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New centre manager at Grand Arcade in Cambridge hints at more leisure facilities

What Cambridge lacks in the city centre is enough leisure outlets, according to the new centre manager of the Grand Arcade.

Martin Macwhinnie, who took over the role earlier this year, would like to see some entertainment businesses come into the shopping centre. While he could not yet confirm what he is hoping to bring in to the 15-year-old mall, he agreed “something like” a cinema or quality restaurant would be welcomed.

“We’re never going to have Burger King or McDonald’s – that’s not our pitch at all,” he explained.

Martin Macwhinnie, the new centre manager at Grand Arcade. Picture: Keith Heppell
Martin Macwhinnie, the new centre manager at Grand Arcade. Picture: Keith Heppell

Still, he wants to offer shoppers something extra to tempt them into the city centre and keep them there all day.

“I think there’s an element of being more entertaining,” says Martin.

“Do we need to offer a different type of retail or a better quality of offer? No, the quality of our offer is pretty good as it stands at the moment. We have got some great brands here. But something we don’t have a lot of, considering our size and for the city of Cambridge, is an awful lot of leisure. We don’t have an awful lot of eating locations. And so that’s something at the moment we’re actively looking at. We’re still at relatively early stages with that, but we’ve got some good progress in terms of retail leasing. We’re not quite in a position to announce anything yet because nothing’s quite certain or without any conditions. But we’ve definitely got interest in the majority of our retail space.”

Martin is also looking for businesses offering entertainment.

“Certainly something of that type, whether it be cinema or another leisure operator, or a range of leisure operators. I think just putting in some restaurants and hoping that that will work probably isn’t the right thing to be doing. It needs more. But these are all part of our strategy discussions. That’s probably quite an attractive option for us at the moment.”

Martin joined the Grand Arcade at a tricky time for retail, with many big name stores closing in recent years, including Top Shop and Debenhams.

However, he still thinks a day at the shops has a place as an entertaining excursion - it’s just that we don’t need to come out for the “utlility shop” any more. Boring purchases can be made online, but luxury, premium and fun buys are always better in person.

He said: “Certainly it’s been a tough few years for retail. That’s probably stating the obvious and a bit of an understatement, but I think the situation is that for certain locations it’s not been as bad, and I think Cambridge is seen as being a very resilient city.

“There’s still interest here from retailers and there’s definitely interest in people coming to Cambridge - and specifically coming to Grand Arcade. I think that over the course of the next five years, we’re going to see another shift and another change, but as a guy I used to do some work with said, ‘retail isn’t dead, only boring retail is dead’. And I think we have to offer something which is a bit more interesting and a bit more engaging, rather than just expecting people to turn up and buy stuff. I think that’s a real shift that we’ve got. There’s a utility purchase that people tend to do online. But if you can offer a combination of coming out, meeting people, enjoying being out in a nice environment and doing something other than just shopping, that makes a visit quite an appealing prospect.”

He believes he has to maintain a certain standard of shops that are allowed to rent space in the arcade.

Martin Macwhinnie, the new centre manager at Grand Arcade. Picture: Keith Heppell
Martin Macwhinnie, the new centre manager at Grand Arcade. Picture: Keith Heppell

Martin explains: “Where we stand at the moment is we have a premium offer. We’re not luxury, we’re not mainstream, but we’re kind of the premium end of mainstream and I think that’s what our pitch is. We’ve got John Lewis and Apple and Ted Baker and those types of brands are where we will continue to pitch ourselves. I think our leisure offer will also be something from the same end of the market.”

This idea of making shopping part of an entertaining day out, rather than the whole point of a visit to town, is one Martin has given a lot of thought.

He says: “When our kids were younger, almost every other Saturday we’d go out shopping and spend a big part of the day at the shops. These days we tend to just spend a couple of hours shopping in the afternoon and then perhaps go for something to eat, then maybe go to the cinema. And I think that these days to get people to come out requires a bit more and I think one of the things that gives Cambridge a major advantage is that it is just a nice place to be, a nice place to spend time.

“We’re part of a great mix within Cambridge. The Grand Arcade doesn’t dominate the town centre, in the way that other shopping centres in other locations do. We don’t exist in isolation, because it’s also nice to go for a walk around the city centre, maybe visit a college or the Botanic Garden. It’s a very navigable city centre. It’s quite easy to get around on foot or on a bike. And so from that point of view, I think it has a real attraction that other places don’t have.”

Despite the fact that international tourists have not yet returned to Cambridge in large numbers, Martin is hopeful that other audiences can be attracted to spend more time and money in the city.

He says: “International tourism may take a little while to come back. But we have the kind of student cohort and our own local resident population as well as the broader population who live outside Cambridge but visit regularly.

“I think that if we can offer something compelling and interesting, we’ve got a decent reach in Cambridge out into the county and beyond. We need to do a better job for our core audience, but also the people who come for an occasional visit or a reasonably frequent visit from outside the city.”

Over Easter, the Grand Arcade and neighbouring Lion Yard will be welcoming an array of superheroes to attract families. And its CAVE sensory experience is also being extended to the end of April.

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