The sector’s role in reviving the UK’s high street was a key topic of debate at MCA’s Restaurant Conference earlier this month. James Wallin discusses how operators are adapting to appeal to a new breed of consumer and what the industry needs to be demanding of Government to do this.

At MCA’s Restaurant Conference earlier this month, one word seemed to dominate. Whether it was the continued evolution of a tried and tested brand, a resurrection of one that has fallen out of sync with its market or the next step on the UK high street – the term ‘experiential’ seemed to keep popping up.

But, as more than delegate was brave enough to ask, what does the word actually mean? It has been used to encompass everything from the basics of delivering great service to extremes of building an f&b offer around a game or activity, via smoke billowing cocktails and drama students adding a literal element of theatre to proceedings.

The fact that so many operators are claiming their own versions of experiential just shows how demanding the modern consumer has become. Social media has undoubtedly played a large role in this – word of mouth has evolved rapidly through Instagrammable moments and brands fighting for prominence across social media.

At the Restaurant Conference we heard multiple examples of operators seeking new ways to wow their guests and continually give customers more than simply great food, drink and service. This ranged from PizzaExpress’ concept of dinertainment to global design company, Livit’s test lab restaurant, 1889 in Stockholm, where AI has been used to heighten every element of the offer – from lighting, temperature and soundtrack through to gps tracking of customers to ensure their pizza is delivered fresh from the oven the second they walk through the door.

All of these incremental additions to the core offer of hospitality are at the heart of the changing face of the UK high street. The battle to persuade customers to abandon their living rooms and rival the plethora of home entertainment options with something fresh is at the centre of this debate.

During the conference we heard from UKHosptality chief executive Kate Nicholls, sector analyst Simon French and Rob Meadows of Davos Coffer Lyons of the role the industry can play in evolving our high streets.

Nicholls stressed that following the Portas Review in 2011 it had become clear that high streets needed become more experiential, increasingly leisure-led and with a balanced. She expressed the view that in addition to this the conversation was now turning towards the need for more residential elements and for our high streets to become much more mixed-use.

The panel agreed that co-working spaces, food halls and street food markets were all likely to become as familiar an element of town centres as restaurant chains and the local pub.

However, Nicholls had a clear message for Government that flexibility was needed on all sides of the debate.

She said: “Last time there was a recession this sector jumped in and saved the high street. You didn’t see a lot of empty shops back in 2008 because hospitality took the slack and invested in those areas. Because of the constant pressure on our margins because of Government action or inaction, we are not going to be able to save the high street again.”

French pointed out that local authorities also have their part to pay but are often constrained by their budget restrictions. A fresh approach towards parking charges could have dramatic effects on footfall to a town centre, he said, but also remains a key revenue source for councils desperately trying to balance the books.

Planning and licensing remain one of the key bugbears for operators and the panel agreed that fundamental reform is needed. The example of micropubs was cited as a way of seemingly defunct space in town centres being transformed for new purposes. However, there is a concern that the system of use classes is still stuck in a mindsight of 20 years ago – with operators constrained from acting quickly as the authorities struggle to keep pace.

Nicholls pointed out that areas where councils have introduced fresh, innovative schemes have often tended to be areas which have Business Improvement Districts. She said bodies such as these promoted collaboration between business and authorities and this was key to driving the country’s high streets forward.

The relationship between landlords and tenants also remains key and Meadows stressed that this continued to evolve with more scrutiny from both sides on what the other is delivering. Nicholls said there was still a way to go in terms of landlords offering flexibility to operators, especially around the length of leases.

Nicholls summed up the debate over the change of mindset needed when looking at how people use the high street by saying: “It is easy to look at a high street as something that operates very much from 9 to 5. Whereas the reality is that very few of us now work 9- 5. The high street needs to adapt to how people are living now and hospitality can be a big part of that.

“You can see it even in London – the way our high streets operate is still quite far behind the appetite from consumers. Operators know this and are willing to adapt. But the landscape has to be there to allow that – and that is going to take a change of thinking from Government and local authorities.”