Despite the Games being billed as a major driver of footfall and business in London and the rest of the UK, it took only a few days before reports of restaurants being affected by people avoiding the capital due to the Olympic crowds.
Fears of the Olympics ‘Ghost Town’ appeared to have been quashed at the beginning of this week as footfall was up in London’s West End over the weekend, but does that mean restaurants across the capital could now be set for a record-breaking performance of their own?
In this podcast, BigHospitality took to the streets of London’s West End to find out exactly what sort of impact the London 2012 Olympics are having on restaurants.
First we spoke to Rory McCoy, manager of Ducksoup restaurant, which opened in Soho’s Dean Street late last year.
“The week the Olympics started was brilliant,” said McCoy. “When it came to the Thursday and then the Friday of the opening ceremony, it was very quiet indeed and the streets were just empty for the whole weekend.
"It wasn’t until last Wednesday that we saw a bit of a pickup. But the streets are dead, there’s nothing going on. The last two nights have been packed and we’ve seen people here for various reasons – whether they’re here for the Olympics I don’t know, but there’s just not many people wondering around."
Next came a trip to Lincoln’s Inn Fields, to the offices of the British Hospitality Association (BHA). We spoke to the BHA’s chief executive Ufi Ibrahim to ask her what could be done to improve the situation for the capital's restaurants after trade dropped 40 per cent on average across its membership during the opening weekend of the Games.
Ibrahim said: “When you look at the restaurants, they’ve actually suffered quite a big drawback because of the Olympic Games. That’s because most of the footfall for restaurants is not tourists who are visiting London, its mostly people who are working and commuting through town for the day, and it’s that traffic which has stayed away from London through fear of gridlock and congestion.
“We’ve seen reports which say London is like a ‘ghost town’, and that’s something that we have to address. The good news is that the Mayor’s office and Transport for London (TfL) have changed their messaging but we still need to do much more; much more aggressive marketing and try to bring traffic back into London because we can’t take it for granted, there’s absolutely no room for complacency.”
BigHospitality then travelled across to Covent Garden, to the recently re-opened Tutton’s restaurant. There I met Hugh Fowler, managing director of CG Restaurants, which oversees the venue as well as the Dirty Martini and Fire & Stone brands. Fowler told me of his surprise at the lack of customers so far and that he believes this ‘ghost town’ effect was a direct result of attempts to scare people away from the capital.
“The enormous exaggeration of just how bad the traffic chaos was going to be has been the one thing that has stopped people coming,” said Fowler. “I think that the traditional English tourists that woud have come to central London on a day trip hasn’t come.
“There will be a great Olympic dividend in future years but it isn’t actually going to happen during the Olympics owing to the way that TfL and LOCOG behaved – the just did so much scaremongering that they frightened everybody off.”
There have, however, been some signs of positivity. Just yesterday, we reported that tube journey’s to stations in London were up by 27 per cent over the weekend just gone and we’ve since spoken to a number of restaurateurs in the area who’ve seen a slight uplift in business.
Shamil Thakrar, one of the founders of Bombay café Dishoom, in Soho, said: “The 27th of July (Olympics opening ceremony) destroyed us – no one was out in London at all.
“But last week was closer to where we would normally expect to be. And it’s not just tourists, we tend to rely on Londoners and I get the sense that Londoners are coming back into town after being slightly worried about the crowds which didn’t materialise.”
And, as Fowler from Tutton’s concludes, the positive effects of the Games may not be tangible right now, but could be set to hit the capital’s restaurants in the long run.
“The event has showcased London so well, that there’ll be a tremendous build-up in the future and more people will come back here," he said.
Do you have a restaurant in central London? How have the London 2012 Olympics been affecting trade for your business? Let us know by leaving a comment below.