By Pat Curry. The task of presenting a fluid, enjoyable home buying experience can be daunting. The folks at Anthem Arizona must have realized that early. That's a good thing. Because now, the 5,860-acre master planned community in the mountains outside Phoenix has seen more than 75,000 traffic units (defined, on average, as a family of three or four).

So how do they keep the traffic -- 6,000 to 8,000 people a month -- moving smoothly?

"It's very difficult to develop a personal relationship with that many people," says Ben Redman, president of Arizona Lifestyle Communities and general manager of Anthem Arizona. "We wanted to treat the customer from the minute they came to Anthem as part of the community, thinking [of] a visitor [as] a future resident."

From the day the doors opened in the spring of 1999, Anthem has had a welcome center. That, in and of itself, is nothing new; the majority of master planned communities have them. But the Anthem welcome center downplays the builder and, instead, focuses on the sense of community and lifestyle that is offered.

"We're surrounded on four sides by vacant land," Redman explains. "You're buying into a town, a place."

Welcome Home!

The welcome center plays several crucial roles in the overall sales process, setting the stage for everything that comes after a sale. Because of the size of the community and the wide range of products available, the center is considered an integral introduction to life in Anthem's two communities; the gated Anthem Golf and Country Club and the family-oriented Parkside. "It is mind-boggling to show up here on your own and find the home that meets your needs without having someone to give you the lay of the land," Redman says.

Photo: Courtesy Del Webb

At Anthem Arizona, the welcome center offers prospective buyers a chance to take a walking tour of scale models of the amenities. A builder wall introduces the buyers to available homes and products. The concept has incorporated ideas that have long been successful marketing and sales tools for Del Webb's active adult communities, tweaked for Anthem's multi-generational demographic. The Anthem team also has benefited from an "exchange program," Redman says, with Arvida Corp.'s Weston community in south Florida, a similar master-planned community several miles west of Ft. Lauderdale that has since incorporated as a city. The primary function of the welcome center, Redman says, is to be the ambassador of the community and to establish the Anthem brand of "Live, Work, Play." Students from the schools in Anthem typically have something on display there. The local businesses and health care providers are showcased. Visitors even learn about Anthem's many amenities, including the fire department, the community center and park, the high-speed Internet access, the fitness center, the country club, the walking trails, and the Big Splash Water Park.

The center is designed to be interactive and self-guided, Redman says, because with the amount of traffic that comes through the doors, Anthem can't physically employ enough hosts to be at the side of every prospect.

Visitors can use computer kiosks to ask questions about Net access and digital cable television; they also can watch a video presentation on the country club and golf course. The center features a walking tour of scale models of the amenities, including the water park and community center. Graphic boards surround a map of the community with pull-out literature. A builder wall introduces them to the available products. The idea is to give prospects a strong sense of the entire community before even leaving the welcome center.

"If you don't have any idea of the scale of the builders in the community, there's equal presentation in the welcome center for all three builders," he says. "You really don't know any difference there."

One of the top goals of the welcome center is to convince visitors to complete a registration card before they leave. Redman estimates that three out of four people who stop at the welcome center complete the registration form, which includes a prospect's name, address, price range, when they plan to purchase a home, and how they heard about Anthem.

Personal Touch

Sales and marketing vice president Ed Martin says that once people have spent some time in the welcome center and see what Anthem is all about, they're more than happy to register before they head out to see the model homes. And they're simply amazed that by the time they make the short drive and arrive at one of the two Del Webb sales pavilions, the information has been faxed or e-mailed ahead and is already there. Once in one of the sales centers, the customers are greeted by a Del Webb employed concierge who has their registration information and assigns them to a qualified salesperson.

"The buyer is surprised when they walk into the sales center because we already know who they are," Martin says. "They're not even sure how that happened; they just think it's really cool. They feel like we're expecting them."

Vital Stats

Anthem by Del Webb

•Location: Metro Phoenix, Az.
•Opened: Spring 1999
•Acreage: 5,860
•Builders: Del Webb, Pulte, Centex
•Communities: Anthem Country Club, and Anthem Parkside

•Product range: Country Club: 1,325 to 4,320 square feet; base price of $160,000 to $415,000, exclusive of lot premiums.Parkside: 1,120 to 4,338 square feet; base price of $120,000 to $360,000, exclusive of lot premiums

•Number of homes sold: More than 4,000
•Maximum at build-out: 12,000

•Web site:

It also helps the salesperson direct the customer through yet another huge amount of information. With as many as 14 Del Webb models clustered together on one street, "if you're not tuned in, you confuse the heck out of people," Martin says. "We have people that walk through all of them. We try to help narrow it down. People today get so much information. It's like trying to put six pounds in a five-pound sack." The success of the welcome center has been sufficiently convincing for Del Webb to commit to keeping the center open through build-out. Cost to build the center was about $1 million; annual operating expenses are in the $500,000 range, which includes salaries for four full-time employees and part-time help to cover special events, Redman says.

"Generally speaking, it gets us off on the right foot with a prospect," he says. "We're trying to serve them and make the process as clean and simple as we can. We hope this is the first step in many they will go through in a very gratifying sales, building, and closing experience."

The easiest measure of the return on investment, Redman says, is sales. The goal for 1999, the year Anthem opened, was 650 homes, he says; by year-end, 1,087 homes had been sold. Since then, the annual goal has been 1,000 sales. In 2000, Anthem sold 1,190. In 2001, sales dipped to 862; this year, with the addition of Centex and Pulte, they're on pace to pass 1,000.

"It's a lot of work, and a lot of builders couldn't justify the perceived overhead," Redman says. "We think it's worth its weight in gold."

Published in BIG BUILDER Magazine, January 2003