The Real Estate Convention of the Future: What do Real Estate Agents Want in a Convention?

March is usually convention season, so at this time of year I’m generally planning trips to Las Vegas or San Diego or any of the other traditional convention venues, and coordinating itineraries for the agents who will coming from our company. Our company has always been big into conventions — we encourage agents to go, even provide convention stipends as part of the commission schedule — and we generally bring a larger percentage of our agents to conventions that other companies.

But not this year.  This year, most of the large franchise brands canceled their conventions, reasonably judging that the industry had been so difficult that most agents could not justify the expense of a three-day trip on their budgets.  A few franchises kept them for 2010, but most were postponed (smartly) for next year. So now I have March to get some work done.

But that raises a question in my mind — will the conventions come back, or will they be a casualty of the market correction of the past few years?  For example, one of the silver linings in the significant retrenchment of the past few years is that brokers were forced to eliminate costs that were not directly contributing to revenue.  If we were spending money on things that were not helping us sell houses, attract clients, or develop agents, we couldn’t afford them anymore.  For example: for years, brokers tried to break agents of the addiction to print advertising, usually failing based on the agent perception that sellers demanded print.  We all knew it didn’t work, but most brokers kept doing it because agents felt it was necessary.

In the last few years, though, brokers have been forced by the market correction to drop all or at least some of their newsprint advertising, ultimately finding that agents understood particularly as clients came to realize that print doesn’t actually sell homes.  So the silver lining?  Even when the market turns around, those costs probably aren’t coming back, and brokers can invest their money in more effective ways rather than just to satisfy a perceived rather than real need.

Well, what about conventions?  Once agents have broken the habit of spending three or four days socializing with agents from across the country, hearing some famous people say things, and getting some half-day “informercials” on vendor products, are they going to pick the habit back up?  Are they going to budget upwards of $1,500 for a badge, flights, hotel, expenses, etc., and take three or four days off from their business?

I have my concerns, and I say that as someone that thinks a properly conceived convention can be valuable for team-building, education, making connections, and all the other reasons people get together like that.  But I do think that the large franchise brands would be smart to reconceptualize what they do at conventions.

What do I mean by that?  Well, here’s where I thought our previous franchisor went wrong in the conventions we went to in the past few years:

  1. Minimization of award recognition. Clearly, people that don’t get awards were giving feedback that they hated sitting through award presentations.  So at more recent conventions, award winners were given extremely short shrift.  Rather than walking across the stage and being able to say their name into a mic, they were either ignored or given a brief moment to stand as one in the audience and be recognized. It was a little embarrassing. Conventions recognize award winners. If you don’t recognize achievement, you don’t have a real convention.
  2. Empty speakers. I like a good generalist as much as anyone, but we had too many empty speakers like Bob Costas, Sarah Ferguson, Larry King, and the like.  Even remarkable people like Rudy Guiliani or Norman Schwartzkoff might have been inspiring, but the effect dissipated quickly. More significantly, the speakers all had disconnected (or even discordant) messages — just empty calories.
  3. Endless infomercials. There’s nothing as unhelpful as an educational session that is really a general introduction by a vendor for his product. I don’t care how great the product is, I always felt that I’d gotten a bait and switch when instead of learning something, I got a vague overview of a problem and then a fifteen minute informercial on how the product would address that problem.

So how would I fix all this?  The first thing I’d do is recognize that we have examples of successful “conventions” even in our own industry.  Mike Ferry for years was able to get thousands of people to his Superstar retreats.  Brian Buffini currently gets a larger group coming to his yearly “Mastermind” meeting in August than any of the franchise conventions.  In both cases, those trainers were dealing with a smaller group of potential attendees, but they outdrew the franchise conventions.  Why?  Because they delivered an integrated experience that promised agents they would come out of the conference with a new plan for improving their life and business.

That’s what I would try to emulate: the experience of going to a conference designed to improve my life in a significant way, with an action plan for putting the ideas I got at the conference to work.

What are the basic ideas?

  1. Have a BIG IDEA. Every convention I’ve ever been to has some sort of empty theme, really just a catchphrase.  The speakers might pay lip service or offer platitudes about the theme, but it never went anywhere. If I ran a convention, I’d want one BIG IDEA, something that would be a huge draw either because it’s an evergreen need (personal development, time management) or a hot topic (distressed sales, social networking).  Take that one BIG IDEA, and make the whole convention about it.  Make a deep dive into that area: all the speakers on the main stage address it, all the educational programs revolve around it.  People would come if they wanted to learn about it, and they’d leave with a much greater understanding of that area.  Think about a convention established around “personal power” and self-improvement, with a dynamite lineup of speakers, and how that would draw agents.
  2. Integrate the general sessions and breakouts. If you did have a purpose to the convention, you’d eliminate anything that doesn’t go to that purpose.  Every speaker, every educational session, would build that idea, which if it was broad enough could encompass a variety of applications.  Get rid of the informercial educational sessions, replace them with specific explorations of the general idea.
  3. Have follow up. If the convention is not going to be just an empty experience, you need followup.  People who walk out of the convention should have specific ideas, plans, materials, and whatever that they can use in their business, with opportunities to follow up to put all that to work.  Schedule webinars after the convention for attendees, give attendees actionable materials that they can use in their business.  Moreover, lead up to the convention with a series of previews of what’s coming, to whet appetites and give agents materials to review in the weeks before the meeting.  This would also, of course, require the franchisor to actually have a program to launch at the meeting, something that built the theme and necessitated a follow up.
  4. Tighten awards, but give them. Also, I’d find a way to meaningfully recognize award-winners without taking too much time or sapping the energy out of the convention.  Part of the problem in our past conventions was the repetitive nature of the awards, the same people winning over and over (volume, units, top of this region or that region, etc.). I’m not sure how to solve that, but there should be a way to balance proper recognition of people who deserve it with “awards fatigue.”
  5. Provide REAL training. Even if you didn’t buy into the idea that every breakout has to connect to the theme, any training at the convention should be an actual dive into a subject agents want to learn, not just an infomercial for a vendor. If the vendors need to demo products, and make their financial support contingent on that, offer those sessions as well, but don’t build the breakouts around them.
  6. Meaningful networking. Most conventions have empty networking, the idea that agents are going to meet agents from other parts of the country and generate referral sources.  But, really, how often is it that an agent in Des Moines is going to meet an agent in Tulsa, and those two agents will just happen to have a potential referral from Des Moines to Tulsa (or vice-versa) to share.  If you want to create networking opportunities, identify the recipient markets for referrals (Florida, Vegas, retirement areas, etc.) and give agents from those places opportunities to “host” meet and greets with agents from other parts of the country.  And if you want agents to network for idea sharing, then give them breakout sessions dedicated to small discussion groups (of the “twenty tables, each a topic, three sessions in 90 minutes variety) so they get to meet and talk.

I’m not saying that the convention wouldn’t have some other stuff in it: a review of franchise performance, new commercials and marketing campaigns, and so on.  Of course that would remain part of the general session.  But the problem with conventions in the past is that they were full of empty calories — information that would not stick with you, all delivered in an incoherent jumble.  The old saw that “it’s worth it if you get just one good idea out of it” really doesn’t work anymore, not when conventions can cost $1,500 to $2,000 and a great idea is one Facebook post away.  You need more than just a parade of big names. You need a BIG IDEA, integrated in virtually every session, meaningful education and networking, and a followup program.

Indeed, if you want the biggest idea possible, focus on the idea that’s been permeating real estate management conferences for the past year, this “broker of the future.”  But for an agent-oriented conference, focus the BIG IDEA on “the real estate agent of the future” — what tools, training, information, skills does an agent of the future need, and then deliver a conference based on building them.

Just my thoughts on the matter, free advice probably worth what you paid.  But that’s what I’d do.

Comments

  1. WOW! well knock me down and call me shorty. I have great adioiatrmn for tree shakers. Especially when their right. Mr. Heddings, welcome to the Hamptons may you live long and prosper. I have danced at this hoe down for the last ten years, much of it as a typical listing and sellers’ agent. Three years ago, I had had enough and started to walk away from the madness.But indignation got the best of me and I made a u turn, back into the frey. This time as the Principal Broker of the only Exlusive Buyer Brokerage on the East End totally dedicated to representing buyers. To Phil’s point, many agents are either too arrogant to take the 19th amendment seriously, or too ignorant through lack of education to even understand buyer brokerage. And it starts at the top.As far as getting into to show houses, it is against the law to prohibit me while representing clients, and as far as getting paid, once the owner knows I have a ready willing and able buyer, they are happy to direct their listing broker to split comision with me, usually while directing a look of puzzlement towards their agent. Ahh, I can feel the change coming.Bill CarrollHampton One Real Estate Group