CAMPAIGNS: Cleveland center overcomes storm of negative press

PR Team: First Interstate Properties (Beachwood, OH) and Marcus Thomas (Cleveland) Campaign: Opening of Legacy Village Time Frame: January-October 2003 Budget: $400,000

PR Team: First Interstate Properties (Beachwood, OH) and Marcus Thomas (Cleveland) Campaign: Opening of Legacy Village Time Frame: January-October 2003 Budget: $400,000

There's a reason Cleveland doesn't have many open-air shopping plazas. "The weather here is miserable," says Michelle Vocaire, account executive at Marcus Thomas (MT). "Summer is nice, but winter is just miserable. And unlike Chicago, where you have hustle and bustle all year round despite the cold, Cleveland just shuts down in the winter." Nonetheless, last year, First Interstate Properties was prepared to open the city's first outdoor "lifestyle center." Legacy Village would combine upscale shopping and dining in an outdoor, 1950s-style Main Street setting, bringing with it the kind of restaurants and shops typically found only in major metropolitan areas. Indeed, 70% of the stores would be making their market entry into Northeast Ohio. "There's nothing like this at all," says Vocaire. "We were introducing a whole new concept to the area. But the weather was hardly First Interstate's biggest challenge. Legacy Village had faced bad press months before the first store even opened. The right to zone the property for commercial development had only barely passed in a local election, thanks to some fierce - and very public - opposition from community leaders and environmentalists. Add that to a depressed local economy and a noisy media landscape, and Legacy Village was facing an uphill battle. Strategy With nearly 10 months to turn things around, First Interstate and MT took a patient approach. They would introduce the community to Legacy Village gradually, first by courting the press, particularly those who had been critical of the project, in an attempt to neutralize the opposition. Then as the launch date approached, they would build a buzz through sneak peaks in the media and special events with select community leaders. Tactics Six months before the scheduled October opening, MT invited 15 key members of the press, some of whom had covered the opposition, for personal tours and background meetings with First Interstate. They were given a sneak preview of plans to make Legacy Village a community focal point, make improvements to local roadways, and work to preserve surrounding natural areas. More than four times as many reporters were provided information on the site's development and plans for the grand opening. Days before the opening itself, 50 key media were invited to the site for a day to tour and ask questions. The night before the grand opening, Legacy Village played host to an invite-only, $125-a-ticket fundraiser for the American Red Cross. The site was turned into a street festival, with street performers, jugglers, flamethrowers, and life-size puppets performing for the guests, which included prominent community leaders and members of the press. The street-festival theme was toned down, but continued during the gala three-day opening weekend. Local media broadcast live from the site during the opening festivities, and the area's morning shows all featured Legacy Village during that weekend. Results From May through October, Legacy Village garnered 126 print stories, and nearly four hours of television news coverage, with impressions totaling more than 18 million. Reporters who had covered the previous controversy later praised Legacy Village. For example, The Plain Dealer wrote, "Cleveland has been waiting a long time for something to make us feel good about ourselves." More than 3,500 guests attended the American Red Cross charity preview night. Tens of thousands turned out for the opening weekend, leading several retailers - including The Cheesecake Factory, Crate & Barrel, and Talbots - to have record opening weekends in chainwide history.

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