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Campus pubs: the end is not nigh

BY SAMANTHA FEX | JAN 07 2008

A series of newspaper articles this past fall seemed to herald the demise of the campus pub because students are generally drinking less. But that impression of widespread closures is simply not accurate, says Jeff Dockeray, the executive director of the Campus Hospitality Managers Association, a group that represents campus-based restaurant and pub operators. “You are not seeing even a minor trend toward closures.”

True, alcohol sales are down in places, concedes Mr. Dockeray. “Student pubs are not the cash cows that they used to be. Ergo, people think they are shutting down. [But] that’s a fallacy.”

What campus pubs are doing is changing their focus, he says, shifting revenues away from alcohol sales and cover charges to food purchases and new programming to keep the students coming. Student bars are transforming themselves into restaurant businesses and offering a variety of events for students under and over the legal drinking age, such as game nights, tournaments and other forms of entertainment, he says.

Fran Wdowczyk, executive director of the Student Life Education Company, a non-profit organization that promotes alcohol awareness, says this transition has been under way for several years. Student bar owners “have done really good work in diversifying their business model,” she says, noting that some have even branched out into on-campus catering.

University of Windsor’s campus pub, the Basement, is one example. The Basement’s general manager, Jason Codling, says its alcohol sales are down, but food sales are up. The bar’s overall sales are also up, which Mr. Codling attributes to the Basement’s new decor and menu, catering and entertainment options. “We throw enough diverse events that it brings in a lot of students that normally wouldn’t go out so many nights,” he says.

Some campus pubs are still money losers. However, for many of the student unions that run the pubs, profits are not the goal. Rather, the student leaders see the campus pub as a service – a safe and secure venue where students can congregate rather than venturing off campus.

Gareth Stackhouse, the student union vice-president of finance and operations at Dalhousie University, says that is exactly the idea with its campus bar, Grawood Lounge. “We are not running this quite as a business. … We are okay making a certain amount of loss as long as we are providing a service to students.”

Grawood Lounge was featured in one of the recent news reports and was presented as being in dire straits. The bar lost $40,000 last year and the article reported that the student union wished it could at least break even. But Mr. Stackhouse says this is not the case. Grawood’s loss in revenue was budgeted for and approved by council, and the bar is right on track.

Mr. Stackhouse says the student union budgets for a loss for good reasons. The bar deliberately has extra staff for safety purposes. It accommodates under-aged students through Halifax’s only wet and dry program: a system of different-colored armbands that indicate who is of age and who is not. Also, Grawood does not keep the money it generates from cover charges, but gives the funds to the students’ society that is sponsoring the event that particular night.

Skantha Sivakadachaiyar, vice-president of finance with the Carleton University Student’s Association, says his association has much the same philosophy as Dalhousie’s student union. He notes, for example, that the association subsidizes the cost of food at its campus pub, Oliver’s. “We want to keep costs as low as possible for students to come in and enjoy their bar experience. We have the cheapest food prices anywhere on campus.”

Last November, Oliver’s liquor license was suspended for 40 days after it pleaded guilty to violating the Liquor Licence Act. Mr. Sivakadachaiyar says the suspension was definitely a hit to the bar’s revenues, but the student association curbed the loss with different programs and a new breakfast menu. When the suspension was over, Oliver’s was back in business with a Texas Tuesday night and a packed bar, even though it was an exam week.

Nevertheless, a few campus bars haven’t been able to make ends meet, regardless of a change in programs or focus. The University of Alberta’s nightclub, the Power Plant, closed last spring despite attempts to diversify its food offerings and to increase its entertainment. Eamon Gamble, the vice-president of finance for U of A’s student union, says the Power Plant’s drop in alcohol sales and general financial under-performance made it a “too volatile” business to invest students’ money in. U of A’s other pub, a sports bar also run by the student union, is still in operation.

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