America’s malls court customers through food

Solar-charged rollercoasters, wind-powered Ferris Wheels and other renewable-powered attractions could become business as usual for the amusement parks of the future.

April 06, 2018

Already, a handful of major theme park companies are embracing green energy, from California and New York to the United Kingdom.

Most recently, Six Flags Entertainment Corporation committed to powering two of its California parks almost entirely with energy from the sun. Beginning later this year, Six Flags will generate at least 7 megawatts (MW) of electricity with solar panels strategically located over the parking lot of its Discovery Kingdom in Vallejo, California. A second system at Magic Mountain, near Los Angeles, will have capacity for nearly 15 MW, making it the largest solar carport in North America.

And over in New Jersey, Six Flags is transforming one of its existing sites into the world’s biggest theme park to be completely powered by solar energy, preventing as much as 1.5 million tons of carbon particles from going into the atmosphere each year.

The bright side of solar-powered amusement parks

It’s not just the environment that stands to benefit; renewable energy can be incredibly cost-effective, according to Kyle Goehring, Executive Vice President and Head of Clean Energy Solutions, JLL.

“Amusement parks need a lot of energy to power rides, concessions and offices,” says Goehring. During the peak summer season, attendance reaches its highest levels and rides tend to be at their busiest in the middle of the  the afternoon, when the sun is the brightest. This means they can generate the most power when they are consuming the most energy.

That’s a big deal in California, which has some of the most expensive utility rates in the country. “By transitioning to solar power, Six Flags expects to save several hundreds of thousands of dollars in the first year alone—and even more as electricity prices go up in the future,” says Goehring, who acted as lead agent for Six Flags on the project.

Plus, Goehring says that by bringing in solar energy, amusement parks can provide extremely visible evidence of corporate responsibility commitments and even improve the guest experience. “Shaded parking is always an advantage in sunny Southern California, and solar carports make it easier to provide the infrastructure of charging stations for electric vehicles that are increasing in number,” he points out.

Yet amusements parks don’t need to go through huge renovations to become more environmentally friendly and energy efficient.

“Solar carports, like the ones being developed at Six Flags, have a lot of potential because they’re free-standing structures that don’t require additional land,” says Goehring. “But there are several other ways theme parks can take advantage of renewables, from installing solar on the roof of a ticket booth or over a walkway, to purchasing green power from an offsite provider.”

For example, California’s Great America plans to power its 100-acre park with 100 percent wind energypurchased from an offsite provider. In Florida, meanwhile, Disney World has built a large ground-based solar array shaped like Mickey ears.

At Hersheypark in New York an 80-foot wind turbine both produces power and promotes renewable energy to visitors. And across the Atlantic, in Wales, Green Wood Forest Park is 100 percent powered by renewable energy—mostly the sun but also people power, in the case of its Green Dragon roller coaster.

Is an all-renewable future possible?

While renewable power is becoming more common, there’s no one-size-fits-all formula for theme parks. “Every park will have its own set of considerations around renewable energy depending on its location, its revenue and its attractions,” says Goehring. “It’s important to look at the individual long-term business plan, and analyze whether on-site generation makes economic sense given the growth projections.”

Goehring also points to the importance of engaging stakeholders at the outset. “A successful project depends on buy-in from the on-site park management team, local utility and community. They need to be involved as early as possible,” he advises.

And as the economic case gets stronger, green energy may have more supporters. Indeed, with many U.S. states still offering substantial incentives for renewable energy projects, and the cost of solar panels coming down while electricity prices go up, more theme parks are likely to find they too can get on board with green power.

Thinking outside the food court

Revamping food and beverage goes beyond redecorating a food court.

“The overarching theme of all food renovations is to make it feel less like a cattle call,” says Lew Kornberg, Executive Vice President at JLL. “Rather than one enormous area, it’s more integrated.”

To achieve this, owners are creating smaller, fine-dining clusters around luxury retail. At Simon Property Group’s King of Prussia Mall in Philadelphia, restaurants like Mistral—a farm-to-table food and craft cocktail concept from chef Scott Anderson—are designed to blend in with the aesthetic of surrounding stores. Mistral’s space is softly lit, spare and accented in blue, with high ceilings and bar shelves that float from suspended wood. The airy vibe drifts into nearby retailers, like the even-more-spare Apple Store around the corner, Salvatore Ferragamo and Coach.

Customers at King of Prussia’s luxury wing can book their dinner reservations at a concierge desk reminiscent of a hotel lobby, where there is complimentary sparkling water and cookies.

Landlords are also leasing portions of shuttered department stores, which have their own entrances, to restaurants. This makes dining more accessible since customers don’t have to descend a mall’s depths to grab a bite, Kornberg notes.

At King of Prussia, Outback Steakhouse and Yard House leased part of a former Sears. In the Galleria in Houston, Nobu and Fig & Olive moved into what was once Saks Fifth Avenue.

As landlords looked beyond the food court, the overall space dedicated to eating and drinking increased by five percent over the past decade, according to JLL. Food and beverage offerings now take up between eight and nine percent of the total space within malls and could grow to represent 20 percent by 2025, according to a 2017 study by ICSC and JLL.

“If you look at Westfield’s Century City mall, Eataly has significant square footage,” says Taylor Coyne, Senior Research Analyst at JLL. “People are going to go there for Eataly. It may have the halo effect that they end up buying a few things at retail stores.”

Getting the ‘90s out

Landlords tend to update their food courts every 20 to 25 years, Cook says: “They might have had renovations done in the ’90s, so now they are making changes to get the ’90s out.”

Two decades ago, the vogue was low ceilings, florescent lighting and boxy vendor spaces with primary-colored signage. Modern design now calls for open, bright spaces with softer colors.

One way to achieve this is to literally knock down walls and roofs. In Downtown Los Angeles, the Bloc, formerly Macy’s Plaza, is going through a $250 million transformation. In the first phase, the roof of the mall was removed, exposing the previously dark and uninviting space to the sun. Since then, the farm-to-table restaurant District has opened alongside a courtyard with outdoor seating. Austin-based chain Alamo Draft house is scheduled to open in 2018.

Seating styles have changed, too. King of Prussia, for example, has opted for an airport feel: high-top barstools with plugs at every seat to recharge iPhones and soft seating in clusters where customers can gather.

Many food courts are being redesigned to look more like urban food halls, with local wine and artisanal food vendors in large, artfully decorated spaces. When a national tenant leases a space, they do so with a kiosk style that’s unique to the location—and may even be worthy of a photograph.

“It’s not all about Instagramming things,” Coyne says. “But that Instagram-ability does help you market your brand and location.”

Local beer meets Shake Shack

Design can only go so far without a good tenant mix. Rather than leasing to old standbys, landlords are looking for food offerings with a strong enough appeal to draw in customers on their own.

Take Westfield’s Century City mall, which unveiled its $1 billion makeover in November 2017, complete with private lounges, secret elevators and special hours for celebrities to shop in privacy. Its centerpiece is Eataly, an Italian food emporium where shoppers can buy groceries, sip wine and eat meals cooked by an elite roster of restaurateurs. “That’s the Disneyland of Italian food right there,” Cook says.

To keep the tenant mix relevant to the Instagram crowd, some landlords are seizing short-term leases. Others rent courtyard space to a rotating cast of popular food trucks and surround them with communal seating.

“In the past, a lot of old line retailers got stuck in the mud because their spaces could not be redone without spending a lot of money,” he said. “The smarter retailers and mall owners are thinking of the evolving needs of the customer.”

The biggest change to the overall tenant mix over the past decade may be the focus on alcohol. Westfield’s Century City has an outpost of the craft beer and burger joint Tipsy Cow and a Bar Verde within its Nordstrom’s store.

“In the ’80s and ’90s, you didn’t really expect to be able to get beer and wine in a food court,” Cook says. “That’s totally changing now.”

What’s becoming overwhelmingly clear is that one size no longer fits all—every location, every mall has different tenant needs.

“Every food court should be different, and the investment is going into making these spaces unique,” Coyne concludes. “The more you don’t follow the recipe, the better.”

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