Participants The devil's in the detail, the adage goes, but nowadays the detail of retail has everything to do with fun and entertainment. To coincide with the recent convention held in Dallas by the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA), we gathered 12 representatives from some of the top companies involved in entertainment retail. Moderated by SCW Managing Editor Vicki Phillips, the roundtable discussion featured participants from varied perspectives -- tenant, owner, architect or entertainment provider -- debating current trends in entertainment retail. They sometimes agreed, sometimes disagreed on the future of entertainment centers. But they all had one common goal: the creation of entertaining places. An edited transcript follows.

SCW: The term "entertainment center" is being bandied about a lot. What's the difference between an entertainment center and a mall with amusements?

Nabil N. El-Hage: An entertainment center needs to have venues that appeal to a broad age range. For the mom a Neiman Marcus Last Call or a Saks Off-Fifth may be great entertainment; for a dad, a Dave & Buster's or a GameWorks is just the place to go; and for the younger kids, a Jeepers! may be ideal. You can't create an entertainment center in a small space; you really need to be looking at the bigger centers. But the main difference is that you have to offer a breadth of attractions, including movie theaters and themed restaurants as well as the more traditional entertainment venues.The definition of retail and entertainment has crystallized. I don't think many landlords today would say, "I am an entertainment center because I have a movie theater."

SCW: How did the concept of entertainment first begin to appear in a retail setting?

Glenn Bullock: When we got involved, we were at this show. We didn't have much to show in 1986 in Orlando, but the leasing agent for Hooker came to us and said they needed a new concept. We did a concept for him of about 43,000 sq. ft. to go in Forest Fair Mall up in Cincinnati. We put entertainment in: a theater, rides, golf and some other things.

We took that concept to the ICSC in 1987. We were real excited about it and thought it was going to be a great idea. So we went to see Mr. DeBartolo and he said, "Boys, you're wasting my time. We'll never have entertainment inside of shopping center malls." But we were determined, so we went to see Melvin (Simon). He said the same thing. What I haven't figured out is how Melvin got to Mall of America, but some way he has.

William Graves III: When my father began his own firm in 1978, his first project was Victoria Mall in Victoria, Texas. The old-style malls concentrated on retail, but the source of their entertainment was that they were people places, where you could come and gather, talk, have camaraderie. Since that time, we've seen a great transformation with movie theaters and malls.

One mall that we did with Melvin Simon -- he has been gracious enough to allow us to do an entertainment component -- was Lakeline Mall in Austin, Texas. It is a retail mall and it is an entertainment center. It's both and it's neither. There is separation but there isn't. In the food court, we designed an elevator shaft that's a replica of the Capitol of Texas. We have working hot air balloons and colorful blue skies and skylights. Which is a dramatic change from the beginnings since Victoria Mall.

SCW: The number of movie screens nationwide has more than doubled since 1980, but the number of locations has stayed pretty much the same. What's the difference now?

Barrett Hickman: The large-format business is dramatically different than the motion picture exhibition business. However, I can give you an opinion as to why we have a proliferation of multiplexes and why people are flocking to them.

It started right here in Texas with AMC opening up 16 or 18 or 24 screens, however many that was, and they found that people are willing to drive 30 miles past 25 one- or two-screen theaters to get to a complex that offered a different experience. You didn't have to call around and find out exactly what time a movie was playing. You could just go, and it would be playing on several screens 15 minutes apart.

When you add to that a number of restaurants, you find that you can park your car once, see a movie in an acceptable time frame, have dinner and then go home. There's no hunting and searching to find that experience. That is the crux of an entertainment center today. It's a movie theater, there's no doubt.

After a movie theater, when you ask what is an entertainment center, you beg the question: Is an entertainment center a restaurant? Are themed restaurants entertainment? I think we're seeing a bit of a shakeout in that industry at the moment. But they are restaurants. Is that entertainment? I guess to some people it is.

After that, what do you look for? Well, we think IMAX is the premiere out-of-home entertainment venue. We see shopping center owners, developers and multiplexes embracing us. Why? Because we add a different component to their experience.

Michael McCall: What is going to happen -- and it is going to happen -- when the growth of cinemas can't be supported at its current rate? If everything has to be anchored by an AMC 30-plex, you'd better look for another industry. The Limited isn't taking 50,000 sq. ft. anymore, right? The reason that some entertainment projects are entertainment is because they couldn't get the retailers. I think what's been going on has been transaction-based as opposed to what is the experience. There's less place-making, I guess. If you live in Georgetown, it's quite a place.

Darrell Lake: It falls on the developer to make sure that the place he's making is enduring and a place that in five years won't feel like old hat. A place that's real, like Georgetown.

Sy Perkowitz: I think entertainment centers come from Europe and South America and other parts of the world that have more history and tradition. These places were created spontaneously because people looked for places where they could meet, talk, have fun, eat something. Those kinds of venues don't exist spontaneously in the United States because it's a fairly new country and we don't have 1,000-year-old buildings and plazas that people gather to. Creating entertainment centers starts to touch on that feeling. But so much of it is the plaza itself, whether an outdoor or indoor environment. Someplace where you can just sit and talk and look at people and enjoy the atmosphere.

SCW: Maybe this explains the current trend of urbanism and "city chic." We want to return to what the city offers, that electricity and vitality.

Michael McCall: And safe social experiences. What my mentor did in creating Faneuil Hall and those types of developments was to create a place where people felt good, what Disney calls the "architecture of reassurance." We're social creatures, but we have less and less time. And there's a fear factor.

Darrell Lake: I remember my first experience in New York -- just walking the sidewalk gave me a lot of energy. It's a place I like to go to because of everything going on around you. We have so few places in our country where you can feel safe and where you can take your family and there's something everyone enjoys.

To the extent that we can in the revitalization of these downtowns create a place or actually remake a place -- putting those tenants in, the Barnes & Nobles and the theaters and the IMAXs -- I think is very positive. The Victory Project we're working on here in Dallas with the Mavericks and the Stars -- there have been very few projects in downtowns incorporating sports arenas that also add those components.

SCW: Sy, the Boise Spectrum -- could that project be redone in smaller-size cities?

Sy Perkowitz: What Boise pointed out is that you can go into submarkets. I think movie theaters traditionally do not look at communities under 300,000 people. Boise, being just under that, was kind of a test. It was so successful that a lot of movie theater chains are now looking at those submarkets as new opportunities.

We talked about whether movie theaters are going to run their course. One thing that has created a new excitement is the stadium-seating concept. Some of the things people didn't like about movies theaters -- crowded spaces, not being able to see well, children always trying to see above the person in front of them -- have been eliminated with the stadium concept. The sound is better. The environment is much better. So there's a new vitalization in the movie theater business, and that's why the course has yet a long way to run.

Hilary Grinker: But it's harder to get people to leave their homes because everybody has big TV sets, rear-projection, satellites, all the movies coming to you in your own home. How do you get people to leave their homes to go to the movie theater? Whether it be large-format or regular, it has to be a better experience. Theaters must differentiate themselves from the other multiplex 10 miles down the road. Hopefully, you'll get more people because there is a large-format experience and a different type of movie.

SCW: So has our whole concept of amusement been up ratcheted up a level?

Hilary Grinker: It has to be, because otherwise why leave the house? Theater owners don't want to spend millions of dollars redoing their theaters, but they have to because nobody will come if they don't.

Kevin McCarthy: There's no question that they're transforming movie theaters over in Europe. Our German counterpart is working with a theater chain that is actually installing a pre-show laser light extravaganza before the movie starts. That has not quite caught on over here yet, but it just goes to show how far the whole theater concept has gone to get people out of their homes, off the computer, away from their DVDs and satellites, and back into the theater.

Sy Perkowitz:I don't think getting people out of their homes is that difficult. I think most people want to leave their homes for entertainment. When VCRs and videotaped movies came on the market, everybody thought the movie theaters were going to be dead; everyone would stay home if they could watch the same film with their family in front of the fireplace for relatively less money. That has not proven to be the case. People are still anxious to go to a place where they can be entertained, a center, a people place.

Jack Shishido: There's a theater in New York, and they've actually put a restaurant in the theater where people have dinner, and after dinner they go into the movie theater. It's quite charming. It speaks to me about the merging of those kinds of experiences in a self-contained entertainment event.

So I agree with you. I don't think it's going to take much to get people out of their homes to be entertained. What we have to do is get a better sense for what it is that entertains people and provide that opportunity. Many years ago, when I used to go to the movies as a kid, I had to watch what they showed me. Now I get to see what I want because of the multiplexes. I get to choose now because they have to come to me to find out what I like. It's gone from being a sales-oriented society to much more of a marketing one, where the providers are listening more to the consumer.

We've also become an experience-oriented society. When we create anything -- whether it's entertainment or retail or dining -- there's got to be a sensitivity to what it is that evokes these kinds of feelings from the consumer. I don't think you could build a store and just put merchandise out anymore. You have to create some kind of reasoning and opportunity and sensation that compels somebody to buy. I'm always intrigued by Main Street at Disneyland and Walt Disney World because it's as though you're not even shopping. It's part of the fun experience, and before you know it, you've spent $300.

SCW: Let's talk about children, and to what extent that demographic group is pushing the trend of entertainment retail.

Darrell Weaver: I think parents just care a great deal about their children, period. They want their children to have fun experiences. And if they can combine those with an environment where their children are safe and obviously having a lot of fun, and if they can combine elements of physical activity and socialization, where they can see their children obtaining goals and achieving something -- then it's a very rewarding experience for those parents. I think children drive the purchase decisions of a great number of parents.

Nabil El-Hage:We certainly are an integral part of the environment and to some extent benefit greatly from the environment. But I don't think we necessarily depend on the environment. While it's very helpful for parents to have a Jeepers! there to negotiate the visit to the mall, we also drive the visit to the mall.

What is interesting, though, is that as our stores mature, that's where being part of a great center makes a big difference. Early on we willdrive traffic regardless of where we are. But once we enter our second or third year, having a great co-tenancy makes it a much more powerful concept for us. We have two freestanding sites, and they do well, but they don't do nearly as well as the ones in centers. And the ones in traditional centers don't do as well as the ones in entertainment-driven centers.

SCW: Are you typical of tenants in that you prefer to be in a mall with other entertainment-oriented tenants -- as opposed to being the only game in town in that particular center?

Nabil El-Hage: I don't know how other tenants feel, but we have never been afraid of great co-tenants. I'm delighted to go right next to the most interesting Dave & Buster's or GameWorks or Rainforest. It is truly the case where the sum of the parts is far greater than the individual.

Michael McCall: Gene, doesn't your company have centers with multiple entertainment tenants?

Gene Condon: Yes, and they co-exist very well. They do create a lot of synergy. A tenant like Jeepers! or AMC does drive traffic to a center, but then it is incumbent upon the other retailers to drive the traffic from that venue around the corner. What we have done in our own value centers is with wood floors, carpeting, concrete floors, utilizing different aspects to bring the people around with wider corridors, narrower corridors, Mills TV -- it's all part of the entertainment. The graphic program throughout the center also helps to drive the people around.

Sy Perkowitz: Theaters do add a lot to an entertainment center and they are a big anchor, but they are not the total story. We are doing projects that don't have theaters that are moving more toward entertainment, just through design and the way the interiors are done.

People are getting used to the idea of being entertained along with shopping. So, in a traditional neighborhood center, where there's a supermarket, drugstore and some shops, we're starting to bring in an entertainment-type of atmosphere -- creating plazas, adding restaurants, mixing in food courts.

And even with the architecture of these buildings, we're adding elements that a few years ago people didn't want to spend money on to jazz up the fronts or the interiors. But today they are saying, "Hey, the entertainment center down the street is going to get all my business if I don't do something to attract attention or make it more exciting to go shopping, even for food." We are starting to see more and more of our projects that aren't "entertainment centers" begin to look more like entertainment centers.

Glenn Bullock: One thing I'm seeing as far as themed restaurants is that they're all wanting to be in center court. I don't know what's going to happen in that market. We work for Nascar Cafes -- and if you don't know what the largest spectator sport is in the United States today, you haven't been to a race yet. There's a movement, an unbelievable movement, as to how many people go to Nascar races. Yesterday we were talking to somebody from the Middle East who we did an entertainment facility for, and he said, "You know what I want? I want Nascar." And I thought, how are we going to get Nascar over to the Middle East, but somebody will figure out how to do it. There is a trend there, a spectator sport that is changing the whole market.

SCW: Are there elements of timelessness that the architect must consider when designing an entertainment center?

William Graves III: One thing we've tried to do over the years is create flexibility. Tenants tend to be more faddish than the mall is. So we create a timeless background for when the tenant comes in and changes the store -- the interior, the signage or the exterior.

Sy Perkowitz: We have a lot of trouble getting height in buildings because most of our clients see height as cost, but taller buildings give you flexibility. Another challenge we are constantly faced with is how to make buildings timeless. Everyone wants to be avant garde, but avant garde suggests a time period, and what's avant garde today may be trendy and old in 10 years.

Nabil El-Hage: The only thing that's truly timeless is money. You need to have a budget that says that every few years you're going to make an investment and keep your center fresh. I also think height is key. I mean, we've had to raise ceilings in more venues than I like to think about because entertainment does take height. You can't fit a roller coaster in 12 feet.

William Graves III: Something also that is making a comeback is the village concept in shopping centers and entertainment complexes. When you design a center with a village concept, you have to consider walking distances and the layout -- where do you put the anchors, are they visible from all ends, how much frontage do the tenants have?

SCW: Were the developers the last people to buy into the concept of entertainment retail?

Nabil El-Hage: It's a number of things that converged. I think the developers were slow to understand it partly because a lot of entertainment was a buzzword for teenage hangouts, and developers didn't want teenage hangouts. So we can't unfairly dump on the landlords. There weren't a lot of concepts to put in malls even if they had had the vision. But the reality is they didn't have the vision, either.

Don't you think that the downturn in the economy and losing tenants is what drove them ...?

Michael McCall: Absolutely. This is more about survival than it is about some vision for the future.

Kevin McCarthy: We're working on a project in Los Angeles that's solely geared to the Hispanic community. The whole mall is going to have a sort of Aztec/Mexican/Hispanic theme to it. All signs will be in Spanish with small English. We're building this prop with a huge CD, DVD; it's going to have a laser beam coming down and reflecting back up in the ceiling. People can come in and play CDs off a special machine that triggers this whole light show. It's this whole immersive experience. So they are really going heavily after the Hispanics. There's no place for them to go as a community.

William Graves III: In defense of the developers for not jumping to the entertainment concept very quickly: We haven't had this kind of disposable income in a long time, especially in the mid-'80s. And technology now allows them to do demographic studies more easily and target markets better and find out exactly what they want. So they can build it.

Michael McCall: And there have been a lot of failures in entertainment. More than we like to talk about. There have been some very expensive products developed in recent times by some very famous people. So landlords have taken some pretty big hits. Yet we keep building and building. Is it demand-driven or is it ...?

Hilary Grinker:It's not "Build it and they will come." There are failures, there are large-format theaters that have closed, because nobody's marketing them properly. You have to know who your audience is, you have to have the right product, the right software if it's a large-format theater. You have to have good movies. It's not just put the money in, put up the $5 million building and people show up. How do you market all this great stuff that everybody's building?

Gene Condon: Hilary's right. We need to market properly. We need to build. We need the credit tenants to get the financing. The first thing that is negotiated out of any lease is the marketing. The tenant's position is: "I'm providing my own $50 million worth of advertising. Why am I going to give you an extra $10,000?" So the marketing budget for each of the centers has been shrinking, but there are different ways to market the centers. That's why you get tenants that bring those marketing dollars with them.

Sy Perkowitz: Developers are driven by the rules they learned when they were growing up to be developers. For years developers were told, "You don't want entertainment in your center because it draws too much parking or it's distracting. It's mothers with kids who aren't really there to spend money."

Then the recession hit, and suddenly they weren't worried anymore about whether the theater was taking up too much parking because everyone's parking lot was empty. So it's a re-education of developers to realize that entertainment added to retail is a good mix if properly handled. And lenders are beginning to realize it.

SCW: Darrell (Lake), tell us about the Circle T project that you're involved in.

Darrell Lake: Circle T Ranch is a 2,500-acre property, a historic ranch in Texas. It looks like a piece of property sliced out of the most beautiful part of Kentucky and transplanted to Texas. It's a fabulous place. It is positioned where all the highways converge. We are planning a Phase I that's 1.3 million sq. ft., ultimately up to 2 million sq. ft., combining retail and entertainment. There's a 40-acre lake which we'll actually bring into the project. At the entry will be a pasture area visible from the highway. We're going to keep buffalo there right along with longhorns.

The Park Meadows project -- they never called it a mall, they called it a resort. That is a resort context for Colorado. We have toured all of Texas and looked at the great places in Texas and hope to incorporate those elements into this project.

William Graves III: You touched on another architectural consideration: history of the location. You've got to tie your architecture to that region. Some of this billboard architecture has no ties to where it's located, and it's obvious to people and it's almost insulting in a way.

SCW: Several of you have a lot of international experience. Are things more avant garde overseas?

Kevin McCarthy: The heyday of Asia was not so long ago. The influx of high-tech entertainment into shopping centers was phenomenal. In Asia it's a very family-oriented society -- mother, father, kids. They go for dinner every evening. They go to the mall together. They go to movies together. So shopping malls are community-oriented gathering places for families.

A lot of the bigger projects -- the one in Bali, some projects we've worked on in Thailand, Taiwan, China, Hong Kong -- are very much into the height, visuals, water fountains, light shows, very much the extraordinary side of entertainment. (That activity has) certainly slowed down for us. Bali was our last big project over there. Taiwan and China are where we're getting most of our interest from now, since everything else in Asia has pretty much come to a complete halt.

Sy Perkowitz: We're working on a project right now in Sydney, Australia, that they're trying to open in time for the Olympics. We've been asked to bring the creativity that we see in America into some international entertainment projects. We see France and Italy as centers of design and creativity, but when it comes to shopping centers and entertainment centers, the world looks at us as the experts. A lot of American talent is being asked to go out and help the rest of the world with those things that we created here. So it's an exciting time for American shopping centers and entertainment centers.

Which center do you think of when you hear the term "entertainment center"? Glenn Bullock: It has to be the big one up North.

Gene Condon: Obviously Mall of America.

Nabil N. El-Hage: I would name two centers -- and both are fairly new. The Taubman Co. did a fabulous job with Great Lakes Crossing in Auburn Hills, Mich. The other one is The Pyramid Cos.' Palisades Center in West Nyack, N.Y.

William Graves III: A mall that comes to mind immediately is Mall of America.

Hilary Grinker: I love all of the Mills malls. I think that Mills as a corporation has done a great job in creating family entertainment centers.

Jack Shishido: West Edmonton Mall. It didn't take retail and put it next to entertainment or vice-versa. It tried to break the barrier between the two, merging the experiences. People do three things for pleasure: they shop, they eat, and they go out to do something for fun. I've always felt that if you could get all three of those things grouped together, it would be a whole lot more fun. I was reminded of that when I went to West Edmonton.

Barrett Hickman: Irvine Spectrum is the finest example of an outdoor entertainment center that we have to date in the United States.

Darrell Lake: Irvine Spectrum is the one I think of as a pure entertainment center. The center I like best, however, is Park Meadows in Denver. I wouldn't call it an entertainment center, but Park Meadows is one that I feel comfortable going sitting by Nordstrom and drinking coffee by the fireplace while my wife shops, and if I want to go shopping, it's a fun thing to do. To me it's entertainment.

Michael McCall: I don't think an entertainment center necessarily has anything to do with a mall. It doesn't mean there aren't entertaining malls. I'm going to say a project that is not built yet. It's Aspen IceScape, which out of 300,000 sq. ft. has only 12,000 sq. ft. of retail.

Kevin McCarthy: My favorite is West Edmonton because of its sheer size and scale and the fact that it was one of the first true entertainment retail properties in the world. But in the U.S., the Forum Shops in Las Vegas represents pure, themed retail entertainment.

Sy Perkowitz: The granddaddy of entertainment centers, Irvine Spectrum.

Darrell Weaver: The entertainment center is an evolving concept. I think it can be very small, in a small town, or it can be a very large production like West Edmonton Mall.

PARTICIPANTS Back to top of story

Darrell Lake Sr. VP of marketing, Hillwood Development Fort Worth, Texas

Michael McCall President, Strategic Leisure (inventor of entertainment venues) Columbia, Md.

Barrett Hickman, VP of sales (Latin America and Asia), IMAX Washington, D.C.

Kevin McCarthy Director of sales & market development, Laser Media Los Angeles

Wm. Graves III Marketing Director, Wm. Graves Architects Dallas

Sy Perkowitz Principal, Perkowitz + Ruth Architects Long Beach, Calif.

Jack Shishido Sr. VP of worldwide sales & mktg., Iwerks Entertainment Burbank, Calif.

Gene Condon General Manager, Grapevine Mills (The Mills Corp.) Grapevine, Texas

Darrell Weaver President, PlaySmart (play systems mfr.) Sedalia, Mo.

Hilary Grinker President MEGASystems (large-format film) Wayne, Pa.

Glenn Bullock Chairman, Bullock Smith & Partners (architects) Knoxville, Tenn.

Nabil N. El-Hage CEO, Jeepers! (indoor amusement park) Waltham, Mass.