Episode 11

From fashion to axe throwing:

How the high street continues to evolve.


"It's hard to change, to change the view that this, this unit that has forever been a Debenhams, that a go-karting track and a bowling alley and bars and restaurants are the right thing to do. It's proven it's absolutely the right thing to do. And not only now is leisure getting the third floor behind the escalators where nobody wants to put retail, the future will see leisure be front and center on the mall with retail around it."

Michael Harrison, Co-Founder & Chief Growth Officer at Gravity Active Entertainment

"The future will see leisure be front and center on the mall"

In this episode

While no one story can give us the picture of every one of our high streets today, it is abundantly clear the face of these districts is evolving to meet new needs and desires.

Supply, demand, prosperity, risk, and neighborhood make-ups, paired with increased desire for all things leisure and experiential, are bringing a mix of physical and digital gaming centres to the forefront as a means of differentiation and meeting customers with what they are currently craving: connection, social interaction, and immersive entertainment.

Are gaming centres enough to drive interest and revive struggling high streets?

In this episode of Changing Places, host Mariam Sobh discusses the current and possible future evolutions of high streets as gaming and leisure destinations with guests Richard Baldwin, Director, Leisure at Avison Young, Andrew Carter, Chief Executive of the Centre for Cities, and Michael Harrison, Co-Founder & Chief Growth Officer at Gravity Active Entertainment.


  • 4:40 – Richard Baldwin gives an overview of the factors that play into a leisure centre’s ability to attract customers and generate income.
  • 7:51 – Richard Baldwin discusses the advantages of massing in the leisure sector.
  • 19:08 – Michael Harrison shares how opinions around gaming centres have changed in the last 30 years, and what the sector needs to focus on to evolve moving forward.

Click here to expand transcript

Speaker 1 [00:03] Today we're kicking off in Carnaby Street, in London, a popular, famous tourist thoroughfare talking to people about gaming centres.

Speaker 2 [00:12] I imagine that it's not going to compete with the levels of shopping and restauranting of purely because I think it's a much larger demographic that are interested in going to restaurants or shopping.

Speaker 3 [00:25] I think we probably will see more gaming centres, especially when we see high street shops go down in the future.

Mariam Sobh [00:33] Across the world, our main streets or high streets are experiencing a great reckoning, whether we're talking about Chicago's Michigan Avenue, Manhattan's Fifth Avenue, or London's High Street, Kensington, the very identity of these storied avenues is under review. For every successful high street, there's another one struggling to survive or simply make it through another holiday season. It begs the question, what do high streets need to be? How can they diversify and go beyond being a place for high end jewelry or discount trinkets to ensure their survival? Must high streets become intuitive, breathing entities that pivot to the demands of the people, businesses, and governments responsible for their prosperity?

One emerging theory is that newly established gaming facilities in city centres may just save the traditional high street from itself. But is that enough? Because overall, the situation for high streets is serious. According to the Office of National Statistics, March, 2020, report on high streets, a third of addresses on UK high streets belong to retail shops, with half of those addresses being residential. In July, 2022, The Guardian's Sarah Butler, noted that campaigners are urging the UK Government Tobacco Fund worth £ 350 million aimed at reviving high streets.

In order to see why we've arrived here, I'm going to speak with Richard Baldwin, Director of Leisure from Avison Young. Throughout this episode we'll also hear from Andrew Carter, Chief Executive of the Centre for Cities, and Michael Harrison, co- founder and Chief Growth Officer at Gravity, an indoor gaming complex at the vanguard of transforming the high street.

I'm Mariam Sobh, and this is Changing Places. Let's hear from Andrew Carter, Chief Executive of the Centre for Cities.

Andrew Carter [02:26] If you look at a thriving high street, you can reasonably, confidently say this is part of a thriving city or thriving town, and vice versa. In our struggling places, about 40% of their floor space in their high street is given over to retail. In our most successful places, that's about 20%, so half. So the better a place is doing, actually, the less role that retail plays and it, there's a wider range of uses, a wider range of roles that those high streets are playing, whether it's places of entertainment, or hospitality, or indeed office work, more generally, outside of the retail sector.

Mariam Sobh [03:05] Let's begin with Richard Baldwin, Director of Leisure from Avison Young. Richard, if we look across the landscape of high streets and leisure centres on the high street, it's not one story. We have cities like Greater London where you can find a variety of centres on high streets, from axe throwing to indoor surfing. But then there are places like Blackpool, which was once a booming entertainment destination. So from your vantage point, is there a reason there's a divide when it comes to where and who gets these options on their high streets?

Richard Baldwin [03:35] Yeah, absolutely. It's the principles of supply and demand, and prosperity and risk of investment, really. Blackpool's great example of a Victorian coast resort. The Victorians were probably at the forefront of leisure development and built a lot of leisure centres primarily around the coast, actually. And I suppose the entertainment centres were peers in their first iteration. But of course, we're now in a time where we've got bigger urban centres and as a consequence, we've got leisure in those urban centres being developed in and around the people who have the disposable income to use those centres. So it is, unfortunately, just a dynamic of the market that you will get development of leisure where the demographics dictate the people are to spend the money in those facilities.

Mariam Sobh [04:31] Are leisure centres having to keep up with times and evolving tastes? Or if they don't do that, will they be left behind?

Richard Baldwin [04:39] Yeah, they do. We are in a very strange market, particularly in the UK at the moment, where we've got lots of factors playing against the capability to generate income. So not least people's disposable income, because essentially leisure centres only thrive on the capability and the capacity that people have to spend money after they've paid for all the critical things. We've got a customer base that is more tech savvy, a growing customer base that is demanding more. So they want novel experiences, they want entertaining experiences, they want value for money, they want to be entertained. So if you don't evolve to that market, you will be left on the sidelines. And those examples of leisure, historically, that possibly just does not really appeal to this changing market.

I suppose ten-pin bowling or bowling was, but is going through a period of renaissance. And I think that's probably because they've realized that they have to change the product to the evolving market and make it more attractive. So there's quite a lot of investment going into those ten- pin at the moment. But yeah, I think you'd be a pretty foolish operator if you didn't aim to evolve your product.

Mariam Sobh [06:04] Well, in order for these types of places to survive, do you think they need to be all things to all people? Go-karts, virtual reality, rock climbing, or is that better placed on the high street, versus a centre that specializes in one thing?

Richard Baldwin [06:18] I think that the market is seeing that having a massing of these modalities of leisure, whereas you say you can go rock climbing or the children can rock climb whilst you have a drink or play snooker or through axes, et cetera, is evolving. And I think we're seeing a convergence of physical activities alongside digital activities. So these leisure centres or entertainment centres, if you want to call them, I think there's economies of scale in massing the products in them. I think they provide variation which keeps the customer there, and they appeal to a wider market than having just a single modality of leisure, be it climbing, in one place without anything necessarily to keep people in that place. We've got some good examples in the UK of where we've had, for example, snow domes, so indoor ski centres built. Castleford, is a good example where you've got Xscape and around it you've got critical massing of other leisure facilities and retailing facilities.

So you got a retail outlet centre there and you've also got, within Xscape, a number of food and beverage outlets, some retailing outlets that are all focused on extreme sports. You've got high ropes course, you've got some gaming, and then you've got some other standalone restaurants adjacent to it. So there is a massing going on, but that's out of town. Because, clearly, it's a substantial building and needs a lot of space, which you don't necessarily have in town centres. But yeah, I think there's definitely advantages of massing. There's advances to massing in every modality of property, when you think about it. You have massing of office blocks, office, a combination in one area. You have massing of residential, massing of logistics because it makes sense from an investor's point of view and a developer's point of view to have that massing. And on a macro scale, it probably, I think it has advantages if you do it in the leisure sector as well.

Mariam Sobh [08:17] Yeah. I'm thinking of if there was a place that had all these activities and I never had to leave, I would definitely go.

Richard Baldwin [08:23] Yeah, well that's it. They want to keep you there, don't they? And also, they want you to feel like that, because essentially you then will give it a good review, you'll tell your friends about it, you'll tweet about it, you'll stick it on Instagram, and then that will generate more interest in it, more footfall, more turnover, more profit.

Mariam Sobh [08:44] Is the future of the high street one where you can have a gaming centre in an old department store or will new spaces have to be built for the needs of these centres? But before we get there, let's hear from Michael Harrison of Gravity and then we'll go back to London's Carnegie Street.

Michael Harrison [08:58] We built Gravity Wandsworth during the pandemic. Before this, we was predominantly, the market for us was the three to 13 year old with the Gravity Active concept, which is trampolines, climbing walls, obstacle courses. This big box opportunity was not available before the pandemic. The spaces just wasn't there. So the likes of the Debenhams going bust allowed these spaces to be available for leisure. And landlords are, it's hard to change the view that this unit that has forever been a Debenhams, that a go- kart track and a bowling alley and bars and restaurants are the right thing to do. It's proven, it's absolutely the right thing to do. And not only now is leisure getting the third floor behind the escalators where nobody wants to put retail, the future will see leisure be front and centre on them all and retail work around it. And Gravity will not be just the future of leisure, but also retail. The best thing about Gravity is the locations we choose and the retails around us and leisure should fall into those retail and FNB opportunities. And these malls need to start working together more as one entity.

Mariam Sobh [10:23] Stay tuned for the next part. And just a reminder, Changing Places is a podcast, brought to you by Avison Young, that continues to explore and question our complex relationship with the built world around us. I'm your host, Mariam Sobh. I hope you're liking the show so far. If so, please share Changing Places with your friends.

Welcome back to Changing Places. Before we get back to my conversation with Andrew Carter, let's go back to London to hear what people think about changes to the high street.

Speaker 4 [10:55] I think people will always want something new and a new experience, but maybe both shopping and virtual reality could be integrated in some way or another.

Speaker 5 [11:06] I think we'll probably see more, especially with high street shopping, it's kind of gone very downhill. They've tried to elevate it now with experiences and all that stuff, which works for some stores, but on a general scale of high street shopping, it doesn't really work. So people want more things to do. So we might be able to see more in the future.

Speaker 6 [11:30] I think these gaming centres are positive, because as the world is advancing I think it's really important for us to see how it caters to us as well.

Mariam Sobh [11:40] Again, Andrew Carter.

Andrew Carter [11:42] High streets have evolved and adapted over the last 10 years to changing preferences and move away from retail towards entertainment, hospitality. We've seen a significant growth in those kinds of spaces. We've already seen some department stores in some of our places, they were empty during COVID and beyond being repurposed for other uses, not retail at all, some of the uses that you've described. What's also I think is interesting, is that we've also seen, more recently, the rebirth and revival of some of our more industrial neighborhoods at the edges of some of our city centres. These are old warehouse, industrial locations that were derelict 30 years ago and laid empty for a good time, and now they've been repurposed into a mix of uses again and have become, much often, the most dynamic parts of our town centres. So there's always this kind of flux and change, underlying all of that is this nature of demand.

Mariam Sobh [12:44] When it comes to these buildings and developing these centres, is the future of the high street one where you have a gaming centre in an old department store, or are new spaces having to be built for the needs of these centres?

Richard Baldwin [12:55] Over the last 10 years or so, some big department stores closed. We've also had a change in the planning to the Town and Country Planning Act, which allows now a change of use without planning consent having to be granted. So obviously you're not changing the physical appearance of the building from retailing into leisure. So that has opened the door to developers taking these bigger spaces in high street locations, in good high street locations. One of the first was on Oxford Street, and that was a BHS, that's a British Home Store that was repurposed for leisure. We've got House of Fraser that is also going on, I think, in Lincoln and Exeter and various other places. We've got an ex Debenhams in Liverpool where there is a proposal that we'd been working on for a group to repurpose that building into a leisure destination. And so they have plans to put a hotel in there. They have plans to put a significant amount of competitive socializing and experiential leisure.

The historic buildings make great leisure destinations because the fabric of the building is lovely and relaxes you. And there's so many examples of cool restaurants in warehouses and bars in redundant lidos and stuff like that, which that's where you want to go, as opposed to something that's very modular, I think. Yeah, I think it helps if you've got a proactive local government that is place making and regenerative and fundamentally has the money to be able to sustain the public realms and those sorts of features that makes these destinations work. But of course, the public sector in the UK is not awash with cash. And so that's what we're up against.

The leisure sector and lots of other sectors, quite frankly, come out of the pandemic. The leisure sector did pretty well off the back of everybody being allowed to socialize once again. So as a consequence, the end of last 2021 summer was very, very good. But I think we're now in a period where people will be tightening the purse strings and how regeneration goes forward, or the scale of regeneration going forward, I think will be something that, well, certainly everybody in my sector will be looking at with interest. You've got to find the local authorities with the money and the committee who are willing to take quite a big risk.

Mariam Sobh [15:45] Richard, I want to talk about what you think the future holds in store for leisure and entertainment on high streets. But just before you answer, let's hear from Gravity's Michael Harrison.

Michael Harrison [15:55] Gravity's the fastest growing leisure company in the UK. We're currently building Xscape Yorkshire. We're building Liverpool, where we start the Westfield Stratford site in the next few months. The idea is that we will open probably 10 to 14 of these sites across the UK. We have a couple of sites, trampoline parks in the Middle East already. Gravity Max is planned to also open in the Middle East. And the States are also on our radar. It's becoming a big brand. It does what it says on the tin. It's fun, it's active, so times are exciting.

Mariam Sobh [16:34] So Richard, looking ahead to the next decade or two, what do you see in store for leisure centres and entertainment on UK high streets?

Richard Baldwin [16:41] I'd like to have a crystal ball. I see the physical and the intangible leisure markets becoming closer at it, more intrinsically linked. So got to have the physical element of it because we're human beings, to go in there and touch it, and feel it, and hear it, and see it. But of course, we've got this massive, intangible, digital, online presence. And whilst you can sit at home and do it, the interaction is different. The interface is completely different, isn't it? I think fundamentally we will see a convergence of those two aspects. How that actually plays out in the physical form of these places, I'm not entirely sure. But we've got more virtual reality going into sites and I know Gravity's got virtual reality in there. Yeah, I mean that's how I see it. I still think there will always be a market for it.

Mariam Sobh [17:47] Let's go back to Carnegie Street.

Speaker 7 [17:49] I think the high street will probably never cease to exist. I'm not sure if it'll be more populated by gaming centres, but I'm not sure if they'll take this into the high street.

Speaker 8 [18:03] I very much hope the old fashioned high street will rebound. I think the evolution of the old fashioned high street will certainly involve more gaming centres. Certainly there will be more and more modern offerings because our needs are growing.

Speaker 9 [18:21] I'm sure you're going to have more modern offers. The shops evolves. People buy different things in different days. Are they going to be all gaming centres? Doubt it. In high street you always going to be classical purchase, and objects, and clothing, and food. Yeah, that's the high street, I guess.

Mariam Sobh [18:40] Again, Andrew Carter from the Centre for Cities.

Andrew Carter [18:43] I think there's a tough 10 years ahead. I think there is a real recalibration of the mix of uses that are on the high street. Is it fit for purpose? Do we have too much retail? Almost definitely, yes. How do we reconfigure that? We might need to take space out. We might need to be much more proactive around not only repurposing, but actually demolition.

Mariam Sobh [19:06] And finally, Michael Harrison.

Michael Harrison [19:08] First and foremost, landlords don't want arcades in a high street. They just don't. I feel not a lot has moved forward in the industry in the last 30 years or so. I think that the city centre who went for full license gaming, with the big wins, I think they gave arcades a bad name on the high street, almost a little seedy. For me, for arcades, family entertainment centres, true family entertainment centres, cashless with tech and an overall experience is the future. Gone are the days where you can put some neon lights up and some gaudy carpet, with a load of arcade machines on top of it. These need to be immersive experiences. The customers have got a lot of choice nowadays, virtual reality will play more in part of this. We're brought in e- gaming as well. People need to move away from what's been and just start a little bit more effort into it.

Mariam Sobh [20:07] I think the prospect of having leisure centres full of games, surfing, go-karting and the like, sounds like a wonderful added value to the high street. If the high street is going to survive for another generation or six, it will need to be all things to all people. Maybe it's a mix of gaming centres, high-end department stores, residential high rises and things we have yet to dream up. Maybe we've become accustomed to going to places like Oxford Street for an outfit or a luxurious lunch at Selfridges without considering the future of these areas.

It's not to say that only catering to retail is bad, but in order to thrive, to really give a high street a fighting chance, it must serve the people and enterprises which make these places truly dynamic on every level. As we look to the future of high streets, the prosperity of a city or even the neighborhood of a city, may very well continue to dictate the independence and offerings for the people who frequent it every day. If that's so, then will those places left out of the story of prosperity become ghosts of their former selves unless a shift happens, which somehow saves their high street? Or is it simply too knotted to begin to unravel the future? I suppose it's something to consider the next time you're window shopping, heading into a gleaming gaming centre or rushing into the office. I'll see you on the high street. I'm Mariam Sobh, this is Changing Places.

Changing Places is brought to you by Avison Young. Our producer is Andrew Pemberton-Fowler. Our sound engineer is Patrick Emile. Our producer assistant is Hugh Perkic. Additional production support is provided by JAR Audio.

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