While the eyes of the world will be on London this summer, Manchester will be playing its part in the Olympic celebrations by hosting games at one of its two famous footballing theatres. However Old Trafford providing a venue for the London 2012 Games does not represent the first time the city, and indeed the region, has stolen focus away from the capital.
From the Commonwealth Games, exactly a decade ago in Manchester, to Liverpool's privileged position as European Capital of Culture in 2008, the North West has increasingly played a significant role in putting on world-class events that were previously the mainstay of London.
A development that has not gone unnoticed among UK residents and inbound tourists. According to the last VisitBritian study both Liverpool and Manchester saw the biggest rises in numbers of international tourists of 15 per cent each. Meanwhile in March, VisitEngland published its first report into day visits by UK residents with the North West beaten only by London and the south east in terms of volume of visits.
Broad and buoyant
With day visitor expenditure in the region totalling nearly £6,000m a year and international and domestic tourists contributing to the local economies, it is no surprise the growth of the North West boosts the hospitality sector.
However in sheer numbers of hospitality venues Manchester continues to dwarf its Merseyside neighbour.
"Greater Manchester has a thriving food and drink scene with a number of new openings in 2012," Paul Simpson, managing director of official tourist board Visit Manchester, told BigHospitality. "Greater Manchester receives over one million international visitors a year and with domestic tourism and local spend factored in its understandable why many operators in the hotel and hospitality sector choose to bring their business to Manchester."
"The openings have comfortably outpaced the closures over the last four or five years meaning we have a significantly broader but no less buoyant restaurant base than we did pre-recession," Thom Hetherington, managing director of the Northern Restaurant and Bar show, argues.
"Using a prime Site like King Street as an example the number of restaurants on it has more than doubled in the last year or two, and this is without the weakening of more traditional eating and drinking areas such as Deansgate or the Northern Quarter. Moreover all this has taken place whilst areas which had died, such as Peter Street, are rejuvenating, and entire new food and drink districts such as Spinningfields have been created," Hetherington adds.
For many restaurateurs the city has now become the venue of choice for the first stage of expansion outside of London. Chez Gerard chose the city for its first Livebait away from the capital as did Sir Terence Conran with the Zinc Bar and Grill concept he previously owned.
Upper mid-market French chain Aubaine opened up within the Selfridges department store in the city in November last year. At the opposite end of the scale budget buffet operator Red Hot World Buffet is set to nearly double its site in Manchester. It is the most successful venue for the brand.
However it would be wrong to assume the restaurant scene in the city only contains brands that were born elsewhere - the continuing strength and expansion plans of Tim Bacon's Living Ventures chain proves that.
Mexican restaurant chain Barburrito is Manchester born and bred but in April attracted private equity investment firm Business Growth Fund which pledged to plough £3.25m into the business to allow it to grow from its successful North West roots.
James Hitchen launched his first restaurant, Southern Eleven, in the city a year ago and has already begun work on his second venture - New York-inspired Neighbourhood. Both eateries will be located in the Spinningfields development to the west of the city centre. Property developments have, Hitchen says, accelerated growth in the hospitality sector.
"Manchester is very cool, it is very slick and there is a lot of money here. It is a very cosmopolitan city with a wide range of demographics so you have got the platform here. Developments like Spinningfields and MediaCityUK in Salford have allowed restaurateurs to partner with a development they know is going to take off with plenty of press and PR; it gives operators more confidence for launching a site."
Of the new developments perhaps the most significant is the regeneration of Salford which culminated in the move by the BBC to MediaCityUK this year. Proving Hitchen's point the opening has helped contribute to record F&B sales at the nearby Lowry Outlet Mall.
Whilst it may provide a confidence cushion, Hitchen denies the city is a popular restaurant destination due to cheaper rents. Although there are areas of the city with varying rental costs and areas which in London would cost a lot more, achieving the security of operating within a development brings similar costs to any other part of the country.
It may not be able to boast any Michelin-starred venues yet but Manchester's restaurant scene is not just dominated by fast casual or mid-scale offerings - although like the rest of the UK this is the fastest-growing segment with restaurants like San Carlo leading the way.
Michael Caines has operated a fine-dining restaurant at the ABode Hotel in the city since 2008. "For me, Manchester is the most important city in the country right now. It has a diversity, honesty and warmth that is totally unique and I'm hoping that we can add to that rich fabric of the city and its culture. We aim to win a Michelin star here. Manchester deserves a Michelin star," Caines said at the time of the opening.
At The Midland hotel head chef Paul Beckley is championing high-quality local produce while Aumbry in the Prestwich area of the city made the top 100 UK restaurants last year in the National Restaurant Awards. Living Ventures plans seven new sites this year; one of which will be a fine-dining establishment and rumour has it Bacon has Michelin stars in his sights.
So how does Manchester manage to present such a mix of restaurant concepts that is arguably unique outside of London? "In short the size and the sophistication of the marketplace," Hetherington says. "Greater Manchester has a combination of a broad and deep established restaurant scene, a large city centre population, affluent hinterlands and a significant business and media audience beyond anything else in the UK outside London."
Pubs and bars
As in much of the country traditional wet-led pubs have increasingly given way to food-led operations and gastropubs. However Living Venture's Oast House concept champions cask ale, The Alchemist brand from the same company specialises in cocktails and the Northern Quarter of the city boasts a growing number of bars in an area of the city that now feels a lot like parts of London in night-life terms.
So-called punk brewer and pubco Brewdog opened up the first of two planned sites in the city last month while the Manchester-based operator of the Northern Quarter restaurant has recently opened two new sites following its speakeasy-style bar and club the Blackdog Ballroom.
Expanding bar operator BaaBar was formed in Liverpool in the early 90s and now operates three venues in both Merseyside and Manchester. Elaine Clarke, the chief executive who first joined the group as a bar manager, thinks the region, and Manchester in particular, has experienced a massive boom in the night time club and bar economy greater than any other region of the country.
"A lot has changed in the industry in 21 years and we’ve seen it all. At the time we opened, bars just didn’t have the popularity in the North as they did in the South, but we spotted an emerging trend and went for it. Since then, the bar scene has changed the night-time economy dramatically," she says.
Of the three hospitality sectors, hotels stand to benefit the most from the growth in recognition for the city among tourists both domestic and foreign. Occupancy in 2011 stood at 75 per cent across Greater Manchester's hotels - the highest level in three years. Meanwhile bedstock in the city grew by nearly 2,500 rooms in 2010.
In 2001 The Lowry Hotel in Salford joined The Midland Hotel and the Radisson Blu Edwardian in the luxury hotels segment while in the budget sector Holiday Inn Express on Oxford Road in the city has been one of the significant recent openings.
The rapid growth of the conference and events market is fuelling much of the growth in Manchester hotels; a 2010 study valued the conference market at £573m for the Greater Manchester economy generating more than 4m delegates in need of beds for the night.
The Annual Hotel Conference (AHC) in the city will this year boast former Manchester United player and England football coach Gary Neville as a headline speaker where he will outline plans for his controversial hotel opposite Old Trafford. Planning permission has recently been granted for a 14-storey hotel development in Salford while businesses looking to the Northern city to expand include Meliá, Sleeperz and the Starwood brand Aloft.
Return to BigHospitality tomorrow for our look at Birmingham and to read all our articles in the Hospitable Cities feature click here.