THE CLUBHOUSE WAS FESTOONED with yellow “caution” tape, and wooden sawhorses doubled as tables. Everyone who entered was issued a hard hat. When they weren't sipping soup or eating quiche, the 150 invited Realtors played with model Tonka trucks. Vrooom-vrooom. Who knew real estate agents had this much sense of fun?

Sibet Freides does, and her “Lunch Under the Beams” last November at a new single-family development in a former industrial zone of Atlanta confirmed it. “If you're an agent showing, you're not going to think of this area,” says Freides, president of Idea Associates, an Atlanta marketing firm.

Not only did the event Freides calls a “pre-grand opening” get agents to the site, by the time lunch was over, two Realtors had gone to fetch clients and were writing contracts on the homes.

SWAN LAKE: "Soft programming" allows prospective buyers to sample the lifestyle of a community for an afternoon. This party on a bandstand and boat dock near Atlanta is one such example.
SWAN LAKE: "Soft programming" allows prospective buyers to sample the lifestyle of a community for an afternoon. This party on a bandstand and boat dock near Atlanta is one such example.

At $9,000, the lunch was far from the classic “Grand Opening Blowout,” but it suited the marketing needs of the development, with home prices from $250,000 to $350,000. “In the '80s and '90s, we spent tons of money on events,” Freides says. “At one event, we had fireworks and the Drifters performing for 1,000 people.”

But not anymore. Across the country, builders, developers, and their marketing professionals are fine-tuning the events that surround the opening of condominiums, age-restricted communities, and single-family neighborhoods. Generational shifts—not to mention the high demand for new housing—mean that builders shouldn't necessarily rely on fireworks and pigs-in-a-blanket to sell a project.

“The biggest change has been from an event to a process,” says Richard Gollis, principal of Concord Group, a real estate marketing firm in Newport Beach, Calif.

If the key to the value of a home is location, location, location, the key to selling a lot of them is momentum, momentum, momentum. That's the goal of the process, Gollis and others say, to create just the right amount of interest to sell out a community, and at the preferred price point. “A lot depends on how much noise the developer wants to make and how much he wants to spend,” says Janis Ehlers, president of Ehlers Group, an active adult marketing specialist in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.

“Sometimes, you want a whisper campaign,” Gollis says. Signage is followed by teaser ads in newspaper real estate sections, and maybe direct marketing materials sent to an already existing database—each step designed to build interest and contribute to a lead list. “You start to build a connection and a relationship,” he says. “You're building an experience around the process of moving in—instead of an event. In a whisper campaign, an open house is not as necessary. A lead list is the culmination.”

LITTLE ITALY: To thank residents of its luxury developments, WCI has thrown parties featuring (clockwise from top left) a tumbler, a fire eater, masked greeters, and a "living fountain.”
LITTLE ITALY: To thank residents of its luxury developments, WCI has thrown parties featuring (clockwise from top left) a tumbler, a fire eater, masked greeters, and a "living fountain.”

Richard Nulman, CEO of Pace Advertising in New York, says the database, or “VIP list,” is more vital to sales success than any one event. “Increasingly, in a strong market, presale is more important than ever before.”

Lift Off Presale is especially important in high-end communities and condominiums. In those cases, the groundbreaking becomes a significant marketing milestone. “Developers use their groundbreaking to solidify contracts on hand or to kickoff their sale,” Ehlers says.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Virginia Beach, VA.