The home shoppers thought they were coming to see the model homes in Traditions of America’s 50-plus Silver Spring and Liberty Hill communities last April, but what the builder really wanted to show off was the communities' lifestyle and happy residents.

So every time the shoppers opened the door of one of the model homes in the builder’s Pennsylvania communities' “Live Better Now” events, they were greeted by a current homeowner and member of one of Traditions of America’s many clubs that had set up shop in the models.

There were cooking demonstrations by the community’s foodie group at one model, and hot dogs grilling with a condiment bar at another. Over at the clubhouse visitors lined up for chair massages, listened to live music, and participated in putting contests and bocce ball.

And everywhere shoppers went they were greeted by what Traditions calls its “ambassadors,” residents who already live in the community eager to share their stories about life in their new Traditions of America homes.

“In about three hours they really get their feel of what life would be like in the community,” said Nathan Jameson, a partner and director of operations for Traditions. Plus Traditions of America ends up with dozens, if not hundreds, of good leads to cultivate.

“The quality of these leads is really tremendous,” said Jameson. “We do have people who are tire-kickers, but less than 10%. When they come out to spend two or three hours on a Sunday afternoon, they really are intent on finding out if what we are offering is right for them.”

Special community events peppered with ambassador residents and heavily seasoned with examples of the “good life” shoppers could be living have become a successful part of Traditions of America’s sales tactics.

Last year nine events brought 1,430 attendees into its communities. The pre-sales event at Bridle Path, its new Bethlehem, Penn., community, generated 44 lot deposits in two hours. And the April events drew 120 people to its Liberty Hill community in State College, Penn., and 173 to Silver Spring, in Mechanicsburg, Penn.

The “Live Better Now” campaign has won the company several awards from the National Association of Home Builders 50+ Housing Council, and, more important, has helped it not only survive, but even gain ground during the recession.

At the peak of the housing boom Traditions sold just over 200 homes a year. This year it is on track to deliver between 230 and 250, and it has a backlog of about 260.

While the party-like atmosphere is a big part of the events’ success, the participation of existing residents is an important ingredient too, says Jameson. So important that when Traditions is selling a new community that doesn’t have any residents yet, it imports them from its other communities to chat with prospects and talk about the reputation of the builder and the amenities in their communities.

“We give [residents] ample opportunity to talk about why they love our community, and it is real,” said Jameson.

While the potential of having a loose cannon resident say something harmful might spur some home builders to shove rogue residents into the club house broom closet when new shoppers are around, Jameson said it is advantageous for potential buyers to hear all the stories, good and bad. The testimonials go a long way toward dowsing potential buyers’ uncertainties about what it would be like to live in that community, he said. And a program that allows potential buyers to spend a weekend in a home in the community often seals the deal. During that visit they spend time with even more residents over dinner.

“We strive for authenticity,” Jameson said.  “That means sometimes we say, ‘Hey guys, we messed up and we will make it up to you.’”

But most of the time the residents even surprise Jameson with their stories of contentment. “We have been overwhelmed with the amount that our residents feel and share the passion they have for the community.”

Teresa Burney is a senior editor for Builder magazine.