5Qs for Jen Peterson on creating a real sense of community at town centers

Al Urbanski
Real Estate Editor & Manager
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Jen Peterson with Santa
Jen Peterson with an old friend at Easton Town Center

Jennifer Peterson is the chief executive of Easton Town Center in Columbus, Ohio. Yet at a site that rings more than a billion dollars a year in sales from and more than 200 stores, 50 restaurants, a new $500 million dollar district and, soon, 750 more residences and three more hotels, she might as well be called Mayor Peterson. Like a good public official, Jen overachieves at creating a sense of community at Easton with spectacular events, regular activities, and new pop-up vendors at Easton. We called her to find out what was cooking there this holiday season.

Jen, what’s happening at Easton Town Center this Holiday season?
Well, every year, we do what we call an “Illumination” in which all the Christmas lights at Easton go on at the same time. We have 50 Christmas trees. We work with a lot of local partners to bring new and different things each year.

How do you get the local community involved?
This year the Center of Science and Industry in Columbus is doing a Marvel exhibit with photo opportunities for kids, activations like science demos and experiments, and science kits for gifts. We’ve partnered will a group called the Columbus Fashion Alliance to create a marketplace for five local brands, and we give dormant space over to pop-ups or local groups. The Columbus College of Art & Design created these beautiful Christmas windows like you’d see at Saks on Fifth Avenue or at the famed Lazarus Department store in Columbus when it was still in business.

“You have to try new things in your centers. Anyone that’s sitting stagnant is not going to win.”

Does Easton continue this community-partner or non-profit pop-up concept outside of the holiday season?
Yes, again with Cosi, we took the former Bose space and turned it into a mini museum. Staffed it with docents, and nearly 200,000 people visited it from winter through summer. We committed to three months and ended up running it for six. This is where you can have that big win, delivering a new experiences and exciting new things to customers.

What’s the benefit to a shopping center that does short-term activations like this?
Keeping it fresh, offering guests a new experience, something never heard about or seen. I was at the Marvel exhibit and there were these huge fans of Hulk just having a great time. This is the time of year when lots of brands want to do something in a pop-up. The holiday season is the crown jewel of the retail calendar. We put a lot into it and have found that the great majority of Easton customers from far-away distances who only visit us twice a year come here during the holiday season.

So what you, in effect, are doing is taking vacated space and using it to try out new concepts.
You have to try new things in your centers. Anyone that’s sitting stagnant is not going to win. The success of Easton from day one has been its constant evolution and devotion to bringing excitement to visitors. It’s not change for change’s sake, it’s strategic and important.