General Growth Properties, which owns and manages the Alderwood Mall, is a massive operation. Alderwood's 1.3 million square feet of retail space accounts for just 1.2 percent of GGP's total square footage across the country. Its Ala Moana center in Honolulu, at nearly twice the size of Alderwood, is the world's largest outdoor shopping center. (Perhaps you'll recall GGP from the financial crisis of 2008, when it reported $25 billion in debt and its stocks lost 97 percent of their value in six months.)
But talking to Carol Hildahl, GGP's marketing manager and talent booker for Alderwood, Bellis Fair in Bellingham, and Westlake Center in downtown Seattle, doesn't feel like a cold encounter with a corporate behemoth—she's almost supernaturally warm and chipper. Hildahl has worked in the business for over 30 years, 10 in the mall-management industry and 20 years as a retail manager before that. "All of my holidays have been in malls," she says. The key to booking live talent in a mall, she says, is finding groups that are slightly more distinctive than the sonic wallpaper of mall music—but not too distinctive. "We want it to be family-friendly, with musical neutrality so it will appeal to a broad audience," she says. "Our shoppers hit all age profiles. If I'm a shopper going through the center, does this add to my feeling of the holidays and what I need to get done?" The church choirs, school choirs, and Christmas carolers that come every year, she says, should be "loud enough that people can enjoy them but not so loud that it disrupts our retailers."
The other key is traffic flow. Just as with the aesthetic considerations, the group should be there but not too there—present without being intrusive. Because Alderwood is only one story, she can't book anything too dependent on people being able to see the performers. "The 5th Avenue Theatre did some auditions here once, and that was fun," Hildahl says. "Lots of people were standing and watching." After all these years, has she ever booked a performance she's regretted? "No, not so far," she says. "Usually the people who are coming are very excited to be there."
Typically, she doesn't pay the performers who come through, but this year is a little different. The GGP corporate office in Chicago chose three malls around the country to try a pilot holiday program this year: the Woodlands Mall north of Houston (1.4 million square feet of retail space), the Mayfair Mall in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, and Alderwood. The booking and vetting was done by Allied Experiential, which describes itself on its Twitter page as "the full-service, event marketing division of Allied Integrated Marketing with 22 offices in the US, London, and Toronto." The program is called "GGP Merrier Thursdays," with performances by the electric cellist Shaun Diaz, the DJs of Magnolia Rhapsody, and the Jason Parker Quartet (which includes bass player Evan Flory-Barnes and drummer D'Vonne Lewis from Industrial Revelation, the band that won this year's Stranger Genius Award for music). Some of the acts say they're being paid in the ballpark of $1,000 to $1,500.
"Merrier Thursdays" will also feature food and staff on-site to pass out water to shoppers and help carry packages to their cars—Hildahl is excited to have her mall picked for the experiment. "We got the call that they're looking for real creative programs," she says. "This is bigger and better than the things we've done so far."