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International Plaza continues to be surprisingly busy, Taubman says

Bill Taubman, left, visits International Plaza in August 2001 with developer Dick Corbett, the driving force behind the mall’s creation.
Bill Taubman, left, visits International Plaza in August 2001 with developer Dick Corbett, the driving force behind the mall’s creation.

International Plaza continues to be a busy mall that drives high sales. So much so that it caught Bill Taubman, chief operating officer of Michigan-based Taubman Centers Inc., by surprise.

"I don't really have a specific reason why," said Taubman, whose company built and runs the Tampa luxury mall. "The retail business overall has been okay. But Tampa has been particularly strong."

Taubman spent Monday and Tuesday in New York City at the International Council of Shopping Center's New York National Deal Making Conference. There he met with retailers and real estate brokers, and talked about new projects and existing centers within the Taubman portfolio. Last year, his company opened the only enclosed mall that opened in the country — the Mall at University Town Center in Sarasota.

Beyond Florida, the mall operator is opening three new malls in Asia next year. It is also testing new retail-related technology in Florida malls, which will eventually be expanded to all the company's properties.

The Tampa Bay Times caught up with Taubman after the conference to learn more.

So how are the Taubman properties in Florida fairing?

When we were getting ready to open the mall in Sarasota, there was some expectation that there would be some pull on the business at International Plaza. But to be honest, we haven't seen that. Maybe it's because there are enough positive things that's happened at IP, so it hasn't had a big effect on shoppers wanting to go to Sarasota.

When Saks decided to consolidate their Tampa Bay business to Sarasota, I think the intention was to still have access to the Tampa market, since the mall is in north Sarasota and along the highway. They've been very happy with the performance of the new store so far but haven't shared much more with me about it.

The retail business has been okay so far this year. That's not really news, everyone knows that there have been some factors, like the weather, that hasn't helped. But the malls in Florida are doing well. Interestingly enough, IP has been particularly strong. Restoration Hardware seems to be off to a great start. I was there for the grand opening. They think that store will do really well in Tampa, and so far they're very happy with it. The team made a specific point to tell me how happy they are in Tampa when I saw them in New York.

Technology was a big topic at the New York conference this year. What is Taubman doing to stay on top of this trend?

The first version of our new app and complete mall Wi-Fi were launched in Sarasota. The app lets shoppers know where the stores are and see maps of the inside of the mall. In retail, technology has to be used in a way to simplify the brick and mortar shopping experience. We have to use to it to answer the question, how do we make the shopping experience more relevant and pleasurable? Retail has to be focused on the merchandising first and foremost, of course, that's why shoppers come to the malls. But how that trip occurs, from easing parking in the parking decks to making reservations, is how we can improve upon the customer experience with technology.

What's it like building malls in Asia? How different is it from doing business in the U.S.?

We have three projects opening next year in Asia — two in China and one in Korea. We've done business there before, but this is the first time we're delivering projects that we have a majority ownership in. Asia is a big expansion vehicle for us.

The experience is totally different and the same at the same time. It's not smart to assume that all things that work in the U.S. will work there. We're still building 1-million-square-foot projects there with conventional department stores, even if the brands are different. And these are vertical urban projects, not like the suburban spread out we usually do in the U.S. But the land availability and the nature of Chinese society lend themselves to these vertical buildings.

The properties still have the same disciplines of design as the U.S.: Access to parking, clean sight lines and visibility to the stores inside is important. So the values are similar, but the form it takes is a little different.

Contact Justine Griffin at jgriffin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8467. Follow @SunBizGriffin.

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