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Outdoor Activations Will Outlive the Pandemic

March 14, 2022

Outdoor spaces sprang to life when much of the marketplaces industry was on lockdown — from spin classes on the sidewalk to laser shows on the plaza to flyfishing and canoeing on the retention pond. And according to some observers, these types of activations have continued to drive traffic and sales — restrictions and weather permitting — even as anxieties about COVID have waned. The showing has been so consistently strong that outdoor spaces and events could play a more prominent role at retail and mixed-use properties well into the future, they say.

“Outdoor shopping centers are adding more outdoor events, things that people can walk through like sidewalk chalk art festivals. But even the indoor centers are moving a lot of things outdoors and reconsidering the events that they do,” said event producer Karla Ross. Her eponymous firm has been staging more drive-thru holiday shows, parking lot movie screenings, outdoor concerts and the like in markets like Los Angeles, Las Vegas, San Francisco and Seattle. “This past year, we really upped our game with outdoor events,” Ross said, who at the time she spoke with C+CT had just one indoor event, for Chinese New Year. All other events on her docket were outside.

Chalk Fest at The Landing in Renton, Washington

Connecting with Consumers Via Smaller Events

When Poag Shopping Centers started having outdoor events again in May 2020, the crowds that flocked to its Texas lifestyle centers The Shops at Highland Village and LaCenterra at Cinco Ranch were enormous, said president and CEO Josh Poag. In an abundance of caution, the company pivoted to smaller events at which social distancing would be easier. The company has resumed some of those higher-volume events. However, having held so many successful smaller ones over the past couple of years, Poag is more convinced than ever that these targeted activations are worth pursuing. “Those smaller events that attract crowds of 30, 50 or 100 people still allow you to connect, to create that emotional bond with your customers,” he said.

The shopper base at Poag Shopping Centers’ pet-friendly LaCenterra at Cinco Ranch in Katy, Texas, loves their dogs. The center hosted its first Paws Fest, a daylong event filled with dock-jumping competitions; a “pup” crawl, which was a dog friendly pub crawl; a doggie dress-up competition and obedience demos.

LaCenterra at Cinco Ranch's Paws Fest generated more than $20,000 in sponsorship revenue from local veterinarians, boarding facilities and more. It also was a great opportunity to introduce a new tenant, Pucci cafe and pet boutique, which co-sponsored the event.

Demographics and psychographics revealed an interest in an outdoor lifestyle, environmental conservation and DIY projects among shoppers at The Promenade Shops at Saucon Valley outside of Allentown, Pennsylvania. Landlord Poag Shopping Centers worked with retailers to bring activity to a formerly unused outdoor space, a large retention pond, with the likes of toy boat races for kids, waterside yoga classes and Camp Promenade, above, an event with L.L.Bean. “They gave flyfishing lessons and had canoes that people could test,” said Poag Shopping Centers president and CEO Josh Poag. “It was a full-day celebration of things like the outdoor lifestyle and environmental conservation.”

Fitness classes, including from spin studios that bring their equipment outside for open-air classes, are another way to connect at a smaller scale, Poag noted. At the company’s Avenue Viera lifestyle center in Florida, tenants now use a central park for the Fun Fit at The Avenue program. With warm weather and a trade area full of active young families, Avenue Viera uses the park for outdoor yoga, boot camps by F45 training, prenatal and postnatal fitness classes and other events year round.

Drive-Thru Activations for Larger Crowds

For large crowds, drive-thru events serve well as main attractions. While these activations take logistical know-how, Ross said, they can pack a punch. She points to the Drive-Thru Holiday Spectacular her firm produced at The Landing lifestyle center in Renton, Washington, in November 2020. Billed as contactless, it included laser shows, stilt walkers, costumed characters, singers and a finale appearance by Santa Claus. Security personnel guided pedestrians to and from restaurants, which greatly benefitted from the influx of sales. “The line of cars was backed up all the way to the interstate,” Ross said. “People would go through two or three times.”

Marketing directors continue to be enthusiastic about drive-thru holiday and other outdoor events, according to the event producer. “They all rebooked for Christmas outside in 2022. We do a lot of summer concerts and things like that, and I find that those are often the most successful events. People love to be out.”

Adding Energy to Properties

When North American Properties managing partner Tim Perry wants to ramp up the performance of a newly acquired mixed-use property, reinvigorating the outdoor experience tends to be at the top of his list. Gleaming steel-and-glass towers may be part of such projects, the executive said, but they should never be the focal point. “If you design it right, nobody is going to look up,” Perry said. “For us, it’s all about that ground-level experience. We call it ‘20/20 vision’: 20 feet out and 20 feet up.”

NAP’s urban-inspired Avalon in Alpharetta, Georgia, typifies this street-level approach. Known for its central lawn and tree-lined streetscapes, the $1 billion mixed-use property is packed with planters, fountains, patios, soft-seating lounges and “jewel boxes,” glass-fronted, freestanding buildings with the likes of CRU Food & Wine Bar and Jeni’s ice cream.

NAP and joint-venture partner Nuveen Real Estate now aim to bring a similar experience to Birkdale Village in Huntersville, North Carolina. The mixed-use property already features an end-to-end central grove, boasts more than 300 residential units and hosts more than 100 annual events. In January, NAP and Nuveen broke ground on additions that will include a 6,000-square-foot plaza with soft seating, a stage and a massive LED screen; a full-service valet and concierge building; three 1,200-square-foot jewel boxes offering indoor/outdoor and upper-level dining; and four tiny retail pods for merchandisers and food vendors.

Construction at Birkdale Village is scheduled to wrap up this summer, according to North American Properties and Nuveen Real Estate. The changes — such as more pedestrian pathways, rebranded storefronts, digital directories, lounges and a community garden — will bring greater energy and activity, creating precisely the type of place that people have been flocking to over the past couple of years, said North American Properties managing partner Tim Perry.

Other owners of retail and mixed-use properties could take similar approaches. However, extraordinary scale and density may be required for such moves to pencil. Avalon, for example, is several blocks of multilevel buildings, and Birkdale Village is a 52-acre property with existing greenspace. Nonetheless, Perry said, it’s possible to redevelop tighter-footprint assets in ways that create more engaging outdoor spaces. NAP’s redevelopment of Colony Square in Midtown Atlanta is one example. “It is much tighter, but we tore down a 1970s mall and connected the buildings at the base,” Perry said. “That gave us four acres on the total site to play with.”

Likewise, NAP is in the initial planning stages of common-area changes at Avenue East Cobb, a Marietta, Georgia, lifestyle center it acquired last July. The moves could involve demising a tenant space but leaving the roof to create a partially covered, 18,000-square-foot, open-air plaza. Additions like soft seating, new landscaping, an LED screen and a valet/concierge area would improve the setting for events that are already popular there, Perry said. “It’s crazy. The first time we had an event, Fall Fest, we thought we’d be really happy if a couple hundred people showed up. There were more than 600, and this was just in a parking lot.”

By Joel Groover

Contributor, Commerce + Communities Today

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