Incoming President Marion Acreman on left with the outgoing President Deirdre Shine
As businesses are busy preparing to reopen across the country, I had a great chat with Marion Acreman, the Centre Manager at Kilkenny’s MacDonagh Junction Shopping Centre and asked her how best retailers and shoppers can prepare themselves.
MacDonagh Junction shopping centre site was cleverly built around the City’s beautifully restored workhouse buildings and Marion has been involved with the centre for the past 13 years. Not alone does Marion manage this award winning multi use scheme, but she is also the current President of Kilkenny Chamber of Commerce since May 2018.
She comes from a background of commercial property, retail and leisure management, working in Kilkenny City for over 20 years.
Originally from County Donegal, Marion came to Kilkenny at nine years of age, on an adventure! Her mother moved the family to a city unknown to them with a feeling it was exactly the right place to raise a young family. It turned out she was right.
Marion enjoys spending time at home in Ballycallan raising two teenage sons with husband Jason. She loves to sing and is a member of the Kilkenny Choir.
Marion, in March it was business as usual for MacDonagh Junction shopping centre, a lot has changed since then.
Yes, we were looking forward to 2020 being our best year ever with really exciting plans for capital investment projects just about to be announced to modernise our brand and enhance the customer experience further when, from out of nowhere, we were thrown into complete turmoil.
In response, the team rallied to make the environment safe and welcoming for staff and customers. In reality, despite all the negative aspects of having to adapt to Covid-19 we have come together with the stores that remain open like never before to ensure the community is served safely and efficiently while trying to do business as well as possible and maintaining a high standard of service.
It’s a delicate balancing act but we are getting really positive feedback for the most part. I am grateful to all our customers for continued support.
What is the reopening plan for the Centre?
We didn’t close at any stage, Dunnes, Next, Holland & Barrett, Eddie Rockets, Byrne Eyecare, IDFL phone store and Carphone Warehouse are open seven days a week and there are ongoing plans for coffee operators to come in the next two phases as well as Art It and some of the smaller retailers.
We hope to have reopened all 40 stores by early August in line with the government roadmap and have put a lot of investment into training and enhancing all our cleaning and sanitisation regimes to ensure a safe and controlled environment for staff and customers.
We are very lucky to have excellent people working with us in that regards and the team have been exceptional and professional through all this uncertainty. I am very lucky to be working with great people.
You and your team have been extremely busy with all types of compliance issues regarding Covid-19.
As a commercial property manager, a large element of my job is statutory compliance. We began early and proactively by adapting our continuity plans and safety compliance for the site. We set down plans for the anticipated stages of progression of the pandemic ready for each eventuality.
Once lockdown arrived and we were left with just essential stores open we began to focus on recovery stage. The government guidelines in tandem with health compliance recommendations formed the basis for in-depth revaluation of processes and formal training for the team. We are prepared for reopening of all our stores well in advance and continue to work with our tenants remotely so that they will be aware of our safety policies and we will also be aware of theirs acting in tandem to give customers a sense of continuity across the centre when they visit. We are all taking this extremely seriously and that matters to us and to our customers.
As President on Kilkenny Chamber of Commerce, how have you and the Chamber being helping other retailers get back on their feet?
It’s been a really hectic time for Kilkenny Chamber. We have lobbied central government though Chamber Ireland, gathered insights through our numerous business feedback surveys which formed the basis for the national lobby, liaised weekly with local authority, remained active across the City Centre Task Force and all the other representational groups that Kilkenny Chamber sit on including LCDC, Kilkenny Tourism, KLP, SPC etc.
We have worked closely with the Local Enterprise Office and given a platform to local businesses that have been gearing up to assist others to recover through this crisis. In the absence of our networking events we’ve had a weekly Zoom “Chamber Chat” with members and non-members covering topics like retail, hospitality, government and financial supports every Thursday.
This has been extremely popular as participants get a chance to see each other again on screen. Individually we have been reaching out to the membership on calls to ascertain the needs of each member and offer relevant support. Just last week we facilitated Ciaran Stone from Square Root Solutions to present a new Kilkenny Retail App to members. This will be on ongoing project for us as we develop engagement across this app for all businesses interested in taking part.
You are currently the longest running President of the Chamber of Commerce, with your appointment over running the usual two-year period. Why has the new President Colin Ahern not being sworn in yet?
Colin will be an excellent President for the Kilkenny Chamber. The term runs for two years, but due to the lockdown our annual meeting was pushed out to June so apparently, I will become the longest serving President - it’s going to be my claim to fame!
Many other Chambers have a one-year term, but we feel two years is required in order to deliver on objectives. For me that was definitely the case. I feel we got a lot of projects from conception and development to completion. Luckily we have an excellent board of directors and Chamber staff team and this year we developed a five year plan to ensure that the focus of the entire board can be reflected across a longer term period.
There is a lot of commonality across the board. We are all in business for business and the vibe is extremely positive. Collectively, we are proud to be doing business in Kilkenny.
The President’s role has been extremely rewarding and fulfilling. I have been given great respect and amazing opportunities and really gotten to know a lot of the business community well which is really lovely. It has been a huge privilege for me.
How are you hoping for retailers to recover?
I know that Kilkenny retailers are tough, resilient and dedicated to their business and there is a great mix of top brands and smaller independents across Kilkenny. This is the hardest challenge faced in living memory. I am really aware of that and of the fragility of mental health for many who have been financially decimated, so staying positive is vital.
I do believe the future is in the local community until we can get back to the added benefit of visitors returning. If the people living locally can commit to supporting local businesses and holidaying in the region, we are well placed to recover and keep as many doors open as possible.
The Government need to do a lot more for local retailers and hospitality businesses in terms of support. They have not gone far enough to allow SME business to recover yet - that is something we will continue to lobby for. It must happen.
Any advice for retailer for their future?
I think there is strength in numbers and shared experience. Some of the best support I have gotten and given through the past number of years has come from reaching out and gathering together good people, whether through membership of Chamber, events, even setting up simple notification groups such as Age Friendly Business or Garda Businesswatch Alert groups via text and What’s App.
There are tremendous business leaders in Kilkenny and they are generous when it comes to sharing their knowledge. Generally people want others to succeed and in Kilkenny there should be a sense that all boats should rise in tandem. That will come if we pull together and communicate well.
We all share such great pride in our place and we are powerful when we act together. Please support your local Chamber of Commerce! We really are working hard on behalf of local business and we are stronger when we all come together.
Chambers are not funded by local or central government, they are membership led and will need to be supported in order to survive and represent all sectors. Kilkenny Chamber is known nationally as a very strong and active organisation with enormous importance for the business community.