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The Innovators: Weitzman Chief Marketing Officer Leisa Barger

In this series, Bisnow highlights people and companies pushing the commercial real estate industry forward in myriad ways. Click here to read Q&As with all the innovators Bisnow has interviewed so far.

Last year was brutal for retailers. But it was a little less so for retailers operating out of properties managed and/or leased by retail real estate services firm Weitzman in Texas thanks to a platform dreamed up and overseen by Chief Marketing Officer Leisa Barger.

When the coronavirus pandemic hit and foot traffic plummeted, Barger went to her database of Weitzman's 3,500 tenants in Texas' largest cities and determined which lacked digital footprints, which were considered more important than ever for retailers to survive. She then worked with those companies to build out websites and e-commerce platforms, and she helped them push emails and digital marketing solutions with a sharp SEO focus.

The proof is in the pudding: Small retailers who worked with Barger to improve their digital and e-commerce capabilities saw their traffic rise 25% to 28% on average after implementation. It also helped landlords — Weitzman-leased and managed properties retained 97% of their retail tenants through the pandemic.

Weitzman Chief Marketing Officer Leisa Barger's digital solutions platform and online marketing strategies helped retailers and restaurants increase traffic online during the coronavirus pandemic.

Though Barger moved fast to react to the moment, the path had been laid over the course of a few years.

It all started when Barger asked a question in 2016: What if commercial real estate landlords and operators could emulate Amazon and help their tenants find end users by simply analyzing online and mobile data? 

This thought inspired her to embark on a career-changing journey to create an Amazon-type platform that allows Weitzman landlords and tenants to leverage online and mobile solutions and dominate search data whenever a consumer close to a Weitzman-associated shopping center Googles for related product and service information.

Barger in 2016 launched a digital services platform for Weitzman using the firm's market data and other brokerage tools to deliver digital and e-commerce support to tenants and shopping centers. Weitzman's digital solutions cover the gamut, offering smaller and independent retailers everything from packages and guidance on creating blogs, push emails, mobile marketing, SEO search functionality and a digital footprint that connects shoppers with tenants in Weitzman properties. 

Were it not for Barger's ingenuity in creating a digital solutions platform several years ago, Weitzman and many of its clients in the wake of the pandemic would have found themselves in an online-heavy, data-driven, e-commerce-focused environment without the necessary tools to survive. Her creative work to keep tenants alive earned her the title of Bisnow Innovator.

This Q&A has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

Bisnow: What does your digital footprint or platform offer to your clients/landlords and tenants? 

Barger: We built an online infrastructure that would grow the awareness of a particular shopping center and of all of the categories of retailers that were in that shopping center and the surrounding market area. Then, we established social media, blogs, SEO-enabled websites, Facebook and Instagram, and even independent tenant boost campaigns digitally that hyper-boost the visibility of not only the shopping center, but of specific categories and even independent retailers in the minds of consumers. So if I am going home tonight, and I am within a 3-mile radius of West Plano Village and I call my husband and say, "I am hungry for Italian," our Italian food restaurant within the Weitzman shopping center will come up within the top three [during a mobile search].

That was the goal. We would, not unlike Amazon, become the dominant player in search. We would work to elevate and be so consistent and strategic with that overall digital strategy that we would always be the top three in search. 

Bisnow: What tools do you have to retain and save tenants who are struggling with traffic or dealing with overall hardship?

Barger: We have another program that's called Tenant Boost. Let's say we are sitting in an asset management meeting. There's the asset manager, myself and the leasing broker in the room, and they say we are having a tough time with these three stores coming out of Covid or at any place in time. Maybe they lost a great manager. Maybe the restaurant caught fire and had to be rebuilt. Maybe there was some other foreseen downturn. We want to go in and boost them, so we created this extra special program — kind of a digital on steroids — that boosts that tenant and we do a series of strategies and real finite plays and generally, we have them completely back on track in less than six months. The tenant retention capabilities of this are just huge.

Weitzman's Leisa Barger with her husband, Ron Barger.

Bisnow: How did your digital solutions platform change when the pandemic hit? And how did your strategies change? 

Barger: We created a campaign. In the first phase, it was called "A New Together Again." So we just planted a lot of messaging. We just peppered every single one in a 3-to-5-mile radius [of our shopping centers] depending on the personality and demographics of each of those customer communities. 

We were saying, "We are here together, and we are here right around the corner from you and we are going to provide you with the opportunity to just drive up to us, and we will bring out whatever it is you want."

We had our grocery anchors involved in that campaign digitalizing their messages in conjunction and collaboration with ours, and I think that just goes to show how powerful some of these messages can be and how people want to come together to work together during unprecedented times.

Then, all the way over to our independent stores, whom we not only consulted with, it really closed the gap on those that didn't have a digital footprint and most of them said "help us get one and now." So we were launching websites for independent owners who now come back and send us emails to thank us saying, "Oh my gosh, without that, we wouldn't have survived Covid."

All of this was promoted digitally. None of it was done using traditional methods. As a result, we retained almost 97% of our tenant community during the pandemic, which is exciting because these are people's livelihoods.

Bisnow: What is the difference in traffic levels you witnessed when a retailer or shopping center went into the pandemic without a digital or social media footprint and then relied on you to build one for them? 

Barger: For those that didn't have [digital solutions], we went in and built that infrastructure for them during that time. They went anywhere from a 25% to a 28% increase in traffic. Then, of course, there were months where sales spiked higher than others and reached upwards of 65%. 

Plus, during that time, you have to think about other parts of the business. Our brokers were still having to do renewals. Our renewal rate went up during that time, which is another thing that hugely surprised us, and our traffic began to rebound exponentially immediately following the pandemic.

Leisa Barger (second from left) with her marketing team: Carrie Thomas, Natalie Russell and Michelle Conder.

Bisnow: Why did you set out to create digital solutions in 2016 well before the pandemic?

Barger: We are people [at Weitzman] who don't want to preserve the present. We want to look toward the future, and I was armed with 25-plus years of experience in retail brand marketing, specifically with retail shopping center developers, trade area research and market data — all of which evolved into customer data.

Mr. [Herb] Weitzman [CEO of Weitzman] asked me to re-engineer the marketing, research and communications divisions within Weitzman to really project all of those things and to elevate them.

The digital strategy was the next step for us. I set out to hand-pick a very unique team of talented vets and aggressive newcomers that really had a passion for deep diving into trade area market data and customer data such that it repositioned and pivoted our shopping center assets.

I knew that in shaping, molding and building out that platform, it would provide us with far more relevance and we were going to have a knowledge level of our customers that was much further along and wider and deeper than others. It was going to raise the value of the assets.

Bisnow: What's in the future for your marketing team and its digital data solutions platform? 

Barger: We are already working on that. The customer data, attitudes and behaviors that have come out of this pandemic are changing every day, rather than changing every six months or a year. We are getting ahead of it and where we were once looking at the data every 60 to 90 days, we are now looking at it weekly. Customer attitudes and behaviors have changed profoundly and we have to really understand that and how we message. This next level of customer behavior is going to lead us to design and deliver a whole new set of digital assets.