Experience Makers talk with Peter Zinkin, previously Planning and Development Director at Balfour Beatty for 35 years. Having retired, he is currently a Councillor for the London Borough of Barnet.
What role does experience making have to play in the property industry?
Historically, the property industry has been more interested in reducing building costs than optimizing the lifetime experience of owning and using the building. The younger generation coming into the industry now haven’t lived through a downturn, so they can’t begin to imagine what it’s like to run a business or project without focusing on the experience. I believe that experience making is entirely dependent upon where you are in a cycle. There are two cycles: the industry cycle that looks at whether there’s demand, and if money is being put into that sector, and then there’s your cycle as a developing company. When times are good – as they are now – it’s easy to drum up business by providing a decent customer experience, channeling revenue into that area. When times aren’t quite as good and you’re having to work really hard for minimal outcome – as we saw in the early 1990’s – the focus becomes ‘what’s going to make money,’ and people will put anything and everything on hold to make that happen. Only 10% of a building’s cost is the actual construction of the building, the other 90% is during its lifetime. Investing an extra 1% whilst building – lowering that 90% to 85% to reduce service charges, increasing customer experience, and over time making a greater amount of money – would be a good trade off, but for the property industry the interest in doing this just isn’t there yet.
What’s the favourite experience you have been a part of making?
What we did at Spitalfields. I took on that project in 1991, a period when the property market was in a state of complete collapse. We paid the fruit and vegetable market that was there before us to move, then we were left with empty buildings. Undesirable elements started moving in and we were terrified that Spitalfields would become known for petty crime and no one would want to move there. My colleagues and I decided to make temporary use of the space while waiting for the market to improve, so we approached the person running Camden Market. He suggested sport so we put in football pitches, and after playing sport, people want to eat. Given the state of the market, money was very tight and so we went to Tower Hamlets. Together we created a work experience scheme to convert the old market stalls into shop fronts. Once there was a pizza restaurant on the corner, people would come down to play football and then they’d go and have a pizza afterwards. The success of Spitalfields was all about creating a great experience to create the right atmosphere for us to get the next shop to want to move in. Now when people thought about Spitalfields, they no longer thought about a dilapidated market, but about the place they went to play football. Then we built a temporary swimming pool and got Tower Hamlets involved again, asking them what they would want from it. With a large demographic of religious Muslims, they wanted women only swimming sessions. Our last question was: what was Spitalfields for the last 300 years? A market. So we put a street trading market in at the weekends too. We had to do what we had to do because of where we were within the cycle, we knew the cycle would turn again, but it was five years before the market improved. This project was all about turning a potential disaster into something positive by finding out and understanding what people wanted through experience making.
What’s the best experience you have experienced and why?
In terms of areas, King’s Cross has been really surprising. When I first came down and walked around Granary Square I was really blown away; that doesn’t happen often. One of my colleagues did the project management for the St Pancras and King’s Cross underground system, bringing it all together, so I came down then to have a look at what was being done. What I was impressed with was the public realm: the square, the bridge, the fountain, they all create an entirely new atmosphere within this area. Ham Yard is another area that has improved in terms of experience. It was run down and a completely undesirable area before, and now they’ve turned it into somewhere really nice. There’s a small square with a hotel and some shops, and it’s completely unexpected. When you walk into an area expecting the worst but seeing something completely different, that’s an impressive experience to me.
What’s the future of experience making?
There are moments when the experience is critical, but across the cycle there are also times when it’s not. There are two things about property, the first being that it’s mainly about making money, the second being that the people making lots of money in property use other people’s money. When you’re that highly leveraged the pressure becomes desperately intense, so anything that gives you an edge is important, providing that it doesn’t cost too much.
Today, the new idea of shared workspaces and living spaces are not just selling space, but are selling an experience as well. They’re a wonderful intermediary between university and living in your own property. They give you better facilities than you would have otherwise, a built in community and an opportunity to meet new people, network and socialise. These sales, however, are short-term; WeWork and Workspace are constantly having to re-let space, so experience matters. When you’re not constantly having to re-let space, the experience takes a backseat. If you’re talking to traditional property people, you can’t sell experience as a core requirement, but as an add on that gives them that competitive edge. It should be the thing that sways people to come to their development over anyone else’s, which is only important when there is excess competition to begin with, because they are in the low part of the cycle.