By Pat Curry. Before the team from Avatar Properties put the first shovel in the ground, it spent two years doing research. They visited nearly every major active adult community in the country to get ideas, which they then presented to focus groups. Those groups provided input on everything from floor plans and amenities to logos and type styles. As a result, Avatar built its recreational facilities before they opened.

"This market doesn't like green bananas," says Michael Rich, vice president of sales and marketing. "They like to buy something they can use today. When we opened the community, all the recreation facilities were in place." That included a 30,000-square-foot fitness center, a ballroom, a golf course, and on-site restaurants -- a $30 million investment.

The most important lesson that Avatar learned from the focus groups, Rich says, is that success comes from paying attention to the customers' needs. Those needs manifest themselves, he says, in four words -- rewards, self-actualization, personalization, and choice.

At Solivita, the original set of choices was 12 models ranging from $110,000 to $180,000. They soon realized they were missing out on buyers who wanted bigger houses, so they introduced a product line of houses from the $220,000 to $300,000 range.


1,000 Units or More

Location: Poinciana, Fla.
Developer/builder: Avatar Properties
Date opened: May 2000
Number of acres: 3,000
Number of units sold: 965
Number of units at build-out: 4,500
Anticipated build-out date: 2009
Sales velocity: 38 units per month

"We thought we'd sell 25 to 30 of those a year," Rich says. "We introduced them in March and sold 46 by December." That was followed by the introduction of a smaller villa-type home; more than 100 of those have been sold. Multi-family units will come next. By the end of 2004, Rich said he expects to have nearly 40 models. "People reaching middle age are seeking to reward themselves and express their individuality," he says. "They want the ability to do what they want to do, when they want to do it, with whom they want to do it. They want a professional staff that is supportive but not intrusive."

Panelist Janis Ehlers cited that attention to detail in her nomination. "They practice what consultants preach. Excellent signage directs you to the property and from the minute you pull in at the gatehouse, a well-trained guard welcomes you to Solivita. This is carried through and does not seem to only be window dressing."

The details show up in little things, such as private label bottled water that is offered to visitors to the community. "It's very effective branding," Ehlers says.

She noted that the models are beautiful and immaculate, with piped-in music and exterior resting areas. Overall, she loved the Tuscan-inspired village feel of the community.

"I just felt I was ready to become 55-plus," she says, "because this would offer a wonderful lifestyle."

As carefully as Avatar researched its current buyers, it's paying equally close attention to the emerging market, the 'nex'ers,' who are just turning 50 now and will be buying in the next five years. What does that buyer want?

"They'll want more choices, which is kind of hard to believe," Rich says.

"Everything is changing."

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