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With Its 'Super Bowl' On Hold, Retail Finds A Different Way To Get Deals Done

Margaret Caldwell should be with her team right now in Las Vegas, making last-minute preparations for face-to-face meetings during the biggest retail convention in the world.   

Instead, Caldwell, a managing director and partner at Stan Johnson, is at home in Atlanta, checking her calendar for meetings with clients to discuss possible deals by phone or videoconference.

"Typically, around the time of Vegas, we are pitching a lot of business and bringing deals to market or trying to wrap up calls for offers from buyers," Caldwell said. "Clearly, we’re not doing either one of those, regardless of Vegas. It’s been a huge damper on the investment sales market."

Attendees check out the schedule on the first day of ICSC RECon

To prevent the spread of the coronavirus and following state and local orders, the International Council of Shopping Centers in March canceled its annual RECon retail convention in Las Vegas. The group postponed its other events through August. 

But with RECon and other live retail events canceled, retail industry players are adopting new ways to network, generate leads and get deals done in a challenging pandemic environment.

"We have to transition, much like how retail is transitioning," Lee & Associates principal Jodi Shoemake said. 

RECon, originally slated for May 17 to May 20, is considered the premier business conference. More than 30,000 retailers, retail brokers, service providers, investors, owners and managers of retail properties gather every year.

The four-day conference is also the culmination of hundreds, if not thousands, of deals that have been discussed or in the works, sometimes for months prior. It is a central hub of networking for new investors, brokers and business owners. It also offers a chance to learn the latest retail trends and, of course, to socialize after hours.

Beta Partner Richard Rizika has been attending RECon for more than 30 years. His days at RECon usually start at 7 a.m. and end at 2 a.m. 

"This is the Super Bowl of our industry," Rizika said. "It brings all of the stakeholders together in one room, and this is the only time of year it happens."

RECon is a big moneymaker for ICSC, which last year offered sponsorships ranging from $3K to $50K and advertising for as much as $65K. Booth spaces inside the convention hall can cost upward of $100K, depending on the size and location. Tickets last year to the four-day event ran from $50 for students in advance to $820 for members to $1,600 for nonmembers who bought on-site.

A Bisnow request for an interview with ICSC officials wasn't returned. But ICSC officials said in April that the group wouldn't reschedule this year's RECon or any other events that it planned to hold before Aug. 15. As of now, the organization is tentatively planning eight in-person events starting the end of August through January, but that could change.

“This is an unprecedented time in our history and one that has the potential to shape many aspects of our daily and professional lives going forward," ICSC President and CEO Tom McGee said in a statement. "ICSC remains committed to connecting the industry and helping our members navigate these uncharted waters. While we are saddened by the necessary changes in our event schedule, we look forward to serving you in new and unique ways.”

Hundreds attended H&R Retail, KLNB, Kimco Realty, Peterson Cos. and Rappaport's first Retail Revelry in the DMV, a new party celebrating retail real estate in the Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia market, during the second day of the ICSC RECon event at the Bellagio Grand Terrace and Pool in Las Vegas.

The cancellation is just one more speed bump for the retail industry. The pandemic and subsequent stay-at-home orders from state and local leaders have forced the closure or limited the operations of shopping malls, retail centers and many other businesses in a sector that had been struggling for years.

Last year, more than 9,200 retail stores closed nationwide, up 35% from 2018, according to MultiChannel Merchant, a retail news site, citing Coresight Research. Questions are swirling around whether this is the brick-and-mortar retail apocalypse that has been forecast in the shadow of Amazon and e-commerce. On Friday, the U.S. Commerce Deptartment reported retail sales in the U.S. dropped 16.4% from March to April. 

But if this is the end, some retailers are going out guns blazing rather than with a white flag waving. 

Since RECon was put on hiatus, Shoemake, who is based in Pasadena and has been attending RECon for the past eight years, said she is getting more leads and doing more business at this time than she would if she were in Las Vegas. The coronavirus, she found, has brought many in the industry closer together, as they all try to navigate the shifting winds of the business from home.

"I feel like I have more contacts added to my database than in years past," Shoemake said. 

To bulk up that list, Shoemake said she scours the names of attendees of every webinar she attends, places their info in her database, looks them up and makes an effort to connect with them either via email, LinkedIn or a phone call.

"We have to be resourceful at this time," she said. "We all know retail is in transition. This is going to be an example of survival of the fittest." 

Still, she laments that she won't be attending RECon this year, because although she prefers attending local ICSC events, the national convention is a different animal. 

"There's nothing that can replace the energy of 30,000 people inside a convention hall," she said. "I feel like it’s important to go. It’s a social event. The big landlords, big companies are all holding court in the convention hall or hotels, and there are a lot of cocktail parties."

Audience members listen to a panel on the first day of ICSC RECon

Rizika said it is rare to get deals done at the conference since many are complex and take months to pull off. The reason he goes is to promote his company and network.

"It's all about relationship building," Rizika said. "You meet with clients, create new relationships, get market insights and learn best practices around the globe."

Now, most of his work with clients is done by phone, email or virtually. 

"Zoom has become very popular," Rizika said. "A lot of it is electronic. We're sending emails, making calls with our clients, and providing analysis up front and scheduling virtual tours."

Coreland Cos. principal Vicky Hammond said she will miss what would have been her 13th appearance at RECon this year. It is a critical part of Coreland's business, she said. 

"For us, RECon is equally important to make a personal connection with people across the country who you don’t have an opportunity to meet and introduce who you are in person," Hammond said. "I don't want to date myself, but I was taught that an in-person, face-to-face meeting means a heck of a lot more than an email introduction."

Hammond said at the moment, she and her team are trying to stay connected to industry news and continue to be in touch with their clients as many prepare to reopen.

Caldwell, who specializes in selling shopping centers, said it is nice to take a break from the grind that is RECon. It can be a tiring event, she said. 

"You have clients all over the world sitting in one large room. It's like speed dating," said Caldwell, who has been attending RECon for 20 years. "My days are usually filled, and I'm running what seems like 5 miles from meeting to meeting and attending multiple client events in the span of four days."

Even still, she, too, said that she finds herself meeting and talking with more clients these days than before.

"I have calls every 30 minutes or every hour with investors, heads of institutions or publicly traded companies," Caldwell said. "Frankly, I’m having better meetings now because I don't have to run from booth to booth. I have more time."

Still, Caldwell looks forward to attending live events. She has circled ICSC's New York Deal Making conference in December.

"I will definitely go back to RECon and other ICSC events," Caldwell said. "I am not scared, and it would not prevent me from going. I'm hopeful of the New York conference. It will probably have fewer people, but it is just as important an event."