Public Events: Associations evaluate housing fairs, first-time homebuyer seminars, and community festivals as ways to promote members.

By Steve DeBretto

This will be the third and final year the Massachusetts Association of Realtors® purchases booth space at an annual home show, the type of industry event many associations attend to build consumer awareness of Realtors® and showcase their expertise.

“The problem with the home shows is that they aren’t buyer-specific,” says Eric Berman, the association’s communications director. Other booths dedicated to patios, hot tubs, or decking draw current homeowners looking for home improvement ideas, not potential homebuyers.

Although show attendees who stopped by MAR’s booth likely came away better informed and perhaps more receptive to Realtors® in the future, there is no measure of that. With members footing the bill, Berman believes they have a right to expect results, and a booth like the one the association purchased runs about $1,000. “If we’re spending their money to do these things, we really want to be able to quantify what’s happening and give them the greatest value for their dollar.”

In Alabama, the Birmingham Association of Realtors® has reached the same decision about
its participation in home shows. “It’s not our tar-
get audience,” says Public Relations Director Dave Mace.

If either association was hoping for better results from the shows, they can take solace in the fact that they have learned to approach consumer events more strategically.

Many local associations have learned to consider housing fairs, first-time homebuyer seminars, and community festivals with an eye toward member benefit, while remembering that whatever they choose to do will put demands on the organization’s schedule and budget.

Targeting audiences and measuring success

Dave Gomez chairs the Housing Opportunities Committee at the Pasadena-Foothills Association of Realtors®, which conducts classes in English and Spanish for first-time homebuyers. The classes attract a predominantly lower-income clientele, which not only is more likely to use a Realtor® to purchase a home, but also can take advantage of city assistance programs that can subsidize up to $200,000 of an eligible homebuyer’s purchase.
Gomez has two measures of success: “First of all, it’s the number of people who attend. Secondly, it’s whether our Realtors® and mortgage people get phone calls back and start working with some of the attendees.” Their last event drew 85 people, but tracking the follow-up is challenging. “I distribute the attendees’ names and phone numbers, and it’s up to our committee members to make things happen,” Gomez explains. Short of finding out what attendees do after the classes, Gomez can’t know whether the people committee members can’t get in touch with have put off purchasing, found other agents, or simply bought a home independently.

Elsewhere, the challenge is still getting people in the door of information events. For more than 10 years, the Rockford Area Association of Realtors® in northern Illinois contributed volunteer time and financing to a local affordable housing coalition that organized homebuyers’ fairs. In 2006, when fair attendance dropped to five people from a high of more than 300, they had to stop.

“The biggest benefit is to have more informed buyers,” says Angie Goral, one of the directors of the Rockford Area Affordable Housing Coalition and a co-chair of the Realtor® association’s Affordable Housing Committee.

Key to successful events

The Rockford coalition now runs public classes on topics ranging from financing to home selection and maintenance. The healthy attendance at regularly scheduled classes indicates that the organization has successfully shifted its resources from the poorly attended public fairs while still reaching its target audience of low-income prospective buyers. Investing time and effort to educate historically underserved populations is not only the right thing to do, Goral says, but a way to nurture and expand the future market.

At the Lake & Geauga Area Association of Realtors®, Ohio, the organization pays around $2,800 to coordinate a Housing Choices Carnival. In 2005, its first year it drew about 70 prospective buyers, and in 2006, it drew more than 100, according to Patricia Rathz, the association’s executive officer. Rathz hopes for good attendance again this year, and used a solid research tool, exit interviews, to gauge her past marketing success. “The biggest response to our carnival marketing efforts came from a flyer we sent home with the school kids,” she says. That method was more effective than radio and newspaper advertising. The LGAAR also trains agents in the “Home from Work” employer-assisted housing program written by Fannie Mae and adopted by NAR in 2006.

Educating agents for public outreach

Some associations may decide to eschew public events altogether if they are confident they can meet their public education, outreach, and branding goals in other ways. The Orange County Association of Realtors® relies exclusively on internal events to build its members’ ability to capture a larger share of the area’s growing Asian and Latino markets. The association partnered with the Asian Real Estate Association of America to conduct agent training on reaching Asian-American buyers in February 2007, and with the California Association of Realtors® to host a seminar on Latino homebuyers in April. The association is scheduling a fall session on educating and working with first-time homebuyers.

Sylvia Prata, the association’s Cultural Diversity Task Force chair, finds that the things she’s learned about Latino homebuyers have helped her interact better with clients she may not have reached before. “I’ve been able to put people in homes that they otherwise wouldn’t have been able to buy,” she says. With some of her Latino clients, she says, business won’t start until the client has spent time building trust and a rapport with her. She considers the extra time developing these relationships to be rewarding and well-spent. “If they accept you as the agent, then you’ll be their agent for life.”

Event options

When it comes to hosting events for the public, flexibility is the key. Public interest in events can ebb and flow, so constant evaluation is needed. Below is just a sampling of the many types of events for the public that have proven successful for associations across the country.

* Homebuyer fair, targeted at the city’s growing Latino and Asian populations. Orange County Association of Realtors®, Laguna Hills, Calif.

* Two-day, multilingual symposium with educational seminars and consumer homebuying information. South Broward Board of Realtors®, Pembroke Pines, Fla.

* Homeownership festival with education for the residents of underserved communities on the steps necessary for homeownership. Colorado Association of Realtors®

* Realtor® career night and mentoring program
to help keep minority students on track through real estate school. Portland Metropolitan Association of Realtors®, Ore.

* Housing affordability summit with community leaders and the public to discuss obstacles
to providing affordable housing and develop solutions. Pasadena-Foothills Association of Realtors®, Calif.

* Housing options fair to educate members, consumers, and elected officials on housing affordability and assistance. Lake and Geauga Area Assoc. of Realtors®, Ohio

* Homeownership fair as a community awareness event to promote homeownership and to highlight various services, financial programs, and preparation for homeownership. Missoula County Association of Realtors®, Mont.

* Affordable housing fair featuring Realtors®, lenders, and Housing Assistance Program providers as exhibitors and presenters. Santa Clara County Association of Realtors®, Calif.

* Homebuying seminar one-day course with training from builders, lenders, appraisers, title companies, community colleges, and counseling agencies. Houston Association of Realtors®

* Monthly homebuyer education courses in partnership with the Enterprise Foundation Home Ownership Partners. SouthWest
Los Angeles Board of Realtors®, Calif.IJ

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