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Column The ‘night economy’ is crucial to the survival of Irish towns

Pubs and restaurants need proper support – and safe streets – if town centres are to thrive, writes Richard Guiney.

THE AFTER-DARK element of our towns’ economies has never received the support it deserves.

Perhaps this is because it takes place after the city fathers have left their place of work, or perhaps it is because it is seen as too awkward to manage. However, like it or not, this element of the economy accounts for 27 per cent of all commercial activity in UK towns and cities – and at a time when the day time economy struggles and stagnates the night time economy continues to grow.

This should not be overly surprising. The internet currently accounts for 12-15 per cent of non-food retail sales. Experts estimate that this could reach 35 per cent by the end of the decade, resulting in a 30 per cent over supply of retail space. So if we don’t want to see our streets fade and die we must embrace, manage and maximize the leisure economy.

This is not simply a case of leisure over retail. To a large extent, this is a case of town versus town. According to retail experts, the larger and more savvy retailers are looking for a good balance of retail and leisure provision – including restaurants, bars, cafes and cultural attractions – when choosing where to make their investments. In their analysis, retailers will increasingly prefer key cities and large regional centres (which have this evening add on) to retail parks and smaller towns, which don’t.

Simultaneously, Government policy is to prioritise certain towns for development rather than spreading resources too thinly amongst all. So what is the likely outcome? Over the next 15 to 20 years some towns will consolidate, grow and develop, while other towns will decline and a cohort of retail parks will fail.

It is in this context the management of the night time economy becomes more than a nice idea – it becomes a necessity. Towns and cities that successfully integrate their shopping and social experience will prosper and those which don’t will not.

Biggest draw

We can see this international trend in Dublin, where perhaps due to our young demographic profile, we are ahead of the curve. In the ‘Your City Your Voice’ survey it was found that the single biggest draw to the city was our restaurants, followed by our shops, followed by our bars with cultural attractions and cafés coming quickly behind., the city’s new one stop shop website and app, confirms these trends.

Young Dubliners are drawn to the city for its vibrant restaurants, shops and bars in equal measure. While Dublin struggles amongst the older age groups, the 18-30 age group opt for the city ahead of the suburbs by a ratio of three to one for both shopping and socialising.

For the younger demographic a town’s experience is the key. Domestic and international research points to the same conclusion: people seek a total ‘experience’, they come to a destination to be entertained, to shop and to socialise. They want to immerse themselves in the city’s attractions and for the destination to present a diverse range of options to them. If we can get the experience right for our own people, there is no doubt that we can encourage more visits from abroad – bringing with them much-needed tourist spend.

People will only spend their time and money where they feel comfortable. Feeling comfortable involves feeling safe and being surrounded by a pleasant environment and this is where management of the destination and in particular the night-time economy comes in.

Dublin and Ennis have agreed to pilot Purple Flag in the Republic of Ireland. Purple Flag is an initiative that acknowledges and rewards excellence in the management of the night time economy. It is the night time economy equivalent of a perfect beach’s blue flag. The initiative, which originates in the UK, is a partnership between key stakeholders including the business community, local authorities, gardaí and the public. There is an agreement to develop a collective vision for the town and to devise a series of integrated plans to achieve that vision.

Put simply it enhances the experience, addresses anti-social behavior, increases footfall, advances the diversity of the town offering (including cultural and entertainment options) and makes the town a more inviting destination.

The bottom line is that we must integrate the day and evening offering and create the experience that keeps people engaged. The prize of success is great while failure is beyond contemplation. So isn’t it amazing that only Dublin and Ennis have signed up so far?

Richard Guiney is CEO of the Dublin City Business Improvement District.

Purple marks the safe spot: Senator calls for introduction of flag system>

Clarification: Killarney Town Council has also expressed an interest in applying for the Purple Flag scheme.

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