More than 200 place management practitioners from more than a doxen European countries meet today in Hoogeveen, Netherlands, to look at issues impacting on retail in medium cities. Participants will hear from Mona Keijzer, State Secretary of Economic Affairs in the Netherlands, Henk Brink, Provincial Executive, Province of Drenthe (NL),  Verschueren, Director EuroCommerce.

Mireia Sanabria, URBACT Lead Expert for RetaiLink, along with Céline Ethuin and Sally Kneeshaw, URBACT Officers will report on the RetaiLink project that has brought 10 cities together to work on the development of 12 innovative strategies to safeguard the future of their centres. Lluís Martínez-Ribes, co-founder of MF Marketing Catalysts and Simon Quin from the Institute of Place Management who will be sharing our latest research on town centre vitality and viability. 

The morning plenary sessions will be followed in the afternoon by a series of themed workshops on the changing nature of retail in city centres, including an extended session from the Institute on what our research is telling us.

Factors impacting city centre vitality

The Institute of Place Management has actively worked with town and city centres since we were established in 2006 and our latest research, published in December 2017, identified the 201 factors that impact on town centre vitality, pinpointed the 25 most important ones and offers a new framework for action.

More than 2500 downloads of the research findings have now been made, we have shared the findings to more 5000 conference attendees, published numerous articles, seen the research published in Dutch as part of the Future Retail City Center report (Beschikbaar in het Nederlands) and discussed with governments in several countries. The High Street 2020 research was funded by ESRC.

Improving the vitality and viability of the UK High Street by 2020: Identifying priorities and a framework for action (Parker C, Ntounis N, Millington S, Quin S, Castillo-Villar FR 2017) is available to download free of charge. The report looks at the constant challenges to retailing in town centres, explains how a systemic literature review and work with stakeholders from 10 UK towns identified 201 factors that can impact on High Street vitality, how the 25 most important factors for local action were identified and explains what these are, and then sets out a new framework for action to create sustainable High Streets.

We have termed the framework for action the ‘4 Rs of Regeneration’. The first of these is Repositioning and requires collaboration amongst different stakeholders to share and analyse data and information about what is happening in the town centre.  Do stakeholders, whether from the public, private or community sector, really understand the forces of change that are impacting their centre? The details of what this entails are set out in Repositioning the high street: evidence and and reflection from the UK (Millington S, Ntounis N 2017). As part of ongoing work that the Institute is doing with a number of partners including retail intelligence specialists Springboard, we are currently working to develop dashboards that stakeholders can access to monitor the performance of their centre looking at key indicators like footfall and sales. Repositioning enables towns to recognise the failure of previous strategies, identify new ways of expanding economic activity, and find ways to improve existing retailing.

The second R is Reinventing. Individual retailers are very familiar with this. They adapt opening hours to different circumstances, they segment their stores to fit market niches, they adapt the store to meet the physical requirements of the individual unit. How can this be applied town wide? We think it is essential to understand the customers you are looking to serve. To know what kind of town you are and to meet those customers’ needs, and not just retail needs. Find out what you can about the people who use your town and remember that some towns have many visitors that will not be obvious in a simple look at the catchment area. Further details on this approach are available in How to reinvent the High Street: evidence from the HS2020 (Theordoridis C, Ntounis N, Pal J 2017).

Rebranding is the third R. This is about communicating the image and identity of your town. What is different, what is unique about you? It is now recognised that good place brands cannot be imposed from above but need to be something that is co-created, hence again requiring collaboration and engagement. To get a fuller insight, read Re-branding the High Street: the place branding process and reflections from 3 UK towns (Ntounis N, Kavaratzis M 2017).

Restructuring is the final R and in some instances is the most difficult to achieve. Planning and governance issues in the restructuring of the high street (Peel D, Parker C 2017) explores the detail of this topic which requires the recognition that old systems are not working, that strategic networks and partnerships need to be created to address the scale of challenge. Addressing high street change of necessity involves selecting an appropriate model of partnership – or joint-working arrangement. We are seeing the difference that Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) are making to town and city centres around the country. These actively engage many more of the location stakeholders in decision-making, which is why the Institute of Place Management is keen to support them through The BID Foundation. Partnership structures need to be reviewed regularly, no-one structure is likely to be able to manage all activity or make all decisions in a place which is by its nature complex and partnerships need to ensure they reflect their constituent parts rather than just reflect the perspective of one partner.