Is America Yearning for American Dream?

Al Urbanski
Real Estate Editor & Manager
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Mark Ghermezian
Mark Ghermezian

The 2020 pandemic wore hard on American retail centers. They are now all trying to re-invent themselves as entertainment and dining centers. That’s something that Triple Five has done from the start, and since it re-opened its American Dream project in October, it’s been selling out tickets to its Nickelodeon Universe theme park and its DreamWorks Water Park—traffic that’s helped retail tenants such as Primark, H&M, and Lululemon register chain-leading sales. Mark Ghermezian, who this year joined his cousin Don as co-CEO of the long-in-development attraction in the Jersey Meadowlands, sat down with us to explain what American Dream is all about.

Mark, the people in the hundreds of millions of cars that have passed this property on the New Jersey Turnpike over the years have all been wondering. So tell us: What is American Dream?
It’s hard to put one word on it. What we aspire to be is Disney World. A typical shopping center has a merry-go-round. Our center has Dream Works Water Park, the largest indoor waterpark in North America; Nickelodeon Universe, the largest indoor theme park in the Western Hemisphere; Big Snow, North America’s first and only indoor, real-snow, ski resort. We have The Rink, an NHL-regulation size skating facility; and Angry Birds Not So Mini Golf Club. We thought, what if we could have the best of entertainment, shopping, and food just minutes from Manhattan? My father and my uncles developed West Edmonton Mall 40 years ago. Then Mall of America. They created shopping places that people bought tickets to attend. Forty years ago, everybody thought they were crazy, and now it’s what everybody is trying to replicate.

How has the first month in full operation gone?
Typically, when you’re going to any shopping center, you don’t plan a week in advance. But that’s when people buy tickets to attend our theme park and water park. We know the traffic that’s coming in on any given day, and we’re drawing people from 100 miles away. We’re not just opening the doors and hoping people will show up.

What’s more, we’re focused on making American Dream safer than ever before, with an extensive health and safety Plan that includes reduced capacity throughout our center, enhanced cleaning and sanitizing of all surfaces, and physical distancing and face covering requirements.

The pandemic has caused huge turmoil in the retail industry. Retailers and retail real estate developers both are re-writing their playbooks. Should they look to American Dream for inspiration?
It’s going to be hard for traditional retailers to replicate this; it’s not in their DNA to build experiences into their projects from the bottom up. And, if you don’t have the back-end tech to absorb it, it’s not so simple. End-to-end malls are anchors positioned at the ends of buildings with corridors in the middle. They are having a hard time establishing themselves as brands. Whereas, with our attractions, in just one month, we have attracted 150,000 followers on social media. That’s hard for typical malls to do.

People want to be entertained, and you give them lots of incredible options. But what about shopping? Isn’t shopping still entertainment?
I think it’s part of the experience, for sure. The America Dream experience can start with having a meal, going to one of our attractions, or going shopping. A really huge part of what makes our shopping experience different is that we pushed tenants to build flagship locations. Our It’Sugar is the world’s only candy department store. Zara is the biggest in North America. We’re also helping them to create better experiences and customer service. So retail is definitely a big part of the American Dream experience. We sell tickets and can guarantee traffic, and if guests just go to the water park their first time here and don’t shop, they’re going to come back and they’re going to want to shop.

Your background is in digital customer engagement. What are some of the things you’ll be doing online to define this project, build brand recognition, and draw traffic?
Imagine if there was a membership program that gave you premier access like Amazon Prime does — gives you music, free delivery, content, all those different things. We think we’re unique and will be able to do that. We’re still discussing it internally. But we create content every day with attractions and events. We had the Ottawa Senators practice at The Rink. Cardi B just made a visit. We are uniquely positioned to transform American Dream into a digital experience as well as a physical experience.

Everyone’s now ramping up their omnichannel efforts. How is American Dream planning to merge physical and digital retail.
For now, our online business is focused on intellectual properties people experience at the attractions. You came and couldn’t buy your Nickelodeon hoodie or your Shrek doll, so you buy it from us online. But we’ll slowly start introducing our retail properties to our e-commerce operation. For the time being, though, we’re doubling down on selling merchandise from our IP partners.