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ICSC WHISTLER 2008 - WHO KNEW? IT'S ALSO A CONFERENCE

By James Speakman                            February 5, 2008 

Like many (most?) in the Vancouver real estate community, I have attended the ICSC Winter Conference at Whistler each January for nearly the past decade, taking advantage of the networking, receptions, dinners, late night adventures and occasional skiing, all the while telling my partners that I was at “work”.

Imagine my surprise when I found out that ICSC is actually a conference! Who knew? With registrations, exhibits, working sessions, guest speakers and the like. Perhaps, I thought, ICSC is about more than just standing around waiting for a familiar face to come by for a visit and a beverage. Perhaps not. There was only one way to find out.

With that in mind, I boldly went forth and registered for the ICSC 2008 Whistler Conference, to find out what actually is behind the ropes and up the stairs in the ballrooms at the Chateau Whistler. Here’s my report.

Sunday 4:05 pm Registration Desk
Apparently, I beat the crowd. Either that or most of the other 1,800 registrants are on the ski hill. In any event, I get my registration package – a badge with my picture on it (so I can’t pass it off to anyone and let them behind the ropes) and the wire-bound program directory in a plastic bag. I’m not really sure why I need the plastic bag.

Sunday 4:10 pm Mallard Lounge, Chateau Whistler
Having an hour or so to kill before the Member Reception and nowhere else to go, I wander over to the familiar surroundings of the Mallard Lounge. More truthfully, I have a meeting with clients and their prospective tenant, to discuss the shopping centre, the lease, and the timing and construction of their new premises. Sitting in lounge chairs around a small table topped with a few glasses and bottles, and despite being distracted by the guitar-playing singer and people passing by, we actually accomplish quite a bit. I make a note to myself regarding re-designing my office.

Sunday 5:15 pm (or so) Member Sponsored Welcome Reception
I start by looking for people I know and quickly learn that this reception is apparently off-limits to most of the Vancouver real estate community. Either that, or they know how long the bar line will be and choose not to attend. However, despite the lack of familiar faces (or perhaps because of it) I meet a number of people from other provinces. Most particularly, a realtor and civic official from Lethbridge tell me about the many opportunities there, and two developers from Regina confirm what I already had heard - that Saskatchewan is booming, they’ve got a new business-friendly government, labour is in short supply, land prices are increasing and it’s a great place to be doing business (and tell all your friends, too). I quickly decide that one of the benefits of registering for the Conference is the chance to meet folks from outside British Columbia, and make that my goal for the next two days.

Sunday 6:45 pm Colliers Reception Westin Resort and Spa
This is generally my favourite reception at ICSC. On Sunday night, it’s the only game in town, and everybody goes. It’s crowded, but you can always meet people you want to meet. Unfortunately, with the expansion of the Conference into both ballrooms at the Chateau Whistler, this event has been moved to the Westin in the Main Village, which means a walk in the cold. Equally unfortunate is that I’m late, and the event’s popularity means long lines to get in. Still, it is an excellent event. Everyone seems to still be upbeat about their projects, the economy and their projections for 2008. The “vibe” is strong.

Sunday 7:30 pm Il Caminetto
I go with clients to a very nice dinner hosted by the good people at RBC Capital Markets, with whom we have done financings. Again I’m late. As such, I get the last seat, at the end of the table, with a few people from Toronto who work with large institutional groups and are focused on asset investment and development. This is fortuitous, given my new goal of meeting non-Vancouverites. After getting off to a shaky start by disparaging both Toronto and the Leafs, I manage to make nice and talk about the opportunities they’re looking for, including acquisitions, joint ventures, greenfield development, etc. Although one mentions that 2008 may see some portfolio balancing (due to stock market jitters) with resulting property sales, and we speak generally about cap rates perhaps creeping up, overall they are bullish for 2008 and are still looking for properties.

For those who care, I have the avocado and tuna appetizer, lobster bisque, penne with spicy Italian sausage and some white wine, but no dessert (trying to be sensible). It is all tremendous.

We move on to a few restaurants and the Irish Pub, meet some friends, meet up with some investment bankers from Toronto, decide not to go to the dance club, discuss skiing the next morning and decline. I retire to my quarters in the prestigious Sundial Boutique Hotel. All-in-all a successful first day at the Conference.

Monday morning
Woke up, got out of bed, dragged a comb across my head. Was still thirsty even though I thought I had had enough to drink the night before.

I walk out of the Sundial into a cold, clear, beautiful day and start to re-think why I’m going to the Conference and not going skiing. The walk in the cold up to the Chateau for the start of the Conference seems long. It’s an even longer walk from the Chateau to the Four Seasons where the Conference sessions are actually being held (the only grumblings I hear at the Conference (and they were few) relate to the fact that the Deal Making Exhibits had expanded into a second ballroom at the Chateau, forcing the meals and business sessions to the Four Seasons. It seems okay to me, but then this is all new to me).

Monday 8:30 am Buffet Breakfast, Welcome and State of the Industry Address
The Harmony Room in the Four Seasons is jam-packed for the buffet breakfast and opening remarks. Like the Members Reception the previous night, the greater number of attendees are from out of province. However, I manage to meet a few new folks from Vancouver, including a development manager for a large property investment group and a development consultant, both of whom will henceforth be deluged with information and mail-outs from the Clark Wilson real estate group.

After opening remarks by the Conference Co-Chairs, Christina Flanigan of Staburn Property Group and Glenn Barrick of Grosvenor Canada Limited, ICSC Chairman René Tremblay, President and CEO of Ivanhoe Cambridge, provides an update on the State of the Industry.

Mr. Tremblay reports that 2007 saw continued growth in the Canadian economy, with solid domestic demand and high growth rates for retail sales. Projections for 2008 are for continued growth in retail sales (5% annually), with Alberta again leading the country, strength in the Western and Atlantic provinces, but weaker results in Ontario and Québec. Mr. Tremblay points to pharmacy sales leading the way in retail sector growth, with furniture, building supplies and clothing following in order. He notes that economic fundamentals such as historically low interest rates, a strong labour market, increases in personal disposable income, a continued strong housing market and the GST reduction should all contribute to retail sales growth in 2008.

Trends which may adversely affect the shopping centre industry include rising labour and construction costs; weaker asset appreciation (i.e. increasing cap rates); the evolution of mixed use retail concepts with a broader assortment of users, price points and formats; the growing number and assortment of U.S. based retailers coming to Canada; the integration of new technologies; and sustainability and “green” initiatives. He encourages attendees to take the lead on sustainability issues, noting that they result in cost savings, increases to net operating income, possibly more accessibility to different sources of debt and equity and social awareness and responsibility.

Monday 9:40 am Joint Ventures with First Nations
Bill Tucker of Vancouver-based Omicron moderates a panel discussing joint venture development of shopping centres and other projects on First Nations lands in British Columbia. The panel provides an informative session on the opportunities and issues surrounding development on First Nations lands, and encourages attendees to look for opportunities in this sector.

Monday 10:30 Deal Making Exhibits Chateau Whistler
At last, nirvana. The chance to see what is behind it all, on the “floor” at ICSC.

What do I learn? ICSC is not just a conference, it’s not just about deal making (although there seems to be a lot of that going on), it’s also about Handouts! I start by picking up a few small knickknacks that I think our crackerjack Clark Wilson marketing department will be interested in seeing and perhaps knocking off in the future. Then, a few exhibitors insist I take their item, presumably realizing that they picked the wrong item and if they don’t get aggressive about moving product they’re going to be carrying several boxes back to Toronto. Finally, a bottle of water to quench my thirst. My hands and pockets are full. I now realize what the plastic bag was for. Alas, it is long since discarded.

Deciding to make a challenge out of this, I wander over to the Lansdowne Shopping Centre display, pick up one of their shopping bags (made from recycled materials), and start to fill it up in earnest. Here’s what I got:

Chapstick, handwarmers, mints, memo pads, luggage tags, and something from the City of Penticton Economic Development Commission that I can’t figure out (but pick up anyway). I give up collecting once the bag is full. I’m starting to wonder what the utility of this is – who will remember the exhibitor based on the handout and how much of this stuff actually makes it back home? On the other hand, the stain remover stick from one of the law firms (what’s the connection there?) will definitely come in handy at dinner.

Monday 12:30 Four Seasons Hotel Retailer’s Podium
This is my favourite session at the Conference. Ten retailers, five minutes each (although a few went over) to discuss their business and growth plans. Each of the 10 companies presenting (which range from start-ups to long established groups) are positive for their ongoing business prospects, and speak of plans for expansion and taking on new locations in 2008. From the perspective of a legal provider, I hear an awful lot about branding and learned the expression “our brand DNA is….”, and think about the success these “consumer-centric” organizations are achieving. Notes-to-file about our own Clark Wilson brand and focus on client service.

Monday 1:45 Four Seasons Hotel Brian Burke
This was perhaps the best attended session I went to, a testament to Mr. Burke’s reputation as a speaker and Canada’s passion for hockey. As expected, “Burkie” is very entertaining and provides insight on both the game and the business of hockey. Two lessons I take away are “the customer experience starts when they get to the front door” and “make the experience special for your customer before they ask you to”. Much to the chagrin of the Torontonians, he refuses to say that he will become the General Manager of the Leafs.

Monday afternoon Chateau Whistler
Back to the display floor for networking and a few final Handouts. Fewer people walking around than before lunch, but it looks like a lot more people sitting together and doing deals, not just at tables in the Deal Making and Networking Lounge but also on the window sill, at tables in the hallway, wherever they can find a spot.

I move on to the Mallard Lounge, my usual Monday afternoon spot, to network and meet friends, old and new. I am struck by the very positive “vibe” among the attendees. Everywhere you look there are people who appear like they are trying to put a deal together.

After a while, I go back to the hotel to put my feet up for a few moments and get ready for the night’s receptions and dinner.

Monday night Whistler Village
The usual round of receptions. DTZ Barnicke, CB Richard Ellis and Cushman Wakefield Lepage. Arrive early and manage some intelligent conversation before they get too crowded (which they do). Everyone is upbeat, either having enjoyed the day’s sessions and dealmaking or, more typically, skiing. This is the familiar ICSC to me, where everyone from the Vancouver real estate community is there, enjoying the fruits of many consecutive years of success.

We host our Clark Wilson dinner at Il Trattoria to thank a large group of clients for their patronage (names withheld to protect the innocent). It was a blast (for those interested, I have antipasto, salad, the ahi tuna and no dessert again). Like the previous evening the food is very good. I decline to go to the dance club, and make it back to the Sundial. I get up early the next morning and drive back to town.

Was it worth it?
Absolutely. Registering for ICSC allowed me to expand my networking beyond its usual Vancouver-only scope, and to meet people from outside British Columbia. This was my goal going in. Although I didn’t get too much out of the morning sessions, I found the Retailer's Podium quite interesting, particularly in terms of their focus on branding and customer service. And of course, there’s all those handouts.

James Speakman
 

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