The pop-up idea originated across the pond in Los Angeles, where retailers initially started selling limited edition items from temporary stores, but the trend soon caught on here as UK businesses realised that the concept offers a great way to trial new brands, create a marketing buzz around a particular product or even to attract sponsorship and financial deals – all while keeping their overheads to a minimum.
But it is not quite as simple as setting up stall wherever and whenever the mood takes. Anyone wanting to run a pop-up still needs a licence to operate legally – or they risk fines of up to £20,000 or even jail.
Janet Hood, of Janet Hood Consulting, says pop-ups might have a temporary and spontaneous aura about them but they still require an occasional licence for the area and times they wish to operate – and that could take from one to six months to get processed, depending on which part of the country the licensee is applying in.
She says, “They need to specify any other activities, like sale of food, live music, dancing whatever and whether or not persons under 18 can see the area. Consents may be required from environmental health and building standards and if the pop up is to serve an event it may be necessary for a public entertainment licence to be sought by the event operators. In certain cases they will also need to have a waste removal contract in place. The application is usually posted on the licensing board web site and anyone on earth has a chance to object.”
The benefits of a pop-up is that it draw crowds of people to an area and the fact that they are only open for a short time creates a sense of excitement and urgency – encouraging punters to engage with the products on offer before it is too late and they miss out.
And at peak times of the year, such as the Edinburgh Festival or the Christmas period, when thousands of visitors arrive in the capital to soak up the culture and atmosphere, they really come into their own.
Edinburgh City Council grants around 2,000 occasional licences each year, including for the Festival, the Christmas period and a large variety of other events. The applications are advertised online for seven days to allow anyone who wishes to object or make representations to do so. In addition, the police have seven days to comment on applications and Licensing Standard officers have 21 days to do so.
Pop-up bars are clearly big business with growing numbers of firms keen to get in on the action but are there downsides to them? Do they have a negative impact on existing bars and businesses in the capital that operate year round?
David Johnston, Development Director for Montpeliers (Edinburgh) Ltd, has two views on pop-ups. He says, “From a positive perspective pop-up bars in interesting places which are built around food and drink can be a good thing. In small time spans they can really bring focus to a particular product or aspect of hospitality. It can be really fun and great for invigorating the industry.”
But David also believes that the huge number of pop-ups at particular times of the year can have a negative impact on the capital. He says, “Where I think it’s absolutely atrocious is when you take something like the Edinburgh Festival, for example. Over the last five to ten years there has been an absolute glut of pop-up bars which come in from out with the city and soak up a lot of the trade this is also increasingly the case over Christmas. I don’t think there is enough control on temporary licences at these key periods. In many cases it appears very easy to get a temporary licence.
“Licensing Boards have to look very closely at what the industry is capable of sustaining as it is and will continue to stifle our ability to invest in our businesses. As a result of these additional bars these days we are not getting the peaks in trade in the same way we used to but the troughs are there just the same. This in turn is having an impact on employment and the local economy. The criteria that you need in order to get a temporary licence are nothing like as rigorous as what you have in a standard license situation.
“Some of the larger events companies arrive with staff from south of the Border and they often don’t use local suppliers either. They come in and make a lot of money, which they take it away with them. But the guys who are here permanently, paying rates all year long, are not getting the same benefit back from it.”
He concludes, “The licensing process for pop-ups should be as rigorous as it is for other situations. For the good of the industry, the local economy and crucially the public I think it’s time to step back and take a good look at what the whole picture looks like.”
Kevin McGhee, who owns Athletic Arms, in Edinburgh, echoes some of these concerns. He says, “I’m not in favour, to be honest, although they do serve a purpose. We are not impacted directly but they do take prominent positions in the middle of the street and it seems a bit unfair.
“They reap the benefits without having to slug away during the slow months of the year like January and February.
“Some of them are obviously just trying to get their brands out there. It seems to be the same companies that are getting the contracts. A lot of them seem to make a lot of money.”
Anne and Gary Still, who own and run WHISKI on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, Whisky Rooms and Charwood also agree. They say, “Pop up bars are good for the city residents as it keeps things interesting.
“However the price is too low with a simple application fee to set one up and when compared to the costs permanent operators pay for rent and other costs all year round, it does put them at a disadvantage when the competition heats up with pop up bars, typically during peak seasons.”
But not everyone feels the same way. Mike Smith, manager of Bow Bar, says, “I don’t mind pop-ups and I don’t think they have a negative impact on my business. The Festival is busy enough for everyone. They can draw more people into the city, into the area and that means more foot fall.
“If someone did a pop-up whisky bar nearby it would be direct competition but other than that they don’t really affect us. We are a niche bar, people seek us out for good whisky, they come here especially for something. I don’t mind pop-ups as long as they are good.”
Whatever the different views, one thing is certain – pop-ups may be temporary in nature but they are definitely here to stay. Councillor Eric Milligan, Licensing Board Convener, said, “Edinburgh is a world-renowned city which attracts millions of people each year to visit, study or work, which can lead to high demand for services at certain times of the year. The Licensing Board consistently looks at all applications fairly and objectively, and without bias. Members of the public are welcome to comment, and the views of bodies such as Police Scotland are also considered.”
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