Welcome by Jean-Marie Tritant,
CEO of Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield
Since the start of the Covid pandemic, as we grappled with the unprecedented personal and professional challenges that are now universal experiences in our society, our Group purpose, to “Reinvent Being Together”, took on renewed meaning. We had to reinvent how we work, how we welcome visitors, how we support retailers, and how we reach out to the communities we operate in.
I would like to thank our 3,100 colleagues who have demonstrated incredible commitment and resilience in the face of these challenges. Together I am confident that we can overcome any crisis and re-emerge stronger than ever. In this spirit I would also like to acknowledge the departure of Christophe Cuvillier and Jaap Tonckens; they have been long-time colleagues and friends to many at the organization and I, along with our entire team, wish them the best in their future endeavours.
In 2020 most centres had only 70 days of normal operations before the pandemic hit. We then experienced closures averaging over 90 days, plus wide-ranging restrictions for the remainder of the year. This also included the complete shutdown of our Congress & Exhibition operations.
Despite this context, URW started last year strongly, and we have seen positive consumer demand for the Group’s high-quality destinations whenever restrictions eased or lifted. Our teams have remained fully committed to the health and safety of our communities, ensuring there was no reason under our control to prevent customers to visit our centres. We also developed charitable programs and initiatives to support our local communities as they dealt with the impacts of the pandemic.
Our innate capacity to innovate allowed the Group to deliver dynamic solutions for tenants, activating additional outdoor space to boost sales and introducing new services such as curbside delivery, which will continue post-Covid as part of the continued shift to omnichannel retail. This partnership with retailers extended to our approach to rent negotiations, based on a principle of “sharing the burden”, which allowed us to achieve a solid 80 per cent rent collection rate for the year.
The key priority remains deleveraging, initially driven by our European disposal programme and the implementation of a US disposal programme in the next two years to make URW a premium Europe-focused player. The successful issuance of €2 billion of bonds in November 2020 at favourable terms demonstrated the Group’s continued access to credit markets and ample liquidity to allow us to achieve our objectives in an effective and orderly way.
Looking ahead, leading and emerging brands continue to sign leases at URW locations and open stores with us as they prepare for the market rebound. The crisis has accelerated the evolution of retail, and our centres are attractive for both traditional and high potential retail categories, such as automotive, seeking out new locations to acquire clients and drive online and offline sales.
URW is confident. We know that this year will be tough: our Conference & Exhibition business is still closed, as are many centres in Europe. But vaccination campaigns are in progress across the U.S. and Europe; and the pent-up demand we see as economies reopen is significant. The proven quality of our assets, our underlying financial strength, our agility throughout the pandemic, and our dynamic vision for the future of retail mean that URW is well positioned to weather current realities and then capitalise on potential opportunities in the future.