Having consulted my diary I see that, incredibly, we are now a month into lockdown.
This week, I had a poignant reminder of a vaguely remembered parallel universe when a diary reminder pinged loudly to tell me I needed to get glammed up for the annual Property Week Awards dinner, which was scheduled for Tuesday 21 April. Normally, I wouldn’t have dreamed of missing it.
Now a big question is when and indeed if we will go back to 1,000 of the great and the good gathering in the Great Room at Grosvenor House hotel, which for decades has been such an intrinsic part of the social life of the real estate sector. It may have to be a masked ball or a Zoom party!
In the meantime, we are going to need to find a way of replicating the chance encounters and conversations at these industry events that often lead to new business. It could be that it is likely to involve greater use of the Zoom private chat function bar, as opposed to the bars we are used to!
I have said (many times) how important collaboration will be in dealing with the challenges and repercussions of the Covid-19 crisis. So it is not surprising to see real estate trade bodies representing retailers and landlords (the British Retail Consortium, the British Property Federation and shopping centre trade body Revo) coming together to ask the chancellor to provide rental support for the high street with a view to avoiding job losses and the winding up of viable companies if no action is taken.
In a separate intervention, the restaurateurs have also come together to ask the government to fund the challenging post-lockdown period. I spoke to Des Gunewardena, chairman and chief executive of D&D London, which operates some of the top restaurants in London, Leeds, Manchester, Paris and New York, and his message is also about the need for landlords, tenants and governments to get their heads together. “A dogfight between landlords and tenants will mean even emptier high streets/shopping centres and mass unemployment,” he says.
One of the positives of this lockdown period has been the proliferation of interesting and thought-provoking webinars. As a London Business School alumna, I particularly enjoy tuning in to their sessions when I can. A recent highlight was Professor Dominic Houlder, one of Europe’s leading experts on strategy and entrepreneurship, delivering a webinar on global leadership.
I vividly recall Houlder interviewing me for the Sloan Masters programme and questioning my motivations. Do you really want to have the words ‘she drafted a good lease’ as your epitaph, he asked! Clearly I didn’t, as I then spent one of the most challenging years of my life studying at London Business School. I have another more mundane reason to remember Houlder. He was the group leader on our study group to Shanghai and the panic induced by seeing our van depart, leaving me alone at a remote rural factory miles outside Shanghai with no way of communicating will stay with me always. Fortunately, he remembered there was one missing and came back after what seemed like a lifetime. The key message of his webinar was how important it is in this pandemic for business leaders to be seen to be doing the right thing and the importance of not veering away from your values if you want to come out of this crisis a winner. We will all be asked, by our children and grandchildren, what we did in the great pandemic, he said. He also referenced a quote from German philosopher Nietzsche: “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.” Definitely food for thought as this period of enforced lockdown rolls on.
Another notable webinar was the Fifth Wall VC Fund ‘Fly on the Wall’ interview between co-founder Brendan Wallace (with his dog Lady Macbeth looking very nonchalant in the background) and Raefer Wallis of GIGA an organisation that combines the development of building standards with technology to promote healthy buildings. Wallis talked about the Covid-19 crisis as a preparation for the crises we face from climate change if we don’t take appropriate steps. He also highlighted the critical importance of collaboration between landlords and tenants to ensure the requisite standards of air quality and wellness in their buildings. Going forward, public health responsibility will be an increasing focus with sensors monitoring all aspects of a building’s performance including its air quality. Wallis also raised the question of insurance and insurance premiums being linked to the building’s long-term performance.
Finally, news is in that the French government has appointed an official mediator, Jeanne-Marie Prost, a senior lawyer, to lead rental mediations between the large property owners and the retail chains with a view to reducing the rental burden for these tenants. The aim is apparently to work in a constructive spirit to find collaborative solutions that meet the current challenges. There’s that ‘collaboration’ word again. Would it be helpful if we looked at doing something similar in the UK?
Susan Freeman is a partner at Mishcon de Reya