The exterior of the expanded Aventura Mall in South Florida. On the right is an event space named Level Three, and on the left is Aventura’s Apple Store, just opened in 2019. (Leo Diaz)

ULI MEMBER–ONLY CONTENT: In 2019, more than 9,300 retail stores closed in the United States alone, according to Coresight Research. One of the largest new malls set to open in 2020, the American Dream in northern New Jersey, has had to further push back its plans to open due to concerns about COVID-19 and lack of tourism in the New York City area. But South Florida’s Aventura Mall has continued to reinvent itself as a retail destination despite the shifting economic tides.

First opening its doors in 1983, Aventura is now the largest mall in Florida, adding 315,000 square feet (29,200 sq m) in 2019, and averaging more than 28 million visitors each year. With a steady traffic stream bolstered by both the local community and Miami’s bustling influx of tourists, Aventura Mall has developed an ability to attract shoppers that most mall owners cannot quite replicate.

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Aventura Mall itself was forced to close its stores in mid-March, and reopening to the public in May. The shutdown and perceived consumer fear that lingers after the pandemic’s initial peak did little to quell Aventura’s appeal. The Miami Herald reported long lines for popular retailers like Zara for Memorial Day weekend.

As part of the reopening plan, custom-designed masks were available to staff and customers.

According to Jackie Soffer, the chairman and CEO of Turnberry Associates and the principal owner of Aventura Mall, Aventura’s success is attributed to its continued focus on the physical realm. Simon Property Group also has a stake in Aventura.

While many shopping centers have combated increasing competition from e-commerce channels by fusing digital technologies with the social-media hashtag driven “in real life” experiences, Aventura has also focused on creating tangible experiences that are inextricably tied to what consumers want to see. As the New York Times headline stated in January, “Dying Malls? This One Has Found a Way to Thrive.”

“We always try to have our finger on the pulse of what consumers want,” says Soffer, explaining how the center makes decisions regarding its additions and expansions. “We look at which brands are hot and what does well on the property. What happens in Miami and what people want to purchase in this market is also different from a lot of other U.S. malls. We look at what’s going on with other lifestyle centers and community events; we examine the top online brands and trends; we follow Instagram, Snapchat, and Tiktok.”

A two-chute outdoor slide created by visual artist Carsten Höller sends visitors 93 feet (28 m) down a winding corkscrew.

From adding a nine-story, two-chute towering slide created by visual artist Carsten Höller—one that sends visitors soaring 93 feet (28 m) down a winding corkscrew slide—alongside a number of other public art pieces; to a new dining hall that features buzzy new outposts alongside beloved local favorites; and pop-up Instagram museum experiences like Candytopia, Aventura has proved that its instincts-meets-insights approach keeps the center on its toes.

Over its nearly 40-year trajectory, Aventura has made important capital improvements that have allowed it to transform from a typical neighborhood mall into a destination for global consumers seeking both high- and low-retail options. The mall has undergone a significant expansion each decade of its existence—in 1997, 2008, and most recently 2017—increasing its total square footage from an initial 1.2 million to 3 million (111,500 to 279,000 sq m), to today containing 311 stores over two floors to accommodate the shifting needs of the Miami market. Despite such an enormous expansion, Aventura Mall boasts nearly 100 percent occupancy, according to its parent company Turnberry and outside analysts.

Even for a successful mall in a class A market, that occupancy rate is incredibly impressive, says Mark Hunter, managing director at CBRE who oversees large retail platforms across the Americas within the commercial real estate firm. “Generally speaking, you’re seeing a 94 percent occupancy at most malls,” Hunter notes.

Aventura’s success can likely be attributed to its willingness to adapt its offerings to suit consumer needs. “We’ve always looked at the center as the heart of the community and the place from which we drew from,” says Soffer. “So as that community’s demographic and customer base changed, so did our inspirations for new additions.”

As Aventura’s residential landscape evolved from a more middle-class neighborhood to one with towering luxury condominiums in nearby communities like Williams Island and Sunny Isles Beach, the mall began its own transformation. While its original anchor department stores were the likes of Sears and JCPenney, and its typical tenants included stores like Lenscrafters, the Limited, and Gap, Aventura was slowly able to attract higher-end and edgier retailers to suit the tastes of its evolving clientele. Bloomingdale’s and Nordstrom were added, along with luxury retailers like Louis Vuitton—an initial major coup for the mall.

Luxury brands and public statuary are part of Aventura’s strategy for differentiation.

“Bal Harbour Shops had a monopoly on luxury for a very long time, and when Louis Vuitton left to come to us in 2011 it was a big deal,” says Soffer, referring to the open-air shopping mall located just 30 minutes away from Aventura Mall. “As word spread about luxury doing well, we found ourselves in a position of attracting luxe tenants, but the restaurant options weren’t up to the level of the customer.”

Aventura recently upgraded some food offerings, adding a farmers market and some brand names from outside the region.

That inspired the addition of Aventura’s newest dining hall, which drew fanfare by incorporating favorites like Luke’s Lobster and Serafina from New York City—and, since these restaurants were the only outposts outside their respective cities, their addition made Aventura a destination for dining in its own right.

Other additions, such as a weekend farmers market, an Equinox gym, and Aventura’s celebrated art collection, give both visiting tourists and longer-term residents a reason to make the mall a frequent shopping destination.

The art collection in particular represents a program that is unique in a shopping mall context. Initiated in 2006, the collection was initially a way to connect with the community on a more intellectual level. “The idea really was to bring contemporary art to people in a place where they wouldn’t expect to see it, with the thinking being that they may not otherwise see it,” says Soffer.

Notably, 28 million people visit Aventura every year—a figure that museums around the country would struggle to achieve. Today, the collection includes blue-chip artists like Takashi Murakami, Robert Indiana, the Haas Brothers, Ugo Rondinone, and Jaume Plensa, alongside works by emerging Miami artists graduating from the New World School of the Arts.

CBRE’s Hunter notes that Aventura’s thoughtful investment—both in its expansion and positioning to attract a diverse set of retailers—has no doubt contributed to its success. “Aventura is in a competitive market, but has committed ownership that’s well capitalized and can weather competition from brick-and-mortars and e-commerce,” he says. “It almost always comes down to ownership and their willingness to commit capital to be ahead of the curve. Those that have been willing to redevelop and to reinvent themselves beyond retail, creating a work/shop/play environment, are the successful malls today.”

Soffer attributes that success to her commitment to keep the experience as simple as possible. Instead of investing in complex technologies to bring the internet experience to the brick-and-mortar, Aventura Mall emphasizes more of what makes us human.

“There’s a certain amount of our lives today that we live in our communities because we seek that interaction,” says Soffer. “When I read articles about shopping being more entertainment-focused, I always feel like the readers are thinking they need more entertainment to attract customers, and they always think it’s VR or shows or something extravagant digitally. And frankly, I think people crave just basic human interaction. People want to be around other people.”

That contention is perhaps truer than ever in the era of social distancing, as COVID-19 has ravaged communities across the world and affected consumer spending in ways not seen since the Great Depression. Hunter notes that landlords across America are offering tenant relief to accommodate crushing losses for their retailer tenants. “Everyone is trying to figure it out, and we’re starting to see malls starting to reopen, which is good news for retailers,” he says. “However, it’s impossible to predict what will happen over the next 12 months.”

Still, Soffer worries that a likely reduction in international tourism might have an impact on sales over the coming months. “Forty to 50 percent of our business is tourists,” she says. “I think one of the issues with Miami is that we’re a market where most people travel by air, so if people don’t get on planes, I think Miami as a whole will suffer for quite some time.”

Still, Aventura’s tenant base has been propped up by its ongoing food delivery and takeout services, and a willingness among its local clientele to return to the mall. Shifting what is already working during the coronavirus era—such as having celebrated artists FriendsWithYou design special masks for its most loyal clients—are just some of the ways that Aventura plans to remain profitable. Soffer’s mind-set—one that has served her well in the past—remains steadfast.

“We know we have to evolve and are ready to,” she says.

The Aventura Mall is looking to a future that may be less dependent on cars, expecting to add a Brightline train station in fall 2020.