The New England SIOR Chapter held its first ever joint program with the Newton-Needham Chamber of Commerce at 156 Oak Street in Needham, MA. Approximately 90 members of the Commerce and SIOR chapter registered. From the SIOR Chapter the following 9 members attended: Greg Klemmer, Rob Nahigian, Jeremy Freid, Garry Holmes, Bob Keeley of Diversified Project Management, Brian from Vantage Builders, David Gilkie and Austin Smith. The event took place on Tuesday, September 24, 2019 from 4:30 to 7pm.

The event included panelists discussing the latest trends and developments in real estate in the Greater Boston’s inner suburban communities. Along the Rt. 128 belt a number of developers and property owners have begun to embrace technology and innovations in their approach to real estate. The art of leasing and maintaining tenants is no longer just about drawing a circle around the CEO’s house. It’s about thinking through transportation, keeping tenants engaged, helping maximize utility and finding new ways to use property.

The panelists included: Todd Nordblom, Project Manager at Nordblom Co., Matt Gabree, Senior Director, Global Real Estate & Office Experience at TripAdvisor, Maggie Smith, Vice-President of Marketing at WS Development and Devin Cole, Head of Partnerships at Workbar. Catherine Carlock, Real Estate Editor at Boston Business Journal was the moderator. There were a number of sponsors including Jeremy Freid’s company 128 CRE that we would like to thank for supporting this event.

The program commenced with Jeremy Freid thanking all that attended and spoke about the history of SIOR, its benefits as a designation and virtues working with SIOR members. Then he handed the program to the moderator, Catherine Carlock, who introduced the panelists. She started by asking Todd about the importance of amenities for tenant retention and recruitment. Todd stated that amenities matter today with development. Nordblom has 6 million square feet of development under management. Their Burlington project has a great deal of retail amenities to satisfy tenant demand.

Catherine asked Matt about why TripAdvisor considered Needham when companies are looking to move into Boston and the Seaport? How do you keep a suburban location interesting for its young employees? Matt stated that TripAdvisors was founded over 20 years ago in Needham therefore there was a comfort level with Needham. Now TripAdvisors has over 1,000 employees and has added another Boston location of 70,000 sf on Causeway Street. Therefore TripAdvisors has addressed both the city and the suburbs for young employees. Employees now have options. It is expensive to hold these options but it keeps TripAdvisor competitive. Five years ago, the firm started integrating employee needs into one building. However his challenges now include traffic. Traffic is awful. To help alleviate the problem, the firm tries to run shuttles from the T at Riverside and from Cambridge and Boston. Founders Park however offers reasons for employees not to leave Needham after work hours.

Devin at Workbar said that he would not want to choose between Boston and the suburbs with 1,000 employees. You have to think about what location is optimal and convenient. TripAdvisors has two sites. Workbar has a Burlington location close to employee suburban homes but also has a downtown location. He announced for the first time that Workbar had recently signed a lease for a Needham location to open Q1 2020. It’s new and 25,000 sf. He said that site selection criteria was not rocket science. He looks for locations near the T or near Rt. 128. His goal is to be close to people. Convenience and ease is critical. He wants an office location close to where people live.

Maggie was asked: what does it take to attract Workbar to her properties? She said that there was no one formula. WS Development needs to offer flexibility and a co-working environment. It’s not one size fits all. It’s all about the community. You need to be aligned, be flexible and partner in order to be beneficial to both sides. Location, access and amenities are important. Increasingly important is the community itself.

Todd was asked; how did branding come into play for importance to Nordblom? He said that he spends a great deal of time coming up with the right name for a project. He finds branding extremely important. He feels that you are selling your reputation and brand with the project name. Mixed-use properties give people a reason to come to a site. He needs to have boots on the ground and see how the branding resonates with people in the area. If positive then it is baked into the branding. Mixed use property environments are never not growing. Developments are always evolving. You need to continually build on success.

The next question to the panelists was about the evolution of the brand. Matt stated that Workbar is dynamic. Five years ago the company was not as competitive but now it’s different. It’s competitive. He has three key issues that present challenges: 1) Workbar is relatively small. It helps him to know more about his people and make them feel at home at Workbar. 2) He wants to keep his space open with minimal demised offices. Open space allows for tenants to mix, collaborate and create a culture. 3) More externally, for example, they approached Town of Arlington. He educated the town and helped the residents with entrepreneurship programs. It increased the demand for his space. Because Workbar is both located in the city and suburbs, it differentiates him from his competition. Maggie at WS Development stated that for branding, she uses social media and partnership to drive the brand and sponsorships.

TripAdvisor was asked about its ability to recruit and retain employees. Matt said that it was about the employee brand. He looks at real estate as a guest or hotel experience so that he creates an atmosphere that is exciting to work. You need to have employees who want to come to work. He employs creative ideas like pop-ups on site. He uses food as a foundation and added-value for employees. Food keeps people happy and the company doesn’t lose one hour for lunch per employee multiplied by 1,000 employees. It’s worth the investment.

His building is 280,000 sf and TripAdvisor has a full service cafeteria that is higher quality than most hotels. They have 25 chefs and kitchen workers with hot and cold food, beverages, beer, etc. Food and beverage is a catalyst to bring people together. They also provide a shuttle from the T and Boston but only 10% of its employees use the shuttle. That is a disappointing percent out of 1,000 total employees. They have researched providing other services to keep employees happy such as providing car detailing, grooming dogs, pedicures, car oil changes, etc. while employees are at work. They want employees to spend more time with their families than spending time with these other chores on off-hours.

Maggie said that it is becoming more of a challenge to break into brand difference. Malls today can be overwhelming and packed with people. WS tries to ease the customer experience of anxiety. Todd uses social media for his strategy. His followers let him know if they have an idea for Nordblom to implement that will allow the shopper to feel gratified.

Catherine asked, how do you make people feel comfortable? Maggie said that she tries to create open green spaces, landscaping and she pays attention to the details that benefit shoppers psychologically. Todd told the crowd that you need a stage with authentic true experiences.

What do employees really need? Matt says the need to design what people really want and know who your customer is. Make them feel that they belong. Devin offers health and wellness aspects to the space with lighting to create energy. He has a community manager at each Workbar location and has a great deal of conversations during the day with tenants. They talk to tenant members all day to hear what they need. He says that you need to be personal with members, ask them about their weekends, etc.

Catherine asked the panel, when it comes to real estate innovation, what is exciting and challenging? Matt exclaimed that it was flexibility. Real estate is too rigid with a big financial liability so co-working is disruptive. He is hopeful that the rigidity continues to break-down. You need to continue to engage employees at all times, not just at annual reviews for bonuses. Maggie said that there is a need for a new type of relationship that is mutually constructive between the tenant and landlord. You are working with small independent retailers and they need help on everything from inventory ordering to merchandising to store decoration. The landlord needs to be heavily engaged with tenants at all times. Devin said that for Workbar to be successful in Boston and Needham, it was a new world of moving to the suburbs. He had to think about the human experience of the commuting to work and back to home. He had to figure out how improve that commute.

Todd had one thought on co-working. There’s a place for short-term leases. He asked how invested are those indoors driving those locations? There is an innovative drive. You don’t bet on the concept anymore but bet on the businesses. The new wave of young people are moving back to the suburbs and his building’s average tenant age is dropping. He is now thinking more innovative and how to be more appealing to a young worker. Boston will always be relevant but the suburbs are changing. Maggie felt that retail is changing from the old guard. There are more direct consumer brands and more exciting brands. You have to make retail a destination point. Todd felt, in the end, parking was still essential. The lack of parking is still a problem. It forces you to move further and further from the city. Scarcity however isn’t always a bad thing.

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