Solidus recently conceived and designed a new branch prototype that uses interactive technology, cash automation, “touchdown points”, and private offices. The branch footprint is approximately 1,000 sq. ft., with two basic configurations and a third option which includes a community room with a slightly larger surface area. The biggest point of debate when designing this ultra-efficient small branch was: What is the most commonsense approach to creating a community room inside a branch? We break that question down in this article, and discuss the dos and don’ts of creating a successful community space in a bank or credit union branch.
Community Rooms in Banks and Credit Unions
It’s understood in some banking circles that the community room concept presents some difficulties in making the space flourish, and there’s a reason for this. Financial institutions naturally want to give something back to their communities, and community rooms seem a good option; many small New England towns don’t have enough adequate meeting spaces, and places such as churches that do offer it are in high demand when available. Clearly there is a niche to fill. Unfortunately many banks don’t provide much more than tables and chairs in their community rooms, and they underestimate the internal resources required to market and promote the space. Typically, successful community rooms tend to be found in suburban towns with high potential foot traffic, where the space can become a downtown destination.
A functioning community room should be equipped with certain things and offer a standard of experience that makes it a respectable and desirable place to visit. We compiled a list of 11 important attributes of a community space within a bank branch or credit union.
1. A Better Name. The term, “Community Room” is outdated and limited. Financial institutions need a new term that projects the welcoming versatility of a modern branch. If the organization already features a theme in its branding such as a maritime symbol, an animal or historical aspect, this would be a perfect opportunity to create greater community recognition. Something unique that describes some physical aspect of the custom space that depicts it as new and fun, such as “The Imagination Suite”, “Cloud Room”, “All Purpose Space”, or “Fishbowl” (if it has big enough windows) might also inspire people to check it out.
2. Wi-Fi/Internet. Users of the space should be able to bring laptops, smartphones and tablets in and connect to the internet. True value would come from including a permanent PC. This opens many possibilities for group activities including individual learning for children and adults, group study of online courses, gaming, sport and movie streaming.
3. Power Connectivity. A community space should have multiple outlets to facilitate any projectors, computers, TVs, musical or other electrical devices that may be required for activities.
4. Rest Room. Bank branches rarely, if ever, have rest rooms, but a rest room would be an important supporting element for a community room. Without one, events hosted there would have to be limited to a maximum of 30-45 minutes. This would severely limit the types of events hosted there, and be a barrier to success.
5. Garbage Disposal. Having receptacles and removal services for litter, discarded food, or other items makes a huge difference to that space’s desirability. A bank’s community space would be expected to be maintained in a clean and presentable condition by those who use it, so trash disposal is a must. Clearly posted rules with regard to permitted food, drink, etc. would also help keep the space in a clean and orderly state.
6. Table, Chairs & Decor. Most if not all community rooms feature the basics of a table and chairs. Tables come in many shapes and styles and it’s advised to properly think this aspect through. It is possible to consult with industry designers who can create a compelling and rich interior that isn’t too expensive and projects a warm and professional personality in the space. The type of furniture, flooring, wall décor and window treatments deployed can make a massive difference to the attractiveness of not just the space, but the idea of visiting it in the minds of community members.
7. Whiteboard. Many community activities have a main focus, which often involves a whiteboard (with dry erase markers), if in a classroom context. Whiteboards can also double as projector screens, or be used to write to-do lists and as message boards.
8. Secure Entrance. A space entered through a separate entrance with a keypad access code is the securest option if internal connectivity to the branch is not absolutely necessary. It is a matter of preference whether or not the space should be viewed from the branch exterior. Having activities within the space “on show” to observers outside is an effective advertisement, though some activities might need more privacy, such as yoga.
9. Clearly Defined Dimensions and Usage Application Process. Potential users should know the exact dimensions and shape of the room in order to determine that it is appropriate for their intended use. There should also be a clearly-defined application process, with an application form or email available on the financial institution’s website, and/or physical forms to fill out in the branch itself.
10. Internal Partitions, Walls, or Dividers. Some activities might not need the whole space, or may be of a type that requires the group be broken up into separate sub-groups to complete an exercise of some kind. Also, an event such as a financial advice clinic might require multiple temporary cubicles where people consult with experts on various subjects.
11. Activity Types. Certain types of activities have been found to be more successful for community rooms in financial institutions, and not all are related to finances. Productive uses for the space include:
—Home purchasing seminars
—Hoteling space with Wi-Fi for local consultants/sales people
—Vendor speaking opportunities (travel agents, real estate brokers, small business advisers, etc)
—Preparation for retirement
—Small company conferences
—Club room; book clubs, art clubs, writers’ groups, etc.
Financial institutions have also hosted other activities in their community spaces, including financial literacy classes, exercise classes, entrepreneurial training programs and movie nights. Home buying advice workshops and retirement seminars can be successful because they target people at a very specific point in their lives, when they need valuable advice that can be applied to a particular hurdle.
A space organized similar to Panera Bread or Starbucks could function as a semi-permanent café space with free Wi-Fi, private and group tables. It’s also possible that smaller spaces could be created and rented as “consultant suites”, where third parties could conduct business. Part of the area could be partitioned off as a ‘consultant space’, with the rest more open and functioning as a lounge.
Another usage option to keep the branch relevant with its community would be for the bank to regularly promote the space as a message or collection center to support certain types of community events, such as Toys for Tots, local road races, or Trick or Treat nights. Regular involvement in these types of activities will introduce people to a place they don’t normally visit, which works to promote brand and location recognition to non-customers.
Bank Branches Staying Relevant
Financial institutions want to be seen as relevant entities in their communities, but accomplishing that involves a certain level of investment in the community space environment. The elements listed above, combined with a well-structured social outreach effort (with a person dedicated to this role at least half the time) can enable this to happen. The level of investment may be slightly higher than some community banks and credit unions are prepared to commit to, but keeping branches relevant is a topic that should be taken seriously.
People are social animals, and they’re sensitive to many kinds of signals that may or may not be present in social settings and situations. Making the right impression on community room visitors is crucial to bringing them back a second time. Industry consultants know how to execute this; they work with concepts, materials and tools to create impressive value messaging all the time. It’s possible to achieve an affordable but significant degree of style and comfort that incorporates brand voice, complements the working branch, and functions as a catchment area for new customers. This contributes to keeping the bank branch relevant and open for business.