A conversation with J. Thomas Porter and Bill Salter, two leading entertainment retail designers.

For more than 10 years, the retail world has aspired to mold, package and merchandise one of the hottest retail products of the era: fun. Shopping Center World recently invited two entertainment retail designers to discuss the business of fun. J. Thomas Porter is a senior principal with the Atlanta-based firm of Thompson, Ventulett, Stainback & Associates (TVSA), and Bill Salter is the principal in charge of TVSA's Theming, Entertainment, Hospitality Studio. Their experience includes a number of entertainment center designs. Here's what they had to say.

SCW: The term entertainment retail seems to include two categories: retail stores on the one hand, and shopping centers on the other. Is it possible to define these categories more completely?

SALTER: Looking at entertainment centers with retail, I view this breakdown in five categories. First are children's centers that cater to the young child with parents, such as Chuck E. Cheese, Discovery Zone, and the newest contender in this market, Club Disney. Next are family entertainment centers geared to all ages, such as Castle & Coasters parks, Camelot parks, Jeepers! and Malibu Grand Prix. Then there are adult entertainment centers that focus more at the 21-and-up market, with examples such as Dave & Buster's, Disney Quest, Malibu Speedzone and Sega GameWorks. Some of these adult concepts also try to draw the older teen market. There are themed restaurant concepts like Hard Rock Cafe, Rainforest Cafe, Planet Hollywood, NASCAR Cafe and ESPN Cafe. Last, the synergistic assembly of such centers, restaurants, retail, theater and public areas into a large urban complex makes up the regional entertainment center, such as Disney's Downtown Disney in Orlando, City Walk in Los Angeles,CocoWalk in Miami, and Easton Town Center in Columbus, Ohio.

SCW: How do these concepts appeal to different audiences?

SALTER: Ch:ildren's centers and family entertainment centers aim at a mix of ages, from kids through adults. These concepts typically have a clubhouse with an arcade and party rooms, fast-food service and possibly a sit-down restaurant, and a limited retail center. Attractions might include electronic games, simulators, and, if an outdoor park is in the makeup, miniature golf, bumper boats, go-carts, batting cages and edutainment venues.

Adult entertainment centers offer a more serious dining and bar experience, with games, simulators, virtual reality and challenging venues designed more for an urban market whose needs require fun places to hang out and play, interact and compete, socialize and mix.

The heavily themed restaurants presently offer the most extensive retail opportunity; however, these projects tend to work best in areas with high concentrations of tourists. Local people might go to a themed restaurant five or six times a year, but heavy theming might wear thin or appear gimmicky in a regular, favorite dining spot.

Theming, we have learned, is not enough to draw a local market back on a regular basis. A truly successful operation has great food and service as the foundation stone, with a great "total" public area environment -- design, sight lines, music -- built upon it. Planet Hollywood is presently addressing some of these very issues.

SCW: So developing an entertainment center means combining these components in one way or another?

PORTER: Yes, along with modern multi-screen cinemas, music stores and bookstores, and certain conventional retail tenants that tend to do well in these kinds of centers. Victoria's Secret, NikeTown, The Disney Store and Restoration Hardware come to mind. All are good entertainment retail tenants because they make shopping an experience while offering unique merchandise.

SCW: Would a developer use all of these components or pick and choose?

PORTER:It depends on the location. Take CocoWalk. This is a small center that reinforced existing area attractions with cinema and themed restaurants. Other centers may find uses for more entertainment components.

But there is no formula. The right combination of entertainment components depends on location and demographics. If a location has a tourist component, then there is a built-in market for entertainment. For a regional location without tourists, it's important to think about what will appeal to the regional market. The market in Manhattan, for example, will be totally different from customers in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

SCW: How do you appeal to a regional market through design?

PORTER: Our firm is now designing the Mall of Georgia, north of Atlanta. This is a 1.7 million sq. ft. combination of a traditional enclosed regional mall with an open-air entertainment village. The plan for this center includes a cinema, food court, themed restaurants and entertainment retailers located inside the mall. The open-air component will include a large bookstore, Virgin Megastore and Restoration Hardware.

To create interest in the regional demographic market, the design focuses on the unique characteristics of Georgia. We've divided the interior of the mall into sections that reflect different geographical areas of the state, from the big cities like Atlanta to the coastal cities in southern Georgia and the mountains in northern Georgia. The mall will entertain and inform people about their state.

Another project we're working on is Harbor Place in Bridgeport, Conn. Here we're looking at nautical themes such as lighthouses for the design, to reflect the community's sea-going heritage.

Design is also important in moving people through a center with an entertainment component. At Sawgrass Mills in Sunrise, Fla., the developer has planned an entertainment wing. He is developing a 300,000 sq. ft. open-air entertainment component that will use themed restaurants such as Cafe Tu Tu Tango, Cheesecake Factory and Hard Rock Cafe to move people back and forth between the mall and an existing theater located on an outparcel.

SCW: What happens to conventional malls that don't have entertainment components?

PORTER: It's possible to add entertainment during a renovation. When Phipps Plaza in Atlanta renovated about six years ago, we added a third-story entertainment level with a cinema and upscale food court restaurants, along with a new department store anchor.

We also designed a new circulation pattern, using the fact that entertainment attracts customers just like anchor stores. Parking at Phipps has always been underneath the mall. Locating the entertainment level on the third floor provided an opportunity to merchandise new retail offerings as people moved from the parking garage up escalators to the third floor. By placing the escalators on each floor so that customers had to walk a short distance to get to the next flight, we made people walk past more storefronts. The developer then leased storefronts in this core area to entertainment-style tenants like the Discovery Store.

SCW: Can you build a shopping center today without an entertainment component?

PORTER: I think it would be foolish to try. The last few years have seen important changes in consumer habits. For example, the days of a stand-alone theater are over. For consumers, a night out includes more than a movie. People don't want to rush to a 7 p.m. show. They prefer to go early, buy a ticket, browse the bookstore, go to the show, and perhaps cap off the evening with a bite to eat at one of several adjoining restaurants. Given a choice between a stand-alone theater and an entertainment complex, people will go to the entertainment complex. Why wouldn't a developer take advantage of these kinds of consumer trends?