Open for Business: How Property Managers Can Support Building Retailers During COVID-19

Tamala BallardWhile the pandemic of COVID-19 has touched practically every corner of the globe, there are still essential businesses and employees of those businesses keeping our world moving forward. One of those people is Tamala Ballard, who spoke to us from the Willis Tower. Tamala has been a Retail Property Manager with EQ Office since May 2019. Since there are essential businesses in the building, it has allowed Willis Tower’s retailers to stay open as well – Starbucks, Shake Shack, sweetgreen, Do-Rite Donuts & Chicken and more – offering the minimal level of service they are able to provide with the current order in place. During our conversation, we spoke with Tamala about how property owners and managers can truly partner with these businesses.

Tamala, from your point of view, when you talk to other property managers who are thinking about how to be there for retailers in their building now and post-COVID-19, what are some of the things you hear and see from speaking with them?

Now more than ever, we must explore innovative, and perhaps unconventional, strategies because this is a very unconventional time. It’s critical that building managers partner with their retail tenants and see how they can assist to ensure operations are seamless from a building management perspective. Collaborate with the retailers’ marketing teams to find creative ways to spread the word that they are open for business. When an office building has restaurant offerings, it can be challenging, as the perception is often that the office building is closed during this unprecedented time. One of our biggest challenges as building managers is educating consumers that we have great, new and exciting offerings that are open to the public when we may not be known for having retailers in your building, especially as Willis Tower is continuing to finish its renovation.

And then COVID-19 comes into play. How do we keep the momentum going?

A key factor is communicating with the retail general managers on a regular basis. Find out how they are adjusting their operations to generate business. Explore how you can expand on the efforts already in place. Shifting your marketing strategy is another key component to keep in mind, as that’s going to be the biggest push: How do you market these retailers to let people know that they’re open?

From there, is it about enlisting property management support and the customers will follow?

Absolutely. That is the goal. Property managers educate the building tenants. Retail managers are busy and under a lot of pressure with trying to keep operations afloat. At times, they may not realize that perhaps there are good ideas worth sharing with their neighbors. We, the property managers, can be a conduit for those ideas to flow between retailers. How can they mirror the success of other establishments in their respective business? The more retailers that win, the better for everyone.

We want to find what the evidence-based strategies are: What’s working? What’s not working? Then we connect our retailers together so they can learn from each other.

One initiative we are proud of here at Willis Tower is Catalog Cares, which is a partnership with Frontline Foods that we implemented in May to help support our Catalog retailers, while also giving back to our community.

How does that work, exactly?

Catalog Cares is a one-to-one gift card program. You buy a gift card for our retailers and Willis Tower makes a matching donation to Frontline Foods. Retailers can also directly contribute to Frontline Foods. So, you have three parts to the program: Giving back to the community, giving back to the retailer and giving back to the customer.

Are you allowing for sit down and distancing? Or is it strictly a pickup and delivery world? How do you advise retailers and your fellow property managers as far as conveying that?

Initially, restaurants were only allowed to offer pickup and delivery, per the City of Chicago guidelines. Since the City of Chicago has lifted those restrictions, our retailers have expanded their services and are now offering counter service and seating. However, they are still highly encouraging online orders.

As the restaurants were able to open to include counter service and seating, we worked closely with each of them to ensure they had ample space to properly social distance. Whether you have a tenant with interior seating or counter service, as a property manager, you can also take on some of the responsibility and allow tenants to utilize common areas to support socially distanced seating. Again, it may be unconventional, but it’s vital to work with your tenants to allow for that additional space. Now is the time to go above and beyond to support our tenants, whether its offering stanchions, delineators, signage holders or whatever else they need to operate safely and successfully. Taking it a step further, we have placed hand sanitizer stanchions throughout the areas, and our janitorial team is constantly cleaning frequently used areas.

Diving deeper into the focus on safety, what kinds of ways are you getting the safety message out there?

The safety of all Willis Tower tenants, visitors and employees remains our top priority. To communicate important building updates, we’ve been issuing memos from the building, leveraging the building newsletter – The 110 – and whatever modes of communication the respective tenant has within their premises. This creates another opportunity within retailers’ branding to put safety at the forefront. We also have signage throughout the building, reiterating the several safety measures Willis Tower has   implemented, from one-way doors to recommended elevator protocols. Communicating these safety measures to tenants and customers is vital. 

At Willis Tower, construction has continued throughout COVID-19 and more areas of the building are now complete; it is beautiful, I must say. As more of our tenants return to the building, they will essentially be returning to a “new” building. And, since so many people have been working from home for quite some time, we expect returning to the building to be an adjustment for some. Building managers have to make tenants and customers feel as comfortable as possible – and as safe as possible – when they re-enter the world of the “new normal.” Consistent messaging to tenants   is a critical role in establishing that comfort.

It’s not like flipping a switch and suddenly people are going back to work all at once. Perhaps some are starting to transition back one or two days a week. It is key that property managers not only educate tenants on the fact that the building is open, but also that building management is following the recommended guidelines and proper safety precautions.

What are some additional suggestions you have for property managers and retailers for different ways that they can support retailers in a building beyond gift cards so managers can help drive traffic back in the tenant’s direction?

Again, finding creative ways to spread the word retailers are open. We have continued to send our newsletters, push notifications via the My Willis Tower App, update our website and keep tenants informed through The 110. Property managers should utilize the same platforms they always used within their organizations and keep that momentum going with new and creative content. Now is not the time to ease up on those efforts. Keep pushing.

Is there anything, since all of this disruption started, that you’ve been pleasantly surprised by in terms of what you’ve learned about creating relationships with tenants and what you’ve learned about yourself?

It’s really interesting that you ask that question because, in the world of property management, you have to constantly adapt to many challenges on any given day. No one day is the same in our world, and. we are used to adapting to whatever ball we are given. That’s a plus. But with retail tenants, their revenue is obviously dependent on customers. If they’re not open, they don’t have revenue. So the challenge there is, how do you continue to support your tenants and let them know that you are there for them during this challenging time?

One thing I pride myself on is checking in with the retail managers every week, and simply asking, “Hey, what’s going on? Do you need anything? What challenges do you have?” You need to allow them to express ways that you can further help. Even if they’re not directly asking you for something, just by listening, you will likely learn ways you can help. Their success is your success!   

As property managers, we are often the voice and the face for our tenants. It’s important that we stay in constant communication and remind them that we are here for them. At EQ Office, we pride ourselves in customer service. We want our tenants to remember how supportive we have been as a property management team.


About the Author

  • Tamala Ballard

    Tamala relocated to Chicago in May 2019 and is currently the Retail Property Manager for Catalog at Willis Tower – EQ Office, overseeing 300,000 square feet of retail, dining, and entertainment at one of Chicago’s most iconic locations. Tamala manages daily operations at Catalog—an evolving five-floor urban destination at the heart of downtown Chicago serving visitors, tourists, and office tenants of the 110-story building.  Her responsibilities include tenant relations, commercial budgeting, reforecasting, and assist with construction management.

    Tamala is a member of CREN Chicago and currently sits on BOMA/Chicago's Emerging Leaders Committee and the BOMA/Chiago/Chicago Loop Alliance Central Loop Task Force. .