Games Changer: Can the Olympics Save London's Pub Trade?

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Across the East London skyline, armies of cranes are busy assembling industrial jigsaw pieces into seductively curved Olympic stadia. But a mere javelin's throw away from this shiny modern metropolis sits the Queen's Head, an aging East End pub, which, judging by the interior, hasn't changed much since London last hosted the Olympics in 1948. Once a popular haunt for locals, the Queen's Head has been hemorrhaging drinkers and profits in recent years, so landlord Bill Sinefield, who has 20 years' experience in the trade, was brought in by the owners in a last-ditch attempt to save the place from closure. Despite introducing drink deals and live-music nights, Sinefield is still struggling to bring in customers. He reluctantly admits that next summer, when the Olympics go to London, could be make or break for the Queen's Head. "You can't just build your business around the Games, but we are certainly in need of the boost," says Sinefield. "Times are pretty tough at the moment."

The story of the Queen's Head will resonate with pub owners across the U.K. What was once a cornerstone of British society has been slowly crumbling since the 1980s, and the recession has many predicting the death of the British pub. In the first half of 2011, around 14 pubs were closing each week (in 2009, in the immediate wake of the financial crisis, the pub trade was seeing 52 casualties a week). The 2007 smoking ban, the availability of cheap supermarket booze and a beer tax that has risen by 35% since 2008 have led many publicans to lay the blame solely at the feet of the government. Then in November, the government announced that it would not take any action over the beer tie, a controversial contract that forces landlords to buy expensive beer from the company that owns their premises, a decision described by one union as a "disaster for the pub industry." With a backdrop this bleak it's little wonder London's 9,000 landlords are hoping for an Olympic payday.

But if they want to gain from the Games, they'll need to find a way to pull tourists away from the big event. When deciding how to quench the thirst of the 11.8 million people expected to descend upon London for the Olympics, organizers overlooked Britain's 900 breweries and awarded exclusive beer rights to Heineken, meaning the Dutch brewer will be the sole supplier of beer and cider in all Olympic venues. Officials defended the decision by pointing out that Heineken's U.K. operating company is based in Edinburgh, but the country's pub community feels betrayed by the loss of the chance to promote British pub culture to hordes of tourists. "To put it mildly, we're pissed off," says Iain Loe, spokesman for the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA). "Britain is famous for its great variety of real ales, but shamefully they will be absent from all Olympic venues."

While this snub has many barmen declaring the proverbial glass half-empty, others think that the absence of local beers at the Games could encourage tourists to venture out of the Olympic sphere to sup their pints in the convivial atmosphere of the great British pub. According to VisitBritain, 13 million tourists enjoyed the offerings of a British pub last year, making it one of the most popular tourist activities. And the lure of the Olympics could help bring this pastime to a whole new audience, claims Brigid Simmonds, chief executive of the British Beer & Pub Association. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to showcase the best of British beer and pubs," she says. "Landlords are hoping for a windfall, not only in beer sales but also accommodation, as many London pubs have rooms to let."

That's only, though, if tourists actually turn up to the Games. In November, the European Tour Operators Association announced that operators are seeing a 95% shortfall in the usual number of London bookings for July and August 2012, which is when the Olympics are being held. It's still early, and many tourists may simply be holding out for cheaper deals, but in an attempt to allay any potential visitors' fears of Olympic price gouging, London Mayor Boris Johnson has introduced a fair-pricing charter that so far has the backing of 60 businesses — including pubs — who promise to offer reasonable pricing for tourists during the Games.

But even if London's pubs manage to draw Olympics tourists through their doors, the major hurdle will be keeping them there. "The reason many pubs are ailing is because they're badly run and in poor condition," says CAMRA's Loe. "It's important for pubs to be clean, tidy and have welcoming staff — this is a chance to showcase the best aspects of our trade and build up new clientele." It seems the real winners of the Olympics will be the friendly, presentable pubs that pull the patrons in this summer and make a lasting impression, thus enticing the tourists, and their friends, to go back on their next visit.

As Queen's Head landlord Sinefield points out: "The Games is a great opportunity for us, but we need to use it as the catalyst for long-term success." For London's landlords, it seems this particular event will be a marathon rather than a sprint.

Phillips is a contributor at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @JakPhillips. You can also continue the discussion on TIME's Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.