EARLY IN THE PLANNING stages for the Irvine Ranch's new information pavilion known as the Homefinding Center, senior director of marketing communications Suzanne Gilbertson and creative director Diane Stevens decided to do some shoe leather research. The center was moving from an on-site doublewide trailer to a 2,000-square-foot expanse in the massive Irvine Spectrum Center, a shopping, dining, and entertainment complex.

To get an idea of how the center should look to fit in with its neighbors, Dave and Buster's and Barnes & Noble, the team hit the streets of San Francisco, pounding the chic pavement of the Union Square shopping district.

“We walked every retail store downtown, seeing how they displayed their imagery,” Gilbertson says.

Their research paid off—with dividends. The Homefinding Center they created not only expanded the community's exposure but earned honors by the NAHB's national sales and marketing council as the country's best sales or information pavilion at January's International Builders' Show.

The purpose of the center, which opened in August 2003, is to provide information to prospective home buyers on the neighborhoods and amenities of the mammoth Irvine Ranch, a 96,000-acre master planned community.

“Each village has its own unique character; the job of the Homefinding Center is to bring them all together,” Gilbertson says. “It helps buyers narrow down their choices. … If [buyers] are coming from out of state and don't know about the ranch or the area, it's a great place to learn about the area, parks, recreation, and schools. They can go and learn about the home opportunities and the Irvine Ranch. When they leave, we have a shopping bag we fill with the pertinent information they would want to take home with them.”

CORNER MARKET: The idea behind the Home-finding Center was to create an environment that would blend with its retail neighbors. The center is “great for home builders” as well, Gilbertson says. A builder services liaison provides information on prospective buyers to each of the ranch's participating builders, based on the customer's product preference and price point. The center's staff handles the prospects who visit in person and those who access the company's Web site.

Upscale Retail Gilbertson and Stevens worked with sales pavilion designer John Burrows to create an upscale environment that would blend with other retail stores. Instead of the standard topographical display, the center features a 12-foot-tall lighted aerial map of the ranch. Computer stations allow visitors to do their own research or get help from one of the center's staff members. Lifestyle images from the ranch cover the walls.

“This big place—the recreation, water, ocean, everything you can do on the ranch—is displayed at the center,” Gilbertson says. “The other message important to us is that 50 percent of the ranch is open space. We wanted to be able to convey that message, and we did that in a series of graphics on the walls.”

To bring that message to life visually, the Homefinding Center uses HoloPro panels—holographic film sandwiched between two panes of glass—which hang in the store's windows. Images, including videos of the community, can be projected on the panels.

“People stop and look at the video,” Gilbertson says. “It draws you in.”

Indeed it does. Between 600 and 1,000 people visit the center each week and spend an average of 20 minutes gathering information about the area and available homes, Gilbertson says.

ROOM WITH A VIEW: A map of Irvine Ranch hangs from the walls of the Homefinding Center. The lobby of the center features two staggered reception desks where hostesses answer questions. Several flat-screen computers play DVDs on a variety of topics. Guests also can sit at computers at a large, glass table to learn more about Irvine Ranch's neighborhoods and builders.

Burrows paid special attention to the center's lighting and acoustics.

“Lighting is extremely important for the employees and the displays,” he says. “There are a lot of high-tech things going on here [including] sound-deadening material in the ceiling so that it's not like an echo chamber. That helps the employee as well.”

What's A Walk-In? Moving from a stand-alone, on-site destination to a retail environment with a relatively high level of walk-in traffic was a major transition for the staff, says center manager Phil Gomez.

“It was a pretty scary change,” he says. “They were concerned about the hours [10 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily] and the change from a standard office setting to a retail setting. Half of them were thinking of doing something else. It got pretty serious, but we've solidified the group. They are a heck of a team; they are very much a family. The key was to keep that dynamic going and use that to our advantage.”

PRIME LOCATION: Between 600 and 1,000 people visit the Homefinding Center each week. The biggest change has been the introduction of the “non-destinational client,” Gomez says, “people who come in the door not knowing what we sell; we teach them what service we provide and let everyone know we don't charge for it.”

The staff also has had to adjust to the high volume of traffic.

“The traffic is dramatic,” Gomez says. “Talk about new projects has fueled that. The ability to handle the extra walk-in people has been a challenge for us. We had to get out of the office mindset. Phones and e-mail had to take a back seat to people who walk in the front door.”

Since high customer service was one of the center's primary objectives, the staff took a week before opening day to train on a variety of possible guest scenarios, such as a guest who stops in on the way to a movie and comes back later for their information. Since the center is open in the evening and there are several restaurants and clubs in the area, they also trained on how to handle “those folks who have maybe had a little too much to drink.”

“We haven't had any bad experiences,” Gomez says. In fact, it's been quite the opposite. One of the benefits of being part of a very popular shopping destination has been the ability to cross-market with other retailers. Gomez has met with the managers of every store in the Spectrum and arranged joint ventures with a number of them.

Several restaurants use Homefinding Center pens in their check presentation portfolios, and information on the center is located at the valet stands. The center's shopping bags were everywhere during the holidays. It was a sponsor of the Spectrum's holiday ice rink and the staff gave out candy from the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory.

“In the old facility, we couldn't do that,” Gomez says. “We have some really good relationships.”