11 July 2001

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Chris Grech

Bay Street six months down the line
The Bay Street tourist complex is a dream come true for Chris Grech. He talks to KURT SANSONE about the successes and failures of Bay Street, competition, the cash flow crisis and Sunday shopping.

Six months after opening Bay Street, the much-flaunted Discovery Centre is closing down. What happened?
The Discovery Centre is close to my heart because I carried out a lot of research on the concept. The initial investment cost Lm650,000 but I have to admit that it did not take off.

Bay Street offers a wide variety of entertainment options and things to do and it is evident that people preferred to invest their time in other areas.

Furthermore, people could have found the Centre boring. We emphasised the educational aspect too much, at the expense of the fun element.

The Centre was never intended to make money but the least we expected was to reach a breakeven point. I considered the centre being my contribution to the community.

Does the concept work in Malta?
Definitely. I still believe a Discovery Centre could work if operated on its own and by offering more fun. The problem with the Discovery Centre at Bay Street is that there are too many distractions. With the right funding and help from the educational authorities it can happen. And if it happens I will surely be a part of it.

How wise was the decision to invest in a retail complex in St George’s Bay?
When Maltese travel abroad they realise that shopping is an experience. Shopping is the most popular leisure activity in the world and Bay Street managed to make shopping an experience. We created a mix of retail and entertainment and in the process created a new destination. The St George’s area was synonymous with the leisure industry - all that Bay Street did was to add another leisure activity, called shopping, to the area.

How are the retail outlets doing?
Most of them are doing really well. Obviously there are some outlets that are not doing well but it all boils down to the human resources operating those outlets. Bay Street offers consumers value for money and good service and before selling retail space we make sure that the operator is up to the required standard. I can replace any outlet that closes immediately because there are numerous businessmen wanting to open shop in Bay Street.
We have outlets here that shut down in other centres and moved to Bay Street because of the balanced mix of retail and entertainment that the complex offers. Nonetheless, I am a strong believer in competition and I want other retail centres to work well.

Was Bay Street modelled on Maltese consumer tastes, or did it aim to change consumer patterns?
The Bay Street concept worked successfully abroad and we thought of emulating such an idea, but we did not leave it at that. We acculturated the concept to the local scene. Bay Street is the result of a lot of research.

The theatre under the able hands of Albert Marshall just manages to break even. However, it contributes to the delicate balance of the whole complex. The Artisan Market is also part of the atmosphere, although I believe that we can do much more over there.

Even if people come here to simply walk around, we are happy with that. People create the Bay Street atmosphere.

There are two particular elderly people that come here every other day just to sit down on the terrace and read the newspaper. They do not spend a cent in Bay Street but I consider them to be my most important customers. When I meet them they start pointing out defects and lack of cleanliness. I would hate to lose them.

What is your reaction to the two-star environment that surrounds Bay Street?
The Paceville-St George’s area is the richest square mile on the island. The environment definitely needs to be improved but I believe that there is a strong commitment from the authorities to improve the conditions of the area. Works should commence in the next six to nine months.

How does Malta fare when compared to other Mediterranean tourist areas?
Malta cannot afford to continue progressing with a philosophy of protectionism if it is to compete with countries like Spain, Tunisia, Greece and Italy. We are capable to compete if we allow the market to work as it should.

Has the cash-flow crisis hit Bay Street?
I think that the problem has been exaggerated even though the whole world is experiencing a slow down. In Malta I believe we have an over supply in certain areas. However, there are a number of businessmen that have entered the commercial world without the adequate research on consumer tastes and patterns.

Banks have learnt their lesson on how to lend money. Borrowing against collateral is simply not a valid option anymore. Businessmen should provide feasibility studies and projections so that the success or failure of a commercial venture can be assessed properly.

What about the phenomenon whereby a businessman develops a new concept, becomes successful and soon after more ventures mushroom to tap the same success?
It does not bother me at all. It really does not matter if people follow suite, after all it is the market that will decide who will survive or falter. When I started Dhalia years ago there were only two or three other agents set up today, newspapers are full of adverts by numerous estate agents. The increased competition did not hamper Dhalia; on the contrary it helped to keep us on edge. Competition is healthy.

How important are the employees for Bay Street?
Customer service is the key word. Our business is all about personal relations, with customers and between employees. I personally handle customer service courses at Bay Street. I discuss relationships, teamwork and personal growth with my employees. Until I see all operations working perfectly in this regard I will continue working seven days a week.

Where is Bay Street heading?
Our next step is to build the brand. We also plan to grow inside and outside Bay Street, however it will take a year or two to establish a solid brand name.

You got your licence to trade on Sunday. Will you abandon the campaign in favour of Sunday shopping?
The campaign will continue in the interest of economic growth, our customers and tourists. I intend to continue the fight because I believe in the principle. It would be unfair on my colleagues if I were to pull out of the campaign simply because I got the licence to trade on Sunday.

Will the referendum take place?
The public is currently concerned with other important issues and a referendum to solve the Sunday shopping issue might not be the best option for now. However, if it has to happen it will.

Do you know how to fail?
Failing means that I am doing something. I have learnt a lot from my failures, and I have grown. Those who never fail are those who do nothing. However, I must point out that I am not a gambler. My failure is based on a calculated risk. I make sure that I can recover from any setbacks and my endless energy helps me to bounce back immediately.

The Business Times, Network House, Vjal ir-Rihan San Gwann SGN 07
Tel: (356) 382741-3, 382745-6 | Fax: (356) 385075 | e-mail: editorial@networkpublications.com.mt