The UK’s fourth largest city received more than 23 million visitors last year and their spend of £683.43m last year catapulted it into a list of the top four UK visitor destinations outside London.
Those visitors and locals are currently hosted in Leeds’ 37 city-centre hotels and guest houses, 80 restaurants, 90 pubs and bars and 20 nightclubs and while this year has seen the closure of some high profile restaurants – namely Anthony Flynn’s and James Martin’s and Vineet Bhatia’s restaurants at Alea Leeds – there are no shortage of new bars and restaurants to take their place.
This autumn will see the arrival of Arc Inspirations’ underground bar The Pit, the Belgrave Music Hall & Canteen and street-food market Trinity Kitchen at Trinity Leeds, Land Securities’ £350m city-centre shopping and leisure centre.
It is this same shopping and leisure centre which, some would say, has been integral to making the city centre a more attractive place to visit and spend time in.
While Leeds has become somewhat of a shopping mecca over the last few years, reinforced by the arrival of smart department store Harvey Nichols in 1996 and a host of designer boutiques in the Victoria Quarter, it is the arrival of Trinity Leeds within the centre of the city and its strong mix of retail and leisure facilities that has boosted its all-round appeal.
“The whole development is more than just a shopping centre,” says David Loewi, managing director of D&D London, whose company opened Champagne bar and café Angelica and restaurant Crafthouse on the fifth and sixth floors of Trinity Leeds earlier this year.
“Trinity Leeds includes a group of really interesting businesses which has attracted people back into the centre of Leeds.
“In so many cities, their heart has been removed by taking shops out of the city and putting shopping centres outside of them, but with Trinity Leeds, it was the reverse really. This has redeveloped the heart of the city and is bringing restaurants and people back into the city.”
Richard Baker of property developer Rushbond, the company which is currently transforming Leeds’ former cinema and nightclub The Majestic into a new leisure unit, agrees that Trinity Leeds has helped open up the city and strengthened its appeal by bringing some of the London-based brand names to the North, but says the city has never suffered from lack of places to go.
“Leeds city centre has always been a strong location and has a good independent presence. What Trinity Leeds has done is brought in traders that weren’t here before and created a completely different focus, which I think has helped the rest of the city.”
His view is echoed by Leeds and Partners, the promotional organisation for the city, which believes that the new shopping centre has just highlighted the city’s strengths as a great place to visit.
“Trinity Leeds is the latest part of our retail sector to make a splash, but we have hordes of independent stores, the Kirkgate Market and an array of specialist and expert retailers too,” says a spokesperson. “We also have a really good range of places to stay and to eat, with something for every budget, and the transport links we have make us easy to get to by plane, train and road.”
While Trinity Leeds hosts a number of slick restaurants and bars, it is also set to open a dedicated street food market called Trinity Kitchen later this year.
Curated by street food guru Richard Johnson, the market will see small versions of permanent operators such as Pho Café, Tortilla, Chip n’ Fish and Chicago Rib Shack, set up shop alongside five different stalls and traders.
This street food focus is something Simon Fogal of Leeds-based PR company I Like Press, which earlier this month announced some street food restaurant plans for Belgrave Music Hall & Canteen, believes is an area where the city is gaining ground.
“There is definitely an increasing interest in street food in Leeds,” he said. “It started with Reds BBQ doing a festival and has grown from there. There’s a real vibe here for more independent- type traders and people like to see something different.”
Food festivals are also fast becoming a big draw to visitors to the city with this year’s Leeds Food Festival seeing numbers significantly up on 2012, with 20 per cent more attending the final weekend’s Millennium Square Yorkshire Food and Drink Show.
Food is evidently a big draw for many visitors to Leeds, but it is arguably a draw for visitors to any town or city, so what is the overriding appeal of this university city with strong financial and legal markets?
“We’re a city with something for everyone. If you’re a music fan, we’ve got great festivals like Leeds Festival and Opera in the Park, as well as venues from the first direct arena with international stars, world-renowned culture such as Opera North and the Northern Ballet and smaller venues such as the Cockpit and Brudenell,”says Leeds and Partners’ spokesperson.
“We know that Leeds is a cosmopolitan city,” she adds “and that means that we can be an attractive destination to a really broad range of visitors.”
Appealing to a range of different visitors is no doubt a strength, but the city is also naturally hospitable, says Loewi, who felt it important to employ those from the area to work in the restaurant (executive chef is Yorkshire-born Lee Bennett).
“When you arrive, you are blown over by how friendly everyone is,” he adds.
Whatever the appeal, Thorpe Park Hotel & Spa manager Gordon Jackson who is also chair of Leeds Hotels & Venues Association, believes the city hasn’t always shouted about its attributes.
“People who come to Leeds are sometimes surprised to find out just how much there is to see and do in the city until they have visited and experienced what it has to offer,” he adds.
However, Jackson’s concern that travellers may be overlooking the city could soon be assuaged with the news that Leeds and Partners is building a stronger relationship with national tourism agency VisitBritain.
The two organisations will work closer together in a bid to help better promote the city to an overseas audience and make the most of its status as a university and corporate city.
“The relationship we are fostering with VisitBritain will help move the Leeds proposition forward and provide a boost to the visitor economy and inward investment," says Leeds and Partners chief executive Lurene Joseph.
"Their ‘GREAT’ campaign is well-recognised and has attracted much investment, so it will be hugely beneficial to link our strategy to it.”