Forget the high street! Travel hubs deliver footfall to hospitality

Is the high street losing its lustre? Glynn Davis looks at how travel epicentres are becoming the new in-demand hospitality hotspots for businesses.

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Train stations and airports have become established as prized locations for hospitality businesses. Although the pandemic scuppered things for a period, these heavy-footfall sites are now trading strongly again and proving to be as attractive as ever.

Happy feet

The ability to deliver reliable footfall is proving to be increasingly valuable when the trade on high streets and shopping centres has been much more erratic. The merits of city centres and the suburbs have fluctuated whereas the reliability of transport hubs to consistently deliver high numbers of people to the thresholds of hospitality units is proving extremely attractive.

Such has been the growth of food and beverage sales within travel hubs that even WH Smith has been bulking up this part of its business to complement its traditional retail offer. Carl Cowing, CEO of WH Smith, stated at the time of the release of the company’s results: “We have made excellent progress developing our food offer. By introducing new premium third-party brands such as Yo! Sushi, Crussh and M&S, and by adding more chiller space in air and rail locations, we are delivering a significant uplift in this category with food sales up 54% versus 2019.”

Hit the road, Gregg?

Not surprisingly these sorts of growth figures are driving an increasing amount of hospitality companies to seek exposure to travel locations. Among the operators recently announcing expanded presences in airport and rail hubs are Greggs, which has opened a unit at Cardiff airport to add to its rail station outlets and six other air terminal locations.

Meanwhile an ever growing roster of names including Puccino’s, FCB Coffee, Pret A Manger, Wagamama and Vagabond wine bars are busy building a greater presence in train stations and airports. It is a similar story with Itsu that has just highlighted it recognises plenty of opportunities for its healthier fast food at “bustling transport hubs and roadsides”.

Vagabond opened its first unit at Heathrow Airport last October and the company’s founder Stephen Finch described it as a “game-changer” for the business, with predictions that annual turnover at the location will hit an impressive £15 million. This led Vagabond to also recently open a prime outlet in Gatwick Airport as well as a sister unit called South Downs that focuses on English wine.

Spoons’ success

The wine bar operator joins established transport hub operator JD Wetherspoon that has announced it is opening a second pub at Heathrow Airport in October, which will add to its current eight pubs in airports across the UK including Stansted.

The ongoing success of the likes of Wetherspoon’s has led to various newcomers joining the travel scene. These include Breakfast Club that has partnered with travel specialist SSP to open a number of units in the UK, which began with the recent maiden restaurant in Gatwick airport. An interesting move involves Time Out Market that is working with Lagardére Travel Retail to develop a model suitable for airports and train stations that will seek to incorporate its ‘best of the city’ curated food offer that echoes its model in other locations.

Thinking outside the Boxpark

This follows the signing of a deal by Boxpark for its specially created BoxHall concept within a London Transport property covering 17,000 sq ft that will sit adjacent to Liverpool Street station and is due to open in 2024 with 16 kitchen units and two bars. This development is part of a movement that is stretching the definition of the travel hub site away from it being located within the actual train station concourse or airport terminal.

This activity is acknowledged by Ted Schama, joint managing partner at property company Shelley Sandzer, who says he placed US burger operator Shake Shack in a much smaller unit than it would typically take, on Argyll Street in central London, on the basis that it is effectively a transport hub site because of its close proximity to the extremely busy Oxford Circus underground station that attracts serious levels of footfall.

The opening of a new JD Wetherspoon at Euston station is a similar story because it will actually sit outside the station on a main road that runs parallel to the rail hub. Despite its external position it will undoubtedly generate a major chunk of its customers from travellers passing through the station.

Final thoughts

As work-from-home patterns remain difficult to predict and the economic backdrop remains tough it is likely that trading patterns will continue to be unsettled for some time to come for the hospitality industry so the certainty of consistently heavy footfall at travel hubs continues to make them incredibly attractive locations for food and beverage operators.

Head shot of freelance business journalist Glynn Davis.
Glynn Davis

Glynn Davis is a business journalist specialising in the retail and food and drink sectors. As well as writing for publications including Retail Week, Ecommerce Age, Propel, Caterer and Retail Bulletin, he’s also the founder and editor of Retail Insider and Beer Insider.

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