Retail Traffic

1999 ICSC Convention Reflections

On Feb. 24-27, 1958, 122 people met in New York for the first ICSC convention. The 29,289 attendees at this year's convention engaged in more activities, but their goals were likely much the same as the first pioneers: scouting deals, making contacts and learning new information.

Shopping center folks are a hardy, faithful lot. Countless times I heard, "This is my 12th convention" or "I've been doing this for 25 years now." Even the older attendees maintained their vigor during this grueling week of meeting and walking and talking and contending with crowds.

Even during the lean years of the early '90s, they came - fewer in numbers perhaps but still stalwart in spirit. In 1991, the ICSC suffered a 12% membership drop and 30% staff reduction, and the industry would decline for several more years. Interestingly, the die-hards talk about those years with near reverence, like Depression-era parents who boast about what they did not have and how many miles they walked to school.

Such tenacity was exhibited in a chat with another convention old-timer. He told the story about how his booth had been in the same location for a decade, when one year the ICSC changed the location due to an administrative glitch. Now, this booth was not exactly at the center of activity, but he wanted that spot. He was attached to it, knew his neighbors, looked forward to seeing the same people every year. He did eventually retrieve his old space.

This fortitude endures as the industry appears to be in transition, with new concepts such as Cousins Properties' "Avenue" concept, Mills' "Block" concept, myriad entertainment centers and retro Main Street developments.

So are we set to bid adieu to the regional mall? In a visit with Mary Kiley, General Growth's marketing v.p., I pointed out that her firm still calls its properties "regional malls," yet they offer entertainment components like ice rinks, theaters and bookstores. "We create the right mix for the community," she replied. "What we call it is irrelevant to the community."

Maintaining relevance to the community, serving the customer - that's the common thread of ICSC convention attendees, whether in the 1950s or 1990s. The ultimate goal is perhaps not to reinvent the wheel - as merchandising dates to antiquity - but to alter its axles and tinker with its tread. And be proud of the work accomplished.

Ding ding ding. Ah, the sounds of Vegas. Slot machines ringing all around, the jingling of falling quarters and the glorious cheer of winners sounding out from the craps table. And the sights of Vegas: bright lights, waitresses in teeny-weenie cocktail ensembles, and "slot machine zombies," as I call them, who have been sitting in front of their machines so long their eyes are glazed over.

Vegas was much what I expected. But some of it was not at all what I had envisioned. On my first trip there to attend the ICSC Spring Convention, I expected only to find the "tacky" city it has a reputation for being.

But the newer resorts - Bellagio, New York New York, The Venetian, Mandalay Bay and soon-to-be-completed Paris Las Vegas - have added class to the city. These architectural gems turn a traditional casino into an upscale destination with fine restaurants and shops, all wrapped into a beautifully detailed design.

They entertain - with attractions other than the casino, such as the Impressionism exhibit at Bellagio (yes, I did say there are other activities besides gambling) - and bring visitors into another place and time with their realistic replications of far-off cities.

While I learned most people either love Las Vegas or they don't like it at all, there is one point everyone can agree on: it's massive. This is a city of big hotels, big casinos and big spenders. Another big event in Vegas - larger even than in previous years - was the ICSC Convention.

As I walked amid a whirlwind of attendees on the first day of the Leasing Mall, my jaw dropped when our group publisher, John Davis, informed me we were in the small area of the show. After all the aerobic activity, I was grateful to see retailers like Auntie Anne's giving away tasty samples. I was amazed at not only the size of the convention itself, but also the scale and detail of the booths.

Charlotte Ellis, senior vice president of marketing and public relations for Cary, N.C.-based Konover Property Trust, explained that although the company's booth changes minimally from year to year, it is important to make it effective. "It's an investment in one's corporate image," she says. "We only have one shot at everyone being in the same zip code."

By the way, did I mention our editor, Matt Valley, is also a "slot machine zombie"?

TAGS: Retail
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