Recovery: Clubbers get down as the economy turns up: Fresh activity on the disco floor is a reliable indicator

ANYONE looking for further signs of economic recovery need go no further than their local night-club. The mandarins at the Treasury may not agree, but the country's 1,800 discotheques see themselves as a very reliable economic indicator.

The club industry view is that Britain turned the corner very suddenly at Christmas. Before then business was desultory, now it is booming. Numbers are up 20 per cent on last year and clubs up and down the country have been commissioning refurbishment work. Confidence is running high in this pounds 1bn a year industry, which employs more than 100,000 people.

Tonight in Birmingham, 800 members of the British Entertainment and Discotheque Association (Beda) will slap each other on the back at the industry's equivalent of the Oscars.

Beda's chairman, Tony Marshall, operations director of Rank Leisure, commented on the sector's resurgence. 'When the economy starts to become buoyant, the first thing people want to do is to let their hair down,' he said.

The majority of Britain's 2.5 million regular club-goers are aged between 18 and 23. The fact they now have cash in their pockets is seen as an indication that their parents are also feeling rather more comfortable financially.

Mr Marshall has seen the discotheque industry go through three recessions, but says that the last one has been the worst. 'But we went into this one stronger,' he added. Nevertheless, he feels that about 600 of Britain's night- clubs are rather shoddy venues that are just about hanging on.

Also fighting to make ends meet are the 2,800 discotheques which are run as side-lines in hotels or pubs. The night-club industry of 1993 is unquestionably very different in appearance to that of the late 1980s.

Fashions in dress, drink, dancing styles, music, decor, lighting, pricing, special events, gimmicks and, of course, venue names have all moved on. One of the main skills of club owners is to identify the fashions that will last. Predicting the progress of the economy is, by contrast, relatively simple.

Tots 2000 in Southend celebrates its 21st birthday this month. It started off in the 1970s as a cabaret club - called Talk of the South - and attracted such names as Jack Jones, Tommy Cooper and 'everybody except for Shirley Bassey'.

After invoking the acronym Tots, it became a discotheque. At the start of this year it closed down for nine weeks for a pounds 2m refurbishment. Reopening in March as Tots 2000, it revealed the latest in nightclub technology and decor - walls that change from plain white to mirrors to strips of neon lights, carpets over which magic footprints will suddenly make a bodiless progress across the floor, and a lighting and laser system that cost pounds 750,000.

Capacity in the club was increased by the changes from 900 to more than 1,200, and today the staff are regularly turning people away at the door.

Like other leading clubs, Tots 2000 - one of the candidates for an award tonight - gives the impression of being more of a slave to fashion than it actually is. 'We've got to spot the fashions but we mustn't bow to any we don't believe in,' Carol Reeve, a director, said. 'We've got to stick to a middle of the road policy.' For example, the club has never permitted Dr Martens boots and it never took to playing more than the occasional rave dance track.

Cosmetic changes will continue to stimulate demand from new generations of club-goers. No one would be surprised if, for instance, Tots 2000 changes its name and goes in for another large refurbishment by the end of the decade. Leading clubs expect each interior design to last between seven and nine years.

Tony Marshall believes the business reflects the concerns preoccupying the rest of British and European industry. 'People get better value for money now,' he said. 'Like any other retailer we've had to address this issue. The public are demanding either to get more for their money or to pay less.'

Some clubs have reduced prices - both for admission and drinks - and abolished their dress codes. Many are trying to attract new audiences through cheap student nights or popular over-25s and over-35s evenings. Marketing initiatives vary - such as a free glass of cider to those who went to see the Strongbow Dreamboys, Britain's answer to the Chippendales, and a special dance evening for hairdressers.

(Photograph omitted)

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