Podcast / 02.05.2021

The art of the socially distanced sales center

Episode Summary:

Despite soaring numbers associated with COVID19, the future of real estate is looking bright. I know what you’re thinking. Given the nature of COVID, how could real estate be doing so well? 

The idea of visiting an open house could seem daunting (with so many strangers gathered all in one space), the future of a traditional “office” as we know it hangs in the balance as more businesses have reverted to being completely remote, and the idea of moving during a pandemic could make anyone uneasy.  

But according to a study done by Realtor.com, homebuyers are not only optimistic about buying a home right now, but 46% of respondents said that the pandemic has actually moved them towards purchasing sooner rather than later.

Not unlike any other industry, those in real estate have been quick to reimagine standard business practices, creatively. 

Because when it comes to a global health crisis, details are vital.

In March, we began working with the EYA, LLC affiliate sales and marketing teams to rethink these details when it came to their sales center experience.

In order to properly facilitate social distancing, everything from adding touchless fixtures, to in-store signage and other imperative design features, had to be completely transformed. 

Now, eight months later, that new COVID-friendly EYA sales center is up, running, and offers a unique and tailored sales experience unlike any other. 

Clara spoke with Johnny Vitorovich, our Principal Creative Director, about what the realities of reimagining a center like this looked like, the research and diligence that went into it, and the results that followed. 

Take a listen, and we hope you enjoy.

Host: Clara Shannon, Marketing Associate

Interviewees: Johnny Vitorovich, Principal Creative Director

For a visual representation of a sales center, review this video tour from our clients at Northbank.

 

Transcription:

Clara:

Johnny, thank you so much for being here today. We’re really excited to have you on. 

Johnny:

It’s a pleasure, Clara. Thank you for having me, and really appreciate you taking the time to do this and including me on it. 

Clara:

Yeah, of course. So for some of our listeners who may not know, could you walk us through exactly what a sales center is, what the value that some of our clients have seen in them and what they were like before this global pandemic. 

Johnny:

Sure, absolutely. You know, most, if not all of our current real estate clients typically open for sales, pre sales, oftentimes, nine months or a year before they actually have a model or something to show. So it’s a little different tactic than let’s say builders who wait until they have a whole row of homes built if they’re building townhomes, let’s say and then they build a model. And then they go to sales, they’re sitting on that real estate for a while before pre sale, before sales. So the clients that we’re typically working with go into pre sales before, so pretty important that they have something to actually, something tangible, something to show a sales center and or a significant investment in CGI computer generated imagery, a vision and something to really craft that vision of what that community neighborhood, what those homes really look like. So buyers get a chance and opportunity to sort of get a sense of what that would feel like to live there, what the product looks like. And if there was a typical, nothing’s typical these days, as you know, a sales center would be part of the marketing that will help create that sense of place. And that brand, if you will, once we have a name. And once we understand what that product is, that sales center typically would sit on the site, which is pretty important. I think there’s a higher tendency of sales if it’s on or near the site, because people like to see that and walk it. Sort of pre COVID, what that was like is their signage still plays a significant role, we would have done a simple landing page, and there would have been an event, sort of a grand opening for that sales center for sales.

There’s a number of different elements and tools that would have been part of that and still, to some degree are. Sometimes there’s a scale model table, which is a significant investment. But really people love hanging around that and looking at sort of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood world of where they will be, where digital immersion, some clients invest more in the digital side where there’s sort of a 3D, Google Earth kind of exploration of what that neighborhood [looks like] and some of them will even map out each individual unit. If they’re selling condos or even townhomes, what that really looked like is what that experience is. Then, there would have been touchscreen displays. And that sales center is sort of a self-directed, floor-to-ceiling wall coverings, a display sometimes, renderings all the way up which again, still play a portion in that, looping videos and different things and collateral that’ll be handed to them when they’re ready to leave with the appropriate floor plans and such inside there. And so that’s kind of the way sort of that worked, then there was sort of one sort of grand finale, if you will, that we were getting to, which was sort of the grand opening event. And, and that’s obviously changed a little bit since, since COVID hit.

Clara:

Yeah, definitely, how many people would usually attend those grand opening events? What was the fanfare of that like?

Johnny:

Oh, there was a few 100. I mean, I know there was a number of people who would sign up online beforehand, and it used to be something when we were doing those grand openings, it was a little bit more tangible to the marketing teams, if you will, to the agency. They used to be a thing I used to challenge my design team with: if there’s no campers kind of hanging out and camping out literally with lawn chairs the night before, we failed with one of our clients, that was sort of a running joke, a mantra for years of “no campers, we failed”. And that was more of an internal thing to our team, where people would sit there and get jazzed and customers and they would be online, obviously, the landing page would would function as a repository for emails, and they would build a list that way, but it was really all about that sort of Grand Opening Day, they would get a chance to come in and learn about the neighborhood. And then typically, the next day was sales. Saturday was the big day. And they would literally camp out on a Friday night. And then wait, be the first in line, put their name [down], I want this unit, but the sales wouldn’t happen until the following, until the next day, which would have been Sunday. All that has changed now, obviously. 

Clara:

So yeah, I mean, all of those changes, just have us thinking towards how things have changed. Now, you know, given that we have been with some of our clients, at the very top of the pandemic, when they were designing some of these sales centers, I’m sure that there was just a lot going on at the beginning of March. I’d be really interested to hear your take and sort of a walkthrough of how you went about structuring a socially distant sales center and how those grand events and those openings and just getting the word out had sort of shifted. Because you know, back in March, there was no best practice or a playbook for how you’re supposed to do any of this. I remember back in the spring, everything was unpredictable. So I would love to hear some of your, you know, anecdotes of that process and what resources you sought out. 

Johnny:

Oh, good question. Yeah, there was, for one of our clients, there was going to be a fairly substantial sales center and marketing efforts towards a sort of self directed sales center experience. It was designed to capture people who maybe wanted to just spontaneously come in, and there was a vantage point on a corner that got a lot of visibility, a lot of traffic, so signage has always been, and still continues to be a large part of the marketing of those properties people drive by, and we know that people typically buy within, you know, five or six miles, typically of where they live currently to where that new community is coming. But you know, it used to be designed that it was sort of a self-directed, a flow through the sales center. We thought very carefully with the client for you know, for many years of how that would work and how that flow would work. If there wasn’t a salesperson available the minute they walked in, because they typically had no idea they were coming in, we tried to make it intuitive. So they would sort of go clockwise, if you will, through the sales center. Eventually a salesperson, if they freed up, would kind of, you know, join them at some point in there and help them in their journey. 

About midway through getting ready to open on a recent community I think it was going to be, we put the brakes on stuff in the client did probably in in April. And we had to really sit down and evaluate what’s going on with COVID. And how is this really going to affect nobody really had a clue. As you remember, at the time, it’s easy to sort of look back now at 2020. And, you know, hindsight is always that way. And why didn’t you do this? Or how did you do this? Or how did you not see it coming? But we really had to look at that with the client and said, let’s sit down and really think about that experience now [and] what it needs to be. We really looked at the CDC guidelines at the time that were being developed for sort of social distancing inside of a closed environment. And we quickly realized that this is going to be an appointment only sort of scenario. So fundamentally, the sales centers have really changed, at least with our clients to be less of a self-directed [experience] and really more of an appointment only. And there’s a certain time that you come in and the salesperson knows you’re coming and the big grand opening kind of hoopla is kind of over. But it’s preceded by a virtual event. And I remember the first time we’re working on that we’re all kind of making it up as we go along. And we had a couple long sessions with the client talking about, if we did that, what would that look like? When would that be, you know, before sort of the physical sales center would open and think we’ve sort of fine tuned things a bit where now there’s a landing page, and there’s advertising and digital, there’s a whole campaign that’s geared towards a virtual event, which is very unique for, or new to all of us, including the clients, and real estate, where there’s a big event ended. It allows some different folks from the developer side, from the home builder side to be present. And I think in some ways, it’s a richer experience for the prospects because they’re hearing from key stakeholders, and folks who normally, they’re not on the sales side, get a chance to present their portion of this sort of our presentation.

Maybe it’s on a Wednesday night before sales, before appointments started happening. So there’s a number of people who will sign up based on the buy and awareness of that event. And then they’ll either sign up, or they’ll show up. And most, you know, there’s a good percentage who actually actually show up and register and actually show up that night for the event. And they become a lot better educated. So by the time there’s an appointment, which really is the next step, for sales, they’re that much more ahead of the game, they really know what’s going on. And they’ve heard from the land planners, they’ve heard from a number of different folks who would really never be there for opening day at the hoopla, if you will, that it used to be. And they’re getting a chance to hear from these people and totally get educated more than you would have on a landing page. Certainly, it’s a richer experience. And making appointments, you sort of get rid of the sort of people who are just there to sort of kick the tires a little bit, or the nosy neighbors kind of thing. And you’re really getting appointments from people who are now very interested, educated, already up to speed. In many cases, they’re coming in sort of ready to walk in on a certain lot and make a purchase or, or, you know, make a substantial investment in a down payment, and secure their lot there. And there’s also that, you know, when people are coming in to, in the old days to a sale center on a random Tuesday, they may be the only one in there. And it just felt a little bit like oh, there’s nobody here and there’s no traffic, there’s nothing going on. But when you’re making that appointment, I know you and I were chatting about that a little earlier, there’s sort of, first of all, it’s a one on one, which is really a nice experience for them. They have sort of the unadulterated immersion, uninterrupted with that one salesperson. And they really don’t know how many people were ahead of them or behind them, so it might create a sense of urgency that may have not been there before. And certainly it’s a, it’s a richer experience when they come in, because it’s a one on one.

Clara:

That really kind of underscores the opportunities that maybe Coronavirus has helped if, if there is any silver lining, it sounds like that experience is so much more personalized and maybe in a way more premium. You’re getting a more personalized experience where you know, a sales associate is really helping you and understanding your needs. And you’ve met them probably before online. And so they have a deeper understanding of all of your questions and what you want answered as a prospect. When you’re talking about having that personalized one on one experience, though, physically within a space. What does that look like? How did you sort of design a space where you know, a sales associate would be safe that a prospect would be safe? On the other side of a room or are they next to them? Could you walk us through some of your

Johnny:

Absolutely, you know, Clara, really starts online at that virtual event. Because that’s explained which is really a cool step, and it’s evolved. Although the client really owns the content, the presentation, the different folks over there, whoever that client may be, they really own that. They make it to meet the salespeople all that but one of the things that is explained is when you do come in [for] the appointment, the extent at which you know the company that the builder is going through to make it a safe experience for them. First of all, it is by appointment only. So when they come in, they park in the parking lot, if you will, and then they let them know, they either text them or call them that they are there. The door is then unlocked for them in waiting. So there’s all these protocols and steps put in to make that experience safe. What we did was we designed these sort of safe with graphics on the floor, although it’s not a classic retail experience, like if you go to Target where there’s many people at the same time, there’s still that sort of one appointment per that that session. But still, they know kind of where they stand and where they sit.

 It’s less of a self exploratory experience now, as opposed to more of a presentation, if you will, although there’s some things that they can sort of look at and sit, they have their own table. In one instance, with one of our clients, there’s a table set up for the customer and at least six if not eight or ten feet away. On the other side is another table, in between them is a scale model table or a site plan that’s there. And then they may even have a separate monitor in front of them where they’re sitting. And they’re looking at the monitor, and simultaneously, the salesperson is you know, eight to ten feet away. Obviously, everyone’s wearing masks, everything has been cleaned in between appointments. So there’s time in between where they’re cleaning it and using, you know, the sterilized wipes to clean everything down, that’s sort of a given at this point. There’s different air filtration systems that some clients have actually gone to, and, and made those arrangements and tweaks in the sales center, if you will. But that experience is now the salesperson maybe had a large monitor, a touchscreen that only they touch, there’s sort of a tape on the floor design tape saying you know, “customer zone, sales, sales representative zone”, and they’re, you know, interacting with the touchscreen, but it mirrors right on the screen that’s right in front of a 24 inch monitor at the station that the customer is comfortably sitting at. And there are graphics now on the wall that pre COVID were designed to be walked up to and sort of interact with, and maybe smaller type or smaller messaging on there. Now we’ve really bumped up the point size to increase the legibility more from a distance. In some cases, we’ve even simplified what they’re looking at, simplified how much type or messaging or verbiage is on those displays on the wall, making sure from the vantage point of the customer, that they can read it from where they are, within reason. So it’s larger, more legible, the readability is a lot easier. And in some cases, like I said, simplified. So it’s a little different experience. But it’s definitely less self-directed now and more of a presentation. And once again, that they’ve already been through if there’s an appointment, chances are they probably were at the virtual event, which is very thorough, very comprehensive. And so they come to the sales center, with a lot more knowledge than they would have come in the past. Of course, that landing page is much more robust these days than we did in the past, a lot more knowledge up ahead of time. And then the site, of course, is robust, we’re still doing displays in there, we’re still doing wall graphics and still doing I mean, the CGI, that imagery is as important as ever, because it’s still pre sale, so that’s important. And videos are important actually to show what that product looks like and sort of paint that picture of what it will be. But it’s a vastly different experience than it was and they know they have assurance that nobody’s just gonna wander in, even Grafik who used to sort of wander in to talk to sales folks, and whatever, we have to make sure that we have to make an appointment to actually to go in and look at stuff or photograph stuff and we don’t have that liberty as well. So it’s really all about keeping the client safe, the customer really feeling confident that everything’s been cleaned prior to them arriving. And they’re the only one other than the sales agent, who they’ve met online, who they’ve seen online, they already kind of had the opportunity to hear from them. And it’s a familiar face by the time they get there. And they know they’re the only one there at that point in time. And there will be no overlap, they may see someone on the way out or there’s probably more than likely a buffer between who the next customer is and when they come in, because there’s going to be a thorough cleaning in between each appointment. 

Clara:

That’s really interesting. I think that it probably puts the customer more at ease if they’re interacting with someone who isn’t a stranger. When you mentioned that you were trying to limit obviously walk-ins, which is a big change in the real estate space, does the salesperson literally lock the door?

Johnny

That’s a good question. Yeah. They do actually lock the door. With one of our clients, all those doors are locked and in some cases they may even, we may even put graphics over the door of the glass door, the window where you’re not just peeking in because it’s by appointment, and it does say on the door by appointment only. And again, that’s one of those trial and error sort of beta testing is, how big do you get that where people look into trying to pull on it, and then they may, you know, as an afterthought may look at what’s going on. And they go, oh, by appointment only, you really can’t enter before you park and we designed some signage, right where you park, you know, sort of the nose of your car comes in, and there’s a sign there explaining what to do. And again, that’s would more likely have been covered in the virtual tour, provided you missed a virtual tour, and there’s a good chance you did because it was only in the very beginning, your customer three months into it, and you missed the tour, but you saw the signage, at least there’s some signage when you arrive.

That sort of explains what the process is. And online as well. When you make that appointment, there’s contact when you make that appointment telling you what to do. So all along the way, there’s some touch points, sort of mitigate any misunderstanding. So there’s a clear expectation of what’s going to happen when you arrive, and the protocols put in to keep you safe. 

Clara:

Other than the obvious, getting social distancing, you know, lines in check and understanding safety precautions. What do you think was the biggest challenge? You said that hindsight is now 2020. Looking back on those projects from early March,  What is your biggest takeaway?

Johnny:

I think the biggest takeaway was designing, from years of doing sort of that self-directed, because you always had to have the idea in mind that there will be potentially someone with one of two sales managers. And you may get on any given Sunday or Saturday, more people coming in, that are not able to talk to a sales agent for a little while, and you had to make it sort of intuitive enough where they would follow sort of certain course that made sense. They could come up, if they wanted to, they could use the touchscreen, if there was one, sometimes there was they could certainly lean on the ledge of the scale model table, they could, you know, interact with stuff, there sort of there was, you know, water coolers, where they would just grab a cup and push the button and do so it was really thinking about a different way to think about it where it’s by appointment. Now only we’re not having so many sort of interactive things, it’s not self directed, and it’s it’s not certainly not going to be people wandering wherever they want as many people as, as we had before, and not coming right up to a display, not reading as deep interactively or having as much content because they’re not gonna be able to see it. And they’re really trying to minimize how much access they have to the sales center, how much wandering around, you know, so it’s thinking about, if the customer is generally going to sit in one location, it’s going to be by appointment only, how do we from the get go, from the virtual event, make that compelling enough, think about that online content that gives them maybe more information and paints even a broader picture. And then when they arrive there, how do you make that experience for them discernible and they feel very comfortable, knowing that they are safe. And then once they get in, designing it in such a way that they can see everything they need to see right there without necessarily having to get up. Everything’s kind of right around them, and the legibility, the points that everything, and simplified. So it’s all right there for them. And really leaning more and more on what the analytics are online and who’s signed up and, and we’re learning every day you know, how many people actually sign up for the event is different than how many people actually show up for the event and really thinking about it from that perspective. 

And also, signage is still hugely important. We’ve had to tweak signs and say, by appointment only and even put it everywhere, because the last thing they want is somebody just kind of walking in on him when they told him no one would be and that’s happened a few times where we’ve had to go back and update signage and really sort of educate the client as well as make it very obvious that by appointment only is maybe one of the first things they see sales center, but by appointment only is now huge, and we’ve tweaked stuff and almost like beta testing that signage, if you will so people understand they’re not just going up and pulling on the door knocking which in some cases they’re doing because they haven’t they haven’t quite understood that not everyone is doing that. So I don’t think the industry is by any means all on the same page with that. They may come out of one sales center a mile away where they just kind of walk in, and it’s still not by appointment only and it’s wide open. And then they go to one of our other clients where it is, and they’re just pulling on the door and they just don’t see it. So we’ve had to tweak things. And, you know, it’s still a work in progress at this point. 

Clara:

Well, I think this is a work in progress for everyone across every industry. We’re still very much in a pandemic. But I think the good news for real estate, even in this time of Coronavirus, is that the industry hasn’t really stopped. A study done by realtor.com has actually revealed that homebuyers are not only optimistic about buying in the current environment, but 46% of those respondents noted that the pandemic has actually moved them towards purchasing a home sooner rather than later, you know, people are much more likely to buy in this time. But you know, being in sales and marketing, we also understand that with an influx in interest, there’s also going to be, you know, shifting consumer expectation, you know, and how these things sort of change over time, especially within home search. Given the success of some of these sales centers, what do you predict is going to be the future of real estate moving forward? What will be the new normal? Do you think that these sales centers will take over? 

Johnny:

You know, nothing that gets stretched into a new reality ever kind of goes back in the same and I think, and that’s a good thing. I think we evolve and we learn. And there’s some, definitely some positives that came out of it. I know just from selling my own house and moving within the last three weeks and buying a new house, that whole experience on both sides of that granted, they’re single family homes, a little different than some of the townhomes clients who have condos and townhomes and more, a little bit more urban environments. But that experience was, we purchased by appointment only. And this is in suburbia, and we sold by appointment only, which really, typically was reserved for these exclusive homes by Sotheby’s or whatever where, you know, they’re up in the millions. And, you know, you expect that because you didn’t try to avoid the nosy neighbors and the tire kickers and people just wanting to kind of peruse through. But both of those were classic suburban kind of neighborhoods in Northern Virginia. And in the past, there just would have been an open house on Saturday or Sunday or both. And beyond that, there may have been a few more and obviously online would have played a role. But that’s just for single family homes by appointment only, I think, certainly with our clients, I don’t see them necessarily going back, there might be a chance where they go back to just anybody. And it really depends. 

With one of our clients, they had sort of very upscale condominiums and that was certainly by appointment only at some point, it became that because it’s, you know, a little bit more of a niche buy, but I could see that being a real positive view. You get someone who’s really committed, and they’ve probably done their homework prior. And in most cases they have, unless they sat through a virtual event. But they’re going online, we’re putting everything online more so than ever even and it’s getting more robust. And that experience, I’m not supposed to say exclusive in the real estate industry, but there’s an exclusivity or there’s a feeling of importance and I’ve got the, “I’m important enough to get an appointment, and I’ve got the sole attention of the salesperson.” That’s really what I mean, you’ve got catered to, and that environment. And the salesperson knows that they’re not just somebody wandering in and just, you know, just kind of like not really serious and not really wanting to leave their name and all that this really cuts down on that. Not to say those people don’t just slip in every now and then, but it’s, I think it’s it’s a better experience, ultimately all the way around. I don’t see it going back to that. I do think though for you know, with the sort of digital natives that are coming of age, the buying online experience, certainly for homes, maybe not in the, in the presale as much. But if there’s a product already up and running, and there’s a model to see or online, you can literally tour the actual home and the sort of neighborhood is being built or somewhat built. I think they’re more apt to just purchase online anymore. I think that’s going to be a trend going forward.

Certainly with resales there are in homes, people buy from a distance whether in the military or not they’re overseas, they’ll buy. It’s a little tricky with pre-sales. I think people still may want to see because for a long time, it’s just going to be there in the field. And some clients can adapt and see and be those early adopters, and they get it even from maybe a poorly rendered community up to a much more immersive experience. Some people want to see the model home they actually want to see, you know, they want to see vertical and they want to actually get a sense of it and it really depends. But given the tools today, given the immersive experiences that we can sort of render things out and fly-throughs and different things, you know, use all different technologies. It’s a lot more compelling to think that people will start buying earlier in that phase online. There’s something to be said, though, for something going vertical in a dirt field that is a sales center, because it’s a commitment from the buyer, or from the builder, if you will, they actually get to see the real location because there’s nothing like sort of boots on the ground for a buyer and get to see which orientation the home is east, west, north south, whatever, get to see the view getting really to sort of walk the ground and really getting a sense of it and walking the neighborhood around there if they weren’t familiar with it, so I don’t think those are going away but I do think it is rapidly changing. And I don’t think it’s ever going to just go right make me back and nor should it.

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