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REAL Trending Special Edition: Leading Through A Challenging Market

Jun 12, 2020 6:00:00 AM

Dionna Hall, CEO of Broward, Palm Beaches & St. Lucie Realtors in Southeast Florida

Knowing they needed to act quickly to help its Realtor members adjust to Florida's stay-at-home orders, the Association developed a host of virtual tools for their members. Find out more about how Dionna Hall and the leadership team brought value to members during a challenging time.

Tracey Velt:

In this special edition of the REAL Trending Podcast, we're speaking to real estate leaders on what they're doing to minimize the impact of coronavirus on their businesses and associations.

We'll talk about actions they're taking, lessons learned, and more. This is Tracey Velt, Editor and Chief of Content for REAL Trends. Today, we're speaking with Dionna Hall, CEO of Broward, Palm Beaches & St. Lucie Realtors in Southeast Florida. Welcome.

Dionna Hall:

Thank you. Thank you, Tracey and Real Trends for inviting me.

Tracey Velt:

Yeah. So I'm going to start with actually a question I don't have on here, but tell me, give me an update of where you are as far as reopening the area that you cover.

Dionna Hall:

Yeah, sure. So the Broward, Palm Beaches & St. Lucie Realtors, we cover about 120 miles of coastline in Southeast Florida. And so the effects of how the pandemic has hit us has varied depending on what county you're in. So we have opened up our offices to staff in our Palm Beach County & St. Lucie offices, and in Broward, where there is more of a hot spot, we are actually opening that office today up to staff.

So we are still providing services virtually. We have found that we can really provide everything to our members that they need with the exception having to actually physically ship a lock box. So we're going to continue working here in our offices with our doors closed for a little while longer, and then get used to how we're going to be operating as a staff to make sure that we are following safety guidelines, specifically the CDC guidelines, and then we will open up to our members.

Tracey Velt:

Okay, great. So, obviously, Florida established real estate as an essential business throughout the pandemic, but how did that impact the association and your members since part of your area was hit a bit harder than other areas of Florida?

Dionna Hall:

Yeah. Well, there was a total mind shift that had to happen immediately when we realized that not only were we in pandemic mode but we were closing down our physical operations. But we kicked it into high gear to help our members continue to thrive in their business during this economy that was shutting down.

The first key really was effective lobbying of our government to keep real estate as essential. That was really what helped all of our realtors operate at probably one of the most optimal levels that they could during this trying time. Locally, we cover actually four counties and there's many cities within these counties and they were all doing their own executive orders. It was pretty chaotic from a government affairs standpoint tracking down these local orders.

Dionna Hall:

Obviously, these administrators that were given the power to do these orders, they were just really trying to quickly enact them and protect the public not really thinking too much about the businesses that they were affecting. So we were really happy to see the day when actually the Governor of Florida issued one large executive order and he superseded all the local orders.

And that's when we really saw some real relief and could kind of start concentrating on other things to assist with members. We knew that we had to help our members transact this new environment. There were things in their pipeline that we're getting ready to close and we were the ones that really needed to have the tools to make sure that they could continue that.

So we enacted a suite of products that allowed our realtors to complete a transaction virtually, such as virtual tours, online transaction management, and e-sign, which really kind of helped them continue working during this time.

Tracey Velt:

Okay. And how is your market doing today? I guess they are different markets, but how are each of the markets doing?

Dionna Hall:

Yeah. Well, we're really excited that we are seeing a V-shape recovery so far. I know a lot of people have talked about a U-shape or a check mark, but here in South Florida, specifically in my marketplace, we are seeing a V-shape. Just to kind of talk about data points, showing appointments, they were down 70% in late March and April and they are now only down 5% from last year.

So you can really see, obviously, that the decline was straight down and the recovery was straight up. Temporary off market listings, they were up about 17% in March and up another 11% in April, and then so far in May, they're already down quite significantly. So we really see our realtors moving into business as usual right now, which is really obviously great for all of us.

Tracey Velt:

Yeah, definitely. And, obviously, as an association, it's vital that you continue to innovate and communicate with the members. So how has that changed for you? And you spoke of a new suite of products so tell me a little bit more about the new products that you're offering your members to help them through this, and obviously, after this as well as the market reopens.

Dionna Hall:

Yeah. Well, communicating and obviously having these virtual tools were really the main thing that we focused on as soon as we kind of all wrapped our heads around what this pandemic meant for us.

And so communicating and enacting our suite of products that allowed the realtors to complete a transaction virtually was deemed of the utmost importance by the association and we also wholly own our MS, Speeches MLS, so we were able to work in tandem to really offer some great products and make sure that our communication was evenly matched to all of our members.

So, really, the first thing that we did was we created the Virtual Open House Field, and that was really the catalyst for the future programs we've put in place.

Dionna Hall:

We actually had two MLS vendors and they were wonderful. They told us we were one of the first ones to contact them to even create this Virtual Open House Field. And within the weekend, they had already programmed this for our members to use. Then there was the communication that we had to make sure that our members felt comfortable with using the new Virtual Open House Field and how to use it.

So there was a lot of different webinars on them, understanding the difference between what the Virtual Open House Field and what maybe just a video tour was. And from there then we used a springboard to get this new way of showing houses into our whole community. And so we created a huge Virtual Open House Week in our marketplace.

Dionna Hall:

And that really gave realtors a new way to showcase their listings and feel good that they still could do business in the communities. To kind of make sure that this Virtual Open House Week was well positioned, we gave our realtors a lot of information. We created an information page for how they could easily participate doing screenshots. We also set up a really great consumer website for them. It was very easy to search.

There was just walking them through with all the different ways that they could participate with their realtor, and we secured a really great donut domain name that was very easy for them to remember. We actually were able to get www.virtualhousesearch.com. So it was easy for the consumer to remember.

Dionna Hall:

Then we ran ads in our local papers, promoting the Virtual Open House Week. We created a number of social media graphics for all of our realtors to share. We signed on to Photofy, which some people might've heard so far. NAR has been using it for some of their graphics to personalize the graphics on social media. And so we rolled that out as a new product for our members as well during this time.

And then we did something that was really interesting. We called our community partners, such as the chambers, the builders, our local politicians, the economic development groups, and we asked them to be our community partner through this. And it really just meant that they were helping us push out the good news about this Virtual Open House Week. And they loved it because they didn't really have any context. I mean, for the most part, when people close their physical offices down, there really wasn't much else going on.

Dionna Hall:

So this gave them an opportunity to show their business groups that business was still going on, it was something to look forward to, the market was not dead, and it really showed that realtors were giving a lot more to the communities I think than they ever had, with more eyeballs than had ever been on a lot of this stuff.

So that I think really was a huge home run for members and an opportunity to show consumers that realtors could safely show and close homes. That was a really big deal with our government when we were being deemed an essential service. They really doubted that all these realtors could safely show homes. And the fact that we were able to show them that we had invested in tools to be able to do it virtually really showed them that they could trust us.

Dionna Hall:

We have about 35,000 realtors in our association MLS, and so you can imagine these politicians all being a little bit concerned that we could produce on our word of saying that we were going to continue following CDC guidelines and safely show properties. Then our virtual open house platform hosted over 1000 open houses during this week and there was thousands of attendees worldwide, and this was right during the height of the pandemic. We turned this around proudly.

We created the Virtual Open House Field probably a week into the pandemic and then we advertised this for about three weeks. So to see that there was this much action in our marketplace during a time where everybody was the most worried and panicked at home really was something positive for everyone to look forward to.

Dionna Hall:

Another communication tool we introduced was our weekly Virtual Town Halls. Our realtors were able to get the most up to date information straight from the decision makers through these town halls. And, of course, because you're only asking somebody to commit their time to a virtual webinar instead of flying down from wherever they are, we were really able to get the top information from the people who were making those decisions in our town halls.

We had a range of information depending on whatever was the hot button of that week. So the issues range from unemployment to loan availability to cutting the red tape that was hamstringing our industry. And so that was something that we saw was a great way to thoroughly communicate to our members and it alleviated a lot of the frustration of our members because they had something that they could look forward to every single week on the issues that were bothering them most.

Dionna Hall:

Of course, like most groups, we kicked up our virtual trainings to help our members with this new technology and these new technologies that we introduced was, again, the virtual tours, online transaction management, and the e-sign program. And so, obviously, people don't always look to adopting the newest technology.

It takes some time and trial and error for you to get used to this type of technology but, obviously, during this pandemic, most had no choice. So these products, everybody was just really making sure that they learned them thoroughly to continue the transaction. So yeah, that was really a home run for us too.

And the training was recorded in an e-library where they were live and that way our members could actually ask questions during them and dig into the issues that they were having. So we saw a really record level participation in these live webinars than in the classes that they were having when the pandemic wasn't here.

Tracey Velt:

Yeah, that's great.

Dionna Hall:

Yeah, they were. And then there was this constantly breaking news and our members were very frustrated that they were happy to get so much communication from a local, state, and national level, and their brokers, of course, but they couldn't keep track of it.

They couldn't keep track of, what was the newest loan program, and where were they, and was it going to be open to realtors? So we created a great micro website for them to go to and we really spent a lot of time making sure that we were grabbing information from all sources, and our website traffic actually tripled in that time. We also added different things to the micro-site, such as we created online guides for our realtors and our consumers with scams.

Dionna Hall:

And that was something else that we saw a lot of here in the South Florida marketplace and probably nationwide was that with these checks coming in for the stimulus checks, there was a lot of scams going on with those. So we made sure that we created a resource for everybody to kind of go through and make sure that they had the most up to date information for them and their consumer.

Tracey Velt:

Yeah, that's great. And it sounds like you've done a lot in a very, very short time. Are you continuing the Virtual Open House Weeks? Was that a onetime thing? Are you going to continue that?

Dionna Hall:

So we're going to keep the Field open in the MLS and we will be doing another virtual open house eventually. We don't have one on the books yet, but we think that this is really a great tool because in South Florida we have a lot of international buyers, we have a lot of people from the Northeast obviously wanting to come here.

And so these virtual tours are really a great way for these people to see these homes that they're interested in, narrow down the field safely, and eventually buy something. So these ideas are definitely here, especially in the South Florida market.

Tracey Velt:

Okay, great. So, obviously, with the market reopening, are there some other things that you're doing to kind of prepare brokers and agents with helping them with showing protocols or the things that they need to reopen safely and to interact with consumers safely?

Dionna Hall:

Yeah. Well, since we were deemed essential our members have already retooled during this process in some of the programs I just mentioned to ensure that they were doing business safely, following the CDC guidelines, and using the virtual tools whenever they could. We created a step by step guide on our website with screenshots to easily walk our members through the process, and we constantly keep pushing out videos and guides on best practices and tips to stay compliant with the CDC guidelines.

We're also giving them ideas to use these virtual tours during the recovery period. So, as I just mentioned, this is a great way for you to engage your international buyers, engage your buyers who are from out of state for homes that you want to show right now. So this virtual field and these tours are really something that they can keep and it's very relevant to their marketplace.

Dionna Hall:

And then finally, I'm really excited to announce that last week we rolled out a consumer campaign to remind the public how important real estate is to the recovery. After all, in our marketplace, for every two homes sold, one job is created, and over $77,000 goes back into our economy and our marketplace. And so I think that this is a really great time for us to get that message out.

Our realtors, obviously, always are looking for a great consumer campaign to tell our communities about all the great works that they do. And because so many people now have a little bit more time on their hands, are looking at their phones more, they're going through websites, I think that a consumer campaign is a perfect time to be introduced to show again that realtors are the bedrock to the recovery of this whole entire marketplace.

Tracey Velt:

Yeah. And are you seeing an influx of buyers from up north? I had heard and I'd read a couple of stories that they expected that and people wanting to move from up north to Florida because Florida wasn't hit as hard as they expected with the pandemic.

Dionna Hall:

Yeah, yeah. The Northeasterners were already very active in our marketplace more than usual because of the favorable tax advantages that happened over the last year. So our members were already just [inaudible 00:16:20] about how much of a boon they had seen from this marketplace because of the tax advantages that we have here in our marketplace.

But now that they can work virtually, a lot of these groups from the Northeast are saying, "Hey, stay home. Work virtually," they don't have to wait for retirement anymore to come move down here. And so we really are even seeing more people interested in properties than ever before, because they want to make sure that if they are ever quarantined again, that they are in a really nice, sunny South Florida area, that they can really enjoy a nice lifestyle in instead of being cooped up in an apartment in the city.

Tracey Velt:

Yeah, definitely.

Dionna Hall:

Yes, not a hard sell.

Tracey Velt:

No, definitely not. So my last question is really how do you see real estate in Florida changing because of this pandemic? And maybe it's the practices, maybe it's the way real estate is transacted, but what do you see as maybe some changes after the market completely reopens?

Dionna Hall:

I think that now more than ever realtors have a stronger value proposition consumers are going to look to them more than ever to narrow the field of home choices based on all the things that we already know, like the local expertise that they have and deploy all these virtual tools.

I mean, these are tools that are specific to our realtors, that we provide them as part of their dues, and so this isn't something that a consumer's easily going to be able to take on themselves to make sure that they do this transaction electronically.

So I think that these consumers are going to want these realtors to make sure that they have the most local expertise, they have the tools in place to make it easy. It's going to cut down their time, the energy that they're spending looking for a home, and the exposure to germs and viruses.

Dionna Hall:

So I think that realtors really have an opportunity to secure their name in the marketplace is really the center of the transaction again, and that's what our consumer campaign is also about.

Tracey Velt:

Okay, great. Well, it sounds like you're doing a lot of great things there at the association and thank you for sharing all of that with REAL Trends. We really appreciate you speaking with us.

Dionna Hall:

Yeah. Thank you, Tracey. Thank you, REAL Trends, Steve Murray. I really appreciate it. And South Florida is recovering nicely so we welcome everyone.

Tracey Velt:

Yep. Good to hear. Good to hear.

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