Every sector has been affected by coronavirus in some way, but the nightlife industry has suffered a particularly heavy blow.
Pubs, clubs and music venues are approaching three months of total shutdown and, given their nature, could be some of the last businesses to reopen.
The nightlife industry contributes £66billion a year to the UK’s economy and accounts for almost eight per cent of its overall employment.
While there isn’t any specific data which highlights its importance to Bristol, the fact Motion and the O2 Academy alone contribute more than £40million a year goes some way to show its worth.
Not only that but there are more than 40,000 employees in the sector across Bristol, with bar staff, doormen, DJs and more all coming together every weekend to give the thousands of revellers a fun, safe experience.
(Image: Theo Cottle)
But industry leaders and business owners in Bristol are understandably concerned about the future, unless there is considerable support and guidance from the Government.
“At present there is so much uncertainty with regards to the future of our sector – we are poised on a cliff edge awaiting clarity and support,” said Michael Kill, CEO of the Night Time Industries Association (NTIA), which promotes the contribution of the night-time economy in the UK and internationally.
“Without an absolute understanding of when and how businesses can re-engage the marketplace, we are certain with mounting pressures from landlords and debtors that many businesses will not survive past the end of this month, which will lead to mass redundancies.
“The message to the Government is clear: What is the plan and when can we open?”
In Bristol we’ve already seen one music venue close permanently after the LeftBank shut for good in April, and everyone in the city will be keeping their fingers crossed it isn’t followed by more.
Running a venue “not possible” with social distancing measures
The Government said in its recovery strategy document published in May that hospitality businesses, including pubs and music venues, can reopen from July 4.
But business owners say running their venue with social distancing measures as they currently are is simply not an option.
The NTIA carried out a UK-wide survey which revealed many businesses feel they would only be able to return at 40-43 per cent of capacity for the first three months to comply with social distancing measures, with 64 per cent of businesses not being financially viable.
It would take £31,131.00 on average to restart businesses following lockdown, the survey found, while 93.8 per cent of business owners said social distancing measures would make their business unviable.
Matt Otridge, director of 500-capacity music venue Exchange, is one of many who thinks operating under current restrictions wouldn’t work.
“I’ve looked through reopening plans this week which proved my doubts that reopening with current social distancing measures in place just isn’t feasible,” he said.
“If we did want to reopen as a live music venue on July 4, we worked out that the capacity of our main room would have to be capped at 18 in total, which obviously isn’t possible.
“Even if they reduce social distancing measures to one metre it still wouldn’t work as there would be so many processes to manage that would require extra staff and extra costs.
“And as well as the main room you’ve also got to think about how customers would go to the toilets and bar, things like that, while keeping a safe distance. It would be incredibly difficult and stressful for staff to manage.”
As Exchange is community-owned it’s not in the most dire of situations, added Matt, and he is therefore “not desperate” to reopen the venue, which also features a café and record store.
He said he is hopeful the Government will announce sector specific support to lend a helping hand to the embattled night-time industry, following in the footsteps of other countries including New Zealand and Germany.
Sadly, social distancing is not the only issue venues will have to overcome as lockdown measures are eased.
(Image: Bristol Live)
Marti Burgess, who has been involved in the city’s nightlife scene since the early 90s, said: “Business owners will need to deal with increased costs that come with the measures that will have to be put in place to ensure they keep their customers safe.
“We’re also still not sure how the public feel about going out to venues, and of course lots of venues will have to recover from the economic impact of losing so much business since the lockdown.
“Even simple things like how to manage different shift patterns with staff is going to be difficult.”
Michael Kill of the NTIA fears there could be a “revolution of illegal social gatherings and raves” across the country with people keen to blow off steam while venues are not able to return to return to normal.
Industry needs “creative solutions” to survive
During the prolonged period of closure we have seen many businesses across the city adapt as they do their best to keep their heads above the water.
It is likely we will also see a number of changes as the night-time economy slowly relaunches, the most obvious being the aforementioned reduction in capacities at venues.
“Because of the safety concerns I do not see customers wanting to be in packed place without knowing that they are safe for a long time,” added Marti.
“Lots of people have been involved in streaming and online offerings and I can see that remaining.
“I can see restaurants and bars continuing with takeaway and delivery options as this is the only way that opening with a reduced capacity could work. The night-time economy will become more cashless too.”
Marti, as well as being owner of soon-to-be developed Lakota, is chair of The Bristol@Night advisory panel, an initiative launched in 2018 which supports Bristol’s night time economy.
She said the main focus of the panel during lockdown has been to “get information out to operators so they could take advantage of the support offered by government”.
The panel will offer further support, she said, by developing an online platform which will provide operators with the ability to stream and run online content as well as promote their businesses.
Marc Griffiths is the long-serving landlord of St Nicholas Street pub The Mothers Ruin, which has been subject to a crowdfunder campaign which has so far raised more than £11,000 from the public to help cover its running costs.
(Image: The Mother’s Ruin)
He praised Bristol City Council’s decision to bring forward the pedestrianisation of the city’s old district, including St Nicholas Street, which will allow it to launch outdoor seating.
“Our capacity is usually 200 but with social distancing it would be reduced to 14, which would be a real problem,” he said.
“But the council’s decision to pedestrianise the area around us is a really forward-thinking move that will help us and others.
“It will enable us to put some seating outside on both pavements and therefore increase capacity. We still have a massive challenge on our hands, but that is a silver lining through all of this.
“The night time industry will need creative solutions if it’s going to survive and that’s an example of one.”
A ray of hope and how to support venues
There’s no question the industry in Bristol – and across the entire UK – faces a monumental uphill battle as venues work out how they can reopen.
But there are some reasons to stay optimistic through the challenging period.
Local DJ Chris Arnold teamed up with Thekla in the early stages of lockdown to launch a podcast called Isolation Discs, for which he has interviewed the likes of IDLES, Mr Scruff and Krust.
While these conversations have shone a light on how hard the coming months and possibly years will be for both venues and artists, they have also offered up a few glimmers of hope.
“There are of course a lot of concerns from the point of view of both venues and performers,” said Chris.
“But we’re desperately trying to look at the positives for the nightlife industry.
“Mr Scruff said in our chat that the capacity of the Band On The Wall in Manchester was reduced years ago which actually improved the venue, as people weren’t so crammed in.
“Of course the reduction in capacities will be far greater after lockdown than in the instance he referenced, but further down the line it could result in venues being less crowded.
“Also a lot of musicians and DJs I’ve spoken to said they’re also going to really embrace and savour performing live when this is all over.
“A few perhaps took it for granted and weren’t putting their all in, but I think after lockdown there’s going to be such a shared relief that it’s all over that we’ll see some really special performances.”
Chris also offered advice on how people can support Bristol’s venues.
“Over the next few months, as the job retention scheme comes to an end, venues might start to enter emergency measures,” he said.
“So if you’ve got a favourite venue you really don’t want to see close, keep an eye on their social media pages and website to see what they’re doing and how to support them.
“I think we’ll see lots of places selling merch, doing takeaway food and other things like that to try and survive.”
The Music Venue Trust is also running a UK-wide iniative to support venues, more information about which can be found here.