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Attraction and repulsion: Solving the magnetic relationship of retail and leisure beyond 2024

“Build back different” was the cry from retail guru Bill Grimsey on the state of our city centres back in 2020 - a time when the retail and leisure industries were psychologically poles apart.

Shopping centres and high streets were the hubbub of international retail brands, with only cinemas and crazy golf venues shoe-horned into empty units. Theme parks and visitor experiences stayed put in their traditional out-of-town-centre locations, with only big operators of indoor attractions daring to step foot into the highest of footfall destinations.

Meanwhile, the upward trajectory of consumer sentiment towards ‘doing things’ rather than ‘buying stuff’ has bubbled away in the background. Covid lockdowns at the turn of the decade exacerbated demand for leisure and experiences, creating an almighty opportunity both then, and now.

Online search queries from Brits for “things to do” have increased by 320% in three years. Visit Britain reported record international tourism spend of £30.9 billion in 2023. Globally, Mastercard has witnessed a 65% increase in spend on experiences since pre-pandemic.

Demand has never been higher.

Naturally, the biggest and most entrepreneurial cities of London, Manchester, Edinburgh and Bristol have dedicated central locations to leisure already - creating higher footfall, greater ambience and more affinity to their revitalised city centre destinations.

Bristol’s Wake The Tiger is an undoubted success story. The immersive art-based visitor attraction has welcomed over 250,000 visitors through its door since launching in 2021. As well as revitalising a large empty retail unit and supporting local artists in the process, the attraction now is a key part of the city’s visitor economy.

2023 analysis conducted by Bristol Business Improvement District saw the city accomplish a 40% increase in footfall compared to previous quarters, while evening economy spending rocketed to £35.7 million - a 14% increase on Q1.

While leisure isn’t the only factor of this success, it has played a significant role in changing consumer behaviour in Bristol. It’s given residents and tourists a reason to visit the city. In a world where we have more choice of retail products at our fingertips than we do on our high street, leisure helps drive importance, spend and footfall back to our high streets.

Across the rest of the UK, the outlook is much more bleak. Year-on-year footfall has decreased across high streets (2.3%), retail parks (1.8%) and shopping centres (5%). Retail on its own simply isn’t pulling its weight.

On the flip side, leisure still hasn’t yet been embraced to its full potential, leaving many within the leisure industry scratching their heads as to why.

Here in the UK, we have retail estate owners wanting footfall increases, councils prioritising placemaking, leisure operators looking for locations, industry designers with ready-to-go themed attraction concepts and millions of consumers waiting at home for the right experience to come along.

Sitting in silos trying to fight the same fight is killing our high streets, as we ponder what action to take next. And yet, a small spin of the axis is all it takes to create an attractive magnetic relationship.

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