Storefront leasing is still recovering but the vibes at the world’s biggest retail conference reveal a Covid-blind optimism is in the air.
The Wynn Resort poolside parties Sunday — the unofficial pregame to the ICSC conference in Las Vegas — were awash with brokers, investors, developers and some conference newbies eager to get down to business and debauchery after a three-year hiatus from the May event.
Riffing off the devil-may-care attitude that ruled 2021’s “hot girl” summer, Stephanie Weber, the 30-year-old principal and co-founder of Asheville-based Institutional Advisory Group, likened ICSC 2022 to “hot girl real estate.”
“It definitely feels like the event, the parties are back with a vengeance this year,” Webe said.
JDS Development founder Michael Stern, who makes skyline-shaping bets for a living, laid down footings at the Wynn’s blackjack tables. Jack Terzi, founder of embattled New York retail landlord JTRE, nursed a Coors Light and cigar under the main cabana as creditors 2,500 miles away were trying to foreclose on several of his properties.
“There are two sides to every story,” Terzi said.
Though the conference hosted a semi-annual resurrection last December, many of the attendees circulating the Wynn’s European Pool said they had skipped it — the gathering pulled about one-fourth of its usual 30,000 attendees — to hold out for the real thing this spring.
Ari Malul, a broker at New York-based Schuckman Realty, remembered a sense of “apathy” about attending December’s conference, befuddlingly titled and punctuated “Here, We Go.”
Held on the eve of the Omicron-variant surge, the winter event required proof of vaccination. May’s gathering, by contrast, dispensed with Covid-safety requirements such as negative tests or vaccination cards. Attendance, at least, was healthy, at 20,000, or two-thirds of a normal year’s count.
“This time, it was like FOMO if you didn’t go,” said Malul.
The uptick in cabana rentals was a testament to the event’s comeback. Last year, Meridian Capital Group was the only firm to book a covered enclave. This year, throngs of industry folk dotted the Wynn pool’s perimeter, with retail powerhouses such as Winick, TriState Commercial and Northwood Investors hosting poolside gatherings.
Marc Sitt, managing director at Kassin Sabbagh Realty, held court steps from the investment firm’s corner cabana. Amid attempts to find a spray-on sunscreen, he doled out his take on retail’s resurgence: The market is back.
Perched in a tree overlooking Meridian’s two cabanas was an African hawk-eagle, which was initially on display for photos but had evidently escaped from its handler who could only be described as way too blasé to be in charge of an African hawk-eagle. Perhaps the raptor had its eye on the kosher catering and free swag at Meridian’s party.
Meridian’s spread drew the biggest crowd of the real estate cabanas, with everyone from a 21-year-old part-time broker to firm presidents mixing it up over free Casamigos cocktails. President of retail leasing James Famularo was surrounded by a gaggle of young brokers, eager to set up a lunch before he could light up his cigar.
The pandemic turned so many restaurants into cavities that Famularo is now seeing an uptick in restaurant leasing. Leasing in a space already outfitted with deep fryers and cooktops can cut a tenant’s costs and move-in time.
At Northwood’s cabana, the talk was about first-generation retail stores from online-native brands like Allbirds, which can use their troves of consumer data to pinpoint neighborhoods where customers already live.
Of course, myriad obstacles stand between retail and a full recovery. In-store shopping and e-commerce remain locked in a tug-of-war, and inflation coupled with stock market chaos is hitting consumers’ wallets.
And lest we forget, the fifth Covid wave could well dampen brick-and-mortar visits.
But just as last year’s “hot girl summer” saw young urbanites cast off Covid protocols to steal a slice of normalcy with the pandemic still simmering, the attendees of this year’s “hot girl” ICSC rarely let chit chat turn to concerns about Covid’s impact on business or their current risk of contraction, preferring instead to revel in the moment.
Marcus & Millichap’s evening escapade at the Wynn’s gilded XS club embodied that carpe diem energy.
A couple of hours into the 8 o’clock party, dealmakers perched on tufted banquettes, laughing and gabbing as cater-waiters circled, offering spring rolls to complement the complimentary drinks. Others leaned back in booths nestled along the edges of the room to watch women in incandescent butterfly bodysuits dance.
The real party, though, was outside — a testament, perhaps, to lingering fears of Covid. A growing crowd wrapped around the club pool, watching a female stilt walker in a technicolor costume fit for the electronic-music festival Electric Daisy Carnival, also held in Vegas this weekend.
Steps from that exuberance, the real world of retail could be seen as a sobering testament to how the other half has been living.
Just outside the Wynn, the manager of a 24-hour Denny’s smoked a cigarette and pointed up to the newly built Resorts World across the street.
“Those guys, they’ve got bags of money to throw at hiring,” he said. “I’m still having trouble drawing a full staff. People don’t want to work for what we used to pay.”
Up in the Wynn, as retail’s white collars partied in the neon lights, Covid felt like a bad memory from the distant past. But down on the ground floor, some of their tenants can’t shake the pandemic blues.