By Bridget Mccrea
The Southwest Iowa Association of Realtors® dates back to the 1920s, and for 84 years it attracted a good portion of the membership to its annual picnic. Men and women gathered around picnic tables and barbecue grills socializing, eating, and enjoying the event, which served as a catalyst for new relationships, business dealings, and friendships.
That was until the association pulled the plug on the event last year. “When I started here in 1998, over half of our members attended,” says Kristi L. Jerkovich, association executive for the 500-member association in Council Bluffs, Iowa. “Last year, only 5 percent to 10 percent attended. It was pretty bad.”
As younger Realtors® fill the ranks, the beloved, leisurely face-to-face social events of yesteryear largely have fallen by the wayside, many AEs have found.
With its annual picnic gone, the Southwest Iowa Association is channeling its energy into three events: affiliate appreciation night, a Ms. RPAC Pageant, and a hay ride. Jerkovich is keeping her fingers crossed that attendance creeps back up past 50 percent for these events.
Associations nationwide—and not just Realtors® groups—are hosting fewer and fewer guests at their weekly, monthly, and annual events. “We’ve decreased the number of social events after seeing fewer members participate,” says Stephen Snell, executive officer at the 1,350-member Realtors® Association of York & Adams Counties, York, Pa.
Snell, who says the group noticed the decline in the early 1990s, attributes some of the decrease in participation to an increase in the association’s size. “Certainly as associations grow, the intimacy of the smaller group is lost,” remarks Snell. “I’ve often heard, even from past presidents, that they don’t know many of the members anymore. I’m convinced that the larger the association’s size, the smaller the percentage of members who will participate in social activities.”
Even though social events generally aren’t a source of revenue for associations, many—like the York association—are concerned about dwindling attendance because of the social implications.
Although the York association has moved from an association-club model to more of a business model, it holds an annual bowl-a-thon and a golf outing to stoke camaraderie and networking among members. Snell credits these events’ staying power to the fact that they are charity fund-raisers and that members simply love golf.
At the 650-member Chapel Hill Board of Realtors® in North Carolina, Executive Officer Sue Millager also has seen interest in social events wane as the group’s membership grows. Where the old guard once dictated the need for social events, newer Realtors® who funneled into the business during the boom of the past five years are much less interested in such functions, she says.
“The younger members don’t feel the need to meet each other face to face to be successful,” Millager explains. “They’re happy using blogs, instant messages, and e-mail to communicate with one another.”
Like the York association, Millager's organization has not experienced a fiscal impact from the drop-off in event attendance. It has, however, necessitated a new approach to attracting member volunteers. “We strike while the iron is hot,” Millager says. By signing up new members for committee and other positions as soon as they walk in the door, the association usually gets them involved.
The Right Type of Social
Yet just as the popularity of social events is declining at some associations, it’s more popular than ever at others.
This disparity may be attributed to the type of member social events. The socials that appear to thrive are brief and business-focused, benefit the community, dole out member recognition, or have anything to do with golf.
Judith Lindenau, rce, cae, EVP of the Traverse Area Association of Realtors®, Mich., reorganized the group’s annual Christmas party with this in mind. “It has gone from a long, liquid inaugural and dance to a two-hour cash bar cocktail party. The program is minimal: networking and a raffle to benefit our homeless program,” Lindenau says.
While short, sweet, and philanthropic has been a successful formula for the Traverse Area association, the Northeast Association of Realtors® has found success with member recognition. At its annual recognition gala, more than 20 categories of recognitions honor more than 100 members. “This awards night is extremely popular, and we had many younger members there this year, as well as veterans,” says Anne Rendle, CEO.
The younger members are exactly whom the Hilton Head Area Association of Realtors®’ Professional Development Committee had in mind when it came up with Real Estate Education and Libation (R.E.E.L.) meetings. Held at a country club every other month for two hours in the evening, the popular event features a speaker (usually a seasoned agent) and, of course, a cash bar. “Whatever works,” says EVP Eleanor Lightsey O’Key.
What works for the Aiken Board of Realtors®, S.C., is being attentive to members’ time constraints and personal needs. Last year the association launched a new two-hour event where members could pop in any time. The Realtors® Appreciation Day in January replaced the regular membership meeting and featured lunch, free massages, and free cholesterol and glucose screenings along with caricatures and makeup lessons. “Our agents loved it, and the free health screenings were a big hit since many cannot afford health insurance,” says EO Kristyne Blake.
Regardless of the approach, the consensus seems to be that value-added offerings and structured networking opportunities are the keys to success. “Our events really need to benefit members’ business, or they won’t come. They’re not willing to just come and hang out—the value needs to be there,” she says.
If You Can’t Beat ’Em, Join
As members rely on electronic communications to build a sense of community, some associations are doing the same. Many association Web sites are feature bulletin boards, blogs, and virtual classrooms, as well as listservs and e-newsletters to help build a sense of belonging for those less interested in attending cocktail parties and mixers. But veteran AEs say it’s just not the same.
Snell says his group has moved to more e-mailing to close the gap left by poorly attended social events. He sees more associations moving in that direction as interest in such events continues to decline. The transition won’t be easy for some groups, whose long-standing traditions center on social events. “In some associations the social activities are the sacred cow,” reflects Snell. “For them, it’s probably time for a critical evaluation to see whether those events are still crucial to the association.”
Social events that thrive
While many types of social events are dying on the vine, others continue to thrive. Here are four characteristics of social events that still attract crowds:
Brief and compact. Members appreciate events that last no more than an hour. Networking happy hours fit the bill.
Member recognition. Gala events that dole out awards and recognitions still attract crowds, AEs say.
Business focused. Even social events should feature a speaker, such as a veteran broker, with useful sales tips and advice.
Community benefit. Many associations have merged their social events with their charity events to boost attendance.
Golf. Realtors® love golf.