How leisure is changing the face of the UK high street
by Sharyn Minton

How leisure is changing the face of the UK high street

In the aftermath of the global pandemic, the UK’s high streets are undergoing a considerable change. As more consumers pivot to online shopping, vast swathes of retail space are being repurposed into leisure venues, resulting in a notable shift in both the leisure industry and the feel of our towns and cities.

The changing face of the UK high street

The Covid lockdowns of 2020 / 2021 accelerated existing trends towards online shopping, leaving many high street retail spaces vacant. In Q1 2022, shopping centre and high street vacancy peaked at 19.4% and 14.5%, respectively, but this all-time high has been reducing ever since, as entrepreneurs, local government and businesses have seized the opportunity to reinvent these spaces, turning them into hubs of leisure and social interaction.

The revitalisation of our town and shopping centres is in full swing, creating vibrant, engaging spaces that attract people for reasons beyond a casual trip to the shops. Community projects, co-working space closer to home, and fitness centres are increasingly taking the place of traditional retail.

Take the rebranded Centre Court shopping centre in Wimbledon, it used to be anchored by Debenhams but now features a Third Space gym, a climbing experience and virtual golf range. For towns and cities, this transformation can lead to increased footfall, revitalised high streets, and a boost to local economies.

The rise of competitive socialising

One of the key trends driving this change is competitive socialising which adds a competitive edge to leisure activities, ranging from escape rooms and axe throwing, to more sophisticated offerings like immersive group VR experiences. These activities offer a unique blend of fun, challenge, and social interaction, making them popular for group outings, corporate events, and even dates.

This surge is driven by younger consumer demand for new and diverse forms of entertainment, a desire for social connection in the post-pandemic world, and the availability of previously retail-dominated space.

It reflects a broader societal shift towards experiences over material goods, with individuals increasingly seeking out unique and memorable ways to spend their time and connect with others. This is particularly prevalent in Gen Z, who prefer to take part in social entertainment rather than going to the pub, according to research by Mintel. Over two thirds of us have taken part in competitive socialising, but this rises to over 90% among Gen Zs!

Entrepreneurs and investors are keenly aware of this trend, with many seeking to capitalise on the opportunity to create unique, engaging experiences that cater to this audience.

Marketing social spaces

Promoting these new kinds of social spaces requires a nuanced approach. Traditional advertising plays a role, but the experiential nature of competitive socialising venues means that word-of-mouth and social media are particularly potent tools. Engaging potential customers through immersive events, influencer partnerships, and social media challenges can generate buzz and draw crowds.

Moreover, creating a strong brand identity that resonates with the target audience is crucial. This involves not just promoting the activities themselves, but also highlighting the social and communal aspects of the experience. Encouraging user-generated content and leveraging online reviews can also be powerful strategies, as personal recommendations carry significant weight in consumer decision-making.

The future of leisure

The post-pandemic landscape has already led to significant shifts in the UK’s leisure industry. As this trend continues to unfold, it promises to redefine the way we think about entertainment, social interaction, and the purpose of our urban spaces. Key to the success of these spaces will be Generation Alpha. We wrote about these digital natives recently on the blog – all you have to do is get them off their phones!

March 14, 2024

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