In many ways Liverpool’s story is similar to the first two cities BigHospitality investigated this week:like Edinburghits growth has been fuelled by tourists flocking to a capital city, albeit the former Capital of Culture as opposed to the capital of Scotland, and like Leedsthe centre has been pulled together and transformed by the development of a shopping area – Liverpool One.
However, if those unfamiliar with the Merseyside area need to note anything about Liverpudlians it is that they view their history, and that of their city, as being totally unique.
They have a point. Although like many regional cities the arrival of big hospitality brands – Jamie’s Italian, Byron, Browns, Starwood’s Aloft and Accor’s Adagio – have pushed up standards, Liverpool’s hospitality scene was essentially transformed overnight in 2003 when it was awarded Capital of Culture status.
A capital idea
The stereotype of Liverpool as a troubled backwater was never correct but it would be churlish to say it has not had a troubled past. Capital of Culture brought new money into the city, kick-started development which has carried on and drawn a line under the past to give its residents a new positivity about the future.
Paul Askew is chef director of London Carriage Works and the Hope Street Hotel: “We have been open ten years this year – we opened just before the Capital of Culture news was released. I can only describe the regeneration of the city since then as meteoric.”
There are now more than 770 licensed restaurants in the city – up from less than 80 a decade or so ago. The story is the same for hotel bedroom stock and new venues are regularly joining the pipeline.
“We have been insulated from the recession in the last five or six years as well,” Askew adds.
The chef, who must take some credit for the resurgence of the city’s dining scene, makes a very valid point. Capital of Culture, and the capital spending that came with it, was a much-needed shot in the arm but the knock-on effects of continued tourism and a proactive council with forward-looking views on developments and planning have helped the city to grow while the wider economy has been struggling
Day visitors and staying visitors continue to flock to Liverpool in their droves – in 2012 it was the fifth most popular UK destination for overseas visitors and the eight most popular for domestic tourists.
From 2011 to 2012 there was a six per cent increase in tourism-supported jobs and a four per cent increase in tourism revenues.
Although room occupancy in 2012 was down on 2008 it is still up year-on-year – no mean feat in this economy – and there has been a significant growth in actual hotel rooms since Capital of Culture. Since 2005, the city centre stock has grown by 80 per cent.
One European-led incentive five years ago is not enough to sustain a tourism industry and a hospitality sector.
Liverpool’s hotels, restaurants and bars have been able to remain in growth because of the city’s commitment to events.
The recent celebration of the anniversary of the Battle of the Atlantic gave Liverpool One and the city’s Business Improvement District their busiest retail days ever this year. The shopping centre enjoyed a 33 per cent increase in footfall.
Other recent, major events for the city include the re-opening of the Central Library, Albert Dock’s birthday and a River Festival. Meanwhile, the city will host the International Festival of Business between June and July next year when a million visitors are expected to attend.
The boost is most keenly felt by hotels – average room yields jump when Liverpool hosts political party conferences and occupancy grew to 91 per cent during the Grand National Weekend last year.
Accor is signed on to open a Pullman hotel attached to the new Exhibition Centre Liverpool next year and the French hotel giant has already taken over the iconic Lewis’s department store in the city.
Vangelis Porikis, Accor’s director for Adagio in central & northern Europe, says the city’s status as an events destination was a key reason for opening there: “When we created the Adagio brand several years ago we set up a location plan and the UK was the second most important country in it.
Liverpool was in our plan for two main reasons: 1) it has a lot of overseas customers, nearly 50 per cent of travellers in Liverpool are from the top spending nationalities. 2) some years ago there was massive investment in Liverpool, with Liverpool One for example, and the football club and universities are very active, so it fitted well with the concept.
“When had the chance to open in the former Lewis department store, we took it as there was a great deal of competition for the site,” he adds.
“It is still growing,” Askew says of the city’s hospitality industry. “Largely driven by the Echo Arena, the visitor economy and now the re-opening of the cruise ship terminal.
“Those things make a massive difference because visitors stay a night in a hotel, go to a restaurant and do some shopping before they go back.”
If Capital of Culture-led tourism and a commitment to events has allowed Liverpool’s hospitality industry to grow, it is Liverpudlians' love of a night out and a good meal which has cemented that growth.
From the Everyman Bistro and the glut of restaurants created by the Manning brothers to Panoramic and more recently Lucha Libre and Camp & Furnace, venues for good food have always been successful in the city.
Askew believes he knows why: “The reason Liverpool is so exciting on a night out is because although scousers might live like a pauper all week, on a Friday or Saturday night they will have their best clothes on; go for a great meal and drink whatever Champagne they want – they will have a hell of a blow-out before going back to living quite frugally during the week.”
If new operators want to learn about what works in the city there appear to be a few golden rules: value for money is crucial (as is a good bargain), diners and drinkers are willing to pay a bit more for high quality or to experiment (as Alma de Cuba and Santa Chupitos have discovered), relaxed/family-style service is most popular and down-to-earth should be the order of the day.
In the last few years there has been development across all types of the industry and all levels of dining however fine-dining venues and operators with Michelin-star ambitions have been notably absent – unlike in Manchester.
“It is a lot more diverse and the more casual-dining establishments seem to be more popular. It is never going to get a Michelin star and I don’t think it wants one,” says Steven Burgess, chef director of Camp & Furnace.
Paul Askew disagrees to some extent – he is trialling his own fine-dining venture soon. However the chef is more concerned that the city retains its independence:
“The bar scene is booming and the Liverpool One restaurants are thriving. If I was being honest I would like to see a couple more independents come into town to do something a little bit different – even the independents that are here are doing tapas, Italian or Spanish.
“I would like more North West cuisine so when you have been to Liverpool you know you have been to Liverpool,” he adds.
What the city’s student, art-focused and independent operators have managed to do is to change the geography of the city.
“Developments at Liverpool One/Paradise Street and Hope Street have helped make the city bigger,” says Burgess. “There is room for growth.
“We are on the outskirts but I can see us being classed as being city centre very soon.”
The Baltic Triangle, where Camp & Furnace is based, is now competing with traditionally popular outskirts of Liverpool such as the Wirral, Allerton and Childwall. However the city as a whole is now fighting as one to remain a top destination – a war in which Liverpool’s hospitality businesses are a key weapon in its armoury.