By Carolyn Weber. We've heard the cliche a million times – you only get one chance to make a first impression. Well, like it or not, it's true. And for a builder, that initial contact point is usually the sales center, so it's got to make a significant positive impact.

Whether it's a 5,000-square-foot visitor's center or a 24-foot-wide garage space, there are five tenets of effective sales center design: comfort, credibility, consistency, chemistry, and commitment. Of these, comfort, both emotional and physical, is the most important. "You have to create an experience and an environment where people feel engaged," says Rebecca Martinez, director of marketing for The Cunningham Group Architecture in Marina del Rey, Calif. Having worked with big retail clients like Disney and Lego, Martinez encourages builders to borrow concepts from other industries to create great destinations that inspire confidence and ease.

The sales center is a chance to provide buyers with a sense of the company's personality and culture and reinforce the builder's credibility. Appeal to the shopper's logical side by presenting corporate and community information in an organized, attractive, easy-to-read manner, because no one has time to waste.

"We are entering a new economic era where every business is a stage, and companies must design memorable events for which they charge admission." – The Experience Economy, by Joseph Pine and James Gilmore

The center's graphics should be consistent with your print ads, commercials, direct-mail pieces, billboards, and signage. In small spaces, it's always a struggle between having an office and enough room for displays, so putting the floor plans and elevations in easy-to-carry portfolios frees up wall space for information about the builder, the neighborhood, and amenities. Too much information, especially in cramped areas, can cause sensory overload and confuse buyers. At most, the goal is for buyers to remember five key points about the community. Great chemistry means appealing to the senses through things like lighting, music, and smell. "You have to be sensitive to the audience, and never use canned or elevator music," says Norbert Jakubke. The president of The Idea Partner in Vancouver, B.C., once took an entire day just picking eclectic music to appeal to a project's target market. When done properly, lighting can have great emotional appeal and set the appropriate mood. "Some spaces call for a more subdued atmosphere, but you'll also want to highlight display areas to draw people towards them," Jakubke notes. And as for smell, coffee and cookies make everyone feel at home.

Finally, the closing office must mirror the atmosphere of the rest of the center. A cozy, uncluttered area will soothe a buyer's nerves when he or she is signing on the dotted line.

Once the five "Cs" are taken care of, builders still need to invest heavily in their greatest asset – salespeople. "All the sales centers and models in the world don't take the place of great sales presentation," says Joyce Mason, vice president of marketing for Pardee Homes. "People still buy houses from people."

Following are descriptions of several different sales centers. Their budgets run the gamut based on the market, space, buyer profile, and price point. What they do have in common is that they're all experimenting with innovative concepts that combine clever marketing, psychology, and hospitality.

Show and Sell

Into the Woods: The Quadrant Corp.'s sales center at Redmond Ridge in Redmond, Wash., has it all. The colors and warm material mix reflect the community's wooded location, and the contemporary lighting emphasizes the bold but simple graphics and a community map.
Couresy R. Group Communications Into the Woods: The Quadrant Corp.'s sales center at Redmond Ridge in Redmond, Wash., has it all. The colors and warm material mix reflect the community's wooded location, and the contemporary lighting emphasizes the bold but simple graphics and a community map.

In these times of mold, termites, floods, and droughts, consumers are more concerned with quality and energy efficiency than ever before. Underneath all the bells and whistles, they want to know how their house is constructed, find out about the builder's best practices, how they do it and why. So, if you say you build quality homes, show them. When preparing to roll out its new energy-efficient, environmentally sensitive Living Smart program at Santa Barbara in San Diego, Pardee Homes went way beyond the average sales and information center and devoted a special space to the new concept. "Part of a sales center is to educate," says Mason. "We had a much larger message to deliver, and felt that some of these features were new to people." The space is separated from the main sales office in a three-car, tandem garage in one of the models.

The centerpiece of the educational display center, called the Smart Room, is a kiosk with an interactive touch screen providing information about the energy savings, green materials, and the community's program to reinvigorate the surrounding natural vegetation. "There is so much more that we could demonstrate by doing it electronically," Mason says.

The entire Plan Two model is also devoted to the concept. Heavy signage marks the use of fluorescent lighting, Energy Star appliances, low-VOC paint, and bamboo and cork flooring. "There can be a great deal of uncertainty about how these things will look," Mason says. "We showed that you don't have to make sacrifices in design to be energy-efficient."

Santa Barbara has sold out quickly at every phase, and the Living Smart program and the detailing in the Smart Room reinforce the benefits for those who have already bought houses there. "And even if they don't purchase in that particular neighborhood, it helps them feel good about our company brand," Mason remarks.

Star Tech

American families are averaging at least two computers per household, so it's safe to say that technology is a priority in our culture. Before they even set foot in the sales office, potential buyers have perused the community Web site and maybe even gone on a virtual tour, so the sales experience has to reflect that. "When you have an HDTV flat-screen plasma television, it automatically sets you above the rest and says that you are a technological leader," says The Idea Partner's Jacubke. "Honestly, even if you have an old computer at the reception desk, it dates you."

Cable Ace: The iGallery at Ladera Ranch, in Mission Viejo, Calif., promotes partner Cox Cable, the community's high-speed Internet access provider. Above, three demographic groups on plasma screens discuss how they use "Ladera Life." The iGallery was built in the shell of a future retail space that will be converted once Ladera Ranch is sold out.
Couresy DMB Ladera Cable Ace: The iGallery at Ladera Ranch, in Mission Viejo, Calif., promotes partner Cox Cable, the community's high-speed Internet access provider. Above, three demographic groups on plasma screens discuss how they use "Ladera Life." The iGallery was built in the shell of a future retail space that will be converted once Ladera Ranch is sold out.

Technology is a top priority at the iGallery at Ladera Ranch, in Mission Viejo, Calif. When planning the information-gathering space and sales center for the 4,000-acre, master planned community, developer DMB Ladera studied retail stores, such as the Sony Metreon in San Francisco, for state-of-the-art influences. With unfinished, blacked-out ceilings, a painted concrete floor, and several contemporary lighting schemes, the atmosphere fits the marketing goal to promote the vast community intranet, high-speed Internet access, and structured wiring. "We want to promote 'Ladera Life' and prove that it's easy to use," says Marybeth Gunn, the community's sales and merchandising manager. The site promotes Ladera events, clubs, schools, and libraries and has a message board for residents. "It truly starts camaraderie before people even meet," Gunn says. Entering visitors see a 7-by-9-foot, rotating events screen showcasing the Ladera lifestyle. Large screens carefully steer visitors through a path past graphics and videos that tell the story in different ways. They can have a seat on the park bench and watch an animated tour of how Ladera will look at build-out, or watch a fast-paced, Nike-style video with overhead views of the community's running, biking, and walking trails.

"It has been a tremendous asset to the overall marketing campaign, and the dollars spent have paid off," says Ladera's marketing director, Anne Marie Moiso, of the $3-million facility. "Traffic has quadrupled since the iGallery opened, that means we're sending more qualified traffic to the individual builders' on-site sales offices," she adds.

Although technology is the iGallery's main focus, plenty of the 500-plus groups that visit weekly still gather around the topo table and the large coffee bar. "Of course, salespeople give tours," Gunn says, "but you can do a self-guided version and still get everything you need to know."

Be Our Guest

Don't even say the words "sales center" and "Summerhouse" in the same breath. "It's a welcoming center," says developer Tony Green of the 7,000-square-foot facility. The president of The Pine Hills in Plymouth, Mass., has come up with a new, more homespun approach to the visitor experience. During the permitting process, he met with groups of potential buyers to find out what they liked and didn't like about buying a house. Most agreed that walking into a new-home sales center evoked the same feelings as entering a new-car showroom. Taking cues from the hospitality business, Green had his angle. "We wanted to show what it's like to live there without all the negative pressures," he says. "The most important thing is to make people feel comfortable."

The sales approach at Summerhouse is decidedly low-key. "We are there to help them understand this 3,000-acre, master planned community that's bigger than some Massachusetts towns," says Green, "and give them an overview of the builder choices and what all of their options are." The developer uses the building, designed more like a demonstration house, for all types of events, such as board meetings for a bank that will be in The Pine Hills, "meet the builder" events, and a series of workshops with prospective buyers. These events are held in the dining-room space, around the table during a meal. "The food is the most important part," says Green. "It's an entirely different environment when you're breaking bread together."

"After the workshop, [customers] wanted to write checks without even seeing a floor plan," adds Sandra Kulli, a Los Angeles-based marketing consultant who worked on the project. Green has been able to raise prices substantially, and with an average sales price of $560,000, The Pine Hills' homes are double those in the surrounding town. "It's amazing, considering half of those units are attached," says Green.

Most of all, it's a friendly atmosphere and people feel comfortable coming back again and again. "Early on, we had two potential buyer couples meet each other and come back a few times," says Green. "And while the women shopped, the men would sit and play backgammon on the front porch." Each couple eventually bought a house in the community.

City Slickers

Many big builders are testing the waters of the infill game, and just as the product and process are very different from those of the suburbs, so are the sales centers. The drawback of the urban sales center is usually lack of space and lack of models. In tight quarters, the displays need to be simple and to the point. Grasping the lifestyle component of a unit that isn't built yet can be tough for customers, so they need as much information as possible to make a decision. "If there is any vagueness, they will wait," says The Idea Partner's Jakubke.

Building a quarter-inch scale model of the finished product is a tangible way to show off an urban building, the landscaping, and its relationship to the rest of the neighborhood. At Blakely Commons, two mid-rise buildings in downtown Seattle, the sales path, partitioned with large, lifestyle photos, leads visitors to the model. "It's always the most exciting thing in the sales center," says designer Caroline Scull, of Effective Design Studio. "The model is critical because some buyers need help with visualization and it gives them a sense of perspective." Prices vary depending on size and complexity, but scale models usually start at around $10,000.

A top selling point, at least in mid- to high-rise projects, is the view. The common way to get a floor-by-floor perspective is to send a balloon or crane up with a remote-control camera and create composite pictures from each floor to create panoramas. "For a building with 120 to 200 units, it costs about $75,000," says Blakely Commons' Micki Dahl Christenson, marketing director for Seattle-based Intercorp's residential division, ITW Real Estate. "It's worth it because it's a very powerful selling tool."

The images can do triple duty, on the Web site and in collateral materials.

Top-quality finishes motivate urban buyers, so vignettes are also especially important in presales, particularly in kitchens and baths. "They have to be spectacular," says Jakubke. "Load them with great details, granite countertops, and cool products."

Published in BIG BUILDER Magazine, October 2002