For a long time, theatre was the favourite pastime of British city-dwellers – but curtain calls at The Globe and other open-air Elizabethan theatres happened once a day, exclusively during the daylight hours.
Today it is a totally different story. Cities have the economic power and infrastructure to keep the night-time economy alive. Electric street lighting made night-time travel safe, and later paved the way for bars, clubs, theatre outings and a whole range of other late-night activities.
Nightlife is alive and well in London, where theatreland is still flooded with people up until midnight, and even South Kensington’s museums attract visitors late at night. Last summer, what’s more, the night-tube boosted spending and earning considerably across the suburbs serviced by 24-hour tube. The night-time economy seems to be in good shape, and London is said to be catching up with New York, Berlin, Sydney, Barcelona and Singapore.
In financial terms, London First estimates that improvements to transport will make the night-time economy worth up to £17bn per year in the capital, supporting 700,000 jobs. London mayor Sadiq Khan has already appointed a “night czar”, Amy Lamé, to make sure we reap all the benefits of night time trade. Meanwhile the rest of the country enjoys a night-time economy worth £66bn, according to the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers’ Late Night Manifesto.
But are we where we should be? Arguably, Britain is still far behind. It has long been a complaint that food choices are scant after midnight in Europe. This is no longer just a practical complaint; it’s holding back the rest of the night-time economy at a time of great opportunity.
Across the UK, the last month saw a 6.8 per cent rise in spending year-on-year on recreation and culture. This was followed closely by the restaurant and bars sector, where spending rose 6 per cent, according to Visa’s Consumer Spending Index. These figures rose faster than those for any other industry, showing that restaurants are the first to see revenue rise when consumers have more money to spend. It is important the restaurant industry grows to meet demand: it is the first place people go to spend money.
However, the benefits of the night-time economy are not yet passing into the restaurant trade. Restaurants’ doors are still only open until midnight at the latest in most parts of the UK. We are currently failing to tap into the same trends in late-night eating as the rest of the world.
Throughout the world, pop-up restaurants and street food are supporting the night-economy’s diet. Britain attracts culinary talent from throughout the world. Britain’s food and drink industry develops 16,000 new products every year, and London is known as the world’s culinary capital. The night market should be seen as a stage for new ideas that have not been tried on the streets of Britain yet.
Restaurants are also suffering from a shortage of skilled staff, partly caused by the introduction of visa policies that make it difficult for workers with culinary skills to come to the UK from abroad. Curry houses, Chinese restaurants and other ethnic cuisines remain very popular, but visa rules should be relaxed in order for the industry to grow.
Often, restaurants’ potential customers are retreating to their sofas and beds where on-demand television and social media can keep them occupied through the night while others are enjoying the nightlife. Visa data shows that e-commerce is also up by 6 per cent year-on-year in the past month. Barclays research has found that online purchasing and browsing peaks in the two hours before midnight and doesn’t drop off until 3am. Shouldn’t the restaurant industry be picking up a greater share of night-time spending activity in Britain?
A global city like London has a packed calendar of cultural celebrations and, from August’s Notting Hill Carnival to this weekend’s Food and Curry festival on Brick Lane, they are great ways to satisfy your appetite to find new flavours. There are plenty of reasons to leave the house – but not all of them favour the night-time economy.
And the night-time economy is not just an extension of the day’s business into the late hours: it’s a chance to do things differently. The night also offers an opportunity to double our flavour palate. World festivals, like Diwali, should give us ways to swiftly open up London’s market of night-time food trading, fusing food and drink from across cultures.
We should tap into areas of high footfall and take advantage of consumers’ changing tastes. British cities have the skills and creativity to muscle in and there is no shortage of culinary entrepreneurs to make Britain an around-the-clock culinary centre.
We are an international nation and a globally-competitive economy. But we have not seen the very best of Britain’s nightlife just yet.
Lord Bilimoria is the founder and chairman of Cobra Beer, and the founding Chairman of the UK-India Business Council.