Mega-tainment malls: Can acrobats and indoor skiing boost shopping centers?

People used to go to malls for new clothes and coffee. Now they can go bungee jumping or ski indoors. Is entertainment the new mall anchor?

October 09, 2018

People used to go to malls for new clothes and the routine indulgence in coffee and cinnamon buns. But as American retailers seek to stay relevant in the age of ecommerce, the trip to the mall is being redefined.

Big shopping centers now offer patrons a place to ski indoors, jump on trampolines, or even learn acrobatics.

“It used to be a big deal if a mall had a merry-go-round inside, or if Santa stopped by during the holidays,” says James Cook, who directs retail research at JLL. “Soon, people will be going to the mall to learn to snorkel, ski or juggle. It’s a whole new world for shopping centers.”

A major aim of the shift is to give shoppers a reason to leave the comfort of their living rooms—and the online retailers at their fingertips.

Toronto-based Triple Five Worldwide Group, the developer of the American Dream Miami, is building a 6.2 million-square-foot, $4 billion retail and entertainment complex, complete with an indoor ski slope, ice-climbing wall, water park and plexiglass submarine. Plans also call for 2,000 hotel rooms in the 174-acre complex.

Cirque de Soleil seems to have received the memo, too. The company is launching an indoor family entertainment experience, called “Creactive,” specially designed for retail centers. The first will open in September 2019 near Toronto at developer Ivanhoe Cambridge’s Vaughan Mills mall, one of the largest enclosed shopping centers in Canada.

The offering is like a mix of a circus show and a Discovery Zone-style interactive playground. It features Cirque-inspired recreational activities like bungee jumping, wire walking, do-it-yourself mask design and circus juggling.

The entertainment shift

More and more, entertainment tenants, like movie theaters, are swooping in to fill vacancies left by big box retailers. The demand for these tenants is clear: 33 percent of consumers want to see more entertainment options at shopping centers, according to a study by the International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC).

“The focus now is on food and fun,” says Cook. “This ‘dinner and a show’ trend is taking hold at malls across America.”

Out of the malls that underwent renovations between 2014 and 2017, 41 percent of upgrades focused on food and beverage revamps, with entertainment offerings clocking in as the second-biggest focus at 28.9 percent, according to JLL research.

A holistic approach

For many property owners and managers, however, improving a shopping center involves more nuance than simply bringing in major entertainment players. “Layers of placemaking” need to be involved to avoid the mistakes made by the malls of yore, says Scott Burns, who leads retail in the Los Angeles region for JLL.

“It’s about the experience you create overall,” Burns says. “We have to be cautious that we don’t make entertainment formulaic, like we made shopping centers formulaic when they were developed—with an anchor, a certain number of retail shops and a set amount of parking.”

In addition to entertainment opportunities, which can range from bowling alleys and movie theaters to laser tag and BMX racetracks, it’s essential to develop green spaces and conversation areas that encourage visitors to linger, Burns says.

If a shopping center has the right balance of attractions, it will become a “third place” to spend time outside of home or work, Burns says. The key is to “give people a reason to stop by all through the day and into the night,” so that a shopping center becomes vibrant for a full 18 hours a day.

“It has to be so welcoming and comfortable that people want to spend time there,” Burns says. “Whether it’s for a morning coffee, a working lunch, or dinner and entertainment with friends.”