Opened in 1990 as an outlet mall nearly an hour’s drive from downtown Miami, Sawgrass Mills became South Florida’s number 1 tourist destination. Starting with about 100 stores and two food courts, it has now been expanded to more than 360 shops, 100-plus kiosks, 15 sit-down restaurants, a movie theater complex, and other offerings spread across 2.4 million square feet of retail space – and all this in order to embrace tourist flow and tourists’ needs. Managing it as a tourist attraction rather than a shopping mall has been one of the keys to success for the second-largest mall in South Florida after Aventura.
The mall depends heavily on visitors from Latin America and other world regions. Among the more than 30 million people visiting the mall annually, at least 60 percent of them are tourists. Thinking beyond traditional was the kind of thinking that focused on logistics in order to ease the journey for those coming on excursions before or after cruises.
Sawgrass provides dedicated parking and passenger pickup areas for the vast number of buses that bring thousands of travelers every week. It also provides bathrooms for the sole use of bus drivers.
With prices lower than other U.S. malls and its huge selection, it attracts visitors for periodic shopping trips. South Americans come to stock up on clothes, shoes, and household goods that are not available in their country or are pricier at home. Believing they are getting a deal on top of a deal is what encourages people to carry large bags and suitcases in their hands and long shopping lists in their pockets. For any occasion that comes up, tourists visit Sawgrass to shop for the entire family or close friends.
The mega-mall provides goods designed exclusively for its in-door outlets that traditionally sell last season’s merchandise. It features at least 70 outlets exclusive to South Florida, including luxury purveyors Gucci, Prada, and Tory Burch. Another key attraction is the luxury Colonnade section launched in 2006. Today is has around 60 retailers, from Burberry to Versace and more on the waiting list as the two expansions did not leave any vacancies.
Largest renovation-expansion yet
Over the years the shopping complex has expanded and reinvented itself to keep its top spot on the list of tourist preferences. At the same time, it has remained current and stands out in a competitive market. The mall opened a 1,700-space garage in 2016 that even has airport-style lighting to show available spaces.
Approaching its 30th celebration next year, Sawgrass is embarking on its largest renovation-expansion ever experienced. Because we live in an era of speed, the original enclosed area will be updated to strengthen Wi-Fi, charging stations will be added, and modernize food courts, floors and lights, among other changes. Improvements will be seen on Regal Sawgrass & IMAX Theater with luxury seating and new food options added. A new hotel is set to debut late next year to serve not only shoppers but also visitors to the adjacent corporate park.
AC Marriott with 174-rooms and a rooftop bar will welcome travelers that also come to the BB&T Center that hosts concerts. The hotel will bring in more tourists to spend two days, instead of one.
Surviving the competition
Of course competitors do exist in the form of other malls and internet stores. But what internet can’t provide is the experience. People come in to shop as they still like to try on clothes and don’t have to stress about returning them if they don’t meet expectations. Kids play and youth take Instagram selfies in the alligator garden and in the end people stay for dinner. Some don’t even shop at all; they just take the weekend promenade. For those malls that mostly rely on tourist clientele, the internet had not hit too hard on sales as it has for others.
Its most direct rival is probably Dolphin Mall, close to Miami International Airport, which also gets a steady stream of overseas visitors and hosts some discounters. But due to the bigger space and outlets that Dolphin can’t offer, Sawgrass is not a fit-in shopping experience while visiting cities – it’s a whole day shopping experience.
Sawgrass has made a big effort to be at the top of tourists’ itinerary: for a long time it has long employed a full-time tourism chief working with travel companies, and featured the mall on tours from South America. More recently, it has partnered with cruise companies including Carnival and Royal Caribbean to promote excursions to the mall, usually before and after cruise trips. For the future, they plan closer for shuttle service ties with the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, which is building a 638-room guitar-shaped hotel and adjacent 168-room tower about 15-minute’s drive from the mall.