After two-year hiatus, subdued atmosphere greets attendees at real estate’s biggest schmoozefest
The eve of ICSC’s conference in Las Vegas is traditionally a last bastion of hedonism for real estate bros. Music, liquor and cigar smoke flow through the Wynn hotel’s “European Pool,” where retail giants like Winick Realty Group host cabanas — and where bathing suit tops are famously optional.
This year, things are different. The Wynn’s pools were quiet and mostly empty on a picturesque, 70-degree Sunday. New York-based debt brokerage, investment, and retail leasing firm Meridian Capital Group was the lone group to rent a cabana.
“It was exciting to come here and get back to normal,” said James Famularo, the firm’s president of retail leasing, puffing on a cigar and relaxing poolside in sunglasses. “As normal as possible, but it’s not going to be normal.”
In past years, ICSC’s annual event, known as RECon, has been held in May and regularly attracted around 30,000 retail landlords, brokers, retailers and other commercial real estate players. It became known as a mecca for schmoozers and dealmakers.
ICSC emerged from a Covid hiatus this year with a new conference, branded “Here, We Go,” this week at the Las Vegas Convention Center, a winter holdover until the May event returns. Vaccinations are mandatory and about 9,000 attendees registered, according to an ICSC staffer.
The event comes after the organization laid off the majority of its employees, including 18 of its 22 event staffers, three months into the pandemic. Even prior to last year, the nonprofit had struggled with declining membership and longstanding internal strife, according to interviews last year with more than a dozen former staffers and current members.
Expectations going in were mixed.
“At the beginning, I thought this was a forced event from a trade organization that was suffering because they haven’t had events,” said David Birnbrey, chairman of the Shopping Center Group, which hosted a cocktail reception Sunday night. “[But] it was necessary for people to get back together quickly, and I think ICSC was very proactive.”
Some prior hosts, like Vornado Realty Trust, skipped the parties and hosted private dinners, according to sources. Vornado declined to comment.
The event itself lacked many of the usual big names in New York real estate. Major brokerages who were present included JLL, Newmark and Avison Young. CoStar, the real estate data behemoth, had one of the largest booths.
Members of the Ghermezian family — which owns Triple Five, the Canadian-based conglomerate behind the Mall of America, the American Dream Mall in East Rutherford, New Jersey, and an upcoming project in Miami — were in attendance. Houston-based Hines was also present, with a small booth. Ashkenazy Acquisition Corp. reserved an office on the second floor of the conference center.
Some companies brought a smaller staff than they did to past May events, anticipating sparser attendance and fewer high-level decision makers. Others brought up concerns over Covid, especially as the Omicron variant begins to spread through the country.
“I don’t know that it’s gonna come back 100 percent in 2022,” said Michael Mason of Newmark’s Chicago office, who noted that “in person meetings and shows like ICSC are critical” for dealmaking.
“I think May will be a lot more attended, no question,” said Shlomo Chopp, a managing partner with Case Equity Partners.
The allure for some is not just the trade show, but the glitz of Vegas.
“If you share a drink with somebody and you’re at the craps table with them, you can call them and they’ll answer your call,” Famularo said. “You get to know somebody on a different level.”