An outdoor rink is in the works next to the shopping center.
If you’ve ever wanted to ice skate through our corner of paradise, now’s your chance.
By this weekend, an outdoor skating rink is going to be nestled among the strings of illuminated palm trees, Christmas trees and light displays in University Town Center. As that retail district at the Interstate 75 and University Parkway interchange has grown over the years, so has its reputation for putting on a spectacular holiday light show.
Now Manatee County-based Benderson Development Co. and Taubman Center Inc.’s the Mall at University Town Center are taking that tradition to a whole new interactive level.
Holidays on the Green at UTC, on a small patch of land between the mall and North Cattlemen Road, is slated to debut Friday with a showing of Disney’s “Frozen” at 7 p.m., some hot cocoa and a visit from the movie’s stars, Anna and Elsa, at 5 p.m. The skating rink should be open by this weekend, too, weather permitting. It’s $10 to rent skates and use the rink for 90 minutes, but beyond that everything at Holidays on the Green is free and open to the public through Jan. 15.
I had the chance to tour the grounds and see the tent-covered real ice rink — not that harsh, rough synthetic stuff — with Lauren Clark and Jeramy Burkinshaw, the mall’s marketing manager and general manager, on Thursday morning.
As long as it’s cooler than 78 degrees, they can roll up the sides of the tent so guests can skate in the open air, but there’s more to the project than that.
Crews are building new brick walkways around the area to encourage walkability from the mall to The Green to the nearby West District at University Town Center. There’s a small off-track train to the side that children will be able to ride through the holiday village at no cost. Plans for a stage are underway and they’ve got some holiday-themed live entertainment lined up to go with it. There are plans to show movies on a big screen weekly. They haven’t released a list yet, but it’ll be along the lines of “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer,” “Frosty the Snowman” and “Elf.” They’re aiming for the classics that people can watch over and over again, Burkinshaw told me.
That region already is bedecked with lights, but Benderson has enlisted a little help from local children on the decorations. The development company has dropped off large pieces of plywood at area schools and asked them to make a large holiday greeting card to the community. Guests at The Green will be able to vote on their favorites, and at the end of the season the three winning schools will receive a donation.
It’s community focused. It’s experience driven. It’s something that no shopping center in Southwest Florida has ever done before.
And it’s part of a nationally growing trend.
As e-commerce has risen in popularity and Amazon.com has managed to shake almost every segment of the retail industry, it’s become increasingly important to offer customers more than just products. Consumers can order just about anything with a click of a button and have it delivered, so shoppers have to have a reason to leave their homes. They don’t just want a full shopping bag from traditional brick-and-mortar stores anymore. They want an experience, and the Mall at University Town Center has offered quite a few of them in 2017.
In the less than a year since Clark and Burkinshaw took over leadership at the 3-year-old mall, there’s been an undeniable push to bring the community to the shopping center. It started this spring when they rolled out a free Sunday morning fitness club and continued this summer with an eight-week kids’ activities club.
I thought the initiative peaked this month when the mall hosted a special fireworks show and welcome party for Santa that brought more than 10,000 people to the shopping center.
Then I saw that ice skating rink this morning.
Amazon may be able to drop all my Christmas gifts to my doorstep, but it can’t put an ice skating rink there.
And Clark reminded me that 90 percent of all purchases are still made in brick-and-mortar stores. Consumers are increasingly using online shopping for price comparison, but there are some products that buyers really want to feel, touch and try on before they purchase.
Whether customers shop the stores or not during these special events, these experiences build a familiarity and foster a loyalty with the mall. When they’re ready to feel and touch a product, they’ll turn to the place they know.
Keeping ahead in this rough retail climate is a matter of taking the 90 minutes the average consumer spends at the mall at turning it into something they’ll remember forever, Clark told me.
Ice skating beneath the holiday glow of palm trees? That might just do it.
Maggie Menderski, the Herald-Tribune’s retail and tourism reporter, can be reached at 941-361-4951 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @MaggieMenderski.