When the Sun Goes Down: Unight Chairman Nick Simmonite on Sheffield’s night-time economy
Nick Simmonite, manager at legendary city centre drinking hole The Frog and Parrot, also acts as chairman for Unight, a Sheffield-based night-time community group. Eloise Feilden caught up with Nick in advance of the reopening of many hospitality businesses on July 4 to talk about what changes he foresees in the industry as we move towards re-starting the nightlife economy.
“We started Unight over a decade ago now, and it is a collection of all the major operators in the city centre that are open in the evening,” says Nick. “Big players including those such as Corporation, Tank, Leadmill and the like.” He is keen to stress that as a not-for-profit organisation, Unight represents the whole night-time community and not just the economy. “For example, we have partners that we work with in this organisation that include street pastors,” he explains. “We’ve had some great support from the church in the past, and we aim to continue that. It’s all about positive actions that we can bring to share best practice amongst our group, taking a real affirmative step towards providing a safe, enjoyable, vibrant night out for our guests from Sheffield and beyond. While you might think we are competitors, and although I guess we are, it’s about growing the economy – to grow the pie rather than carve it up between us. We work closely with All Bar None and Sheffield Licence Watch as well as South Yorkshire Police and Sheffield City Council. It might on the face of it look like a ragtag bunch of operators, but we’re all committed to making sure that we present an absolutely cracking offer to our guests.”
The conversation moves towards a reflection on the current crisis, and Nick tells me of the ways in which the lockdown has affected Unight’s practices in helping the community. As manager of the Frog and Parrot on Division Street, Nick has found the group to be a great sounding board for individual operators to come together and help each other through this. A need for security was one of the first issues to come up as the lockdown began, which has since been provided by Unight’s membership base. “To supplement police patrols we’ve been keeping a watchful eye on a number of premises; that was a nice public initiative that really gave some assurance that our businesses were safe. We are also gifted to have John Gaunt Solicitors, who are the premier licencing specialists in the country, and have been providing guidance to us since our inception over ten years ago. They’ve had a lead on government guidance and have been able to keep us in the loop in that respect and help us pick through the very wordy government documents that have been published. As operators on the floor we can interpret that more easily in order to take the steps that need to be taken across the bartending community.”
The government guidelines that have been put in place for businesses getting ready to reopen on the July 4 focus on a necessary increase in sanitisation in order to reduce the spread of the virus. Nick tells me that when it comes to his team at the Frog and Parrot, they have retained good practice in this area due to previous campaigns surrounding freshers’ flu and the winter vomiting bug. As he puts it, “We’re just going to be doing a bit more of that now, and putting some reassuring messages out to our customers that we’ve got it covered.” With the increase in sanitisation, however, comes a rise in additional costs to businesses and operators as a result of the need for more staff members. Establishments may be forced to up their staff levels to keep up with the need for extra cleanliness, and additionally in order to provide table service as a means of reducing infection rates.
However, Nick does offer some positives in explaining how as we move further into the summer months the effect that Coronavirus continues to have on our lives, and specifically on our ability to travel, could benefit the night-time economy in ways that we may not have expected. “The night-time scene in Sheffield has historically always been a little bit dark during the summer. Tramlines was created to fill the void of there being no students and everyone away on holiday, and was originally pitched on the weekend prior to payday in July, the worst weekend of the summer for the hospitality industry. We’ve got an opportunity now to encourage people who aren’t going abroad and are staying in the UK to feel at home in Sheffield city centre. The city has always been warm and welcoming, probably the friendliest city on the planet and certainly the biggest village in the world, and I hope we can make people comfortable coming back into town. Some of our customer base are only just getting used to taking steps outside as lockdown measures ease, and we hope that they’ll take those steps into our homes in the city centre and be reassured that we’ve got it covered.”
The city has always been warm and welcoming, probably the friendliest city on the planet and certainly the biggest village in the world, and I hope we can make people comfortable coming back into town
One thing that Nick does feel concerned over is the live music scene here in Sheffield, something that has remained a vital part of the city’s identity for years. “I get the science behind it: if people have to raise their voice or get closer to each other that increases the risk of transmission, so let’s remove that as a possibility. It’s disappointing, and has and will continue to have a real effect on musicians and artists nationwide. Sheffield has a good clutch of those in the industry – not just bands but lighting technicians, sound engineers and promoters as well. There’s a good number of people in this city that make a living from the live scene, and that is going to have to be absent for now. All we can say of this moment is best not screw it up, best keep safe, and let’s make sure that we push through this next few months and make sure our teams and guests are well looked after, so we can look forward to the live scene coming back.”