Tech and disruption underline ICSC’s 2019 Las Vegas retail conference

As the industry comes to terms with store closures and bankruptcies, the tech-focused direction of retail was on display at the annual conference

TRD NATIONAL /
May.May 22, 2019 08:30 AM

The welcome message plastered above the Las Vegas convention center said what people in the retail industry have had a hard time coming to terms with in recent years: “Less traditional. More innovative.”

As bankruptcies, store closings and e-commerce have increasingly dragged revenues away from retailers, attendees of this year’s International Council of Shopping Centers convention expressed unwavering optimism.

“Retail has always had to reinvent itself,” said Dan Spiegel, the managing director of Coldwell Banker Commercial. “We are now just going through a faster rate of change.”

Following the traditional Sunday festivities that kick off the annual conference at hotel pool bars, Monday morning was anything but a sleepy start. Close to 30,000 people flowed through convention center that day, while a never-ending line outside the center’s only Starbucks outpost continually formed. By midday, much of the New York crowd headed to Meridian Capital Group’s lunch event, which featured a smorgasbord of food trucks.

Speaking about New York in particular, Jeffrey Roseman, a vice chairman at Newmark Knight Frank, described owners as generally “cautious” and said they were no longer holding out for big rents, while most retailers are “being smarter and a little more conservative” with how they spend their money on brick-and-mortar.

Crowds formed at panels that were largely dedicated to innovative concepts that can drive retail tenants back to storefronts. One talk included a Q&A with heads of startups that are disrupting the space, including StoreFront, whose CEO Mohamed Haouache describes the company as the “Tinder of retail” because of it matches tenants with landlords.

Still, some noted an observed lower number of attendees this year in comparison to 2018.

“It looks not as crowded as it has been in other years,” said Maurice Nieman, an executive managing director of Savills’ capital markets group in Los Angeles.

Thomas Lorenzo, Hilton’s managing director of developing in the northeast U.S. and Canada, echoed the sentiment, calling Monday’s crowd, which is typically the peak, “definitely lighter.”

However, those observations didn’t ring true at the major commercial brokerage booths. CBRE and JLL had sprawling setups facing one another that were each filled with hundreds of people dealmaking across tables.

While waiting for a meeting at Cushman & Wakefield’s booth with Starbucks for a shopping center client, Kelly Rule from Pappas Investment described the conference as “crazy.” She said she’s been coming for 10 years but this year “it’s just been shoulder to shoulder.” When she heard others’ reported less people, she said “talk to some brokers.”

CoStar Group, which has the only two-story booth in the convention, this year converted the upper floor into a television studio, where CEO Andrew Florance was seen being interviewed. Downstairs, he was later playing cards with other CoStar executives. Similar to last year, a Model S Tesla with $25,000 in cash spread inside the dashboard was on display. CoStar auctioned it off on Tuesday afternoon.

On Tuesday, as per usual, many attendees headed home. But some dedicated folk stayed on.

Brandon Singer, a leasing broker at Cushman whose clients largely comprise new-age, retail disruptors, was still taking meetings in the firm’s bustling booth late that morning.

He said many of his clients – which include Showfields, the self-proclaimed WeWork of retail, and 3den, an amenitized rest space – didn’t attend the conference themselves because of scale. They’re working on a handful of deals as opposed to the dozens larger retailers may be ironing out, he explained, “it’s a long flight for one meeting.”

“It probably seems like it’s quieter,” he said. “[But] this year, I actually felt momentum was up.”

Simon Ziff of Ackman-Ziff Real Estate Group had a different takeaway: “This year more of our meetings were about capitalizing mixed-used projects and significant redevelopments with retail as a smaller component.”

Photos by Erin Hudson. 

Ashley McHugh-Chiappone contributed reporting.


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