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How the Commercial Real Estate Industry Is Learning to Network in the Social Distancing Era

Few people would deny that real estate is a career built on relationships. From vendors to lenders to investors to occupiers, everyone in the industry lives off the relationships they maintain with one another. There’s no role where this is more obvious than with commercial brokers. Whether you’re a leasing broker or an investment sales broker, your pipeline will be directly related to the number of people you know and the number of people you know well. 

For leasing brokers, the importance of relationships are particularly obvious. Whether you’re representing landlords or tenants, getting in good with big clients could result in a long-term pipeline of business that lasts for years. Do good work with a big client in the Uptown office and soon enough you may be rewarded with an assignment for the Downtown location, as well. 

The other reason for the importance of networking is the power of referrals. Even if a given client or contact isn’t looking for new space or seeking to lease a building, they may well know someone who is. The real estate marketing company Buildout and broker resource theBrokerList sought to quantify this in their 2020 DNA of CRE survey, which surveyed over 700 commercial brokers around the country on their usage and predictions for things like technology, data and the business landscape. The survey found that the largest source of new clients for most brokers is, you guessed it, referrals from past clients. This was the top choice for 75.4 percent of respondents, to be precise, a compelling majority. 

Of course, 2020 has made networking harder than ever before. Where once it would have been possible to attend two or more networking events a month, COVID-19 has brought many events to a screeching halt. This doesn’t just go for real estate-specific events, either. In previous years it was possible to become a renowned local expert through attendance at community events or involvement in various nonprofit organizations. While these organizations may still be around, the opportunity to derive meaningful connections from them is lessened due to the outbreak preventing more intimate gatherings in real life. Zoom meetings might be the next best thing but compared to the value of actually rubbing elbows, there is no comparison. 

We’re missing another big lead generation opportunity in 2020, as well. In years past brokers could connect with prospective clients, like those looking for a new office or even a new investment opportunity, and individually drive them around their city to look at possible property opportunities. According to Ben Fastenberg, senior managing director of the NYC-based disruptive office tenant rep brokerage SquareFoot, “Those tours were a good opportunity to build a relationship. You were handcuffed to them for two hours so you could get a much better understanding of what they need and who they are.” And of course, such a substantial chunk of time spent with a prospective client undeniably ends up resulting in plenty of smalltalk and pleasant interaction, discussing things like hobbies, travel or the kids. This is relationship-building at its core. 

Of course, it’s something that is missing this year. With public health guidance recommending people stay at least six feet apart, and explaining that the risk of infection increases the longer people spend in the presence of infected people, things like big networking events, leisurely drives around town and even small events like mixers and lunches are now a source of potential risk. 

There are still solutions to achieve good networking outcomes during the outbreak, though. While virtual tours and showings might be the media darling right now, there are plenty of other new or seemingly-new methods as well. For one thing, brokers can take the time they are saving on physical client meetings, tours, and even their commute on upgrading their social media game. Consider that Twitter’s Q2 monetizable daily active user count was 34 percent higher in 2020 than the year before. Whether LinkedIn, Twitter, or even YouTube, now is the time to start acing your social media strategy. 

Social media is just a small part of the equation, though. Webinars can be a great opportunity for brokers to build their networks and increase their clout. Consider the example of Walker & Dunlop, a provider of commercial real estate financing services, which runs a consistent, predictable pattern of webinars featuring experts such as the co-founders of The Motley Fool or Eric Yuan, founder and CEO of Zoom. Other brokers could mirror this approach as well even if they are smaller and more local. There’s no need to approach the CEO of a major corporation to participate, instead, why not invite local decision makers like urban planners and the leaders of local businesses? Doing so provides not only a bunch of leads (every new face that attends) and also highlights the broker’s standing in the community through the benefits of association. 

Traditional events can still work, too, but they have to be planned in such a way that encourages networking and doesn’t just stick people in panel discussion after panel discussion. The Finnish PropTech conference ReCoTech, CREtech, and the recently-held African PropTech Forum all utilize Brella, which is a networking app that connects conference attendees over shared interests and goals, whether in person or, importantly, remote. Virtual events have little overhead so there is no reason why brokerage offices or even individual brokers couldn’t create their own networking events featuring plenty of insights as well as scheduled networking for their focus region and property type. 

As much as technology has helped in person events adapt to our new world order, switching the medium where we do our networking has also opened up other, possibly better ways to connect with others. Lunchclub is a service that uses AI to match professionals with similar goals for virtual one on one meets that has gained a lot of traction thanks to our new networking limitations. 

The network benefits of strong connections don’t require events of any sort to be realized, either. Mr. Fastenberg explained that a strategy for SquareFoot is to provide clear, convenient services to occupiers even if they aren’t currently looking for new office space. For instance, helping occupiers work through their lease in order to develop a better understanding of what each clause and provision means, has the benefit of showcasing SquareFoot’s competence as well as generating a steady stream of new leads. “We take complicated information and present it in a simple way,” Mr. Fastenberg said. “Leases can get so complicated. It’s important to know your audience, some people want to get on a Zoom call and talk through it, some want to get it in an email. Any contact is positive. And after the initial contact you know how they like to be communicated with.” Of course, this type of outreach not only makes the immediate recipient company much more likely to do business in the future, but also could lead to referral business, as well. And in a time when leasing volume in general is way down, every possible new connection helps. The lesson is clear: COVID-19 is rattling everyone, but making connections now will pay off in dividends later. 

In many ways, life during social distancing is a matter of tempering expectations and delaying gratification. You can still hang out with your friends, but it should be outside and spaced apart. There will come a day when we can return to our normal lives, but it isn’t yet on the horizon. This holds true for networking, as well. We’ve all been handed a tough hand of cards this year, but for brokers who want to build their networks and grow their businesses, there are still plenty of ways to meet new faces that don’t involve shaking a single hand. 

Associate Publisher, Propmodo Research

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