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Communication technologies put to work during COVID-19

April 17, 2020

Traditionally a handshake trade, the retail real estate industry shifted to digital communication practically overnight as social distancing and shelter-in-place orders became the new normal. Thanks to recent advances in digital communications, the transition has been relatively smooth.

Even after shelter-in-place mandates, Dallas-based Weitzman closed several retail leases using digital aids, spokesman Ian Pierce said. For example, Weitzman and a national insurance tenant signed a lease in March using digital signing tools, including digital notarization. Another Weitzman lease, a New York City-based tenant leasing space in Texas, required physical notarization on the New York side, "so that added a challenge to do it safely," said Pierce. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo later signed an executive order allowing New York real estate documents to be notarized virtually.

Brokerage firm Avison Young has ramped up its virtual and video site tours to enable clients to see retail spaces without traveling, said Nick Banks, global head of retail and managing director of the Gainesville, Fla., office. "We have also transitioned our client meetings to videoconferencing so we can share screens and work through deal points together," he said.

Virtual meetings

On Monday, March 23, 2.13 million people worldwide downloaded Zoom, CNN cited Apptopia as reporting. Two months prior, 56,000 people did.

Retail groups throughout CBRE use Zoom for teleconferences, and that strategy may become a bigger part of post-pandemic operations, said Brandon Famous, executive managing director and chairman of the CBRE Global Retail Occupier Executive Committee. "Companies are recognizing that there are cost savings associated with videoconferencing."

Josh Weinkranz, president of Kimco Realty’s northern region said his company's retail teams, too, "have fully embraced the Zoom platform, both for internal meetings and meetings with existing tenants, prospective tenants, brokers and the like." In some respects, the approach "has made us more productive than we were 30 days ago," Weinkranz said. "The pandemic forced the entire industry to embrace a more efficient, more connective way of doing business."

“The pandemic forced the entire industry to embrace a more efficient, more connective way of doing business”

Jason Baker, partner in Houston retail real estate firm Baker Katz, said he has learned to "appreciate the convenience and collaboration that teleconferencing has brought to our day-to-day world." Once the recovery phase begins, "it will be interesting to see if working remotely becomes a more generally accepted business practice."

Ryan Butler, managing director of and partner in Stan Johnson Co., a Tulsa-based net-lease brokerage/advisory firm, said, "The brokerage business is already quite mobile.” Thus, the transition is “challenging for those of us who aren’t used to working from home, but it’s been fairly easy to adapt and get business done." Butler still relies heavily on phone calls to reach clients, "and there’s probably been a slight increase in conference calls with my teammates," he said.

Michael DeGiorgio — founder and CEO of Los Angeles-based CREXi, an industry marketplace and technology platform — noted: "We’re fortunate that our team had been progressive in building a tech stack, which allowed for a dynamic remote-work environment. We’ve been longtime Zoom customers and also employ a myriad of other tools that allow for mostly uninterrupted work during this time." Most of CREXi's contract business, including its auction sales, are getting finalized via DocuSign, so paperwork-related snafus have been few, DeGiorgio said.

Worldwide technology firm Stefanini Group, which specializes in digital solutions for retail, was by nature prepared to support a remote-work model itself, said Carla Ferber, global marketing officer. "We already use multiple collaboration tools to communicate with our internal teams, as well as videoconferencing software and conference lines to easily connect with clients," she said. "We've adjusted swiftly, and we're getting used to the new normal and encouraging employees to do so."

Meeting technology may find a stronger foothold following COVID-19. Famous said recent experience has shown him that some videoconference meetings "can be just as effective" as in-person meetings. "Real estate companies are starting to realize they can decrease travel and entertainment budgets with this strategy." Once travel is safe again, though, the industry likely will revert to in-person meetings for relationship-building purposes, especially in new pursuits, he says, while using videoconferences for short meetings or as more personal replacements for phone calls.

Crisis communications

When COVID-19 was changing the landscape almost hourly, landlord communications to shopping center tenants and employees — about safety precautions, government restrictions and store closures — became critical. Mass-notification service RedFlag saw a tenfold increase in messaging in March as COVID-19 spread, said Daniel Wagstaff, founder and CEO of RedFlag parent Pocketstop.

RedFlag, traditionally used for storm alerts and utility outages, suddenly became a hotline for shopping centers to apprise their managers, staff and tenants of the changing COVID-19 situation. So big was the traffic that Pocketstop, which was about to unveil a new version of its marketing communications service, had to move most resources to handle RedFlag business — and for good purpose. "Our platform really had a head start in keeping the rumor mill at bay," Wagstaff said.

The Critical Comms crisis-management feature of Mallcomm, a tenant-communication platform from Toolbox Group, enabled shopping center teams to stay in touch with retailers even as stores and shopping centers closed indefinitely. "Managing critical situations has always been on the top of our priority list, long before COVID-19,” said Randall McKillop, Mallcomm executive vice president for the Americas. The Critical Comms feature allows customers to instantly connect with tenants and other stakeholders via app messages, email, SMS, priority notifications and landline calls, he said.

RedFlag, traditionally used for storm alerts and utility outages, suddenly became a hotline for shopping centers to apprise their managers, staff and tenants of the evolving COVID-19 situation

Mallcomm said more than 300 retail and mixed-use destinations worldwide used its tenant-engagement app from the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis through March 31. More than 300,000 people and 10,000 tenant companies received COVID-19 communications through the service.

Oxford Properties’ white-label version, Oxcomm, was "extremely useful during this time," said Jason Blum, assistant property manager at Oxford's Yorkdale Shopping Centre in Toronto. The ability to send critical memos and communications to all tenants and then see in seconds who'd viewed them "has been an amazing tool,” he said. “I can’t imagine having to try and manage COVID-19 communications without it, especially being able to reach tenants while offsite.”

RedFlag also remains in use while shopping centers are closed: to advise security, janitorial and maintenance staffs. Later, tools like it and MallComm will facilitate communications for the next phase, when the time comes for stores and shopping centers to reopen.

Other Mallcomm clients, to name a few, include Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield, JLL and Mall of America. Based in London, Mallcomm expanded to the Americas in 2019.

By Steve McLinden

Contributor, Commerce + Communities Today

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