NIRSC Study Tour 2015: Exceeding Expectations

In October 2015, the NIRSC had its first Study Tour since 2007,and it was back across the pond to the Sunshine State of Florida this time.

The purpose of the 2015 study tour was to visit various retail destinations and to meet management staff from some of the world’s largest shopping malls to see first-hand how they successfully provide a quality experience for their customers. Marketing and social media practices were also on the agenda. With the huge resurgence on Florida’s ‘International Drive’ over the past ten years, it was the obvious place for the study tour.

The tour lasted five days, departing Belfast on Monday 5th October, arriving at the Embassy Suites on Monday evening in time to meet our hosts Linda and Jim Dougherty of The Dougherty Group for a light welcome dinner and refreshments.

The next day was ‘The Education day’ and it all started at 8am in the hotel conference room. Guest speakers included David Vallillo and Maria Triscari President and CEO of I Drive Chamber of Commerce, as well as a varied mix speakers from all areas of the industry, giving insights into the American approach to design, leasing, marketing , social media and customer service. Perhaps the stand out content was that of the customer service presentation from the Rosen School of Hospitality, which will undoubtedly inspire us to deliver concierge style service in our schemes.

Late Monday afternoon we were transferred to Downtown Disney, soon to be known as ‘Disney Springs’ to meet the Marketing Director for a very informative talk and presentation on the future development of the site. In 2013, plans were announced for a multi-year renovation, which will be completed by 2016. On September 29, 2015, the name officially changed from Downtown Disney to Disney Springs.

Day’s two, three and four comprised of visits to a diverse combination of retail locations; Florida Mall, Mall of Millennia, Oviedo Mall, Artegon Marketplace, Pointe Orlando and Vineland Premium Outlet Mall. The variety of schemes incorporated into the study tour was excellent with many tips picked up along the way.

We were fortunate to be greeted by the management team of all the malls we visited, tours were very informative and their presentations on marketing and social media strategies enlightening. Although the super malls are prospering with virtually 100% occupancy and inspired by some of the levels of guests facilities, food courts and tenant fit outs, the more relevant issues facing the lesser malls were every bit as interesting and perhaps more pertinent. To hear of the challenges they have experienced in an ever changing economy and how they have been addressed, be that the demise of department stores or their location away from International Drive, was fascinating.

Florida Mall’s successful family attraction The Crayola Experience is a prime example of utilising a large vacant unit, designed to be a full day of hands-on creative play. The smaller Oveido Mall outside I-Drive’s catchment area is facing many of the challenges we have encountered ourselves in recent years with the increasing number of voids. They have transformed an empty 28,000 sq ft unit into an impressive preschool and afterschool care area offering education and enrichment programs for all children from 0 to 13 years old, this was the insight of an Edutainment Company called O2B. Oveido also utilised a large vacant unit as a community centre for non-profit use.

The new Artegon Marketplace is a $70 million redevelopment of the failed Festival Bay Mall, which is a little difficult to define. With it’s walls is a mixture of small box units, the operators of which all have an artisanal flair, selling handcrafted goods and food. Still in its infancy, it demonstrated an alternative to the typical mall experiences we have grown accustomed to.

Cameo visits to world renowned retailers such as Whole Foods, Trader Joes and Tommy Hilfiger to learn from, and experience, their emphasis on customer service ethos were insightful, offering points of differentiation.

On the final day the group set off for the journey home having visited Premium Outlet Mall. On reaching Orlando Airport we were informed that the flight was delayed due to adverse weather at Newark Airport. Consequently when we arrived at Newark Airport our connecting flight to Belfast International left without us. Our next flight was 24 hours later. Thanks to Peter Murray and Brendan McAreavey, accommodation for 20 people was arranged and we all arrived in our hotel at 1 around 1 am, tired and in need of a bed for the night. The next day however was a pleasant, fuss free, day which the delegates could spend as they pleased. Most of them decided to have a trip to Downtown Manhattan.

This was the first NIRSC study tour in eight years, reflecting the challenges of the local industry in the intervening period. For those who participated in previous tours the general consensus was this was the most relevant, varied and insightful tour yet, reflecting the organisers’ ambitions to deliver value for money alongside experiencing inspirational insights to help raise the bar in terms of our own shopping centre industry. Malls vary greatly on their strategy for marketing and utilising social media platforms, some things we do better at home but hopefully all of us will have brought something back to improve their marketing strategy and customer service excellence within their company.

Shopping malls and outlets on I-Drive are spoilt by an ever increasing economy, driven by tourism, especially from Brazil. They are definitely feeling sunnier than us here in Northern Ireland. Over the past ten years International Drive has grown tremendously, for example, a 400-foot-tall observation wheel is dwarfing a collection of new shops and restaurants. A few blocks north redevelopment continues on Disney Springs which is almost doubling its size and the Artegon Marketplace has replaced the failed Festival Bay Mall. These projects represent half a billion dollars in spending and the most explosive burst of activity along I-Drive in more than a decade.

One thing all delegates agreed on about the study tour, it definitely Exceeded their Expectations!