Activation Is a Top Priority for Entertainment Destinations, say EEE Panelists

by Camren Skelton

Santa Monica Calif. — E-commerce has claimed many victims in its siege of brick-and-mortar shopping, but perhaps none more so than big box retailers.

As more of these spaces are vacated, demand for entertainment-based users to backfill them grows.

Entertainment-themed tenants often require the same open-floor layouts and high ceiling heights that big box spaces offer. In addition, big boxes are typically found in malls and retail power centers, which have presumably been built in high-traffic and high-density locations.

As such, entertainment tenants backfilling or building within a traditional retail development aren’t as reliant on “activation” of their sites to drum up business. But when you have a variety of entertainment tenants, including bars and restaurants, operating out of a single destination, it’s crucial to galvanize the property with events and programs.

This was a trend discussed at the Entertainment Experience Evolution conference on Feb. 6-7 at Fairmont Miramar hotel in Santa Monica. A panel of professionals in the entertainment retail space discussed the role of activation in creating a “sense of place” at the event, which more than 600 industry players attended.

Moderator Nick Egelanian, president of SiteWorks Retail Real Estate Services, asked the other panelists to describe how activation contributes to the sense of belonging at their properties.

Egelanian noted that while “sense of place” means different things to different people, it centers on making customers feel like they’re in a cool, hip spot. From food festivals to live music, successful entertainment destinations have extensive agendas of non-eating, non-shopping activities designed to get people on-site.

Examples in Action

“Site activation is pretty much all we talk about,” said Steve Siegel, a partner at Baltimore-based Weller Development Co. “At a time when you can buy everything you need on Amazon, you need to give people a reason to leave their houses.”

Weller is developing a 50-acre waterfront campus in Baltimore for apparel retailer Under Armour. Although ground will not be broken until late this year, the developers have already mapped a 12-month activation plan for the property, Siegel said. Specific activities include boat races, drone races and food festivals. The property will also feature a whiskey distillery that will offer tasting events on a regular basis.

“We have probably 10 major events and something happening during every weekend of the warm season,” said Siegel.

Bill Shewalter, senior vice president of development at Related of Florida, weighed in next on how his firm is activating its flagship property, CityPlace Doral. The mixed-use destination in Miami is moving toward its third phase of development, which will feature 250,000 square feet of space and welcome 30 additional restaurants and retailers.

“When we have big events, like on holidays, we draw as many as 10,000 people,” said Shewalter. “We do maybe seven or eight major events per year, but there’s a band there every weekend, and we’re moving toward having four or five bands per weekend at various restaurants.”

Besides concerts, CityPlace Doral features a large fountain with choreographed water shows that are major crowd-pleasers, Shewalter said. He also noted that the development’s holiday-themed events, like the lighting of the Christmas tree, have been drivers of traffic.

WRS Inc., which is redeveloping the Underground Atlanta district in the city’s downtown area, partnered with a music promotions firm to ensure that such events would get people onto the property.

“We have some sort of entertainment going on there four or five nights a week,” said Scott Smith, president of WRS. “Last year, about 156,000 tickets were sold, and we’re fortunate to have that going for us.”

The Underground Atlanta project is also adding retail and multifamily components above ground level, and features activation events like beer festivals and art exhibitions. 

Common Threads

After sharing their activation plans for their properties — and the considerable revenues from parking that they have generated — the panelists dove into some trends that are all influencing their projects, regardless of size and location.

Such trends include establishing the best possible tenant mix and invoking a sense of hipness via the architecture and design.

Ultimately, these factors contribute heavily to how much a destination appeals to millennials — an essential part of the marketing process, the panelists agreed.

“If it’s done right, then the place becomes the experience,” said Siegel. “We think of our budget for these events as a revolving fund. The money may go out, but it comes back in very quickly through ticket sales and sponsorship revenues.”

— Taylor Williams


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