Leisure: what’s next?

With big brands exiting the high street, can leisure fill the growing void?

Albeit an industry ground to a halt by lockdown restrictions, leisure has long been heralded as a saviour for retail destinations. Now more than ever with an increasing list of retail giants exiting the world of bricks and mortar and moving entirely online, shopping centres are going to have a lot of voids to fill in order to maintain that destination status, and many will be looking at leisure as a means to do so.

With the roll out of vaccines and the expected decline of Covid infection rates expected to be positively felt in the second half of 2021, it is likely that customers will want to enjoy days out and a leisure experiences, the question is what will be waiting for them when leisure becomes possible again?

Peter Todd, founder of Portus Retail, expects it will take some time for the business revenues to return to historic levels due to the nature of many of the leisure experiences: “Cinemas rely on content and the film studios will need to be supplying that which may have a time lag compared to the opening of cinemas,” he explains. “Venues which rely on some element of “edutainment” or game experience and cater to school or college groups will also need to see the full return of students which may not happen before Q3 in many countries.”

Todd points out that many leisure venues have a significant component of business events as part of their revenue stream, and until there is a return to confidence among employers that it is “proven” to be safe to ask employees to mix in such environments, there will be a significant time lag in the ramp up of bookings.

“As I result, I would not expect to see revenues return to pre-Covid levels until 2022,” he warns. “However, I do believe that there will be an increased demand and willingness of customers to spend money on leisure experience which shall lead to the revenue potential in the future being greater and as a result make leisure an even more important component of retail destinations.”

He also anticipates some leisure businesses to changing as a result of the pandemic, as, for example, it remains to be seen what the appetite of customers will be to consume digital content such as films when there are many alternatives for viewing such content. He also thinks that a number of the more traditional formats such as cinema, bowling and the like may need to adjust and to some extent reinvent their content or their pricing and business model to attract enough customers and make a profit in an era where some social distancing measures are likely to remain.

“However,” he counters, “unique experiences which cannot be recreated will, in my opinion, see increased demand and whilst it will take time to rebuild customer confidence, I expect to see increased demand for physical entertainment experiences and unique family days out. Also, the next generation of virtual reality experience that can offer a truly interactive and immersive experience for family and friends groups to enjoy a “controlled environment” look very exciting.”

From an outlet perspective, Angus Fyfe, commercial operations director at Realm, says their schemes have always been leisure-orientated, delivering an “internet and recession-proof” attraction which is a day-out experience for visitors. “The destination type shoppers we attract are happy to extend their dwell-time and positively welcome more diversified offerings to extend the experience,” he explains.

Outlets have evolved from initially offering temporary rides, trampolines and climbing walls in the summer months to more immersive experiences including cinemas and vastly improved children’s play areas. The open-air design and relaxed environments in particular are likely to continue augmenting the popularity of outlet centres with leisure operators, both now and beyond the current situation. 

Fyfe believe that the rise to prominence of wellbeing and mindfulness will further trigger the ever-increasing popularity of sports and athleisure brands to fuel demand for fitness studios for yoga and exercise, alongside craft workshop spaces and family orientated uses such as escape rooms within our schemes.

“We also expect to see the continued popularity of outdoor and open-space activities, such as live music events and mini festivals,” he tells. Realm’s has adapted its traditional indoor leisure offerings of cinema, crazy golf and bowling to an outdoor environment with pop-up outdoor screens proving a popular addition during the pandemic.

“As these can be staged whilst maintaining all important social-distancing measures they are likely to remain as a fixture this summer at the schemes where they’ve been introduced,” Fyfe adds.

As both Todd and Fyfe point out, cinema has destabilised as a result of the pandemic, slowing down the production of new releases, delaying premier dates by 12 months or more, and giving rise to the convenience of streaming services.

Whilst the future of cinema remains a contentious topic, hoping to score a hole in one with new leisure premium golf simulation concept, On The Green, is Liverpool One. Set to launch once Covid-19 lockdown restrictions are lifted, the immersive golf experience will allow customers to play a full 18-hole round of golf with a real club and golf ball, providing active analysis on spin rate, projection and club swings. The multi-faceted golf concept will enable users to play a number of the world’s top courses within a relaxed and informal environment.

In Barnsley, leisure is very much on the agenda with its future plans for The Glass Works, a £200m  regeneration of the town centre which will be introducing seven new family restaurants, a Superbowl UK featuring a bowling alley and soft play centre, and a 13 screen Cineworld cinema featuring large-scale 4DX screen when its next phase launches later this year.

The first phase has already launched and offers a Library @ the Lightbox, Barnsley Markets and an independent food court, Market Kitchen, which Councillor Tim Cheetham, Cabinet Spokesperson for Regeneration and Culture at Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council, says is providing the community and beyond with not just another shopping centre, but with something much more ambitious.

“With a birds-eye view of the industry, we have seen the sector changing through a welcomed increase in collaboration between national and independent businesses on the high streets and a growing focus on mixed use high streets that really reflect the needs of the community, whilst drawing in additional footfall,” says Cllr Cheetham. “We firmly believe this focus on the flexibility of the scheme is what the high street needs, what Barnsley needs and can complement and strengthen the rest of the town centre.”

This story was originally published in Retail Destination Fortnightly

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