If ICSC's RECon in Las Vegas was an accurate indication of the health of the retail real estate industry, then industry pros should feel quite pleased. The sector has taken some heavy punches in recent months, including the collapse of credit markets, cautious consumers, stumbling retailers, rising inflation, etc., and has brushed off each blow with apparent ease.
We headed to Las Vegas not knowing what to expect. We found there are still hives of activity. And by and large the mood was exceedingly positive. Sure, there is a whiff of caution in the air. No one is plowing ahead as if the picture were the same as it was 12 months ago. But nobody was hiding either. Most firms and pros we met with and talked to remain extremely busy. Leasing executives are looking to plug a few holes in existing portfolios. Most activity revolved around getting deals done for projects opening or leases expiring in 2009 or later.
More importantly, despite a rash of closings and a handful of bankruptcies, retailers were at the show and looking for expansion opportunities. One only needed to wander over to the retailer's section of the Leasing Mall to see that. That zone was consistently packed with attendees with retailers eager to talk. And it wasn't just because of the free pretzels, sandwiches and other goodies some vendors handed out.
That wasn't what we expected going into the conference. Weeks ago, we sensed a collective trepidation among industry professionals heading into the conference. Would attendance be down? Would deals get done? Would it be one giant cocktail party in the desert with everyone drowning their sorrows in watered-down drinks?
It turns out it didn't look like that at all. What attendees found was that there was still plenty of deal-making to be done. Preregistration levels for the show matched 2007. Anecdotally, we heard of a lot of attendees talking of coming for less time this year than years past. Others told us that they knew of people who registered, then didn't make the trip. As a result, there were times — particularly on Sunday and Wednesday afternoons — when the cavernous convention center did seem a bit empty. But on Monday and Tuesday the scene was bustling. That's when the bulk of the action took place this year.
Nearly everyone we talked to at the convention remained optimistic about the prospects for their firms and the industry at large in the coming months and years. There were even signs that the credit crunch may be lifting. In the past month, for example, several high-profile firms, including Simon Property Group and Westfield, completed highly successful bond offerings. That shows that bond investors aren't just hiding in Treasuries. The commercial mortgage-backed securities market remains frozen, but at least other options are on the table.
In the end, the trip to Las Vegas proved to be one giant sigh of relief for the retail real estate industry. At least for now.