Bridging the Distance

Associations embrace the hybrid future of virtual and in-person service.

While real estate is traditionally a face-to-face business, REALTOR® associations had to pivot dramatically last spring with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many offices were closed, at least temporarily, and staffers shifted to a work-from-home model. Even with a vaccine slowly being distributed, many association executives want to retain the significant benefits of serving members using virtual platforms.

“During the pandemic, our members were able to see the real value of our association,” says Tracy Huotari, CEO, North Bay Association of REALTORS® in Santa Rosa, Calif. “Now, we have an amazing opportunity to continue to work more efficiently while increasing member engagement and participation.”

For many association executives, the COVID-19 situation accelerated the adoption of technologies to manage associations remotely, such as team collaboration tools and videoconferencing platforms for leadership meetings and member events. Other innovations popularized during the pandemic include drive-through member services and product pickup lockers.

As association offices reopen in accordance with public health guidelines, AEs are looking at hybrid approaches that combine the best aspects of in-person and virtual services.

“It’s all about meeting your members where they are,” says Mike Valerino, chief operating officer of the Akron Cleveland Association of REALTORS® in Ohio. “Today, that means delivering content virtually, as well as in person.”

Here’s a closer look at how four associations are adapting to the new business landscape.

We changed everything. Now, we can all move ahead, offering virtual programs and events along with in-person activities to meet our members’ evolving needs. —Tracy Huotari, CEO, North Bay Association of REALTORS®, Calif.

Northern Virginia: 32 staff, 13,000 members

Staying ahead of the game gave the Northern Virginia Association of REALTORS® a head start in responding to COVID-19.

“We rolled out Microsoft Teams in 2019, first to our senior staff and then to everyone,” says Ryan McLaughlin, CEO of the Fairfax-based association. “Using Teams rather than email for our internal communications gave us better cross-organization collaboration. We created teams for different projects and gained more transparency across the association.”

When the pandemic initially took hold, the association went 100% virtual, using GoToMeeting and Zoom to interact with members while adding more social media content and chat and opt-in text messaging features. After Labor Day, staffers returned to the office with health and safety protocols in place.

“To help our members, we created drive-by services,” McLaughlin says. “Members could order products online and pick them up at their own lockers.”

Perhaps the biggest change for the Northern Virginia association was putting on a three-week virtual convention and trade show in the fall with 100 sessions and 2,500 attendees.

“We used the Boomset application and a digital registration and lead-generation process,” says McLaughlin. “We saved a ton of money on facility costs, and our members didn’t have to travel anywhere.”

Looking ahead, McLaughlin expects to offer more in-person and hybrid events and activities.

“Our members are ‘people people’ who thrive on networking,” he says. “We are encouraged about doing more things in person, while offering virtual options.”

Akron Cleveland: 11 staff, 6,000 members

ACAR also turned to Microsoft Teams when the pandemic hit.

“Everyone embraced the change,” says Valerino. “That was a big factor in enabling us to transition to a remote work environment. In June, we came back to the office on a rotating schedule, taking a hybrid approach to serving members.”

Along with collaboration tools such as Zoom and Teams, the association staff turned to for project management.

“It’s great for collaboration, because you can chat on it, upload documents, [and] follow a discussion thread to work through challenges without relying on email,” he says.

The association also launched online communities so its leadership groups have a place for discussions and a repository for documents without needing to dig through emails.

“We want to add new diversity and inclusion and LGBTQ communities for our members,” Valerino says. “That will be another great value-add for our association.”

Following the lead of the National Association of REALTORS® and Ohio REALTORS®, ACAR held a virtual expo in the fall, using BigMarker’s browser-based online platform. Attendance was high, and Valerino expects to include a virtual component for future in-person events.

“A hybrid approach lets us engage with more members because they don’t have to get in a car and drive to a session,” he says.

Orlando: 43 staff, 18,000 members

In shifting to remote operations, the Orlando Regional REALTOR® Association deployed several platforms, including Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Google Hangouts.

“We hunkered down, assessed the damage, and made sure we had multiple ways to communicate with our members,” says CEO Cliff Long.

One of the most important steps ORRA took was to move its educational programs to a virtual format.

“We offered classes for free in most instances, helping members meet their license requirements,” Long says.

Meanwhile, the association office remained open as an essential service in Florida, with split groups of staffers following safety protocols inside the building. ORRA also engaged a firm to provide COVID-19 testing for the staff and invested in creating a coronavirus-free environment, including disinfectant fogging and ozone treatments for the building.

“Follow the guidelines, but don’t obsess over every detail,” Long says. “This is how America will have to deal with COVID. Take precautions and move on.”

In October, ORRA went back to in-person leadership and committee meetings and offered hybrid education classes. Long expects that trend to continue in 2021, with the balance shifting toward more in-person meetings with social distancing.

“We will continue to offer a video option for our classes,” he adds. “It’s a worthwhile expense to serve our members.”

North Bay: 7 staff, 3,500 members

Based in Windsor, Calif., the North Bay Association of REALTORS® was able to adjust to the pandemic without missing too many beats, according to Huotari.

“We serve a huge geographic area, so we have been using Zoom since 2015, and [we] moved our voice system and network to the cloud in 2016 for business continuity purposes,” she says. “But we found that some of our staffers working remotely needed better equipment or stronger Wi-Fi connections.”

Huotari says Microsoft Teams has been a great collaboration app for her staff.

“We do video calls and meetings with Teams,” she says. “It’s much more efficient than email, and there’s a quick learning curve.”

Now, Huotari goes into the office regularly, while others are still working from home.

“We offer curbside pickup [of store products] for members who don’t want to come into the office,” she says.

Along with providing tech support to her staff herself, Huotari turns to members with strong technical backgrounds for assistance.

“One of the takeaways for other associations is to look at the expertise and skill sets of your members,” she says. “That can be an amazing source of help.”

Financially, the shift to virtual meetings and educational classes has reduced association facility rentals and travel costs. But an even bigger benefit for Huotari is turning travel time into productive activity; she can attend meetings virtually in any of the association’s 11 market areas.

“I’ve also seen more cross-pollination as our members attend sessions in other market areas,” she says, “getting out of their silos and building their networks.”

Reflecting on the changes of the past year, Huotari says the big surprise “is how quickly our members adjusted to the COVID situation. After all, we changed everything for them. Now, we can all move ahead, offering virtual programs and events along with in-person activities to meet our members’ evolving needs.”

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Written by Richard Westlund


NAR Rolls Out New Technology

State and local associations aren’t the only ones rolling out new technologies. The National Association of REALTORS® introduced Members First, or M1, a member database project that seeks to replace the current version of the National REALTORS® Database System.

A multiyear initiative, the M1 project will produce a feature-rich member engagement system that’s easy to use and provides accurate, holistic data, says Faisal Ghauri, NAR’s vice president of information technology.

“The Insights Hub portion of M1 provides actionable and intelligent insights by incorporating dynamic dashboards highlighting different aspects of membership data,” he says.

NAR’s first-ever virtual REALTORS® Conference and Expo also relied on new technology.

Using the MeetingPlay platform, “we offered networking opportunities during sessions, along with a virtual expo, chat functions, and moderated Q&A sessions,” says Heidi Henning, vice president, Meetings & Events. Members filled out profiles in advance so they could be matched with like-minded attendees and make new contacts. MeetingPlay provided detailed visitor metrics for sponsors and exhibitors looking to follow up.

As robust as the platform was, the staff and technical support teams played an indispensable role in the success of the program, which drew more than 11,000 registrants, Henning says.

“If you are having a major event, like a leadership inauguration, we suggest using a production company, along with a virtual platform service, in order to deliver a better event. It is vital to have the right level of professional support.”