13 Jul 2020

A more vibrant night-time economy, including standup comedy in local hairdressers and after-dark art exhibitions in bookshops, could play a crucial role in Australia’s post-pandemic financial recovery, data tracking of people’s movement suggests.

CBD businesses that traditionally relied on office workers have been hard hit during the coronavirus crisis, as people increasingly started working from home.

But the economic potential for retail, food and entertainment businesses operating outside standard office hours has been highlighted in data collected by Urbis, a city planning and policy consultant group.

It found more diverse night-time offerings could also be an important way of attracting domestic tourists in the absence of international travellers.

The potential for the night-time economy to be part of the Covid-19 recovery has been backed by the Committee for Sydney thinktank, whose chief executive, Gabriel Metcalf, told the Guardian that with more people working from home during the day, there was added social benefit in enticing residents out at night to “rediscover their own city”.

Metcalf pointed to 2019 Deloitte Access Economics analysis that showed Sydney’s economy was missing out on $16 billion a year due to its undeveloped night-time economy.

The Urbis data, obtained by the Guardian, analysed 3.3 million movements taken from the data of 185,000 individuals across Sydney before the Covid-19 pandemic.

There’s a real opportunity to lift our game in terms of the night-time economy, to diversify what’s out there beyond alcohol-related uses.

Dianne Knott View Profile

It showed where people spent overnight hours, indicating where they lived, where they spent daytime hours, indicating where they worked, and the early evening hours, indicating how they engaged with nightlife.

It found that during an average weeknight evening, more than a quarter (26%) of people in the area around Sydney’s central station worked in the CBD during the day and remained in the area for eating, shopping or other activities.

When looking at the value of tourism, just 2% of the individuals out in the Sydney CBD at night were visitors from within NSW, while 19% were interstate or international tourists.

Moving away from Sydney’s main CBD, the Urbis data showed that for Sydney locations with a greater mix of residential buildings and businesses, the proportion of people spending and moving about in their local suburbs each night reached up to 40% before the pandemic, compared with a figure of 27% for inner-city residents.

Dianne Knott, Urbis’s director of engagement, said the data on the existing night economy showed Sydney’s inner-city relied on workers remaining around their office areas after work, and that in an era when fewer people will return to office blocks, city businesses who have lost their main source of customers in the daytime should look to diversify their night-time operations.

“For a country like Australia where such a large part of our population lives in cities, it’s critical these areas are of economic advantage,” she said.

“There’s a real opportunity to lift our game in terms of the night-time economy, to diversify what’s out there beyond alcohol-related uses.”

Knott said Australians confined to their homes during lockdowns were eager to spend more time out and about after work.

Cities should try to draw in more tourists from within their own state or territory – especially as this group wouldn’t be subject to localised lockdowns affecting other jurisdictions.

“Hyperlocal was an increasing trend before Covid, and now more people will spend more time being loyal to their local areas,” Knott said.

“So it’s going to be about the night-time economy opening up and allowing you to become a tourist in your own city.”

Knott expects to see pop-up theatre evenings in unused offices, hairdressers hosting live music evenings or standup comedy, and bookshops opening later as galleries to boost income.

“Australians who can no longer visit Europe should feel they can go out at night, to treat their local capital city like the Paris they had planned to visit during their summer holiday that got cancelled,” she said.

Knott said Urbis had observed movements in cities other than Sydney previously – including Perth and the Gold Coast – which showed similar trends about how Australians behave at night.

Metcalf said it was a “tragic irony” that momentum for later trading in Sydney – spurred on by the repealing of the city’s lockout law – had been quashed by Covid-19 restrictions.

“Before international travel can come back, the big opportunity is with domestic tourism inside Australia, by inviting Australians to rediscover their own country and for Sydneysiders to rediscover their own city,” he said.

Metcalf said “great cities welcome all different kinds of people into the public at all hours” and doing so increased people’s sense of safety.

Reducing the police presence in bars and venues, and having more non-alcoholic options available, was socially important.

“The nighttime is not just about alcohol – it’s also about stores, museums and everything else people need to do into the early evenings.”

This article originally appeared in The Guardian here.

Dianne Knott View Profile