BCSC 2015: Themes from the week

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Jessica SwettenhamAs delegates traipsed back to London to recover from this year’s British Council of Shopping Centres gathering in Manchester, Jessica Middleton-Pugh reflected on the conference mood and hot topics.

Eat, drink and be merry. The move out of London combined with the general optimism of the sector meant that corporate hospitality budgets were back in a big way. Organisers relished the variety of venues on the doorstep of Manchester Central, and there were enough lunches, fringe events and drinks receptions to ensure that everyone’s diaries were constantly double-booked.

Room to breathe. The draw of getting together outside the convention centre meant the actual exhibition area lacked the density and buzz of last year, but as last year’s venue, London Olympia, only had one decent pub within walking distance delegates were forced to embrace the cabin fever of the conference centre for most of the event.

While the boss is away… On the flip side, locating the event outside the capital led to the loss of a senior presence, from investors and developers in particular. There were a couple of prominent chief executives, but generally the delegate list was made up of advisors, agents, and managers. This meant that the demographic seemed younger, more energetic, and focused on industriously arranging meeting after meeting to prove to colleagues back in London that they really weren’t just on a two-day jolly.

The rise, and rise, of F&B. Many delegates and speakers were bewildered by the seemingly unstoppable rise of the food and beverage industry, and the appetite of consumers to keep packing out restaurants. There was a feeling that F&B had saved many a shopping centre or high street that had been left struggling to fill vacant retail units, and while churn was inevitable, the bubble was far from bursting as demand for new restaurants continued to outstrip supply.

Not much retail. For what was billed as the leading retail property sector event, there was not actually much retail representation at BCSC. Only Poundland took a stand, with the rest of the exhibition dominated by funds, agents and local authorities. This reflected both the changing dynamic of the sector, but also the re-positioning of BCSC itself. Very few sessions in the programme addressed issues directly connected to shopping centres, and some didn’t even mention the term, but looked at high streets, town centres and consumer trends.

Can we help you? Agents and planners were out in force and ready to charm their way to new appointments. As a sign of where we’re at in the development cycle, the advisors obviously sensed that local authorities, land owners and developers are looking to deliver new projects to capitalise on the resurgence of the retail market that was finally delivering a sense of optimism after several years in the doldrums.

Let’s get digital. A cluster of tech-focused stands within the BCSC exhibition represented how important embracing digital innovation has become to retailers, who just a few years ago had been fearful that tech would be the end of shopping as we know it. A ‘Digital Playground’ exhibiting interactive signage, digital payment systems, 3D printing, and virtual and immersive reality technology demonstrated how the digital age could close the gap between retailers and their consumers, complementing the in-store experience while ensuring that brands engaged with the unstoppable force that is e-commerce.

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