October 2022

Seeing the light

At a time when cinema brands are struggling to maintain a viable business, The Light has recently opened its next generation venue in Banbury. The operator always pushes the boundaries to adapt to changing demands and Co-Founder Keith Pullinger is busy seeking new opportunities to put cinema and leisure at the heart of urban regeneration.

In June the doors opened to The Light’s 12th site, heralding a new era of cinema going. The 55,000 sq ft entertainment venue sits at the heart of Banbury’s new Castle Quay Waterfront development. Together with its seven-screen state-of-the-art cinema, the three-floor building lures in the crowds with an array of entertainment offers, including 10 bowling lanes, mini golf, a retro arcade, climbing centre, interactive darts and karaoke room all under The Light umbrella brand.

This marks a significant milestone for the brand which has grown on the back of its fresh take on the cinema experience. Established in 2007, The Light presented a point of difference to the bland box multiplex, combining best-in-class cinematic technology and options beyond Blockbusters with a focus on hospitality, customer service, comfort and quality F&B.

Co-founder Keith Pullinger, explains: “The multiplex market was very generic and we offered a point of difference. From our first opening in New Brighton on The Wirral in 2011, we have kept evolving and Banbury is the next generation. As well as a premium cinema experience, it provides a complete leisure offer all under one roof to attract people back into our town and city centres. That’s where the future of cinema lies.”

The Light secured £5 million of funding from Connection Capital in 2015 and is on an impressive growth trajectory, adding 9 new venues to its portfolio. Over the last couple of years, the focus has shifted to providing a comprehensive leisure offer which has resonated with cinema-goers wanting to combine the magic of movies with bowling, interactive darts, or a night of karaoke. The need for leisure to provide better F&B was also evident with The Light developing fresh food offers, barista served coffee and cocktails. The mix of offers is meeting the needs of customers wanting to come together for post lockdown socialising.

Expansion plans

Next to open its doors around Easter 2023 is The Light in Redhill. GCW is advising Reigate & Banstead Borough Council on its landmark town centre development, The Rise. The local authority has secured The Light as anchor tenant and work is underway to deliver a 35,000 sq ft entertainment complex including a six -screen cinema, nine-lane boutique bowling, retro arcade, a diner and bar.

The operator is also incorporating The Light leisure concept into the expansion of Huddersfield’s Kirkgate Centre. The deals mark a growing trend to deliver new venues by partnering with local authorities. In Banbury, Cherwell District Council has ownership of the venue as part of a £56m waterfront regeneration. However, there is also scope for local authorities to lend support by guaranteeing leases or providing soft loans to satisfy investors.

“I don’t see a lot of new build schemes coming forward without some level of local authority support”, says Keith. “We can help anchor new developments, providing an evening economy that is not drink reliant. Our presence will help attract other leisure and restaurant operators as well as generating more footfall for local retail.”

The brand is now on the lookout for opportunities to branch out to other UK towns and cities. Keith believes there is potential to deliver a couple of venues per annum over the next 5 years. He is flexible about the type of space occupied but is keen the sites sit at the heart of urban generation, either as part of new mixed use developments like Banbury, or by working with other stakeholders to transform their space.

The Light has developed 3 different models of venue and is calling on the property industry to help identify new opportunities. The compact model starts from 35,000 sq ft with a minimum 100,000 catchment. Venues like Banbury require around 52,500 sq ft, whilst the largest model is 70,000 sq ft with a broader leisure mix suited to city centre markets with a catchment of more than 400,000 people. The Light is particularly keen to see how it might gain a foothold in major centres including Nottingham, Edinburgh, Leeds, Bristol and Newcastle.

“We don’t take a cookie cutter approach and there is always a degree of flexibility”, says Keith. “We want to engage with the market and discuss how our offer might help revitalise urban centres.”

Repurposing assets

As well as local authorities, the brand is reaching out to key town centre stakeholders including shopping centre owners wanting to build leisure extensions or give redundant department stores and retail units a new lease of life. In Huddersfield, The Light is transforming space formerly occupied by House of Fraser and there is potential to replicate that elsewhere in the UK.

“We’re very approachable and keen to work in partnership to help revitalise our town and city centres”, insists Keith. He calls for the focus to change from placing cinemas out on retail parks to integrating them into the very fabric of town and city centres. He says: “Cinema has a broad appeal and is at its best when it sits at the heart of the community.”

Keith adds: “Be it Downton Abbey, the latest horror, or a family feel-good film, it has something to offer everyone and brings people together. When you combine that with a range of other entertainment offers like climbing and bowling, it really is compelling. The pandemic was tough for cinema but people will always value the magic it offers. You can’t put a price on that shared experience. We have proven that the model works successfully and look forward to bringing it to more people.”