With the holiday season right around the corner, retail leaders are wondering how to safely bring joy to customers while still adhering to social distancing measures. From Black Friday doorbusters to Santa photo ops, holiday events are typically one of the biggest sources of foot traffic and income for retail centers. This year, however, malls will have to get creative in order to engage consumers both in stores and from afar.
Many industry-leading shopping centers are using a mix of digital and in- person events to overcome the challenges that the pandemic presents. From virtual visits with Saint Nick to drive-thru tree lightings, read on to find out what retailers are doing to make this holiday season special for consumers.
Deck the Digital Halls
Even Santa is working from home this year. Digital event platforms are offering virtual visits and augmented reality (AR) experiences with Father Christmas for children who are trying to make the Nice List.
To continue engaging customers throughout the pandemic, marketing teams across the nation have already tested out virtual events with relative
success and plan to be out in full force during the holidays. One example of a commercial property manager testing out this model is Brookfield Properties. The company, which has one of the largest retail portfolios in the U.S., is partnering with Jingle Ring to provide a digital Santa experience to their customers. The platform allows children to chat with Mr. and Mrs. Claus live from the North Pole, and each unique visit is captured on video.
Moreover, Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield, a global mall developer that owns 30 Westfield malls in the U.S., will host augmented reality scavenger hunts at various locations. These self-guided tours will allow shoppers to find virtual characters like Santa, and elves, plus discounts and services, by scanning QR codes throughout the property.
Dashing Through the Snow
The CDC has advised event planners to prioritize outdoor activities where social distancing can be maintained. In order to adhere to these guidelines, some shopping malls are moving the holiday festivities outside, creating winter wonderlands and drive-thru experiences for visitors to enjoy.
NewMark Merrill, a real estate owner and management company with more than 80 retail properties across California, Colorado and Illinois, has several shopping centers opting for outdoor experiences this year. Its Village at the Peaks in Longmont, CO will offer double feature Xmas drive-in movie events
for kids and adults, complete with goodie bags, hot chocolate, popcorn, and more. They will also launch a Kris Kringle-themed heated outdoor dining area with spaces for each of the center’s restaurants. And, in California, several NewMark properties will throw outdoor holiday celebrations with expanded dining areas, public art, and colorscapes, as well as holiday-themed drive-thru bingo games.
“We want to continue keeping our customers engaged and know our centers are a big part of their holiday traditions,” said Danaria McCoy, VP of operations and marketing for NewMark Merrill.
“Despite Covid, we want to be there for our guests and offer them new ways to experience the holidays.”
Socially Distant Saint Nick
For shoppers who are comfortable with in-person experiences, many retail centers are still offering the chance to meet Santa, as long as you have a reservation and practice social distancing. And to stand out from the competition this year, malls are going the extra mile to truly bring the holiday spirit to life.
For instance, the iconic Aventura Mall in South Florida will be hosting Santaʼs Workshop, which will be beautifully decorated with a mountain of glistening gift boxes stacked 60-feet high; classic English-style rocking horses; plus towering teddy bears, toy soldiers, and candy canes all standing at over 10- feet tall. And every hour, an elaborate holiday light and sound show will take place.
In addition to the traditional Santa set-up, Aventura Mall will also be the only Florida shopping center to host The Grinch’s Grotto—and if there was ever a year where The Grinch might steal Christmas, 2020 would be it. Guests will enter the grotto in a free-standing location for a one-of-a-kind visit with The Grinch in his special cave and can partake in a socially distant photo shoot with the green man, if they dare.
Moreover, Brookfield Properties’ Natick Mall in Boston will be hosting Santa’s Elevator Express. The magical elevator embedded in a 40-foot-tall Christmas tree takes visitors on an unforgettable ride before arriving at Santa’s workshop. Once inside, children can check out the Nice and Naughty list, and visitors can take pictures with Saint Nick himself. Other Brookfield properties are hosting experiences such as Selfies with Santa (in Norwalk, CT), The Wishing Forest (Orlando, Fla.), and Sleigh It with Santa (Providence, RI).
According to Rachel Wille, senior PR and social media specialist for Brookfield, “Though things will look a bit different this year, we are committed to creating a magical experience for our younger guests and families in a safe environment. In addition to working with social distancing guidelines, the sets will be equipped with hand sanitizing stations at entrance and exit areas, and deep cleaning will be done daily.”
Ultimately, the main thing shopping centers should focus on when planning holiday events this year is flexibility. One month ago, things were drastically different than they are today, and itʼs safe to assume the same will be said one month from now. However, by putting safety first and being adaptable, there is still a lot that retailers can do to engage customers and honor holiday traditions.
Matt Levinson is Chief Operating Officer at O’Connell & Goldberg PR in South Florida. A former journalist, Matt brings with him a wealth of experience in the areas of Public Relations, Crisis Communications and Retail Marketing over the span of 20+ years in the industry. He is the PR rep for several shopping centers, including Turnberry’s Aventura Mall.