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Leaders' Forum 14th May 2024

As Workman marks its 40th anniversary, leaders of the firm share their plans and vision for the future, within the UK’s rapidly evolving property industry.

Here, Andrew Sparrow, Director of Activate, Workman Placemaking, outlines placemaking challenges and opportunities. He explains how Workman’s Placemaking team is supporting clients by devising commercially viable place solutions and enlivening their properties.

What are today’s foremost market factors regarding placemaking in the real estate industry?

Firstly, social value is increasingly a key deliverable within real estate, where investors are keen to connect the place to the wider community. They want to explore how buildings can add value to local people, over and above being a place where people simply go to work. The social value benefits are now fundamental to any project we undertake from a placemaking perspective.

Secondly, we are thinking about the experience they are providing; whether it be for occupiers within a commercial building, or how we’re changing the perception of out-of-town retail from big-box, sterile environments into places with more of a welcoming experience where people want to increase their dwell time. And we are also thinking about how our clients are making their online experience dovetail with the onsite IRL experience, so that bricks and clicks are aligned.

Thirdly, it’s about delivering value for money. Historically, a lot of investment has been put into design, branding, PR, and it has often been very hard for those disciplines to demonstrate return on investment. Today, there’s a lot more focus on business planning, P&L, budgeting, strategy, and focus – because every pound our clients spend on the enlivenment piece needs to be justified. We work very hard to make sure that our services deliver real tangible benefits, not just that it might increase footfall.

What do Workman clients want from placemaking and destination marketing today?

We know investors and property owners are not short of PR firms and creative agencies, but I think what they really want is about coming up with cost-effective, viable solutions that address their particular issues around vacant stores or void spaces. They want answers to questions like “how are we going to get more people to engage with this us, and make this an active space?”

Clients want to increase the satisfaction levels and the retention levels of their occupiers, and they need qualified expertise supporting them on the journey through whatever the project may be, and having the skillset to deliver.

We collaborate directly with property management teams, and we can build our services in as part of that team, which reduces the costs and increases the efficiency of the outcome.

What is the Activate service designed to deliver, and how does it achieve against its clients’ goals?

Activate is currently planning and delivering multiple projects for a range of developers, investors and local authorities. They include advising on the regeneration of town-centre locations, the repurposing of specific assets and enlivenment of a range of destinations.

Our day-to-day roles range from talking to occupiers about the types of health and wellbeing services and amenities they might like, through to delivering an entire marketing strategy for a portfolio of out-of-town retail parks.

When we first established Activate, we set out the three pillars of our service:

  • Regenerate: Using local research and insights to advise developers and local authorities on town centre master planning and repositioning.
  • Repurpose: We provide commercially viable solutions for vacant or under-used assets, underpinned by feasibility studies and detailed business plans.
  • Enliven: We bring placemaking strategies alive through the curation of meanwhile uses, markets, pop-up retail, activities, and events, as well as delivering a full destination marketing service.

Essentially, we set out to provide end-to-end turnaround for commercial property. That that was the initial goal. Subsequently, having lived through Covid, and seen the benefits of destination marketing in online spaces linked to physical places, we’ve now moved into a world where we’re providing far more than just a basic marketing service.

We’re building websites and apps, and we have become a digital service just as much as a service that’s engaging with stakeholders and repurposing the space.

Each client’s goals are different, but fundamentally they all share the same fundamental drive to retain occupiers, find new tenants, and ensure the satisfaction levels are high. The work we do supports those three objectives – and also a further goal, which is maintaining income stream and reducing liability.

How does the service differ across sectors, to meet the needs of offices as well as retail spaces, for example?

In retail, we’re often working with multiple stakeholders; the retailers within the building, the asset manager, the client, plus the wider community, which is the local BID, the local authority, and more, who all have a voice in how the place is managed, how the place is operated, and the types of retail and leisure services provided within that place. Therefore, from a resourcing point of view, it can be far more labour intensive, and the level of budget and resource is pretty challenging for all of these places, but the expectation and the demand for change has never been higher.

Within offices, it all depends on the size and scope of the office. We’re doing a lot of with office campuses, so the likes of Smithson Plaza, Croxley Park and Moretown. In this sector, stakeholders include the occupiers in the building, letting agents, and the client. It’s all about creating a service-led approach that makes the campus a vibrant place to be.

Essentially though, the fundamentals are the same: stakeholder engagement, budgeting, developing a tailored viable strategy for that place, and setting out a management solution which delivers on the client’s goals.

What part do digital skills and technology play?

It’s a significant growth area, particularly on the destination marketing work that we’re doing. While event management, stakeholder engagement, and content-writing are all key deliverables, being able to develop apps and build bespoke, modern, dynamic websites, are skills that we have increased within our team, either through training, or by bringing in more expertise on our design, digital and web, offering.

We are introducing different platforms to occupiers to find a way of highlighting occupier engagement events and services within the building. We are constantly looking at how we can drive engagement, using technology.

Some schemes have previously only had a very basic communication strategy in place, such as an e-newsletter once a month, and that’s it. So, we are taking clients way beyond that, and showing them that by investing in digital as much as physical, they each benefit one another.

It’s a symbiotic relationship: invest in placemaking, use a tech solution and strategy to support growth, and that will drive growth within a building.

What are your plans for the future of the Activate service?

A big future objective is growth. We will be growing the team significantly over the next few months. By the end of 2024 we will have seven or eight place-marketing professionals in-house within Workman, which will really benefit our clients in the longer term.

At the same time, we are working increasingly closely with our property management teams so that we can add our expertise to portfolios or individual properties, where we know the placemaking service could support clients, rather than them having to use external consultants, we can deliver this service.

Finally, we will be striving to continue the cost-effective high-quality outcomes that we have successfully delivered over the past couple of years.

Find out more:

Activate – Workman Placemaking