When Sydney entered another lockdown in June 2021, we were halfway through preparing for Rhodes Central’s opening. There were limited retail options in Rhodes, and we knew we only had one choice; to forge ahead and ensure the community could safely and conveniently access the essential retail and health services the centre would provide. 

Of course, it wasn’t that simple. Our team faced a steep learning curve and many challenges we would never have imagined. Now that Rhodes Central is open and thriving, we thought we’d share some of the hard lessons we learnt.

1.     Building strong relationships is paramount

Through strong relationships comes trust, and that’s precisely what we relied on when dealing with the confusion caused by changing restrictions. From our client Billbergia Group, our retailers and contractors, open and honest communication ensured they trusted our advice, had confidence in our decision-making and assured that we had their best interests at heart.

Our retailers were faced with uncertainty in many instances, and clear communication was the key to establishing relationships under trying circumstances. Our contractors were responsive to our needs and worked with us to deliver changing requirements, sometimes with less than 24 hours’ notice. We would not have been able to achieve the outcomes without the quality of these relationships.

2.     Being agile is our biggest asset

In comparison to other big corporations, we have a tight team. Every member of our team is highly skilled, and it makes us agile and able to make decisions on the go. Most importantly, we trust each other to work autonomously and provide regular updates to the team so that we are all aligned.

Being an agile team meant communication flowed much more smoothly, and there was no chance of instructions getting lost in translation as it can when passed through layers of management. The best example of this was the opening of Woolworths before the opening of the rest of the centre. We were able to work with the business to get their new store ready for opening in just two weeks during the construction lockdown to ensure the local community could safely meet their daily needs.

Through clear communication, heightened COVID safety procedures and our thoughtful marketing approach, the store was able to open safely while ensuring all COVID requirements were met and maintained.

3.     Understanding our clients’ business helps decision-making on the fly

With compliance requirements changing so quickly, being able to make fast and reliable decisions was crucial. By understanding our client’s top priorities and comfort around risk, we could adapt recommendations to be as efficient as possible. This allowed the centre’s transition to operational management in less than a week while over 50 speciality stores continued to undertake their fitout.

We worked with retailers and fit-out contractors to ensure that their fitout works could continue safely during the construction lockdown, including managing contractors based in locked-down areas and providing essential services. During the construction lockdown, this was a vital activity, which meant the centre could be opened with only a three-week delay.

4.     Sometimes, it pays to slow things down

Usually, when we open a new centre, we launch with a lot of fanfare over one or two days to create as much excitement and as many people as possible. For obvious reasons, bringing crowds of people into the centre wasn’t going to work. Instead, we took a slow and steady approach and built momentum in a safe and controlled way.

In hindsight, the approach worked very well as we were continually giving retailers and shoppers something exciting over a longer period, rather than in one big bang. We created a strong community around the centre, and inclusiveness has been maintained ever since.

5.     There’s always a way to find a win/win situation

While we always work with our client’s top priorities in mind, we know how essential retailers are to a centre’s success. So, throughout the whole process, we played a vital advocacy role for both retailers and our client. Finding a balance between what’s best for Billbergia Group and the tenants wasn’t always easy but the key to success.

This involved developing creative incentive initiatives that made it rewarding for retailers to open during lockdown, advocating for them as they faced staffing challenges and tailoring solutions to the different needs of different businesses.

Despite the many extra hours of hard work required, opening Rhodes Central in the middle of Sydney’s harshest lockdown has been overwhelmingly positive for our team and an experience that uniquely places us in the retail management environment. Many of the strategies we implemented will permanently influence how we work moving forward. The whole experience has helped us to forge our ‘new normal.