Q & A | Teri Smith?| The Vancouver Sun
Business Improvement Association braces for fast-paced change
Featured as one of the two most expensive properties on the Canadian Monopoly board game in 2000, it has been referred to as a shoppers? nirvana, Rodeo Drive North, SoHo West, the heart of downtown, Vancouver?s Runway and The Place to see and be seen. For some, Robson Street is viewed as too touristy and lacking local flavour. Teri Smith admits the international notoriety and lofty expectations of Robson Street can be both a blessing and a curse for those whose livelihoods depend on operating successful businesses there. The astute executive director of the Robson Street Business Association, now well into her second year on the big-street beat, knows the tourists are coming; Vancouver is on the map and Robson Street is always a must-see during one?s travels, as signified by the increased foot traffic during May to September. Just as important, Smith?s BIA is working hard to bring back the sparkle that has dimmed over time on Robson Street, as Vancouver?s neighbourhoods have grown and evolved, with no shortage of trendy places to shop, dine and visit. There have been recent challenges along the renowned street ? named after John Robson, who was B.C.?s premier from 1889 to 1892 ? such as multiple vacancies due to country-leading lease rates, high property taxes, the 2008 recession, post-2010 Olympics dip, increased competition from neighbouring retail districts and shopping malls, cross-border shopping and the significant growth of online shopping. But with L?Occitane en Provence opening in September, followed by cosmetics giant Sephora launching North America?s largest flagship store in October, and news of Roots expanding and renovating its flagship, Smith is upbeat and embracing a transition expected to pump more energy and people into a district that is no stranger to evolution. We caught up to her last week to talk about the so-called Three Amazing Blocks of Awesome:
Q: Robson Street begins at BC Place Stadium and goes all the way to Lost Lagoon in Stanley Park. Do you think people are aware your BIA is only three blocks of that (Burrard to Jervis) stretch, looking after some 200 businesses and property owners?
A: While Robson Street technically spans four different BIAs, fortunately for us when most people think of Robson, they often refer to the main shopping area, which historically has been the 1000 and 1100 blocks; however it has since expanded eastward with the anticipation of the new Nordstrom.
Q: You?re a mom, a distance runner and an executive director of one of Canada?s best-known BIAs. Which gig is tougher?
A: Is this a trick question? They all have their moments (laughs). I?m able to use the experiences and lessons learned in all aspects of my life to make me better at each role. I?m learning to view things from the big picture. Life is a marathon, not a sprint; everything, including change, takes time. It?s exciting to be part of the Robson Street community, as it holds a special connection to my youth and I?m ready for the challenges and opportunities that lay ahead.
Q: What is the biggest myth about your BIA?
A: There is certainly a perception that Robson Street is not a shop-local experience. While we have our fair share of international retailers, our strip also boasts great local boutiques like Plenty, Boys? Co., Aritzia and Lululemon. We also have a good representation from other Canadian brands, such as Roots, Joe Fresh, Blue Ruby, Aldo and London Drugs, to name a few. There are also a number of independents on the street, largely dining establishments, Zefferelli?s being one of my personal favourites, as well as a privately run hotel. We value all the tenants within our three blocks, big or small, as they each contribute to the overall shopping and dining experience..
Q: Did the publicity about high vacancies along Robson change the way you or your BIA operates?
A: It is not uncommon to see businesses turnover, but over the past few years the length of time a property on Robson Street remained vacant increased, particularly on the 1100 block, which is what made the trend more visible. Many factors led to this, including the highest lease rates in Vancouver, the recession, increased competition, etc. Robson Street is currently in transition to find the right retail mix and lease rates are becoming more reasonable on the 1100 block. Since I started over a year ago, many of the vacant spaces on the 1100 block have been occupied or leased. Everything we have been doing over the past year has been focused on shedding positive light back onto Robson Street: rebranding, property tax advocacy, strategic partnerships, marketing, social media ? every little bit helps.
Q: Gastown has its steam clock, the West End has the A-maze-ing Laughter bronze sculpture, Downtown Vancouver has the art gallery, Stanley Park has its totem poles. What is the ?money shot? for people visiting your BIA?
A: Our holiday lighting is a draw, arguably the best in the city, and we?re also upping the ante this Christmas. Beyond that, we don?t have a physical structure or public art piece per se, however, what we do have is experiential. Robson Street is loved for the big city feel, bustling sidewalks, beautiful window displays, lively buskers and you can?t underestimate that intangible feeling.
Q: A number of businesses say they?re preparing for an ?American invasion? of retail giants. What are your thoughts?
A: It is already well underway and it certainly creates excitement and relevancy for the Canadian retail landscape. The American expansion also creates increased competition and thus all retailers need to step up their game in order to survive. We?ve recently wrapped up an intercept study to gain a better sense from people about how they view Robson Street, what is lacking and how we can improve.
Q: Do people tend to forget that the Robson Street residential area covers 5? km and that more than 80,000 live in the area?
A: We don?t forget that. We really want to foster a sense of community here on Robson Street and that means being open to feedback from our neighbours as well. The West End Community Plan, approved last fall, is a good example of how residents and businesses came together to discuss the priorities for the community moving forward.
Q: You seem to have no shortage of promotions or things on the go. Anything else?
A: We recently went through a rebrand and have been busy rolling it out through our social media, new website (robsonstreet.ca) and various marketing initiatives. It is our objective to make Robson Street the destination shopping and dining district for locals and tourists alike. Creating memorable experiences is key and there is something truly special about being downtown, shopping outdoors, soaking up the sun on a patio and breathing in the fresh air that just can?t be matched in a mall.
Q: Under news items on your website, it?s pointed out that Aug. 24 was Go Topless Day in Vancouver and that women were marching topless down Robson Street. Your thoughts?
A: Pride Parade, Zombie Walk, pillow fights, Go Topless Day all add to the life and energy of Robson Street. We support events that help to create those fun and memorable experiences for people.