Building a brand and business through digital community

The Wharf Mooloolaba's GM talks through the marketing and engagement strategy helping this venue to build community connection

The middle of a global pandemic might seem like an odd time to take on managing a tourist-oriented retail and entertainment precinct.

But for Karen Hugg, her appointment to the role of general manager of The Wharf, Mooloolaba, has given her an opportunity to see firsthand just how important a local community can be in supporting a local tourist asset.

The Wharf consists of a collection of retail, dining, and entertainment venues set alongside the Mooloolah River and Marina. Hugg took on the GM role in September 2020 after 15 years spent working in a range of management and marketing roles with a retail property company.

“When I got here, I really got a sense of community,” Hugg tells CMO. “It appealed to me that most of the retailers here are independent operators, which is a step away from a shopping centre with nationals and franchisees.

“And being Mooloolaba, we have a picturesque background with the marina and the canal, and I was so excited to be coming to work in this beautiful space every day.”

While she describes the second half of last year as challenging, Hugg also benefitted through the Sunshine Coast having escaped many of the lockdowns that hit other eastern seaboard locations. The Wharf had also been helped by a substantial renovation effort that had been undertaken two years prior.

“When I came onboard, we weren’t in too bad a condition, but we were hurting because we were cut off from the tourist trade, and were largely reliant on local travel,” Hugg says.

“[For our tenants] it was time to really dig in and look at their business and work out ways they could diversify and reach out to the local community. Because at that time the locals were what kept this precinct alive.”

One of the channels she invested in heavily to build that local connection was digital, and specifically by using the social media connections many of her tenants had established.

“A lot of the tenants and the owners have a strong following which is great for us, because we are able to get further reach,” Hugg says. “About 50 per cent of our marketing budget at the moment is headed still towards that digital online presence, and going into our social media channels and getting content that we can engage our community with.”

Hugg also sought assistance from an external agency, The 152 Project.

“For the ones that could use help, we are sending in the experts and helping them with the content creation and photography and videography,” she says. “And that is really important, because if we have the right content, we will get the engagement we are after.”

The Wharf is also beginning ramp up its events program, starting with a small music festival held in The Wharf’s courtyard in September.

“It was such a great success because it bought in people from the Sunshine Coast, and they came into the courtyard for the day and relaxed and listened to music,” Hugg says. “And in the future that is probably where we are going to see our spaces collaborating with locals and local initiatives.”

As for how her future marketing activities will play out, Hugg says she will continue to monitor the behaviour of customers closely.

“The customer landscape isn’t what it was one or two years ago, and the customer behaviour has changed,” Hugg says. “We are seeing new shopping patterns and they are here to stay, so we need to connect with our customers.

“And I’ve seen the local community show so much support and love to the local businesses. They are really aligned with what we offer here, and it is obvious that the local custom does drive people’s businesses. People want to get out and connect and they want to get into what we offer.”

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