Debenhams Folca Folkestone

Working on place projects when your ‘place’ shrinks

Under normal circumstances, we’re out and about a lot both for work and socially. Being based in London, it’s always good to visit other places for a different perspective, whether it’s in the UK or elsewhere in the world. In the weeks before lockdown, we’d been in Nottingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Portsmouth and Worcester for a mix of work, study and social.

Normally by now, there would have been a holiday, a visit to the northwest and if that wasn’t possible a good few day trips. But, like everyone else we’ve existed in a small world where without a car (and pre-bike) our trips have amounted to a five-mile radius of our homes on our daily walks. Locally, there are lots to observe, but there is now a really big disconnect from central London, where I’ve not been since March and currently don’t have a reason to venture to.

It feels like the lack of contact with wider places has made work and study harder. I wouldn’t ever choose to work from home five days a week. I like being elsewhere and will often work in cafes, libraries and other spaces to mix things up. Without the change of scenery, it’s felt that everything has taken longer. The constant sirens wailing (that usually kick in as Zoom calls start) are a regular reminder that I don’t normally spend this much time in my home office.

Working on place-based projects is particularly challenging. You get a sense of a place from visiting it, observing the way people access it and move around and the timing/rhythm of the day/night. You see which units are empty, being refurbed or long abandoned and get a feel for what’s around them, which parts of the area people use and which they avoid and what the footfall looks like. Yes, you can look at footfall data and Google Maps and high street plans showing the retail units, but it’s just not the same as being there.

Fortunately, the projects that continued (for us) during lockdown were in places we were familiar with or had already spent time in, which enabled us to understand what was happening around reopening and changes to movements from regular calls with clients who were local or checking in on the place often.

Escape from London

Recently, we left London for the first time since early March; I headed out for the 40-minute journey to the station and ventured onto the train with trepidation (and face mask). My location, Folkestone, a place I find interesting in seeing the changes on each visit and I had it feeling it wouldn’t be Bournemouth levels of busy.

It was a revelation to be somewhere completely different. Many of the smaller shops in the old town were still closed and of course, so were hospitality venues, but where the multiples were open, footfall was good with well-managed queues. There were quite a few businesses being refurbished and it felt like there was an air of excitement amongst those open for the others expected to join them from 4 July, particularly with lots of ‘welcome back’ and ‘nice to see you’ type signage on streets and in shop windows. The places that were open were keen to chat and well managed which made me even keener to support them.

There was also some thinking to be done around my forthcoming dissertation. As part of the IPM’s MSc programme I knew I wanted to study seaside towns before I started the course because they are (often) such complex places. This trip, unfortunately, gave me more to think about rather than helping narrow down the research question!

 Beyond places

Places are very different from business service providers who we work with on marketing projects.

During the lockdown, we started working with a new client in the energy sector who are moving from start-up to growth stage. On this project, Zoom has been invaluable with the team being across four locations and us not having met in person. It’s been harder to get a sense of how we will work together but after a few online workshops and meetings, we’re getting there. We are also collaborating with others who are experts in areas where I am not, to deliver on specific elements of the brief, which has been great in changing how we work.

Whilst places are impacted by multiple factors and there’s definitely a benefit from visiting marketing projects. It needs a good team who can brief you on their business and the real-life meeting can be delayed without too much impact. The business’s directors are experts on what they do and as such have been able to provide a clear brief, fill in the gaps and provide a wealth of background material to enable us to develop the marketing and social media strategy.

It’s exciting to be able to impact the growth of the business. Surprisingly (to me) there’s still a place connection as the business works closely with architects who we also work with so perhaps it’s not so different after all.

We’re looking forward to what comes next, be it place-based or marketing projects or both but most of all, I’m really looking forward to the world expanding to nearer its normal size (for me) and being able to get out and about again (and nailing my dissertation question).