The Night Time Industries Association has worked with the Institute of Occupational Medicine and nightclub operators to create a science-backed reopening plan that could save the industry from collapse. Chief executive Michael Kill speaks to Jennie Milsom.
What led you to commission the report with the Institute of Occupational Medicine (IOM)?
We were trying to assess how we could best approach entertainment within our venues and to reopen the night-time economy. We sat down with the IOM to create the current analysis that the government is using, in terms of the science, and to do an independent assessment and to look at exactly what the findings were in terms of our sector.
We were very clear that we wanted the assessment to be as thorough as possible and for it to be an independent report that was very much a cross-sector of representation for different remits and requirements.
How was it researched?
We all looked at our individual circumstances and the operational requirements to see what we are doing compared with other businesses that are open, to understand how we can mitigate risk. Identifying the removal and exclusion of risk was key – that was the first port of call and it took some refinement. With each measure we put in place, we asked what proportion of risk the exposure level would drop. That was the methodology behind it.
We spoke to a lot of suppliers and people with innovative ideas regarding social distancing mechanisms, technology and AI. We looked at what's currently available in terms of screening, handwash facilities, temperature checks on the door. Then, potentially, how we could run a pilot scheme. It was about getting to a point where we could approach the government with a clear method on how we can engage.
It was about getting to a point where we could approach the government with a clear method on how we can engage
What were the key findings?
If you look at bars, pubs and restaurants, and compare the operational functionality within those environments with those in nightclubs, you have a very clear understanding that there is more that can be done in terms of mechanisms and technology in a nightclub or entertainment venue. A lot of these venues, because of their licence, already have track and trace, ID scan systems and bespoke security teams to manage people effectively. They tend to have stronger air circulation because these places need to be well-ventilated. There are many inherent mechanisms already in place.
We looked at other measures that would make a difference – for example, a reduction in capacity and temperature checking on the door. The challenge that we have is at what point does the drop in capacity become not viable, and at what point does that drop impact on the experience? If we can get to a safe point that is viable and still retains the customer experience, we've tied the three lines together and are potentially at a stage where we can reopen doors.
If we can get to a safe point that is viable and still retains the customer experience, we've tied the three lines together
How do you find a balance between safety and customer experience?
We have always had the intention that it's safety first. Then we need to look at viability and customer experience. So, from our perspective, for the late-night economy, we looked at how can we engage the marketplace in as safe a manner as possible and, secondary to that, how we can make it viable under the measures that we could have in place. There was a very clear understanding that some things were workable for some industries and not workable for others.
What would you like to hear from the government now the report has been published?
We need to start the discussion and part of the reason for putting the report out there was to engage in an active conversation around opening nightclubs and venues effectively, which will allow us to have sustainable businesses.
We've got a meeting with BEIS this week and a ministerial meeting on 7 September, which will give us an opportunity to understand exactly what the expectations are, because that's what we're missing. I'm hopeful that, off the back of that, we can agree to look at some pilot schemes – I think that's realistic, given we've already seen some live music venue pilot schemes come into play.
Were nightclubs and entertainment venues wrongly singled out in the hospitality industry's reopening plans?
There was no understanding of when, how or if nightclubs could reopen. It's been an excluded position and I don't think any of the narratives have highlighted the reasons for nightclubs being excluded.
Our concern was that there was no clear understanding for a roadmap for reopening. People can't plan financially or with their workforce, so at the moment everything's up in the air. And the big misconception is that everyone thinks they're getting this massive government subsidy outside of furlough, but there's been no money forthcoming since the initial grants.
Why have nightclubs been excluded from government discussion?
I think there is a misconception that a nightclub is a sweaty box. This is 2020 – we've come a long way with ventilation systems and everything else that allows us to do what we do. There are dance venues and venues that are more sedentary. You have Mayfair nightclubs where people book tables and sit down and enjoy Champagne. We need to walk some of the ministers around the experiences and nightclubs and let them understand the variations out there, because we are not a one-size-fits-all.
What are you currently hearing from night-time economy operators?
A recent survey suggested over 50% venues are really going to struggle from the end of September. It's a real pivot point because that's when businesses have to contribute to furlough and the rent forfeiture moratorium ends on 30 September. People have to come to a decision on whether to let their staff go, whether they've got the financial fluidity to survive or to cut their losses and step away. That's the reason we have pushed hard to get this report out.
We've seen quite a few businesses go by the wayside and I've heard of businesses making their entire workforce, bar their management teams, redundant – there are some horrendous stories out there.
Have nightclubs and entertainment businesses had any success in repurposing their venues?
About one-third of the entertainment or nightclub venues we surveyed tried to reopen as a pub and bar environment but, in some areas, they were told they couldn't, because if you're a nightclub, you're a nightclub, so you're excluded. Nightclubs have a sui generis (of its own kind) planning class, whereas pubs and restaurants are in a different class altogether. So, operators would have to get a change of use [approved by the local authority] but some regulators were allowing it and some weren't.
How has the NTIA supported operators during the pandemic?
We work with HR, we've done PRS for Music applications… If there are venues about to go to the wall, we try to find buyers or support for them. We've worked tirelessly to reach a point where we can open up avenues in terms of funding so people can survive. But despite the discretionary funds local authorities have, I've not heard of a nightclub or institution for dance music that has been granted one. The sad thing is there's a lot of money floating about and people are fed up going into debt to sustain their position when it's not their fault.
Is the UK falling behind others in terms of reopening the night-time sector?
I've got a list of about 14 or 15 countries that have got their nightclubs open. People might say ‘but there's going to be a spike' – well, there have already been spikes, before they've opened.
We need to present something that is feasible and operator-led and create a sector-specific package that will help us survive, because we're the experts in what we do.
How valuable are these venues to the country in terms of economy and culture?
We are globally renowned for our music and night-time economy and culture. As an industry we are huge, well-regulated and professional and we need to be taken seriously. We're made up of talented entrepreneurs who have created mechanisms to deliver music and experiences. The strength and depth of the culture here will be lost and we'll only recognise it when it's not there to grab a hold on.
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