Here’s the Apartment; Now Let’s Go Hang Gliding

The New York TimesJune 24, 2013
When Dan Critchett, a real estate agent, meets a buyer at an open house, a potential client he hopes to woo, he shakes the buyer’s hand and offers two business cards. The first is fairly standard, a red rectangle that identifies him as an agent with Stribling & Associates, who can help you buy or sell a home. The second offers something else.

“Your introduction to Modern Hang Gliding,” it reads, next to a photograph of two enthusiastic looking people suspended high above the ground. “Sane Affordable Fun.”

Sane? Perhaps. But memorable? Quite likely. One thing is for certain, however: Hang gliding has nothing to do with real estate. And that Mr. Critchett says, is precisely the point.

“Buyer loyalty is one of the most difficult things to obtain,” said Mr. Critchett, who is a certified hang gliding instructor. “You’ve got to have a gimmick.”

There are more than 52,000 licensed real estate agents and brokers in New York City, and nearly 28,000 in Manhattan alone. So for those who making a living in this frantic field, one of the greatest challenges is distinguishing themselves from a large and aggressive pack. Some agents and brokers say that most effective one way to do this is by skipping the usual client lunches and meetings over drinks, and instead finding unusual ways of spending time together.

Beth Benalloul, a Corcoran Group broker and former personal trainer, has often “hyperventilated” with clients in exercise classes. Michael Mansfield of Citi Habitats has gone kayaking in the Hudson River, and Michael Rubin of CORE has tried turkey hunting. Ann Cutbill Lenane of Douglas Elliman arranges a giant scavenger hunt every other year. And Brian M. Giambalvo, an agent at Corcoran, has picked up several clients in his bright blue Honda sport utility vehicle and taken them to Costco to stock up on 30-packs of toilet paper, vats of hummus, and enormous boxes of bandages. And while he’s there, he stocks up, too.

In the hope that their clients will not wander over to the competition, ever circling with arms outspread, these brokers and agents try to nudge their professional relationships out of the traditional bounds of business suits and open houses, and toward activities normally reserved for actual friends.

“I love playing beer pong with clients,” said Kendrick Reinsch, a 25-year-old agent at Citi Habitats. “Which sounds crazy.”

Mr. Reinsch’s pong-destination of choice is a pirate-themed bar on Bleecker Street in Manhattan called Wicked Willy’s, draped with fake palm trees, faux driftwood, black flags and pirate ships. There, he stands next to his clients and tries to toss table-tennis balls into plastic cups filled with beer at the far end of a long table. Mr. Reinsch, who was in a fraternity as a New York University theater major, is quite good.
“You really have to fight the fun not to enjoy this,” he said, plastic cup of Miller Lite in hand. “They’re going to have a good time, and they’re going to remember me.”

He sometimes plays video games with clients, as well. And this, he said, helps him drum up more business.

“When people get to know you as a friend, they’re more likely to refer their friends,” he said.

While beer pong (also called Beirut) has served him well with many clients, Mr. Reinsch emphasized that Wicked Willy’s may not be a good fit for everyone. It could send the wrong message to a high-end buyer, say, or perhaps an older couple with children, so he approaches potential partners with discretion. Usually, he invites renters who are about his own age.

But in the case of Sarah Rose Katz, a Citi Habitats agent who is also 25, client bonding arose specifically because of an age difference: Her client, Doina Stoiana, 73, who owns a small rental building on the Upper East Side, received an iPhone and iPad as gifts, and it was Ms. Katz who taught her how to use them.

“It must have been 100 hours,” Ms. Katz said of their technology tutorials. “I spent a ridiculous amount of time there. But then we became very close.”

Ms. Katz is now the exclusive rental agent for Ms. Stoiana’s building, and when Ms. Stoiana and her husband, Mike, bought an apartment this year, Ms. Katz represented them as their agent. Ms. Katz and Ms. Stoiana say they have since gone on other excursions, including trips to the Botanic Gardens, and they now communicate almost daily.

“When I tell people in my office,” Ms. Katz said, “they say, ‘I’ve never heard of that before. That’s insane.'”

Maureen Johnson, a Corcoran broker in East Hampton, says that holding meetings outside of a standard business setting helps to humanize both buyer and broker, so she asks clients to come on joint dog walks. She brings along Max, a Silky Terrier, Bella, a Schnauzer-Yorkie mix.

“You see each other as real people, not as ‘you work for me,'” Ms. Johnson said. “And I don’t see you as dollar signs.”

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