It is all systems go for the opening of the BEO Mall in Belgrade, Atterbury Europe’s latest venture in Serbia in collaboration with MPC Properties. Roux Gerber gives a peek behind the scenes before the opening this Thursday, 25 June.
The regulations to contain the Covid-19 pandemic really complicated the planning for the opening, which was originally due in April. How did you manage the process?
The state of emergency in Serbia was announced 15 days before the planned opening in early April 2020. Although no embargo was placed on construction works, the working conditions, health restrictions, lockdown conditions and especially cross-border travel restrictions resulted in a slowdown in production and delivery rate, not to mention that some materials and equipment were literally stuck at the border posts. Secondly, all retailers, our tenants, faced various uncertainties, not knowing how long the situation with the pandemic would last or what the outcomes would be, and the restriction on movement of people and goods over borders added to this. The team had therefore four main situations to manage:
Firstly, they needed to keep construction and finishing works going, even at a very slow pace. Secondly, they had to revise the tenant agreements with a flexible condition to announce the new opening date when we got more clarity over Covid-19 restrictions. Constant communication with our tenants, whom we treated as partners during the crisis, paid off and we managed to retain 99% of those tenants who had been signed up before the pandemic.
The third area to manage was the re-planning of the opening marketing campaign, keeping everyone in the loop, with service providers on standby.
And finally, we had to keep the shareholders and funders informed of the processes amid constant changes at short notice, and all the actions required.
What were your major challenges to get ready for opening on 25 June?
Our tenants were a big priority – keeping them motivated and able to finish the internal fit-out and merchandising of their stores; and also adapting our contractional agreements to reflect the situation of uncertainty about when the pandemic would be under control. It was a challenge to keep the opening date inside the “season window” with respect to stock orders and requirements of the tenants, who are mainly fashion houses. And of course, we wanted to do what was needed so that the majority of tenants could open on the day, to ensure a successful opening.
Our second major challenge was with construction finishes and consents. The restriction of movement of people, material and equipment took its toll and had to be managed on a daily basis. Additional resources became a scarce commodity, but the team managed to pull additional help from various local avenues. Video-conference site meetings and video site inspections were the main modes of off-line management during this period. The on-site professional team was supported with daily calls and email replies. It’s been all systems go where management was concerned, except you couldn’t “smell the concrete” on the video calls! With a reduced workforce and reduced working hours, the main contractor kept the process going to gain every possible bit of advantage during the lockdown period. The end result was as good as can be expected within the constraints, and with a few days to go before opening, finer de-snagging and constant cleaning are now the main priorities. The process to obtain operational consent is also linked to the readiness of the tenants, which make this process challenging, to say the least…
Even for you to travel from Bucharest to Serbia for the final days prior to opening in this time was a mission… tell us about the experience.
At the moment, if you travel to Serbia, which is not part of the EU, there’s a quarantine period on your return to an EU country. On 15 June 2020, cross-border travel restrictions from Romania were lifted, but the quarantine process still stands. We are hopeful that the quarantine conditions will be lifted by 1 July, otherwise I will have to be in quarantine in Romania for 14 days on my return! And yes, the process to travel to Serbia was extraordinary, to say the least…
I was recommended to arrive at the airport four hours before my flight. The drop-off area is a few hundred meters from the departures hall, and there are tents in the parking area where you have to report to be tested for medical fitness. Upon entering the tented area, you have to wear a mask. Groups of 50 people are then allowed to move from these tents to the main airport building. Again, you’re tested and then directed to your check-in desk via a route of arrows. A distance of 1,5 metres has to be maintained and various queuing routes are demarcated on the floor. Limited check-in counters are opened and the number of people in the specific space is also restricted. This slow controlled movement of people continues to the scanners and immigration control. All of this adds up to a very, very long process, with no room for expediting it in the event of being late for a flight. Seating arrangements in the plane are spread out and embarking and disembarking process are thorough with respect to confirming any possible medical conditions. So, in short, a one-hour-20-minute flight between Bucharest and Belgrade ended up being a process of six hours from airport to airport.
On the Serbian side, measures were strict, but due to the limitation of flights, the airport was empty and entry into Serbia was relatively quick.
What is happening on the site in this last few days before opening?
As with any development, despite the added pleasures of Covid-19, it looks like controlled chaos as tenants are finishing their fit-out and moving in their stock, while the contractor is in overdrive with respect to finishing the final details, repairs of minor defects and doing what is required to be ready for opening.
What special activities are planned for opening day?
The opening and marketing plan had to be adapted with the current restrictions in mind. The advertisements, billboards and branded bus campaign started two weeks ago, so there is quite a buzz around the opening already. Unfortunately, the planned events, which involved a public gathering of more that 500 people, had to be postponed to a later date. The grand opening will most probably only be in September.
How many shops will be opening on the 25th? Are all shops allowed to trade in terms of Covid regulations, including restaurants?
Out of the 125 shops 114 will open, which represents more than 86% of the GLA. Due to stock and material supply issues a few shops will open in the next few weeks. Trade has been allowed in Serbia for more than a month, although foot traffic in other retail outlets have been lower in comparison to prior years. There seems to be an automatic distancing process in place, but normal operations will be allowed with emphasis on social distancing and precaution.
Is the mall fully let, and if not, how much space is still available if there are other interested potential tenants?
We are 99% let and in negotiation on the few remaining spaces.
BEO Mall offers a retail experience that Belgrade and even Serbia has never seen before. What are your targets and/or expectations for the first month?
We remain optimistic that BEO Mall will make its mark in the retail environment in Serbia. The tenant mix and aesthetic offering of BEO is unique in Serbia, and combined with easy access and ample parking, it is set up for success. We expected that the novelty value might be dampened by Covid-19, but the excitement of having something new, beautiful and unique is already out there. As a norm, we think that it is wise to have lower expectations for the first few months and then be pleasantly surprised when these are exceeded.
How can prospective tenants find out more about leasing opportunities in the mall?
Nemanja Kreckovic from our leasing team, Confluence, is the centre manager for BEO; and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org