It is 18 years since the first Walkabout burst onto our high streets. At one point, there were over 50 of the Australasian bars scattered across the UK but, three years ago, the chain’s operator Regent Inns went into administration, putting the future of the bars in doubt. Some closed but a core group of 31 live on in the hands of Intertain, the company set up in 2009 to run Regent Inns’ best-performing sites.
Sorting out Regent Inns’ estate and disposing of non-core assets such as the Old Orleans restaurant chain took about 18 months, but work is now well under way on refurbishing Walkabout and developing other parts of the estate such as the Highlight comedy nights – the brand invented after Regent Inns’ Jongleurs partnership ended. “The business was in desperate need of investment,” says Intertain’s chief executive John Leslie, the former Scottish & Newcastle Retail finance director who joined the troubled Regent Inns in 2004.
Over the past 18 months, sums of up to £750,000 per site have been invested in Walkabout bars in Wolverhampton, Blackpool, Leeds, Temple in London, Hanley in Staffordshire, Watford and Liverpool (pictured below). Working with a variety of designers such as Monteith Scott and Spatialized, the company has added a new contemporary “wave design” bar, Beach Club areas, new dance floors, new DJ booths, better sound sytems and more bookable spaces.
Sport continues to be important at Walkabout, with large screens in all the bars, while the drinks offering now includes back-bar cocktail fountains and sharing cocktails served in vessels shaped like wellington boots and suitcases. More emphasis has been put on promoting food to build business during the daytime and early evening, while each venue has a sales and marketing co-ordinator to drive group bookings. The next project will be the refurbishment of Walkabout in Cardiff in September.
Intertain has also been reviewing its Bar Risa concept, set up by Regent Inns in the 1990s as a companion to the Jongleurs comedy clubs. In 2010, this saw Bar Risa in Reading replaced by Rewind, a bar celebrating the 70s, 80s and 90s, alongside a Highlight comedy club. Other Highlight comedy clubs continue to operate as part of other sites, treating them as parts of the bars’ business rather than a separate entity. With Rewinds within two other venues, it reflects how Intertain’s 38-strong estate has been evolving into more of a multi-room approach.
The latest move has been the transformation of Bar Risa and Highlight in Albion Street, Leeds, into Maluko (pictured top) – made up of four rooms including a Polynesian-style Tiki Lounge and a Hawaiian-themed Beach Bar. Its new Club Room will continue to host two Highlight comedy nights a week but will also be used for other events. Designed by Spatialized, it features lighting and sound by Tyson Lighting and Sound Power. “So far, our refurbishment programme has shown great returns on investment and we’re confident that Maluko will further this success,” John says.
Alongside him, the rest of the original management team remain on board including chief operating officer Simon Kaye and chief financial officer Mike Foster plus David Myers, formerly chief executive of Avebury Taverns and non-executive chairman of Town & City Pub Company, who joined as chairman last November. Their current strategy will have seen between £7million and £9million invested in the estate over four years, with all sites producing at least 100 per cent return on investment.
John says that they plan to start on another three-year phase of investment in 2013, with Maluko a potential concept for roll-out. “The main event for our business will always be Walkabout but we have bars in the same locations and need to do something different,” he explains. Intertain also has about 20 locations where it is looking out for the right sites for new Walkabouts, John adds. “People understand Walkabout – it has great recognition. The brand has great legs in it but needed us to do what we are doing with it now to make it more contemporary.”
Originally publsihed in the September 2012 edition of Bar magazine.