COVID-19

Navigating Re-Opening Challenges with Hyper-Local Strategies

How real estate owners and operators can earn public confidence

As real estate owners and operators begin the process of reopening shopping centers in select markets, ornate blueprints articulating traffic flow and closed communal areas have been offered as reassurance that these commercial areas are ready for prime time.

But to-date, re-openings have not gone as well as planned. Foot traffic has been light and many stores have chosen to remain closed, even as properties open. Political dissent and personal choice have also been a challenging roadblock to overcome. The key question remains, even as the rules allow you to open, how can you create an environment that makes both shop owners and customers feel safe?

We believe this can be achieved by creating hyper-local stakeholder advocacy initiatives to protect business value and manage reputation risk. Our suggested approach for real estate owners and operators has four key elements, each of which is detailed below: giving safety a brand, engaging community leaders, deploying business stakeholders as advocates, and highlighting emotional connections.

Giving Safety a Brand

Many retail centers have put commendable efforts into creating detailed protocols designed to keep visitors to their properties safe. Where they have fallen short is ineffectively branding and promoting these protocols, and reinforcing that people can feel safe as a result.

Rather than posting text-heavy signs at entrances or multi-page documents on websites, operators of can consider creating a dedicated brand for their protocols in order to promote the feeling of safety among shoppers and the perception of responsibility among community leaders. This brand can be used in online and on-property communications, as well as in efforts to build relationships among community stakeholders.

Engaging Community Leaders

Mayors, City Council members, School Board members, and other community leaders can be powerful allies to amplify the critical messages around re-opening. Operators can assemble a group of allies and equip these leaders with information around how these local businesses contribute to the community.

For example, one could highlight the local benefits of the sales and property tax revenue, featuring specific examples of essential local government services that depend on these payments. Allies can be recruited and deployed to craft op-eds and launch social media campaigns.

Furthermore, property operators can form partnerships with local nonprofit organizations that are assisting with COVID response/mitigation efforts in order to build goodwill and demonstrate the centrality of the property to the community. An example of this would be senior-specific priority shopping hours, or special protocols and services designed to provide additional protections to at-risk shoppers. Properties can explore how underutilized spaces can be safely and strategically leveraged for community benefits.

Deploying Business Stakeholders as Advocates

To truly activate these efforts, property operators can explore engaging tenants to participate in advocacy efforts. For example, tenant “partners” can sign up to join a property’s “safe shopping protocols,” which can further promote the feeling of safety among visitors and can also result in a positive media narrative.  Property operators can also discuss the possibility of tenants advocating to policymakers on their behalf. Furthermore, property owners can identify natural allies – like the National Retail Federation, Retail Industry Leaders Association, and local Chambers of Commerce, to reinforce the importance of its re-opening initiatives in the media and with local community leaders.

Highlighting Emotional Connections

Retail real estate properties are not merely centers of commerce – they often provide key emotional moments for members of the community. Whether it’s holiday-specific events and displays that draw families periodically, or day-to-day opportunities for experiential retail, many of these properties have created moments for community residents that are the cornerstone of cherished memories.

Property owners and operators can explore opportunities to highlight these emotional connections within the community in stakeholder conversations, as well as earned and social media. Using concrete examples can remind local leaders how integral their shopping centers are to the social cohesion of the community.

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