With a focus on lifestyle, Avatar's maiden voyage into active adult building makes a big splash.

By Carolyn Weber

Imagine a place where dining, dancing, movies, exercise classes, and balmy weather are a part of everyday life. Sound like a tropical resort or a Kathie Lee cruise? Not so. SoliVita, Central Florida's newest active adult development, provides all the comforts and social activities of a luxury liner without ever leaving shore.

This pleasure voyage of a community is a carefully orchestrated economic and social experiment by Coral Gables, Fla. based developer Avatar Properties, who did more than its homework and left nothing to chance. The parent company, Avatar Holdings, has large land holdings from Florida to Arizona to California, but 3,300 acres in Central Florida seemed like a prime location for its first foray into the active adult market. The location is close to the Disney theme parks, an international airport, and an hour to east and west beaches, yet quietly situated in South Orlando beyond traffic jams and other city hassles.

Venturing into a new business niche can be risky, and because it had never built an age-restricted community Avatar lacked the requisite management expertise. Avatar acquired two entities--Brookman Fels, builders who specialized in upscale custom homes in South Florida, and Century Village, a company that had worked in the seniors housing market for 30 years and built more than 50,000 homes. Acquiring Century Village's software and major executives was key.

Once all were on board, Avatar's CEO Gerald Kelfer and his team began extensive market research. "Everybody is aware of the graying of America, but we wanted to get a clearer understanding of what the baby boomer generation expects in this kind of offering," says Avatar Properties president Jon Fels. The company took its road show to the Northeast, Midwest, and all over Florida conducting in-depth focus groups to determine customer preferences from home styles to amenities to atmosphere. "We weren't exactly sure where we were going with this, we just knew that the demographics were compelling," says Bill Cowart, Avatar's Central Florida division president. "Our conclusions were basically what the industry had surmised," adds Harold Cohen, vice president of administration. "It's a population looking for lifestyle, amenities, and lmaintenance, so we structured SoliVita based on those findings."

SoliVita has all of those qualities, and potential buyers don't have to settle for a rendering and sales pitch about the wonderful things to come, they're already in place. To establish immediate credibility in the marketplace, Avatar built the sophisticated amenities up front. "We decided to provide an example of our commitment to this community and the SoliVita brand, because we intend to develop others like it," notes Fels. Since it plans to become a major player in the active adult business, the company spared no expense, investing some $80 million in the infrastructure. "If this were going to be a one-time effort, it wouldn't make fiscal sense to do what we did," Cowart says.

Based on the research, Avatar assembled the best consultants--land planners, architects, landscape architects, and hospitality experts, to plan the community and town center. The result is a charming village positioned on the water with brightly colored buildings that look as if they were transplanted from New Orleans or the Mediterranean. Stucco finishes, barrel tile roofs, balconies, iron gates, cobblestone streets, gardens, and bridges combine to create Old World ambiance. "Buyers have really responded to this very romantic town center, and the fact that it's all in place up front, and they're not waiting on hype or promises of a future delivery," Fels remarks.

And he means it. The 120,000 square feet of finished amenities were ready to go before the first sale. SoliVita has three restaurants, including an upscale coffee and dessert shop, a library, billiards and darts lounge, computer lab with high-speed Internet access, and a financial lounge with real-time stock quotes. Residents can enjoy the arts at the waterfront galleries, an airy two-story space with a ceramics studio complete with a kiln. And the 6,155-square-foot ballroom is perfect for dances and also converts to a movie theater with seating for 500. Learning is also a very big part of the healthy mind and body lifestyle. Avatar has partnered with the University of Central Florida to provide continuing education classes.

The 32,000-square-foot spa and fitness center includes an indoor pool, track, a weight room with cardio and strength equipment, and a dance aerobics room with a flexible tongue and groove floor. "This is a really active group," says Cohen. "We had our first closings in October, offered our first class that week, and had six participants in an 8:00 a.m. tai chi class." The outdoor active park is equipped with softball fields, tennis courts, and five miles of walking trails. And the crowning glory to the recreation facilities is the 7,000-yard, 72-par Ron Garl designed golf course. "The golf facility is truly spectacular," says Cohen. "We didn't flatten everything; instead we worked with the land."

The SoliVita team knows that today's senior buyers are extremely sophisticated and demanding, so they've chosen to distinguish themselves not just by the impressive physical plant, but in the way they

deliver the lifestyle and product. They go out of their way to create a hometown atmosphere for their transplanted residents. "We've tried to return to basics," says Cohen. "We want to key into these residents who were raised in a time when people still had manners." All of SoliVita's lifestyle staff must complete a three-day customer care training course. "We took everyone through it in some form, from the salespeople, to the receptionists, to the guys who maintain the golf course," Cohen says. And unlike many senior communities that rely on resident volunteers, the lifestyle component of SoliVita is staffed with trained professionals from all of the disciplines including physical fitness, computers, and arts and crafts. "We're not addressing it as home builders, but rather as if we were in the hospitality business," adds Fels.

Oh, and yes, there are homes in SoliVita. The first offerings include 13 models priced from $100,000 to over $350,000. Each includes a fully landscaped yard with sod and irrigation, and maintenance and watering is included in the monthly fees. The familiar architectural style is comfortable for buyers coming from all parts of the country. "It really addresses the meat of the market," Fels notes. But with all of the activities and places to go in SoliVita who would want to spend much time at home? Cohen's sentiments exactly, "We like to think of the village center as an extension of their living rooms," he remarks.

SoliVita's entrance into the market is heating up competition among active adult powerhouses like Del Webb, Lennar, and U.S. Home. "Our focus groups revealed that our competition is now national," says Cowart. "And only 15 percent of active adults want to move more than 100 miles from their current residence, so the entire marketplace is competing for that group." To promote SoliVita far and wide, the developer has launched an extensive marketing campaign including trips and a celebrity spokesperson. Actor/spokesperson Robert Urich lends creditability and awareness. "He's been an incredible gentleman and an ambassador for Avatar and SoliVita," notes Fels.

And they're banking on the old seeing is believing technique to really bring in the customers. "Discovery Days" is a vacation visit for prospects to come and experience SoliVita first hand and meet with the salespeople at their leisure. Potential buyers pay their own airfare and lodging, and their hosts provide a couple of complimentary meals and a round of golf if they are so inclined. Instead of the hard sell, Fels and company try to focus on relationship building, and let the customers decide if and when they want a tour and the sales pitch. "It's been very effective," he says, "It's driving over 200 visits per month, and we've had a 95 percent capture rate."

"Business is great," says Fels who plans to exceed 300 sales in the first year. "The impression the town center makes on the traffic is phenomenal--it's the most significant element in the success of our sales early on." Investing millions up front was a huge risk for Avatar. "But it certainly has paid dividends, and in this competitive market people want to see the goods," Fels notes. A project this size is a working laboratory, and the Avatar team analyzes everything and evolves as they learn more about the market, trends, product styles, and systems such as universal design. "All builders recognize the demographic trend, but many don't have the wherewithal to provide this kind of infrastructure up front," remark Fels. "We know that the lifestyle component can't be ignored."

Project: SoliVita, Poinciana, Fla.; Project size: 3,300 acres; Number of homes at build out: 6,500; Price: $100,00 to $350,000+; Developer: Avatar Properties, Coral Gables, Fla.; Builder: Edwards Construction Services, Ocala, Fla.; Architect: Spillis Candela DMJM, Winter Park, Fla.; Land planner: Canin Associates, Orlando, Fla. [Initial publication date, May 2001]