At a time when we’re all looking for light at the end of the tunnel, you need a few pointers along the way. 

Lawrence Hutchings

Lawrence Hutchings

The fast paced and continuous evolution of the coronavirus situation in the UK requires property businesses to adapt quickly by leveraging past experiences and by observing what is happening in other countries around the world. The problem being there was no precedent, and so it has demanded nothing short of a superhuman effort across operational and management teams to chart the best path towards the light, not before you consider the collective drive of the NHS and all our country’s essential workers. For that we say a resounding thank you.

As a community shopping centre owner, needs-based, essential retail is integral to our business. It’s in our DNA, so we understand why it’s so important to peoples’ everyday lives. Consequently, we are working closely with our retailer customers and our suppliers to ensure the availability of necessities in our communities. Maintaining open communication with all retail customers during this obscure time has been vital to having discussions and negotiations about how we can move forward post lockdown and thrive together.

Shopping centre

Source: Shutterstock/ Dmitrijs Dmitrijevs

It is paramount that landlords or Owner Managers as we prefer to be called, continue to collaborate with retailers and their communities to plan for future phases of this crisis, and especially as we work our way out. Monitoring and observing activity in countries further along the curve has been central to this process for Capital & Regional, as we look to adapt our operations during what will surely be a lengthily and (of course) cautious return to normality, or should I say ‘the new normal’.

The Mall Walthamstow fire

Source: Waltham Forest Council

A fire broke out at Capital & Regional’s Mall development in Walthamstow in 2019

Taking the positives, we have been able to quickly adjust our operations based on key learnings from the fire at our shopping centre, the Mall Walthamstow, last summer which closed the centre for a period of 6 weeks, including the true value of community relationships and how to effectively communicate and work remotely. During the current crisis the early establishment of a Capital & Regional COVID-19 Response Team has been the foundation of astute and continuous communication with our communities and our staff. Following the UK government Covid-19 guidelines we provide guests with updates regarding stay at home activities, NHS support, and information about and from our retailer customers, while our centre teams have been actively involved in local initiatives to support food banks, the Salvation Army and other great causes.

Looking outside our communities, as a team we have been lucky to pool the group’s collective experiences, not least from abroad. Contacts in Europe and Asia and particularly China have proven invaluable sounding boards for me and the senior teams here to understand how they coped, and to look for those valuable pointers to make the right operational decisions each step of the way. At present we are plotting our course to re-open those centres which will involve balancing operational needs with the commercial needs of our retail partners, and above all, protecting the safety and wellbeing of our guests.

We have to anticipate a significant rebound in certain sectors once the UK market begins to recover judging by what we’re seeing in China today, and post-SARS in 2003. As we look to the future, close collaboration and communication between landlords, retailers and guests will be key to managing this effectively. We expect Sports and Entertainment to be one of fastest growing sectors in recovery as people return to socialising and their regular routines. The close proximity between people in gyms, cinemas and other leisure facilities is something we are preparing for.

Coronavirus supermarket

Source: Shutterstock/Eidar nurkovic

Many of the precautions being taken in China are consistent with the measures in place across our portfolio, including regularly disinfecting all touch points, implementing emergency protocols, distributing sanitisers and providing the centre teams with the information and tools required to support our guests. There are new measures we are noting and will consider based on the perceived risk once lockdown begins to lift. These include maximum-capacity regulations being implemented by recently re-opened gyms in China, which allow 50 people to use the facilities at one time. Slots are bookable in advance and a full clean of the facilities is conducted between each slot. More stringent regulations include body temperature measurement for all guests at each entry point of shopping malls, as well as the mandatory wearing of face masks by guests.

We believe all our stakeholders will have heightened levels of interest in how we operate and manage our centres, especially at touchpoints, where we previously benefited from an assumption that the standards were sufficient. In addition, consumers will increasingly look to how those companies that benefitted from high levels of consumer trust behaved as a corporate citizen during what is firstly a humanitarian crisis, and we are seeing good and not so good examples every day.

One of our biggest takeaways from our global insight and dialogue with peers has been that well-managed community malls in China have better weathered the outbreak and could be expected to gain more attention from value-added investors. It rings true that, at times like these, community retail assets are critical parts of community infrastructure.

Our core focus now is ensuring we are well-prepared for the post-COVID-19 world, whatever it may look like, while continuing to serve and support our communities to the highest standards possible.

Lawrence Hutchings is CEO of Capital & Regional