Getting in shape - and staying in shape - is an obsession throughout the human culture, and it's the same story in the shopping center industry. Inspired by this notion of preparing for a long and healthy future, the International Council of Shopping Centers has adopted "Fit for the Future" as the theme of this year's Spring Convention. Included in that preparation is the annual Trade Expo, where nearly 300 product and service companies are exhibiting. Here's an overview of the products, services and trends being highlighted at the show that will keep the industry "fit for the future.

"That's Entertainment! Among the more pervasive industry trends is the continued growth of family entertainment centers as part of retail shopping malls. Driving this trend are a number of issues, among them the desire for "destination attractions," says Leah Sparks Jones, marketing coordinator for Bullock Smith & Partners, Knoxville, Tenn.-based design architects of entertainment centers throughout the country. "Complexes designed to be the intended destination for visitors, in and of themselves, are growing in popularity," Jones says. "That differs distinctly from retail and entertainment complexes that are successful primarily because of their proximity to another development." One such center, Jones says, is Viejas Springs Village, located about 30 miles outside of San Diego in Alpine, Calif., where Phase I is nearing completion. The 187,000 sq. ft. themed value retail center includes restaurants, a bank franchise and a central entertainment feature. "The village consists of eight structures connected by walkways landscaped with water features and wildlife sculptures," Jones says. "The walkways circulate through courtyards themed as air, water, fire and wind, and into a center court designed for special events."

"Location-based entertainment," too, is seeing its advent, Jones says. "Entertainment value that is based on the geographic appeal of the project is a strategy that usually works best for projects located in heavily touristed areas," she says. In the case of Micronesia Mall in Dededo, Guam, the creation of a thematic environment inspired by the island's beauty is intended to enhance visitors' enjoyment of Guam, according to Jones.

Presently under construction is a 25,000 sq. ft. entertainment center to be located in Micronesia Mall. As the first family entertainment center in Guam, this project has a tropical theme inspired by Guam's natural beauty, Jones says. "This is a prime example of how drawing on tourist locales can inspire an entertainment facility," she says.

Themed dining, too, is a concept in entertainment that has enjoyed growing popularity in the past few years. Bullock, Smith & Partners recently unveiled the design for the NASCAR Cafe in Las Vegas, which will feature more than 50,000 sq. ft. of dining, retail and entertainment space when it is completed in 1999. The components of this facility will include a 400-seat dining area, a "Bill France" Boulevard featuring NASCAR memorabilia and a tribute to the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and a 1,100-foot dual-track ride themed as a Winston Cup race. In addition, a 35,000 sq. ft. existing attraction, Speedworld, will be converted to the NASCAR theme and will feature a variety of entertainment components.

Also influencing the entertainment trend is the move back into the downtown environment. "Entertainment facilities surrounded by towering office buildings, placed in a thoroughly urban setting, are creating a trend toward urban entertainment," Jones says. "This concept has become a powerful trend recently and it's increasingly viewed as a way to revitalize downtown areas," she says.

One such project is The Regal Escape in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. This project is the first entertainment facility developed by Regal Cinemas that is targeted primarily toward adults and older teenagers, according to Jones. The Art Deco architecture that is so emblematic of the Miami area provided the impetus for this project's theming, she says. The components at this facility include a 60,000 sq. ft. entertainment complex, a full-service restaurant overlooking the New River and a 24-screen cineplex. The Escape, according to Jones, is part of a larger development known as Riverwalk, a cluster of upscale retail stores and restaurants in the heart of downtown Fort Lauderdale. "This project also is representative of the increased linking of entertainment and retail, and the trend toward major cinema companies developing complexes that combine entertainment centers with cineplexes, signifying the efforts of cinemas to expand their entertainment value," she says.

Expanded entertainment value also can be found in promotional events, gaining popularity at retail centers internationally. Paramount Parks, a Viacom company, is the fourth largest theme park company in the world with five North American theme parks, but entertainment in retail facilities also has taken center stage for Paramount. For more than a decade, the company has been producing promotional events, costumed character shows and musical revues for a variety of venues, including shopping centers. "These self-contained packages assure a hassle-free promotion specifically designed to delight customers," says Stan Morrell, director of global entertainment services for Paramount Parks.

Paramount offers a variety of themes in its revues, including shows with holiday, back-to-school and environmental flavor. Among the more popular traveling shows is The Puzzle Place - Live, Star Trek: The Landing Party and Hanna-Barbera's Flintstones. "Customers love to see characters they recognize from television and the movies in a setting that's familiar," Morrell says. "That's why these shows are so popular, especially in the retail environment." Paramount's shows have been taken on the road throughout North America and overseas, including venues in Scotland and Costa Rica, among others.

Another method of adding entertainment value to the retail center is through unique, new playgrounds. "We're moving away from the standard playgrounds to create something that's more interactive and won't bore repeat customers," says Scott Forbes, marketing director of Delta Play Co., Vancouver. "Malls today want something different, something that's not another McDonald's-type playground."

Those differences manifest themselves through playgrounds themed to fit the spirit of the retail center, Forbes says. Soft, modular playgrounds for malls and restaurants today are being designed by Delta Play Co. with jungle, castle, spaceship and other themes. Custom facilities, Forbes says, call for custom playgrounds that tie in with the theme. "It's a more interesting feature of the mall and gets kids and families involved."

The kind of interactive play systems Delta Play Co. is designing often include foam balls, air guns, ball conveyors and a play zone that is an element of a soft, enclosed environment. "That retail centers and restaurants are demanding more and more of these creative play systems that are new and different is indicative of a trend toward the melding of entertainment and retail," Forbes says. "The two are being inextricably combined more and more frequently."

Outside the Center Creativity needn't be confined to the interior of the center. Architectural versatility is a hot trend being seen on the exteriors of centers everywhere. "Creativity that is distinctive, memorable and one that leaves an enduring impression is what retail facilities are moving toward," says Bob Hagan, general manager of Floline Architectural Systems, St. Louis. "Not just retail centers, but everything from educational facilities to auto dealerships can benefit from creating an image with contoured styling, mitered corners and bold European color combinations," Hagan says.

Retail centers must visually break through to catch the customer's eye, as well as fight confusion with a strong identity, Hagan continues. Architectural systems such as those from Floline bring a highly visible, fresh style together with a consistent contemporary look. "Its unique look attracts attention and customers to a variety of retail facilities."

"As fashions, trends and styles change, so must the look of the retail center," Hagan continues. To keep pace, changes in architectural style can offer the streamlined aesthetics that attract the eye of the consumer. "Properly done, architectural materials can unify the appearance of large malls, a collective group of stores in a regional shopping complex or consolidate the image of a neighborhood strip center," he says.

Floline's convex and concave curves, available in several profiles and made from galvanized coated steel substrate, provide flexibility, too. "It works well in long, continuous runs and individual sections, and corner transitions are made with simple or compound mitered corners," Hagan says. Floline's use of bright colors and curved shapes interface with other structural materials, too, to create a visual spectrum and contemporary style. "This is a unique look that attracts attention, and customers, to retail centers, strip malls and shopping complexes," Hagan says.

To protect those exterior investments, and the consumers who will be enjoying them, companies whose mission is to provide pest control and maintenance are creating products designed to save the center's design. "We are seeing huge, expansive growth in the bird control industry alone," says Monique Thorsell, marketing director for Bird Barrier America Inc., Redondo Beach, Calif. "A few years ago, bird protection products were a $10 million-per-year industry, and by 2005, we anticipate it will be grossing $100 million annually," she says.

This growth is due, in part, to the continued development of the suburbs, Thorsell says. "As more and more suburban areas are being developed, birds are being displaced, yet are trying to take up residence on structures other than trees," she says. "They're trying to find a way to live in our world as we move into theirs, and therein lies the conflict." With an awareness of the problems birds pose, Bird Barrier has created a complete line of products to protect lights, signage and other exterior architectural features from the mess often associated with birds.

"Birds are extremely intelligent, adaptive and committed creatures," Thorsell says. Because of this, Bird Barrier has invested heavily in research and development of new products to meet these needs in a way that is still humane to the flying creatures. These low visibility products blend with the architecture of the project, are long lasting and rely on mechanical, not chemical means of deterring birds.

Bird Barrier's new, inexpensive stainless steel Bird-Flite, for example, is a new spike deterrent that works like similar products on the market, but at a fraction of the cost. Bird-Flite works well for signage, or can be fit to almost any shape or molding. Rods which deter birds are blunt to prevent injury to birds and workers alike, Thorsell says.

Bird Barrier's Coil is a bird control product that works well on ledges to keep pigeons and larger birds from landing, too. This stainless steel product is inexpensive, at about $1.50 per foot, and is installed by gluing or screwing special clips along the ledge and snapping the coil into place. "It is a very difficult product to see even from a short distance, so it won't ruin the aesthetics of the building," Thorsell says. Additionally, the coil runs along curves as easily as flat ledges for use on oddly spaced areas. "Birds like to land on flat, solid edges, and the coil prevents them from landing without posing the threat of injury to the birds or unsuspecting workers needing access to the area," she says.

Perfect for solving bird problems on rooftops, air conditioner units, streetlights and large storage tanks is Daddi Long Legs from Bird Barrier, designed to keep pigeons, gulls and larger birds from landing in these areas. The product consists of thin, stainless steel rods either four or eight feet in length that are connected to a Delrin plastic base that can be glued or screwed to most surfaces. The rods rotate with the slightest breeze, waving menacingly and interfering with birds as they attempt to land, Thorsell says. These thin rods, too, are nearly impossible to see from even a short distance, so they won't interfere with the building's appearance.

Maintaining a building's appearance is vastly important on both the interior and exterior. "Keeping up appearances begins in the parking lot," says John Jansing, national accounts and sales manager of TYMCO Inc., a Waco, Texas-based manufacturer of regenerative air sweepers. The new 1998 Model 210 sweeper, for instance, has a newly redesigned blower housing for more efficient air flow, available long-lasting Duo Skids and an easy-access rear panel door with larger bumper guards. "Improving upon the parking lot sweeper makes shopping center maintenance easy to accomplish and more efficient," Jansing says. "We continue to study our products and improve them to meet the changing needs of the user."

According to Jansing, there's a great deal of aesthetic value associated with the shopping center. "Debris must be maintained, and using a parking lot sweeper is a simple, low-maintenance, low-cost method," he says. "Everything from small gravel and dust to basic garbage can be swept to prolong the life of the asphalt, and that brings additional value to the sweeper owner."

To keep the parking lot cleaner, TYMCO sweepers don't exhaust dust out of the machine once the debris has been swept. "The air is re-cleaned and re-used," Jansing says. "Dust is kept within the machine until it's time to dump it."

Finding a good service company is akin to keeping a mall's outward appearance in top shape. Southeast Service, (SSC), is one of the largest employee-owned contract maintenance and cleaning companies in the country, providing total facilities management services to retail and other facilities. Based in Knoxville, Tenn., the company's operations stretch across the United States, supplying "bundled facility services" and the operational facility management needed to allow its customers to focus on their core businesses, says Don Paul, vice president of business development and support solutions.

"It's okay to admit that cleaning and maintenance is a nightmare," Paul says. "But it's a nightmare that can be easily dealt with." SSC provides custom-designed services, professionally trained personnel, 24-hour on-call service, high-quality cleaning products, national purchasing power, a systematic approach to quality control, uniformed personnel, an experienced management team, and one, on-site point of contact. Among the maintenance services offered by SSC are HVAC repairs, electrical repairs, plumbing repairs, painting, lighting maintenance, roof maintenance, interior/exterior landscaping, parking lot sweeping and re-striping, pest control, and contract monitoring.

The company also provides complete housekeeping services, including everything from window cleaning to construction clean up, and management services that range from the management of all day-to-day facility-related issues to assisting in capital budget preparation.

Among its newest offerings is vibration analysis as part of SSC's HVAC services. "This cutting-edge technology provides preventive maintenance to all levels and types of air-conditioning systems and customers," says Paul. "It is a technology that has been successfully used in industrial settings in the past, but it is new to other businesses, and promises significant cost savings and increased levels of performance."

Whether maintenance or development, challenges face shopping center owners and developers at every turn. "The challenges designers and developers face today are greater than ever before," says Robert F. Vevoda, vice president of business development for Atlanta-based.

Tensar Earth Technologies Inc. Regulations are more stringent, investors are more demanding and competition is more formidable than ever, he says. Further complicating the job, easily developed sites in good locations are few and far between. "Owners today need cost-effective options," Vevoda says. "They need options that can complete projects faster and more economically and that quickly turn undeveloped properties into profit-generating sites."Tensar Earth Technologies provides options for developers. "Our solutions make sitework construction far more cost-effective," Vevoda says. "Our technologies speed and simplify sitework while saving materials and man-hours." Among the site problems Tensar deals with regularly are poor foundation soils, a need for retaining walls, seismic concerns, inadequate site access, restricted sites, high water tables, landslide potential, stringent environmental regulations and shallow utilities.

"In the past, developers and engineers who faced grade changes or poor foundation conditions were limited in their options," Vevoda says. "Conventional alternatives such as deep foundation systems, cast-in-place retaining walls, chemical treatment and over-excavation exact a penalty in terms of cost and construction time. Besides which, many are aesthetically unappealing or unreliable." With the technologies currently available, developers no longer are forced into making compromises mandated by conventional technologies. Instead, says Vevoda, a site can be tailored to the client's requirements and designs.

Tensar Earth Technologies offers a broad range of services, including site evaluation. "By partnering before construction begins, Tensar can offer solutions that allow the customer to make the best possible financial decisions to maximize the budgeting, financing and scheduling of the project," Vevoda says. More importantly, he adds, new technologies can increase the developable area and raise the value of the property.

Tensar also offers conceptual engineering that allows the client to develop capital cost estimates based upon scheduling and material requirements.

"Our conceptual designs allow options in sitework construction to be evaluated and maximize the cost benefit ratio of different design approaches," Vevoda says. These designs strike the optimum balance between financial, environmental and aesthetic concerns, he says.

To optimize the construction process itself, Tensar supplies full, stamped drawings that contain precise construction details. "In addition, we ensure that changing site conditions can be rapidly accommodated," Vevoda says. Tensar also provides site assistance engineers to avoid construction delays and to assist the project management team in the timely completion of sitework.

Building construction needs are met by a variety of service industries. For example, Varco-Pruden Buildings, Memphis, is one company that handles building solutions and systems construction. "Whether the client needs a functional warehouse, an elaborate retail store or an extraordinary office building, we can offer not only the design capabilities but also the flexibility and sophistication to fulfill the needs of almost any structure," says Ric Compton, corporate accounts manager for VP Buildings.

VP Buildings can be a single source for all building construction needs, from the basic elements of a building to framing systems, roof systems, wall systems, conventional wall options, finishes and accessories and product specifications.

The company also offers a comparison of its buildings to conventional buildings, so the customer can see the benefits more clearly, Compton says.The company is seeing a trendtoward using unconventional systems for the building of power centers and superstores, although it typically provides framing and roof systems to strip centers. "Block or brick exterior wall systems are more in demand today for the large structures being requested by power centers," Compton says. Not only does VP provide block and brick exteriors, but also wall options in glass, precast concrete, tilt-up concrete, stucco, wood and combinations of the above. "Inroads are being made in a variety of materials, as centers seek to differentiate themselves from one another," Compton says.

Just as a variety of materials is available for wall systems, VP offers numerous choices for roofing and other parts of the center. "But the standard, in every sector, leans toward the strongest, longest-lasting materials," Compton says. "It's like the three little pigs - who wants a building made from straw? Someone has to take care of the building, and owners are seeing the value of quality.

"Sure, there are cheaper ways to build, but quality materials, coupled with a warranty like our 25-year warranty, and the timeliness of construction we're able to offer build repeat, long-term quality conscious owners as well as a building to be proud of."

Safety First As more and more shopping centers are moving toward later hours and 24-hour operation, the need for security has risen. "Major centers, with vast parking lots, and even smaller centers need the equipment necessary to facilitate security for their clientele," says David A. Turner, brand manager for Carryall transportation and utility vehicles, a division of Club Car Inc. The Augusta, Ga.-based company specializes in providing utility vehicles used by shopping centers for security purposes.

"Security patrols in parking lots are prevalent today," Turner says. "And our security vehicles aren't as imposing as pickup trucks can be. Plus, a security vehicle such as ours can't leave the site because it's not a regular road vehicle, so theft isn't a problem. And, they're more economical because they use less gas than standard road vehicles, or, electrical models can be used."

There are more than 30 Carryall transportation and utility vehicles available, according to Turner, to accommodate a variety of needs. The Custom Cab, for instance, provides all-weather protection to the Carryall I. Paired with an optional safety strobe light and tool box, it handles security duty well.

Larger centers with acres of parking often purchase the company's personnel carriers, which hold six to eight people. "Especially during the holiday seasons, when parking is at a premium and employee numbers rise, many centers use these to shuttle employees back and forth from the mall to their cars."

New and improved products and services, like those showcased here and at the ICSC Spring Convention, will help get today's shopping centers in shape and keep them fit for the future.