What is present at almost every shopping center, but usually tucked away in a hard-to-find place? Answer: the property management office.
At Washington Prime Group–owned shopping centers, it may be only a matter of time before the oft-secluded mall-management office becomes a thing of the past. As part of an overhaul of its property-management division, the Columbus, Ohio–based retail REIT is testing a program that places its general managers front and center by having them work from areas in center court. Specifically, at several properties, the company is building unenclosed workstations — called The Hub — to serve as a home base for general managers and staff. By putting these teams in closer proximity to shoppers and tenants, the company anticipates that managers will be able to respond more readily to emergent issues or to spot ways for making improvements to the merchandising, among other things. “General managers are the lifeblood of our company and should be front and center in order to react quickly,” said CEO Louis G. Conforti.
At many of its malls, the company has already done away with the traditional information desk. Typically, the employees who staff such desks are endowed with little decision-making authority, Conforti says, but the Hub workstations are a different concept. The firm is now in the process of installing Hub units at a handful of its properties, and each is unique in design. The unit at Ashland (Ky.) Town Center, for example, a regional mall serving parts of Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia, is made of steel, stone and other materials symbolizing important geophysical elements of the locality. Steel is representative of the region’s history as a center of steel production, and stone is a nod to the nearby mountains.
Open for business Washington Prime Group regional marketing manager Shelley Sloan staffs the Hub desk at Melbourne (Fla.) Square Mall
General managers will not be expected to spend all their time stationed in center court, Conforti says; they will continue to walk the property on a regular basis and to have access to traditional offices when they need to work without distractions on such tasks as budgeting. But the new workstations will remain part of the firm’s commitment to a new management approach. “How dare we sit in mall-management offices or ivory tower [corporate] offices,” said Conforti, “when this is the most interactive business on the planet?”
Indeed, Conforti, who took office as CEO of Washington Prime in 2016, has long been outspoken about the need for the retail real estate industry to become more proactive. He has worked with a handful of general managers on a plan for empowering and incentivizing managers to engage more deeply with the properties they oversee. The Hub initiative is one aspect of this plan, called the Goodwill Ambassador General Manager Program. “I want my general managers to think and operate like the CEOs of companies,” Conforti said. He points out that general managers are responsible for assets that make a substantial economic impact at the local level.
“The Holy Grail of this industry is common-area activation”
In addition to moving general managers out of the back office and onto center court, Washington Prime now expects that they will play a bigger role in identifying exciting retail and restaurant concepts and sponsorship opportunities, Conforti says. “Our leasing professionals are great, but they don’t necessarily know what’s happening in Memphis or Johnson City,” he said. “You have to be immersed in the community.” Mall managers must live locally, he insists, if they are to be plugged into what is happening locally.
Conforti is especially bullish on what he calls “common-area activation” opportunities: freestanding eateries, brand showcases and other concepts that engage shoppers as they move through a property. The Hub workstations will serve to liven up common areas in a similar way, he says. And during those times when the stations are not being actively staffed, Conforti suggests, they can be used alternatively for special exhibits and events.
“The Holy Grail of this industry is common-area activation,” he said. “The Hub is really yet another form of common-area activation.”
By Anna Robaton
Contributor, Shopping Centers Today