Q&A with WEM Co-Owner David Ghermezian

During his three-day stay at West Edmonton Mall, Omar Mouallem sat down with WEM co-owner David Ghermezian. The following is an edited transcript of their Q&A. 

Photography Omar Mouallem

Omar Mouallem: Tell me about the renovating and reinventing of West Edmonton Mall.

David Ghermezian: The mall was built in three phases starting in 1980, so we felt some of the finishes were getting dated and tired.  Not only that but people were seeing the same thing for 30 years, they want to see something different. The amusements are generally a happy place but we wanted to make the rest of it a happy place, brighten the place up.

Mirrors emanate a lot of light with reflection, but we wanted to make the place as full of light as possible. We use light colours, reflective surfaces. The floor, if you remember, was a dark brown travertine. We’ve ripped up most of it and replaced it with a white bone stone.

It’s more contemporary now.

We wanted the mall to look like it was the premier shopping centre in Edmonton. When it was built, it was the premier shopping centre – we wanted to bring it back to that status.

You don’t think it was for a while?

Well, now it is.

But there was a period where it wasn’t?

There was a period where we were lacking, aesthetically. Look, when we built this mall in 1980, brass was a popular material. You hardly see brass anywhere. Now, the handrails have gone more modern, sleeker, thinner brushed stainless steel.

So you’re talking aesthetically only.

In every other way this has always been the premier shopping mall in Edmonton. Sales wise, tenants wise, we’ve always had the best, the hotels always full, but the look of the mall was probably lacking. In my opinion, it was always the most beautiful mall in Edmonton. I certainly wouldn’t trade it with going to Southgate [Centre] or Kingsway [Mall]; even before the renovation, West Edmonton Mall was three times nicer than Southgate. Now, if it’s not the nicest in Edmonton by everybody’s standard, than maybe the nicest in Western Canada.

What’s left of the renovation?

We’ve done the main mall, now we’re going to do the food courts and Bourbon Street. We started with the most highly trafficked areas; now we’re doing the feature areas, like the skating rink.

What are we going to see at the ice rink?

It’s going to be very white, more of a crystal palace. You can get a sense of what it looks like now, where the elevator is, and the white that we’ve replaced with glass and the ceiling above.

At the skating rink, there’s a de-emphasizing on hockey, and you can see it was built because of the popularity of hockey and because my dad had three boys growing up. We’re trying to soften it up and now it’s figure skating and leisure skating.

The bumper boats? It was a ride, but now I’m more concerned with the beautification of the lake. We’re trying to make the lake beautiful so people want to take pictures of it and not be distracted by bumper boats. The submarines? They were functional but not a popular attraction anymore.

You can see what we’ve done. The columns are going to glow from the inside. It’s going to be a real feature. We’re doing the finer things now. We’re adding the oil court. It’s a work of art by a famous artist [Pascal Girardin]. And it’s expensive. It’s not just a chandelier. [The total cost was approximately $400,000.]

Are you getting rid of all the cartoon architecture?

Certainly in the mall areas, any cartoon architecture is coming out. The sea [cavern] stuff is staying; it’s an attraction.

When was that introduced?

In the mid-to- late-’90s. It was popular at that time

That’s when Cosmo came in?

It was part of the theming. When this place opened, it didn’t have an identity. We were trying to add a face to the name. Cosmo’s been a very popular mascot.

But it seems like it’s time to go?

You’ll see 90 per cent of it in Galaxy Land. In Galaxy Land, we’ve been more focused on bringing new rides than on the theme. Look, you’ve got to look at your audience. You have kids on kiddie rides but 16-year-olds are your main user.

Why are you moving toward this upscale environment?

I don’t think Edmonton has given credit to sophistication customer base. You see people travelling down to the United States, Vancouver, Toronto and they talk about their shopping experiences. I think we’re changing that. Now Edmonton is becoming a shopping mecca. Certainly regionally it is the centre for shopping for not just Edmonton but eastern interior British Columbia, Saskatchewan. If they’re talking about going shopping they’re not talking about going to the United States. But because the demographics are changing and luxury is taking off altogether, we notice it every time we introduce the more expensive stores [and] it’s almost the more successful it is.

So it’s been more successful?

Much more successful. Our Coach store, our Lacoste store, but, look, you’ve got a guy in phase one downstairs who sells Rolex and Cartier watches [GemOro], so it’s not just relegated to the internationals.

How much of this has to do with Alberta’s oil boom and affluence?

It certainly helps. It just amplifies it.

Would it work otherwise?

It would work otherwise. Regardless of what happens to the economy we’re moving forward. You see all these American tenants now, but the next round of American tenants are going to be even bigger names.

We’re working on a number of deals, [so] regardless of which way the economy goes in Edmonton it doesn’t really matter. The mall is busier now than it’s ever been before. If you’re here on the weekend, it will be wall to wall. We had Black Friday here, we were at capacity. We have an overflow lot and there’s usually space there. It’s filling up.

What’s the fate of the Santa Maria?

The Santa Maria as part of the lake is a beautiful attraction. You don’t have a water feature like that in any shopping centre in the world.

We’ve extended the platform because we’re going to have another coffee place so people can actually sit on the water. Where the bumper boats were before, you can have an expensive Italian espresso.

Do stores like Victoria’s Secret and Simons request the kitsch get toned down?

No, they just want things to be done invitingly, tastefully. If you go outside the Simons door you see we’ve actually changed the ceiling to match the area. They wanted more light to attract people to the Simons sign.

If you want to talk about Simons – $1,000 jeans, I haven’t seen that anywhere in Edmonton.

How old were you when the mall opened?

Seven years old.

What are your earliest memories?

When I grew up, the mall was larger than life. When it was just phase one, my mom came here to shop and dropped me off at the arcade. I remember being on the roller coaster 30 times in a row and enjoying it. For myself and my brothers living in Edmonton it was enjoyable because of West Edmonton Mall. And my son is the same today. My seven year old son, he only wants to come to the mall, to Galaxyland.

Is it less for kids now than when you were a kid?

Look, it depends on the age. [For anyone] from age five to 15, it probably has the same attractions, only better, because everything has been amplified. Kids today have a lot of other choices. It’s a lot more difficult to retain them because your attraction better be pretty good because they got Xbox at home. You have to step it up.

The retail here is world class and has been refreshed at a much more aggressive pace than some of the amusements, but that’s where the shopping mall is going.

You talked about how the Mall made Edmonton a happier place for you and your brother Don. Do you think that’s true for most Edmontonians?

[For] any Edmontonian who frequents West Edmonton Mall, it’s certainly made [the city] a better place. It’s a long, cold winter here and there are limited options for entertainment.

I think if you asked most people what the identifying symbol of Edmonton is today, West Edmonton Mall would rank number one. And the Oilers number two.

You mentioned that it was the premier mall in Western Canada, but at the time it launched your Grandpa talked about it in even bigger terms, as the Eighth Wonder of the World. Now that his formula has been replicated, is it no longer the majestic place it once was?

The only people who have replicated it successfully is ourselves, and that’s the Mall of America, the largest mall in America. They’ve built bigger malls in China but they certainly don’t have the attractions we have and some of them built it only because they were cheap; they’re white elephants, with huge vacancies.

What about Dubai?

That’s purely for shopping. They don’t have the attractions –

What about its ski hill?

So that’s one attraction.

What’s been Triple Five’s formula for success?

Without exaggeration I have a Chinese delegation here every three weeks. I had one two weeks ago, I had one on Monday – they come here and sit here and they want to pick my brain. Tell us what worked here.

I tell them it s a very complicated process. It’s not easy. You don’t make money on an amusement park. There’s no way to make a return on an indoor amusement park, or a water park. The cost to replace these things is tremendous, so you’re going to pump all that money into it, you’re way behind the eight ball. You have to make sure you have that customer base of people and people are going to show up, that they’re going to shop there and eat there and spend time there because if you think you’re going to make a return from the attractions alone, it’s not going to work. It has to work together.

What I’m getting at is though your Grandpa built it as this Wonder of the World, people see it more of a super-mall than a monument now. Do you think it still holds the power it did when your Grandpa created it?

Judging from the fact that you look out this parking lot and you see that it’s full on this level, I mean it’s still the same kind of [success]. Things that are new have novelty. You have a 5.5 million square feet shopping mall in Edmonton, Alberta – it’s going to get that attention but people get used to it after a while, you get into this normality. But the last seven, eight years there’s been a resurgence of A-grade shopping centres, and in Edmonton this is the A[-grade]shopping centre. When we opened this mall with three Tip Tops, four Fairweathers – at one time we had four McDonalds. Look at today, I don’t have space to accommodate three of every Canadian retailer. And I don’t have to hawk space to them. Today, the mall is virtually full. We have a bank coming in here for the first time in 15 years, new tenancies, luxury tenancies […] they’re coming to either Edmonton first, because of West Edmonton Mall, or to Toronto first, but those are their two choices.

Why? Because they understand their customer base better and we have the most diverse customer base of anywhere in the country. If they want to tweak their model for Canada, they can do that at West Edmonton Mall.

You talked about the resurgence of luxury shopping, another trend has been the resurgence of urbanism. At least amongst young people, I know there’s starting to be a disdain toward malls and suburbia.

Personally, I don’t think there’s any disdain towards malls. Maybe towards the malls in power centres but not towards a shopping centre like this. People come here and they’re happy. I think you’re seeing more of the urbanization trend in cities like Vancouver and Toronto, where you don’t want to be in traffic for an hour and a half and affordability is becoming an issue.

What about the growing popularity of shopping downtown and around 124 Street and 104 Street?

There’s room for that too. Look, Edmonton’s population goes up every year, the success of downtown helps our success; we’re big supporters of the [downtown arena] and the Oilers and we want to see that happen. Whatever’s better for the city of Edmonton is better for us as well. There’s always going to be an element or subculture that wants to be downtown, not have a car. and have everything be convenient, and there’s something to be said for that, but in a city like Edmonton, suburbia is convenience. Traffic here is not like Vancouver, Toronto or even Calgary – it doesn’t take an hour to get anywhere. I live by the museum. I can get from there to here in eight minutes. To downtown, it’s another four minutes.

Is it snobbery, then?

I don’t think that happens. I think everybody shops here. If you like to shop, you’re shopping here.

It’s like downtown here. I got T & T [Supermarket], I got the hotel, I got the church, I got the casino, I got all the shopping in the world and places you can skate and ride and swim and I got a gym here.

What about residences?

I’m not going to rule that out. I think it’s a great idea. We don’t have plans for it today. For what we’re doing right now it’s not the best use [of funds], but I think it would be very popular. As the mall keeps growing vertically, maybe one day we’ll build a residence.

During the recession, what was the difference between Mall of America and West Edmonton Mall?

This is a question that goes back to the Alberta economy. The United States got decimated; you didn’t see that in Canada because lending guidelines were much more conservative, so West Edmonton Mall didn’t feel anything at all. Mall of America had a few years of hard times. You had tenants that were having difficulty, but, for the most part, those have recovered.

It’s not just West Edmonton Mall, by the way, – you look at the reports on retail in Alberta, and they’re the highest in the country.

What if the economy fails?

People want to treat themselves, even in a struggling economy. It might slow down a little bit, but it doesn’t concern me.

So what makes it work?

If you look across Canada there’s hardly any shopping centres owned by families anymore. We’re able to spend the time and tweak it. We make that extra effort to make sure Simons is comfortable or to go out and tell the American retailers that if you want to come to Canada, you come to West Edmonton Mall first.

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