Nightclubs veteran Peter Marks has spent his career out on the town – but even he has been surprised by the party mood sweeping Britain since clubs reopened last month.
‘It has gone ballistic,’ says 60-yearold Marks. ‘I have been in the business 40 years this December and I have never seen a change as big as this. This is like suddenly – bang – a rocket’s taken off because of all the pent-up demand for socialising. The response has been unbelievable.’
Marks, the chief executive of nightclubs group Rekom UK, runs ‘the biggest clubs in town’, specialising in 2,000-plus capacity venues catering for 18- to 30-year-olds in student towns from Portsmouth to Leeds, Newcastle and Edinburgh.
Wary: Peter Marks believes vaccine passports could trigger staff disputes
On ‘Freedom Day’ on July 19, he went to Rekom’s Atik club in Oxford, where 200 young people queued down the street. Marks says they were so excited to be on a ‘proper night out’ for the first time in 16 months they rushed through the doors as soon as the club opened. ‘We had people literally running in, screaming with excitement,’ he says.
Marks spent last weekend in Manchester city centre, where he estimates 20,000 people were out enjoying bars, pubs and restaurants. ‘I walked around Manchester for seven hours, calling in at a number of places and everywhere was packed. In no premises did I see anybody check in through Test and Trace, no one was wearing a mask, and there was no trouble – the atmosphere was marvellous.’
He adds: ‘That heartens me, wearing my investor and management hat. I can’t see how the authorities can unravel this. This genie is out of the bottle.’
The summer’s post-lockdown hedonism has increased revenues at Rekom’s 46 UK clubs by up to 100 per cent at some venues compared with pre-Covid takings. Sales for the four weeks since reopening are £8.5million, up from around £5.6million per month in usual trading, and the average spend has risen from £15 to £20 per head.
Marks says late-night venues, licensed until 3am or 4am, currently have the edge over pubs. His customers are now arriving earlier in the evening, with many bypassing pubs and arriving by taxi straight from house parties.
‘In quite a few of our towns, pubs haven’t had the boom that we have had – they said Freedom Day had been a bit of a damp squib. But as soon as we could open our nightclubs, all of a sudden there was relief. This is what we are seeing and hearing from people: this is what they want, this is what they have been missing.’
Covid safety measures in place at his clubs now that social distancing has been scrapped include regular deep cleaning of the venues, hand sanitisation and air changes five times per minute, through fresh air ducts installed when smoking was still allowed. His 2,500 staff take regular Covid tests and self-isolate if they feel ill or are ‘pinged’.
But Marks strongly opposes Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s plans to make vaccine passports mandatory for entry to nightclubs from the end of September, when all over-18s will have been offered both jabs. He warns the ‘ruinous’ move would dent revenues and trigger a wave of employment disputes, making it hard to find staff. Marks says the backlash would be strongest among his ethnic minority employees, who make up a large proportion of his clubs’ security teams. ‘They are much more mistrustful of the Government and science and don’t want to be vaccinated,’ he says. ‘If I have to turn round and talk to staff who have not had double vaccines through choice, what do I do, ask them to leave? They’ll sue me for unfair dismissal or discrimination.’
He points to this month’s Office for National Statistics data showing that almost 80 per cent of 16- to 24- year-olds already have Covid antibodies. Rekom research also suggests that under-24s who have not yet been vaccinated plan to have the jab when they are eligible.
Marks says: ‘This should be science – we are hoping that increased vaccination of young people will be enough for the Government to say, ‘we’re Conservatives, we don’t interfere in business’.’ He adds: ‘They are slamming the door in the face of the people who have had the most to put up with. Young people have had their social lives destroyed, they have mental health issues, their education’s knackered and they can’t get jobs, so their finances are ruined.
‘People are not going to allow themselves to be locked down again, they won’t have the Government impose a testing regime to go to a pub, bar or restaurant, and they are not going to play ball with vaccine passports. They have had enough. And they are going out.’
Marks is still smarting from the lack of specific Government support for nightclubs during the pandemic, which he calls a ‘truly horrible’ time. ‘There have been times I felt I had the highest hurdle to jump of anybody I knew – because I was in nightclubs, which were closed the longest, and I had the largest company.’
His business – formerly called Deltic Group – ran out of cash last December after burning through £1.8million in rent and fixed costs each month during lockdown. Rekom, a Scandinavian group backed by Danish private equity firm CataCap, bought it out of administration, saving 1,300 jobs. Only eight venues closed for good.
But the deal wiped out Marks’s eight per cent holding in Deltic and the investment by the four partners who had helped him build up it from the ashes of Luminar Group over the past decade.
‘To close a business for 16 months without supporting it is robbery,’ he says. Now restrictions have been lifted, Rekom UK will swing back into profit this month and it hopes to expand eventually by rolling out popular Nordic brands such as Heidi’s Bier Bar across the UK. Marks is already ‘site searching and intelligence gathering’ in major regional cities. Depending on investor confidence, he could also buy individual clubs and party bars.
Until it becomes clear whether Covid restrictions will return in the autumn, however, Marks is holding on to every penny. ‘Nobody knows how long the boom in socialising will continue for,’ he says. ‘We certainly don’t want to count our chickens.’
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