What draws consumers to spaces and what do businesses owe their surroundings?
People watching is fun and it helps power the businesses along the Georgetown Waterfront. While the ability to “people watch” is not a easily-quantifiable element of space, identifying and capitalizing on these kinds of intangible neighborhood elements are key in creating vibrant environments for local businesses.
In a time when CoStar makes troubling assessments about DC’s rising retail vacancies and slowing rent growth, understanding what makes an area special to visitors helps decision makers create vibrant, experiential offerings, making visitors come back again and again.
The Georgetown Waterfront is one of the most well-known areas in DC that draws local residents and tourists to a mix of experiential offerings and a blend of restaurants, bars and shopping. With CoStar’s insights in mind, the team at Basil Labs decided to take a look at consumer experience along the Waterfront, analyzing the national park and a selection of businesses. What we wanted to know is: Why do people come back here again and again? What makes the Georgetown Waterfront and its businesses such familiar, comfortable choices for so many people?
Our analysis was powered by BasilCX, our in-house engine that aggregates and transforms millions of online, geolocated reviews and social media posts into concise analytics through AI. We focused on:
One of my favorite places in DC to people watch is at the Georgetown Waterfront; I just never realized how many other people share this simple joy as well.
The Georgetown Waterfront Park is the staple of the area, drawing in people from all walks of life to exercise, spend time with family and friends and relax by the water. When analyzing the top narratives that park visitors mentioned, the quality of the scenery was not only the most mentioned topic across the park, but also the topic with the highest average sentiment score, shown with dark blues on the bar chart above (darker orange reflects negative sentiment). Following “Scenic,” the next most positive topics were “Bars and Restaurants Around,” which reflects the accessibility of dining options nearby, and “Relax and Lounge,” a topic in which visitors describe the relaxed vibe of the park, ability to people watch, and sit and read a book or put in headphones and tune out the bustle of the city.
As one individual stated about the Waterfront Park, “I always love going there. So relaxing to people watch, watch boats going by, couples posing for engagement photos, etc.”
Another person commented saying, “Perfect place to take a river side walk and enjoy the sun. Perfect place to run or for a casual romantic walk. People watching. Bird and nature watching. Good food options. Lively place.”
These intangible aspects of an area, its ability to serve as a perfect place to run as well as a casual romantic walk or watch couples pose for engagement photos, is rooted in the area’s design, its ample seating and viewpoints and accessibility and offerings.
What do businesses owe their environments? How and to whom do they act on this debt?
The question our team wanted to answer was: What elements make visitors and consumers return again and again. From our brief overview of consumer experience of the Georgetown Waterfront Park, we began to realize how compelling the holistic “vibe” and atmosphere of the area, not simply just the proximity to water or available outdoor space, contributed to a visitor’s experience.
While the bar charts for both the waterside restaurants and the Georgetown AMC theater reflect topic distributions one might expect for their industries, the frequency at which the topic, “Nearby Places,” a topic reflecting the availability of shopping and general locations nearby, and “Bar and Restaurants Around,” a topic specifically regarding the availability of bars and restaurants, are mentioned demonstrate the ecosystem benefits that businesses in the Georgetown area benefit from one another.
“By the Water,” “Park,” and “Scenic” are also topics mentioned frequently and positively across both the restaurants and the theater. In our analyses of other areas in the Greater Washington Metropolitan region, we have not encountered this level of overlap between a location and its environment, particularly for a business like a movie theater, for which attendants tend to focus on elements inside the movie theater rather than outside.
These businesses benefit from their location and proximity to the national park; the park benefits from the collection of businesses surrounding it and the events and offerings they provide. Yet the park was only completed in 2011, and was the result of many years of advocacy and fundraising. If these businesses are undoubtedly benefiting from their location, specifically the proximity to the national park, what conceivable obligations do these businesses owe the park and to one other? How can these consumer narratives such as “Nearby Stores,” “Outdoor Seating,” “With Family and Friends,” or “Relax and Lounge” be fostered through formal private-public partnerships and mutual responsibilities to ensure a consistent experience for visitors?
In the DC Office of Planning’s 2010 Retail Action Roadmap, the Office details many of the opportunities and challenges facing Washington DC as a whole as well as neighborhood by neighborhood. While the Office’s report focuses strongly on direct retail elements that need to be strengthened, such as fostering entrepreneurship in DC retail, the neighborhood sections of the report did not explicitly address public spaces nor the intangible value these spaces offer their surrounding retail locations.
The reason these elements are often not formally included in roadmaps and analyses is because, put simply: it is difficult to quantify what is traditionally analyzed through qualitative means. Nevertheless, these qualitative aspects of a neighborhood are what makes visitors come back again and again.
Qualitative narratives like “Scenic” or “Relax and Lounge” were some of the highest performing narratives across the locations and topics we analyzed, receiving positive average sentiment scores alongside four or five star reviews, suggesting that when visitors interact with these elements of the Waterfront, they have more positive impressions of the area overall.
However, maintaining the Waterfront area may be an increasingly costly endeavor. In April 2011, flood waters cost the Waterfront Harbor development $20 million in damages. While areas like The Wharf were planned with future sea-level rise in mind, organizations like Climate Central have estimated that rising sea levels may impact an estimated $5 billion worth of DC property.
Nevertheless, areas along the Potomac continue to enjoy high consumer traffic, and the recent Washington Post article covering the rapidly-changing Navy Yard stated that residents can look forward to F&B locations like Union Kitchen Grocery, Cold Stone Creamery, Compass Coffee and Atlas Brew Works while Buzzard Point will feature a restaurant from the owner of Georgetown’s Tony and Joe’s as well as a seafood-centric restaurant from the team behind Ivy City Smokehouse.
If there is one singular takeaway from our analysis of the Georgetown Waterfront, it is that businesses alone cannot force a vibrant space. A collection of businesses may contribute to a retail ecosystem which consumers value, like the offerings the Washington Post article describes in the Navy Yard, but to truly foster the intangible elements of a space to make people come back again and again, neighborhood elements must exponentially contribute to one another, bringing together public spaces with retail, supporting events and activities just as much as creating quiet nooks and viewpoints for people to enjoy with family and friends or to just sit back alone and people watch.
We’ve just scratched the surface on what’s possible. If you’re interested in taking a closer look at our analysis or want to learn more about how consumers experience your area, connect with us at Basillabs.org.
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