Defying the formula

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LACDC > Randall makes progress in marketing town at retail convention

By Arin McKenna

Convincing outside businesses, especially regional and national chains, that Los Alamos is a worthwhile investment is no easy task, since the county does not fit neatly into the formulas companies typically use to project the success of a new enterprise.

Los Alamos Commerce and Development Corporation Executive Director Scott Randall took up that challenge recently at the International Council of Shopping Centers’ RECON convention. It was the second year Los Alamos had a presence at the convention, and the efforts may be starting to pay off.

“The real motive was to get our name and our demographics and information about the community in front of people. It’s not even so much doing deals as it is establishing those relationships,” Randall said. “Because it was relatively new for this community, I felt that the best we could hope for was to get people to realize that we were on the map and that we had a lot to offer.”

Randall, who has attended the convention for 16 years, began his preparations in advance in order to gain some traction among the 40,000 attendees.

“Shopping Center is a misnomer. It is truly the once a year retail convention. Anybody that’s involved in retail–building it, financing it, managing it–is there,” Randall said. “So this is the opportunity to get your foot in the door, to make your case.”

Randall managed to set up appointments with 16 of the 50 retailers, restaurateurs, hoteliers and developers he contacted.

Randall also prepared promotional materials on land available for development, leasing opportunities and the demographics of the community to hand out at the meetings and at cold calls on other prospects.

“It was the demographics that made people’s jaws drop: employment, average household income. They were shaking their heads like, ‘Why aren’t we already there?’” Randall said.

Prospects often began by saying they were already in the region: Española.

“Well, that’s not the region,” Randall said.

Further probing would reveal they were quite satisfied with the success of the Española market, giving Randall the opening he was looking for.

“If you’re making it there, compare the demographics: twice the number of households, twice the population, much greater traffic patterns going by the door and much higher average incomes. And they’d say, ‘Well, I never thought of it that way.’”

Randall’s strategy is to get the retailers to see beyond the predetermined templates they use for making site decisions.

“If you don’t have 30,000 cars going by that intersection a day, they’re not interested, or if you don’t have 30,000 in population or 50,000 population within a three-mile radius. They have certain things on their checklist. That’s what they’re looking for,” Randall said.

One such encounter was with Primrose Schools, a national chain of private pre-K schools. One item on their checklist is having 5,000 pre-K children within close range. Randall pointed out that although Los Alamos does not meet that demographic it has one of the highest concentrations of PhDs in the country.

“You don’t need 5,000 kids under the age of five to get the 60, 80 or 120 that you need to fill your class, when the vast majority of the moms and dads in the community are PhDs and are college educated and above. You’ll get your necessary enrollment with a much smaller population base when you’ve got that kind of commitment to higher education,” Randall told them.

Randall also pointed out that the average household income, at $104,900, was well above the $50,000 they were looking for, and Randall got the “aha” moment he was looking for.

Randall has started following up with people he left materials with, and plans to do that with everyone. He is also following up in other ways.

Pizza Hut expressed some interest, although two previous ventures have failed. However, all the Pizza Hut restaurants are franchises, so it would require someone willing to make the investment locally.

Randall just met with the small business center at UNM-LA to see about holding some type of workshop on franchising for those who might be interested in opportunities such as that one.

When asked if he thought the county could support another pizza parlor, Randall responded, “The strongest will survive. The customer’s going to make that decision, of who survives and who doesn’t,” Randall said.

“But we have such pent-up unmet demand. I’ve seen numbers that ranged anywhere from 60 percent to 80 percent of discretionary sales that leave our borders.

“Why do they go to Española, why do they go to Santa Fe? Why do they spend the weekend in Albuquerque? Because there’s no choice beyond one, because they can’t even get the one. We’re trying to fill that pool of what residents, visitors, those who are in the community need and want.”

Randall said some of the local restaurateurs are excited about the prospect of national chains that might lure more visitors into overnight stays in Los Alamos.

Randall’s meetings with high-end and extended stay hotels may prove to be especially fruitful.

Those who specialize in extended stays expressed the most interest. Randall is following up with Los Alamos National Laboratory and UNM-LA to get statistics on how many new hires and summer hires come to the area annually, since that represents a large market for extended stays as people house hunt and resettle.

Other follow up involves gathering data on the number of executives, scientists and contractors visiting annually, as well as convincing the county to do another hotel feasibility study. A study conducted a year ago concluded that the community doesn’t need any additional hotel rooms because occupancies are low.

Randall counters that existing facilities don’t offer the amenities sought out by that clientele.

“The issue with that study was preservation of what you’ve got versus trying to serve those that you could potentially capture, whether it’s the Japanese executive, the lab visitor, the lab contractor or whatever, who says, “I’m not going to stay at a place where I can’t get a drink at the end of the day or I can’t get a meal on site.’ You’ll never capture them if the bar is so low,” Randall said.“So we’re talking to the county about the possibility of commissioning a new study, which would help us make the sale for the potential higher end facility.

“If we’re comfortable with the $100 per diems staying at the bottom of the hill and driving up and down rather than trying to capture that, okay. Personally, I don’t think we’re well served.”

Several representatives of the various retailers, restaurants and hotels have visited the county since the convention in May, and Randall expects more to come.

“I was very, very pleased with the response that we received,” Randall said. “I didn’t come back with signed leases, but we are having people come and look at the community. We were in a position of putting people together.”