Events can help to make places, but not all events deliver the required ROI.
From street food festivals to light parades, from races to heritage events - do local events really help our high streets? Or are they just distraction?
I am privileged to get to meet people from all kinds of businesses, associations, local authorities and BIDs. I am often inspired by the many organisations involved in regenerating and at times, battling to support their town and city centres.
‘Events’ are increasingly being used as the go-to strategy for regenerating town and village centres. In some cases, the events feel like distraction. It feels like something I used as a nervous Uncle when my toddling niece would fall over and cry - “would you like a chocolate??” I would ask, worrying what my big Sister would say when I delivered a bloodied child back home. Generally it was a short term tactic that temporarily made us both feel better, but after the sweet chocolate taste had gone, my niece still had a bleeding knee.
I am not dismissing events. I love events and see the value they can bring to the image of towns, social cohesion, civic pride and in some cases, economic impact. There is clearly a business benefit to be had from events but it is not necessarily the sole purpose of events.
The formula to deliver benefits for local businesses through events has never been clear. Yet in spite of this lack of evidence about the tangible benefits for local retailers and services, events continue to be part (and sometimes a significant part) of investments and strategies to regenerate or revitalise towns and city centres. Events certainly attract footfall. But do all these events really attract spend? And does any of that real spend help the everyday and small businesses in our town centres?
How many events happen on Sundays or in evenings when businesses don’t typically open. Does that footfall translate to spend that day? In future days? Weeks? Months? Footfall is one thing, but without people spending in local businesses, they are not a solution – they simply make us look the other way.
Many high street businesses report a drop in customers during popular events, and those drops in footfall can be significant to businesses already losing money in this all-too challenging period. Of course, a cracking street food festival, or race is fantastic for gathering people together. But now it feels like time for all of us to ensure we can maximise those opportunities for local businesses. Events should have strategies to get customers engaged in local businesses. In turn local businesses need to be ready to make the most of the opportunities for themselves. Whether they are adding to the events by providing fringe activities on their premises, dressing shop windows, selling tickets, creating trails or popping up their own stalls in those increasingly fashionable street markets -every action can help.
Without a strategy of business engagement or a will from businesses to participate, events will bring people to the high street temporarily, and provide feel good, community connection, but will not provide short or indeed long term impacts on businesses. That’s fine if your objective is connecting communities. But in most cases, events set objectives related to economic impacts too.
Without strategy, events are like chocolate buttons, they make us feel good but they don’t stop our knees hurting after a fall.
Are we missing opportunities to fix the root causes of serious problems impacting high streets? Problems (to name a few) like planning policies that impact the retail and service mix? The location of retail that often de-centres our towns? Absentee landlords and high rents unfit for the local market? Rates that hit businesses before they even open their doors? Unfair taxation that disadvantage bricks and mortar businesses and changing customer behaviours towards online and home delivery.
Customers are changing. They are looking for experiences, and businesses in towns and villages are in a better position than an out of town retail park or warehouse, to deliver those experiences. But whatever the event, a busy town or busy high street is no good if the shops are closed or empty. The best experiences can come from vibrant town centres, markets and high streets with or without events. To get those, we need to collaborate on more than events. We won’t need to rely on chocolate buttons, if we can work together to stop our town and city centres falling.