Association Cafe

A Social Networking Space for Members . . . That’s Not Online

By Amanda Sue Piltz, Communications Director, Scottsdale Association of REALTORS®

Would members want to come to our association office to drink coffee and check their e-mail?

We asked ourselves this question when we were designing our new Scottsdale Association of REALTORS® building and wondered whether we should include a space for members to network or do business with free Wi-Fi.

“After lengthy strategic planning discussions with our facilities task force about what an association headquarters should be, we knew we wanted members to enjoy the space we were building,” notes Rebecca Grossman, the association’s president and CEO. The planning group talked about a traditional business center but decided that a space with a coffeehouse feel would be better received and give members an even greater sense that the association’s investment in a new building was for them.

A Wi-Fi café seemed like the perfect way to accomplish this goal.

Why a Wi-Fi café?

In the days when deals are done at Starbucks and real estate agents use their offices (if they even have one) less and less, we felt there was a great opportunity for a REALTOR® organization to become a part of members’ everyday work routine.

The new Wi-Fi café in our building features a variety of comfortable seating options, including barstools, couches, and tables. Soft music plays from the speakers, and anyone is welcome to lounge (or work) in the space. There’s also a patio with seating and TVs, and visitors can buy fresh food and coffee.

Similarly, the Fort Collins Board of REALTORS® in Colorado offers a coffeehouse feel in its headquarters. CEO Clint Skutchan says that members use the association space instead of the crowded Starbucks next door. In addition to free Wi-Fi and a single-cup coffee brewer, the Fort Collins Board also offers free wireless printing in the space.

We believe that SAAR will greatly benefit by having an inviting space where members like to hang out. Members bring their own portable wireless devices and relax there before and after classes and meetings.

The space is in the lobby and members joke that we “have a bar in the lobby.” It’s the first thing you see when you walk in, and it’s been great for connecting with members. It reinforces to the members the value they receive for their dues. 

There are also more tangible benefits, such as increased foot traffic to our retail store and more exposure for classes or other nondues sources of revenue. We use digital signage to promote classes, events, and calls for action.

And it’s not just for members. I have meetings with staff and members in the café instead of in my office, and often you can find me working there on my laptop.

Saving money and making money with a café

Offering coffee and setting up a sound system to create a nice vibe may seem costly, but when compared with the purchase and maintenance of computers in a business center or computer lab, it is surprisingly affordable. Plus, having a space that members will actually use and feel good about means more people in the door and more exposure to your services.

A Wi-Fi café can be a source of revenue and a savings. For example, we just signed on with a vendor partner that will sell fresh food and coffee any time the association headquarters is open. We’ll get a percentage of revenue from this arrangement. We’ll also have a liquor license through this vendor so we can host after-hour socials without having to rent a space and pay the inflated bar prices of a hotel or other facility.

Although we haven’t yet, we could also sell advertising space on any TVs in the lounge area. Devices such as Google’s Chromecast and Samsung’s SMART Signage TV are surprisingly affordable ways to customize the content of TVs and displays. We could also sell space on the screen visitors see when they first log into the Wi-Fi.

We’re developing social events to introduce members to the space, such as a First Fridays at SAAR open to all members to network and get to know the staff. Our YPN has a class running from 1 to 4 p.m. with a happy hour in the café afterward.

Although we’ve been open just a short time, so far there have been no complaints. Everyone is ecstatic and we love having a space for the whole community.

Extra: Affordable Wi-Fi

We worried that offering members free Wi-Fi in our café would slow down our staff connection and be expensive. But using OpenMesh, a low-cost, cloud-managed guest network system, the Internet connection for staff is sectioned off into a secure private network. Visitors to the building can connect to the guest network customizable with a branded login page. Depending on how many people are logged on and how fast your Internet connection is, you most likely won’t notice slowdowns for your staff when members use the Wi-Fi, yet you can limit the bandwidth (reserving the fastest speeds for staff and ensuring members aren’t using your Wi-Fi to download movies).

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