A little over a week ago, COVID-19 restrictions returned to Ontario in response to record-high cases of the virus, sending the province into a modified Step Two of the Roadmap to Reopen. In addition to restricting social gathering limits to five people indoors, the latest round of measures also closed indoor meeting and event spaces.
For developers launching new construction projects this quarter, Ontario’s newly-imposed restrictions throw a wrench in any plans to keep presentation centres running as normal. But two years and five waves into this pandemic, are brick-and-mortar presentation centres surprised by the latest changes and the return to digital alternatives?
“Every launch that is happening, there is a component of digital tools and a digital way of selling and presenting. It’s a must-have now,” said Tim Ng, principal of ADHOC STUDIO, a digital product service for urban developments.
“For example, some of the launches that I’m seeing in Q1 this year — whether the lockdown was announced last week or whether there wasn’t a lockdown — it wouldn’t really change up the strategy too much since they already had, in their back pocket, [for] part of their marketing mix or sales strategy, they’re already using, for example, our platform to launch,” he told Livabl.
Developers have pivoted to technology alternatives
Ng explains that when the first wave of COVID-19 hit back in March 2020, people were unsure of what to do at first. Adoption of ADHOC’s Blackline app, a web-based sales and marketing platform that allows sales teams to remotely present and transact real estate, surged. Fast forward two years, and developers have taken advantage of digital and cloud-based tools that cover tasks which would have normally occurred in a sales centre, said Ng.
For the latest phase of restrictions implemented this month, some developers closed the doors to their sales centres for the foreseeable future.
Brian Brown, principal of Lifetime Developments, told Livabl in a statement that the company has changed course as a result of the most recent round of COVID-19 guidelines. In early January, the developer launched sales for its XO2 Condos project in Toronto’s West Queen West neighbourhood with Pinedale Properties, Ltd. With a freshly-renovated sales office ready to open its doors, Lifetime Developments closed the centre with the exception of private appointments for small groups. The launch was scheduled over Zoom.
“Of course, this is not exactly how we had hoped to showcase this project including our finishes and our Freemotion Fitness partnership,” he said. “Fortunately, our industry has really adapted over the last year and everyone has really embraced social media, Zoom meetings and digital signings. It’s not ideal and I do miss the face-to-face interaction with our clients and their agents.”
Although the newest restrictions have “taken some of the excitement away,” Brown said that this does not concern him — 2022 will be a busy year regardless of whether business is conducted remotely or in person.
“Our industry has shown resiliency and tremendous adaptability. It was not easy at first and new policy and even legal processes had to be put in place to make sure everything was being managed appropriately,” he said. “From a sales and marketing standpoint, we have all found new ways to follow social distancing rules while still remaining present and effective.”
Some crave in-person meetings again, some don’t
Sales centres aren’t immune to the debate over whether working remotely versus working in an office is better.
Rick Haws, president and co-founder of SaleFish — a global software solutions firm for residential real estate developers and builders — agrees that companies had already adapted their strategies ahead of the latest round of restrictions. Consumers have also adjusted to the new way of buying pre-construction homes, with the majority of purchasers now preferring digital options to the sales centre, even when presentation offices are open.
After restrictions were lifted the first time around, 75 per cent of purchasers opted for online appointments versus in-person options when given the choice, according to SaleFish. Prior to the pandemic, Haws explains that lineups outside of sales offices were huge. With the use of technology, purchasers now have a better opportunity to buy a unit without leaving the comfort and safety of home.
“[I] think even moving forward, once we get back to being able to have people in sales offices more regularly, now that the tools are in place and that people are so used to using them, I think it’s going to be something that is going to be used more regularly just as usual, as opposed to it being as a necessity, because it’s convenient for people,” said Haws.
On the flip side, Haws anticipates that once sales teams have the opportunity to go back to one-on-one meetings again, they will gravitate towards this option as they are most comfortable with this scenario. However, Haws says that the customer will ultimately determine what the interaction between sales and consumers will be, whether that’s a one-on-one experience or a hybrid of in-person and virtual meetings.
“Salespeople are going to want to build those relationships with those people. Real estate is not a commodity. It’s not like you just go out and buy it and you’re done with it. Purchasing real estate is an experience. It’s a transaction that takes up to two years sometimes,” said Haws.
“And so building that relationship between the salesperson and the purchaser is important because that’s not something that just comes and goes,” he added.
Smaller, temporary spaces potentially the future of sales centres
With sales software and virtual meetings the norm for new construction projects now, it calls into question the future of sales centres.
While developers may still prefer to use and create a physical space to meet clients in person, these environments have been scaled down compared to pre-pandemic, million-dollar presentation centres. Ng notes that some developers have been opting for smaller, pop-up-style sales offices, like the one CentreCourt ran inside Yorkdale Mall for WestLine Condos. Before COVID-19, developers would use the full completion of their sales office to initiate a project launch, said Ng, but this process is also changing.
“Developers are being less reliant on having a physical sales office to sell or to launch,” said Ng. “When we’re ready to go to launch, whether we have a sales office built or it’s finished, we can still sell and get to a fair amount of sales before we open the sales office.”
Ng explains once presentation centres are open again, a handful of purchasers in the later phases of the sales cycle will want to visit the office, perhaps as a final signing destination for contracts or to view unit finishes. However, in the discovery and inquiry stages of researching a new project, digital tools will continue to have an important role to play.
“Collectively we can all agree it’s hard to recreate those tangible moments of face-to-face interaction virtually, like being able to go into a sales centre to see, touch and feel everything,” said Brown. “At the end of the day though, I look forward to shaking people’s hands once again and the odd hug here and there too.”