“My whole life has been about looking for ways to enhance my surroundings and build community.”
Liz Gillespie has moved around a lot during her life (a total of 29 times before she settled in Atlanta in 1998), especially during her childhood. While some kids might be reluctant to embrace a new neighborhood, for Liz, each place instantly became her playground.
“I always had new environments to play in, so I was always looking for what I could do to make the place more fun,” she explains. At one point the family lived on a golf course, so she and her sister would gather up the golf balls that were hit into their backyard, then set up a lemonade stand on the course, selling the beverage and the balls. When other kids set up shop nearby, she brought in friends to sing and dance and entertain the golfers while they made their purchases. (An early lesson in brand differentiation.) Then there was the time they moved to a cul-de-sac, and Liz recruited the neighborhood kids to help her turn the end of the street into a sidewalk chalk masterpiece — and called the local newspaper to say they should come photograph the work of art and let people know about it.
That childlike imagination has persisted, and she’s been using the same creative spirit to transform environments at NAP. Her official title may be VP of Marketing, but she’s more often referred to as an “idea volcano” and ExperienceMaker™. It’s a concept that began to take shape when Gillespie first started at NAP nearly eight years ago. “There was a real paradigm shift in the way that people viewed retail and mixed-use environments. They were looking for more of a ‘there’ there, and we knew that we needed to create environments that encouraged people to linger and stay engaged.”
Her approach? Consider the guest experience first, then build around that. “Most people design buildings; we design experiences,” Liz explains. “It’s really not about the buildings, it’s about the space that exists between them – the gathering areas and programmable public spaces that can be activated to create energy. We’ve learned that what matters most is creating that community space and using it to make an emotional connection with our guests; when we focus on creating heart share first, over market share, really good things happen.”
At Avalon, NAP’s mixed-use property in Alpharetta, Georgia, Liz helped design the experience from the ground up, but she’s most recently been charged with bringing Colony Square back to life—a 50-year-old property in Midtown Atlanta that’s languished in recent times. An inward-facing “sea of concrete,” Liz has been reimagining the space to make it more inviting. She started by dressing up the property, and added artificial grass to an unused concrete area then filled it with Adirondack chairs and tables. “We took this area that was lovingly referred to as the “big dead round thing,” and all of a sudden it became a place that people could wander out of their offices to sit and work, enjoy their lunches or simply gather with friends,” Liz says. She also worked with the Midtown Alliance to create an 8-by-45-foot sculpture using the multi-colored Midtown letters of the organization’s logo. It’s now become one of the top 3 photographed locations in the city on Instagram. “Even before we put a shovel in the ground to begin redevelopment, we firmly positioned Colony Square a place that you simply want to be through community engagement,” Liz remarks.
The sculpture is an example of one of the other key components to Gillespie’s role as ExperienceMaker: community engagement. “We meet with organizations and see how we can use our environments to support their goals,” she explains. Liz recently worked with the Hambidge Center, a Georgia arts organization that supports emerging artists through a residency program, to create The Hambidge Creative Hive, offering artists use of vacant space inside Colony Square for studios or venues for performances, workshops, and pop-up installations.
“We start with these blank canvases in vibrant areas, ripe for reimagining. We layer in great gathering spaces and activate them to create energy and look for purposeful ways to leverage our environments in support of community, so it’s a natural win-win,” Liz adds. “It’s all about connecting the dots. Why have these environments if you can’t use them for good?”
“Most people design buildings; we design experiences.”