Preston Benson is making a bet that he can convince you to log off from Netflix, get off the sofa and get back into the cinema. Or the comedy club. Or the concert hall. In developing new venues in London that offer all three and more, the US entrepreneur reckons he can inject “a buzz and an atmosphere” back into struggling high streets, old industrial sites and residential blocks where neighbours barely pass the time of day.
Benson, a former accountant, is the founder of Really Local Group, a three-year-old redevelopment business that focuses on what the team calls “cultural infrastructure”: new sites including multiscreen cinemas with cheaper-than-normal tickets, room for music and comedy shows, coffee shops, bars and pop-up space for local food and goods.
With a business born during the uncertainty following the UK’s vote to leave the European Union, Benson thinks people will gravitate to such local, cultural amenities that he sees as having been lacking in many neighbourhoods.
Early projects for the company include The Gramophone, a complex centred on a three-screen cinema in developer U+I’s 17-acre Old Vinyl Factory site in Hayes, once home to record company EMI’s old headquarters.
The business is launching Catford Mews this summer in south east London, converting an old Poundland shop into a cinema and mixed-use venue. Lewisham Council exercised a break clause to terminate the struggling retailer’s lease and make way for the new development.
The company is also working with Bexley Borough Council on a cinema and library on Sidcup High Street, as well as converting a former Argos store in Reading into a cinema and eyeing a build-to-rent project in Canning Town.
EG caught up with Benson, who has held several real estate-focused roles since moving to London 14 years ago, about plans to grow Really Local Group, the prohibitive costs of going to the cinema, and the UK’s ongoing retail downturn.
Why did you start Really Local Group?
Having worked on the development and investment side for many years, I noticed some things that didn’t make sense. Where we’ve fallen down is on how we connect development to what the community wants. What does the community get out of a brand new shiny tower, or a BTR scheme?
Things took off after the Brexit vote in 2016. In every crisis there’s an opportunity. After that vote, when everyone was really down, it was probably the worst possible time to set up a business, but I went out to the market and tried to work out what I thought was missing.
With Brexit happening, the economy slowing down, and the weak retail market I started to think about a solution. In London I realised there were a lack of cultural amenities; areas with little or nothing to do.
What were your first moves?
I started going to developers whose marketing and branding led me to believe they would be interested in working with young, innovative companies. It was a case of going up to people, introducing myself and seeing if they were interested.
How are you funding the business?
Up until nine months ago I did everything on my own back. I didn’t bring staff on until I needed to; I worked in coffee shops. I took on seed funding of £500,000 last year, with another £1m secured this summer.
What is your pitch for the company?
There is no truly local cinema brand in London. You have your multiplexes and boutiques. Multiplexes are quite expensive, they are not a good use of space and boutiques are exclusive. We are creating a more affordable boutique experience, averaging at £6.50 a ticket. The most expensive ticket will be £9.99 on evenings in the weekends, and the cheapest £4.99. I think we’d give free membership to build-to-rent residents for schemes in BTR blocks.
Who are you talking to about new projects?
We’ve been approached by a number of BTR operators. People I’ve spoken to are working out if cinema rooms are really a good use of funds. Many say these rooms don’t get used, they’re not cool. Unlike a cinema room, we will bring a buzz and an atmosphere either in a separate building or a carved-out site.
How much do you expect to grow, and in what time frame?
We expect to scale up to 10 employees per site. Everyone at our sites works for the Really Local Group. I think we could have 20 of these open in five years. We won’t just be taking over old retail places; some will be new build. We do all the fit out and development in-house so it’s more efficient – we have cut out all the middlemen.
Where do you see the UK retail market going?
Sadly, we are nowhere near the bottom. Sites have always gone to the highest bidder with the strongest covenant. We are saying that doesn’t matter anymore; notions that Arcadia is too big to fail have gone. People are open-minded about trying new things and providing more local experiences for people.