By Jesse Tron
The title, while perhaps trite, is apropos in the case of RECon and the shopping center industry at large. Last year’s conference was certainly long on optimism but somewhat short on action. In 2010 most attendees were seeing the same amount of meetings they had on their schedules as in pre-recessionary years; however most of those meetings were to discuss future positioning. While this was a vast improvement over 2009, when most were still unable to see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, it still meant that activity was not quite in full swing. This year, according to numerous attendees, while the full slate of meetings was similar to 2010 they were exponentially more productive. In short, there was business to be done again.
Retail sales have actually been posting positive gains since December of 2009, according to ICSC research, but they are a leading indicator. A minimal amount of new retail space came on-line in 2010 and a bit more should be available by the end of 2011 but, for the most part, development at this point usually comes with a “re” in front of it. At the same time retailers, encouraged by better sales, are beginning to expand once again. This means that retailers are moving into existing, often redeveloped, space and the industry is now starting to see the impact as stronger consumer demand, the lack of new supply and increased leasing activity are currently translating into occupancy growth. In fact, according to CoStar Realty Information, the vacancy rate has decreased, albeit slowly, over the past four quarters. Overall, the industry is quietly recovering and while it may not be a precipitous rise back to the top, gradual improvements in the industry and the economy have given way not just to increased optimism, but tangible results as well.
The effects of the renewed vigor in the industry were palpable at RECon 2011. This year the largest gathering of retail real estate professionals increased, surpassing 30,000 attendees for the first time since 2008. RECon 2011 saw nearly 1,000 companies exhibit and welcomed nearly 150 new exhibitors to the show floor. The integrated show floor format introduced in 2010 was back again in 2011, but there was a brand new addition to the floor that garnered a lot of attention. Newly created Meeting Point Pavilions were added to the mix this year providing efficient networking and educational opportunities right on the show floor. The Social Media Pavilion in particular stood out as a go to destination to congregate and learn more about how this new medium is being used within the industry.
There were nearly 50 educational sessions again this year, including the very well received Special Industry Group (SIG) sessions that were offered during a non-compete time slot with the leasing mall on Sunday May 22. Among the SIG sessions was the Women in Real Estate Special Interest Group, which had over 460 attendees and featured round-table discussions lead by some of the most successful women in the industry. Additionally, this year’s keynote speakers General Wesley Clark and Chairman, President and CEO of Starbucks Coffee Company, Howard Schultz, drew large crowds, the latter filling the N1 hall of the Las Vegas Convention Center with over 4,000 people.
RECon is also the time when ICSC awards the hottest retail concepts that are bringing consumers into shopping centers and recognizes the most outstanding examples of shopping center design and development, marketing, sustainability, and community service worldwide. This years Hot Retailers, presented by TV personality Carson Kressley, were Athleta, Smashburger, ALDI and Fossil. The VIVA Best-of-the-Best Awards were presented to Liverpool One, Liverpool, United Kingdom for Global Design and Development; Aeon Laketown, Koshigaya, Japan for Sustainable Design; and Crossiron Mill, Alberta, Canada for Global Marketing. The ICSC Foundation Albert Sussman International Community Support Award was presented to Developers Diversified Realty’s Buena Park Downtown Shopping Center, Buena Park, California.
The ICSC Foundation was also pleased to announce their latest scholarship and fellowship recipients at RECon 2011. The Mary Lou Fiala Fellowship, which annually recognizes an outstanding professional under the age of 30 who demonstrates a commitment to retail real estate and has the potential to make a lasting contribution to the industry, was presented to Devony Jackson, of Cleveland, Ohio. Jared Toothman from Columbia Business School and Ben Zamzow from Boise State University received the Foundation’s Charles Grossman Graduate Scholarship. Lastly, the Schurgin Family Foundation Scholarship was awarded to Michael Bowen from the University of Georgia and Michael Arnovitz from the University of Cincinnati.
Add to that countless hours of networking and deal making and another RECon was in the books. Suffice it to say, anytime that many people are at one convention it seems to be a bee-hive of activity. However, it was clear that there was a little more buzz in 2011 at RECon compared with the previous two years, no doubt a welcome drone for those in attendance.