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  • alanjohnarmstrong

How to maximise your late-night atmosphere

One thing I’ve always been passionate about throughout my hospitality career (whether in operations or marketing) is the importance of a really good atmosphere. Especially during peak time or late-night trading sessions (and by that, I mean from 8pm onwards by the way).

In my opinion, it’s THE most important (yet probably the most underutilised) tool which can help drive improved customer footfall, retention, dwell time and of course, cold hard sales!

If (like me) you’ve ever stood on the front door of one of your venues on a cold, dark night and both observed and listened to how your brand is being represented by the team and thought of by your guests, these are probably a few of the words you heard as people exited the premises… “Too noisy, too quiet, too dark, too bright, too cold, too hot, music is rubbish, team are flat, door staff are rude, service is slow etc, etc”.

Atmosphere management used to be an art-form, I was lucky enough to be trained by a generation of old-school operators who would continuously tinker with the levels of lighting, volume, temperature, playlist throughout the night, constantly adapting the surroundings to whatever was happening in that venue at that point in time with the aim of maximising the guest experience. This attention to detail (and form of black magic) would then be passed on to deputy managers, assistant managers, and in-training managers (like me) thus carrying on the legacy to more venues and future leaders.

Then sadly, came the birth of automated systems with in-built timers which could dim the lights, increase the volume, and even change the music BPM at pre-set times throughout the night. This has now been followed by AI with systems designed to automatically adapt the settings of the atmosphere dependant on the number of customers in the venue, the customer volume levels, the time of day through tablets, sensors and even apple watches. This has resulted in a generation of hospitality managers running big venues during peak shifts without the basic skill set (or 6th sense as I call it) to be able to impact the atmosphere of a venue. This then damages sales performance, customer satisfaction and brand reputation as a result, which marketers like me are then called in to fix.

Let’s be honest, how many times have you walked in and out of a pub or bar because the house lights were too bright, the music was too loud, the music playlist was wrong, or the service and standards were just poor. I can hand on heart say I have done this too many times for comfort, even in some of my own venues.

So, a few years back, I decided to scratch the itch and spend a good 6-months looking deeply into the importance of atmosphere before creating an industry first training guide and operations plan. This was supported by extensive quant and qual research into what made the perfect atmosphere.

The research showed some mega-attention-grabbing headlines:

  • A huge 82% of customers said that “atmosphere” was the number 1 reason for choice of late-night visit – More important than the location, cheap drinks, ease of travel and even the quality of a venue fit out.

  • A significant 65% of late-night customers were seeking a unique experience and atmosphere when planning a night out.

I distinctly remember visiting a UKH conference in London and hearing guest speaker Amy Lame (London Night Czar) say “It’s about delivering a proposition and an experience that cannot be replicated at home” followed by QC Philip Kolvin talking about how “The late night market is moving away from being alcohol based and is instead becoming experience based” – Both could not have been more accurate to how the last few years would pan out for late-night operators across the UK.

From speaking to customers in focus groups, we found that atmosphere was a highly subjective matter. What ticks the box for me, might not be for everyone and vice-versa. We also found atmosphere was very sensual, it was a combination of what people saw, heard, and felt before the holy grail of the “goosebump” moment could occur (read on for more on this). We summarised there was no perfect recipe for atmosphere, as there are just too many variables to simply be able to copy and paste. However, what we did find out is there was a list of 15 quality control points which can be managed by the shift leader or manager during the shift to maximise the guest experience, here’s a quick synopsis…

1. See:

• Kerb appeal – how your venue looks from the outside.

• Lighting levels – ensuring your lighting changes during the day and isn’t too bright.

• Venue Look – how your site looks when people walk in.

• Customer Profile – what type of customers you have in and what they’re doing.

• Engaged Team – How your team are behaving and engaged with the customers.

2. Hear:

• Music Profile – the type of music you’re playing.

• Sound Volume – how loud (or quiet) your music is.

• Sound Zoning – how the music levels have been altered in different parts of the venue.

• Customer Noise – the sound of customers having a great time.

3. Feel:

• Welcome journey – how guests feel when they arrive at the door or the bar.

• Personal Safety - how safe people feel in your venue.

• Temperature – how hot or cold the venue is.

• Customer Mood – does your venue feel fun or tense?

• Transition period (day to night) – how your team change the lighting, volume, feel of the venue throughout the day without a “big bang” effect.

These 15 variables were an equivalent to playing an orchestra, each needing constant tuning and managing to create the perfect atmosphere. To do this, the shift leader in theory becomes the conductor, walking the floor in a figure of 8 shape, constantly using his/her own senses to watch, listen and feel at select touch points around the venue (front door, bar, seating area, DJ stand, toilets) and then adapting the lighting, volume, playlist, temperature accordingly. This process was never ending, as only when it was ignored for a significant period of the night would standards drop, and the set levels would become irrelevant.

By doing this, the late-night atmosphere becomes the USP of that venue or brand. Customers stay longer, spend more, pre-book in advance and the word soon spreads on how good the atmosphere is to friends, family, or colleagues. The bi-product of this approach is to allow peaks (and troughs) in your atmosphere to occur and pushing the peaks so high you can create amazing moments in your pub or bar or club – you know the ones like when you drop the volume and the whole pub sings, or a goal is scored and the place just rocks or everyone is having a great time in the pub in unison.

These are the magic moments which got me into hospitality initially, and these are the moments which I have since spent my career devoted to recreating for the bars I managed, the brands I marketed or now, the clients I support.

Thank you for reading this blog – If you’re an operator or a marketer, my questions for you now are… how good is your late-night atmosphere? Is it consistent every day/week across all venues? Are your team delivering it effectively? Or do you need to implement some of the above best practices to help drive it to the next level.

SPACEMAN founder, Alan Armstrong is an experienced and award-winning hospitality marketing professional and is now available for fixed term contracts, consultancy, short-term project work (like atmosphere delivery) or longer-term non-exec director roles.

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