The main tool used to help patrons not reach intoxication was timely diversion from an alcoholic beverage, so offering water was used for that. E.g. asking them; “How about a water as your next drink?” or words to that affect. Handing out water was initially difficult as patrons didn’t know how to read it. They wondered at first if it was a sign to the guards to ask them to leave or if it was some kind of warning to them to pull their heads in and behave. They also sometimes wondered if it was “uncool” for them to accept in front of their fellow patrons.
It was none of those things and over time by showing patrons that the water was just that, that there was no hidden meaning etc., patrons began to happily accept it. We also changed the focus to it being “cool” or wise if they took it i.e. it showed good judgement and was a no brainer. In fact to decline the water when it was required, or to pay it out, fast became not the thing to do amongst the patrons themselves. They’d often assist us to sell the benefits of the water to their colleagues if a fellow patron initially resisted. Patrons, on many occasions, began to even ask for a water before being offered one. In fact by the end, the amount of waters we gave out I’d estimate patrons were initiating asking for their own about 20% of the time.
The patrons began to appreciate the service as they could see that it was there for their benefit. Word was out amongst those patrons who had the water that they ended up feeling better at the end of the night and the next day, that it kept them onsite for as long as they wanted to be there if they stayed hydrated. Some were even saying they were waking up without feeling hangovers the next day. The actual culture changed.
The original goal of the project was clearly working. The numbers being asked to leave the venue for intoxication fell dramatically but other things were happening too.
Because people weren’t being asked to leave or leaving of their own volition, groups were staying together longer on site. With more people onsite the atmosphere of the venue was buzzing later into the night than it had been before. With the increased trade revenue went up. I remember at CBH in April after I’d started in December, that they said they’d set an all time record for April takings i.e. the highest ever in their history for that month. It was clear that this was substantially due to the program, RSA intoxication evictions were majorly down. It was a game changer.
Hospitality was increased with patrons clearly happy with the new service offered. International visitors or those who weren’t regulars at CBH would comment on how they wished they offered it where they went out i.e. where they were from.
Another thing that happened was that negative incidents decreased. Fights basically disappeared. This was due to the hospitality vibe that was increased in the venue but also because courtesy and friendliness was constantly being offered to the patrons which positively effected their mood.
We worked out, through trial and error, the right approaches to use to different scenarios that would consistently achieve hospitality outcomes. We began then to consistently use these approaches and thus achieve consistent best outcomes. Also, because patrons were being more interacted with it naturally followed that we were able to take more notice of the crowd, often noticing things happening before they flared up and engaging those things to help them not do so.
After I’d been working at the CBH doing this project for a little while I could see that my old question about whether there was a way of engaging with patrons in a way that allowed them to have a great time without going into the land of regrets the next day and without business being hurt, but in fact surprisingly improved, had been definitively answered. SAMS was and is the way to achieve that.
I took over the business as I saw first hand it’s potential to safeguard venues from breaches and yet maximise profits. I’ve been working at it ever since, looking to bring the industry on board so we can collectively improve the hospitality licensed venues provide, increase general safety, protect the industry from over regulation and protect the cultural fabric to society that licensed venues provide. To this last point, it’s worth mentioning that Australia’s most famous venue, the Sydney Opera House, wouldn’t be what it is today without the money it makes from the licensed venues that are on its site.
Although SAMS began at the CBH it also proved itself simultaneously at The Tea Gardens, Trademark, the Piano Room, and the Cock’n’Bull Hotel, all of which had different patron target markets. This was when I used to put in trained staff to these venues that would work for me and the training that was developed, the SAMS course, was put together to bring my new staff up to speed quickly. Four years ago we changed from a business that provided trained staff to licensed venues to a business that now provides our training to venues through the SAMS course, a far more cost effective way for venues to go about implementing it and with more upsides.