Tony Elvin, General Manager at Touchwood in Solihull reflects on his first 18 months in charge, talks about how Touchwood are fighting back against the challenges facing the Retail sector and what the future holds for Solihull.
I’ve been General Manager at Touchwood for almost 18 months now. Long enough to fully understand the challenges and opportunities, long enough to have been able to start making a difference. A good time then to reflect on my time here so far and also to talk about what brought me here and how I am managing the obvious challenges we face in retail.
The two most common questions I’ve been asked ahead of and since my movie from Hospitality to Retail is, ‘Why the move to retail at such a volatile time for the industry?’ or ‘It must be really different running a shopping centre compared to running a hotel’.
The second question is easy to answer, ‘Not really’. Any role where you have a team of over 60 or so people to manage is going to have more in common than different. People being the common thread between both roles and across every other sector in which I’ve worked, be they your team, your clients, in this case your tenants and local stakeholders. For me, that’s what I love about the job… the people and the opportunity to talk, share ideas, engage and work on projects as part of a larger team. I’ve managed Health Clubs, Family Entertainment Centres, Hotels and now a Shopping Centre. Successful relationships with the people involved are critical to all these roles.
The answer to the first question is slightly more complicated in that Shopping Centre management was never something that I’d considered before. I loved my job at Hotel du Vin and had some exciting career progression mapped out. In fact, when I first received the call about my interest in managing a shopping centre, my immediate response was again, ‘Not really’ but also to ask which one it was. When Touchwood was mentioned, it made all the difference.
When I opened the Village Hotel in Shirley back in 2009, I had originally planned to commute from Northampton. We had lived there for 7 years, made a lot of friends and our daughter was settled at school. However, when I started to become more familiar with the area I knew we had to relocate. The shopping centre in Northampton had become quite depressing, a significant amount of the shops had closed, even 10 years ago. Conversely, Solihull and in particular Touchwood were vibrant and bristling with energy. I took the family to Touchwood for the day and that, along with the numerous ‘Outstanding’ Ofsted rated free schools in the area meant it was a no brainer to relocate and we’re delighted we did. So, Touchwood uniquely held a special resonance with my family and I.
The improvement to my quality of life and for my family has been life changing, leading me to ask why I didn’t do it, or something similar, all the sooner. The truth is thought, without that experience in hospitality I would never have had the opportunity to join Touchwood.
It is precisely the challenge that retail faces that would drive an entity like Touchwood to look for a manager with my experience and background, a hospitality professional, a collaborator, someone with a guest experience focus.
As we all know, traditional bricks and mortar retail has been disrupted by online retail, out of convenience. We lead such busy lives, anything that makes life easier or more convenient is going to win out.
For me, it is that word ‘convenience’ rather than any of the tech factors that is critical here. It is more convenient to order clothes from your phone wherever you are but it’s a bit of a faff and certainly not more fun or more functional. You can’t beat a bricks and mortar store for the ability to try clothes on, feel the fabric, ask for feedback but you have to get here and whether you’re walking, using public transport, or driving it feels like a bit of a hassle. Convenience dictates then, that visits to the high street and to shopping centres will naturally decline if what we offer can be purchased more conveniently elsewhere.
We work hard, families often have both parents at work and this scarcity of time is what drives the importance of convenience. It also makes us value the time we do have together, with friends and family, even more precious, it’s why we seek out new experiences and experiential activities.
Whilst a Shopping Centre cannot beat online for convenience, delivering ‘experiences’ should be an opportunity to excel and that has not only been our key focus but is why I was approached to take on the challenge. My strategy is simple, give people more reasons to visit Touchwood. In fact, if you are already here, for whatever reason, then it becomes more convenient to pop into that bricks and mortar store for a real shopping experience than it is to faff about on a little screen.
To do this, we’re focusing on driving an ever more compelling entertainment programme and bringing in new, exciting and footfall driving tenants.
The entertainment side can be impacted quickly. At Christmas everyone expects to see Santa but another big draw last year was our Snow Pit and we hope to replicate that again this year. Since then we’ve have our Easter Code Cracking Trail, our Lego Play Room, The Chocolate Escape Room, a visit from Harry Redknapp and Wes from Love Island, a pop-up planetarium to celebrate 50 years since the lunar landing and all sorts of other activities going on. Now that Summer is here the ‘Costa del Solihull’ Beach has returned with a full entertainment programme, but this year we’ll also have a Scrapyard-themed mini golf operation within the centre too.
As for the new and exciting, footfall driving tenants, what have we achieved so far? Well, what we have achieved hasn’t happened super quickly, leasing deals take a long time to negotiate, solicitors like to have their say, there are design approvals required and then the fit out, but we have made progress and the centre is starting to evolve.
CBRE research tells us that 4 out of 10 visits to the shops are actually to eat and drink. So, in many cases the shopping has almost become a bi-product of a visit to a Shopping Centre.
As you’ll likely know, we have some fantastic trusted brands Leisure brands at Touchwood and it’s great to know that when you’re out shopping you can grab something to eat that you know will be guaranteed quality, you know what to expect and what you’re going to get. I’m not sure those brands will drive footfall though, because they’re already everywhere. So, we need to compliment those trusted brands with brands that create a point of difference, will make you travel here rather than somewhere else and that is why we worked so hard to make our first two new restaurants independent and exciting; Asha’s and Jamaya.
Asha’s is locally owned and synonymous with high quality Indian cuisine and service, they are regular national curry award winners and offer a real touch of class to the Solihull dining scene. Jamaya are locally owned and operated, and we were delighted that Touchwood would be the location for their first ever restaurant. Serving authentic Caribbean food, they’ve been a huge hit, drawing in happy diners from across the region. Our next two leisure operators are also independents, so the changes are coming thick and fast.
A key focus has been to make everyone feel welcome and aside from diversifying the dining offer we’ve also been engaging with local community groups to help give them a greater platform within the town centre. Working with Solihull BID, The Solihull Chamber and The Asian Business Chamber we clubbed together to move the Birmingham Thyagaraja Festival from a school hall to the Core Theatre. A far more fitting area for some of the UK’s finest Carnatic performers to show their talents. This is just one example of where we see opportunities for businesses to engage with the community. Another key driver for revitalising the high street and generating footfall.
Along this theme we’ve also been working to make Touchwood more accessible. One example of an improvement we’ve made followed some comprehensive autism awareness training for the team. We became conscious that some families might find our environment a bit overwhelming and introduced Quiet Hour as a result. Our Quiet Hour between 9.00am and 10.00am on Saturday mornings is a time when the centre and all the stores turn off their music and turn the lights down to make the centre less intense for guests that may be on the autistic scale or suffer from sensory overload. It’s something we hope to grow if well used. Already we’ve had some lovely feedback and not just from our target audience, some people have just enjoyed the relative peace and quiet, something that’s hard to come by these days.
I’ve been incredibly pleased to find the level of support from Solihull BID, the Tourism Forum, the council and the Chamber. There are a number of issues where we’re working together, along with our counter parts atMell Square to improve Solihull as a destination. Very few people visit Touchwood without visiting the rest of the Solihull so it is just as important to me that the whole of Solihull thrives. As such I have tried to integrate with these organisations as much as possible. I sit as Vice President for Solihull Chamber and Deputy Chair for Solihull BID and involved with the local Homelessness Taskforce and the roll out of Andy Street’s Diversity and Inclusion Pledge.
With Dubai style levels of investment coming into the region as a result of HS2 this is a very exciting time for Solihull and we need to make sure we’re ready for it. In 2026, when the first person steps off of a HS2 train, it will be at the Solihull Interchange Hub station. To facilitate the arrival of that first passenger, the development of the HS2 interchange site will generate up to 77,000 new jobs, 4000 new homes and £4.1BN GVA per year. Tell me that business in Solihull won’t benefit from this. It is my goal to help make sure that Solihull is ready to capitalise on this opportunity.
Exciting times indeed and no, I’m not missing hotels just yet, I’m having too much fun here.