Despite the obvious challenges, one independent pub group is looking forward to a head start to the new year thanks to a new gift card platform.

Mary McLaughlin and Tim Bird, founders of Cheshire Cat Pubs & Bars

Cheshire Cat Pubs & Bars launched its pay-ahead membership scheme for customers of the group’s six pubs. It was launched when they re-opened after lockdown on 4th July, with food and drink redeemable after 2nd January.

Tim Bird, who founded Cheshire Cat in 2008 with Mary McLaughlin, said: “We created the Cheshire Cat Pub Club after customers at several pubs asked how they could help us; they’d bought food or drink from us during lockdown and seen how we’d supported the local community, and they wanted to see us come through the other side.”

By pre-purchasing a membership, customers provided a cash boost to the business, and in turn were rewarded with added value on their membership; if they bought gold membership at £250, for example, they received an additional £50 to spend in the pub next year.

The Pub Club offers three levels: bronze (£50), silver (£100), and gold (£250). Membership runs for a year from 2nd January, and customers can redeem in any of the six pubs at any point during 2021. A number of additional member exclusives, like a special bottle of wine, will also be offered at certain points in the year. 

Tim said: “We’re excited about the potential of Pub Club. It has longevity and flexibility, and most importantly it bonds our pubs with their communities — something that’s been at the core of our business since the start, and came to the fore during lockdown.”

Having hit upon the Pub Club idea, the Cheshire Cat team turned to sector technology expert Airship, using its gift card platform Toggle to create the pay ahead membership cards, and add them to the pubs’ website.

Tim added: “The three cards were set up quickly, and are easy for customers to purchase. There’s flexibility in the system so we can offer the ‘value added’ element again for a limited time, or extend the scheme with a platinum level.”

‘Everything we did during lockdown was about keeping our pubs visible and relevant’

The success of Pub Club has its roots in lockdown. When pub closure was announced in March, Tim and Mary moved at speed to adapt the business, and two days later they’d turned The Roebuck at Mobberley, Cheshire, from a pub into a hub.  The head chef started recreating some of the pub’s favourite dishes as ready meals for customers to take home, alongside draught and bottled beers, wines, groceries, and other essential supplies.

Tim said: “We took the view that if there was customer demand for something that we had in stock, or could secure through our supply chain, then we’d sell it at the hub. At one point, while garden centres were shut, we were doing a roaring trade in flowers and shrubs, and I was delivering bags of compost to customers!”

The pub also looked after key workers, delivering free packages of essentials to local care homes and thanking the refuse collectors with a six-pack of beers. “Everything we did during lockdown was about keeping our pubs visible and relevant; they couldn’t be meeting points any more, but they could still support their communities in other ways. People have told me that we helped to create some good lockdown memories locally, and they appreciate the efforts we made.”

Looking ahead, he said: “We want customers coming in to redeem their membership to have the best possible experience, so we’re training our team now to make sure the redemption process all runs smoothly. We’re also getting demand from customers who want to buy a membership as a Christmas gift for family or friends.”

Andrew Whiteley, chief experience officer at Airship, said: “We’ve been delighted to see how operators have used the Toggle platform to connect with their customers, both during lockdown and since reopening. Cheshire Cat’s membership club is a fantastic example; it’s so much more than a gift card, rewarding customers for their loyalty and giving them reasons to visit the pub throughout 2021.”

The Toggle platform allows hospitality businesses to quickly set up bespoke, branded gift cards. The service was made free to operators during lockdown, now charges are only applied after £1,000 worth of gift card sales. Users can be up and running in around 30 minutes, making gift cards available for customers to buy online and in-venue, send to recipients by email and post.

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