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Boas, Bugs and Other Tools of the Agents' Trade

November 22, 1998|JUDY STARK | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Judy Stark, Homes editor of the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times, is president of the National Assn. of Real Estate Editors

I had my picture taken with a snake at the annual convention of the National Assn. of Realtors in Anaheim a couple of weeks ago.

No, no, it's not what you might think. This was a real snake, a 70-pound Colombian red-tailed boa named Baby, who was appearing on the arm of handler Peter Gros at the Mutual of Omaha booth.

Gros hosts the "'Wild Kingdom" television show that Mutual of Omaha has been sponsoring for decades. Had I wished, I could have posed instead with a Burmese python, a wallaby or a porcupine.

Why the wildlife at the Realtors' convention? It's a way to remind 17,000 conventioneers that Mutual of Omaha sells insurance, which every homeowner needs.

The annual Realtors' trade show is a wonderland of yak-and-flack. In 110,000 square feet of exhibit space, 450 booths offered everything from people in headsets giving product demonstrations to golf-putting contests and an alpine racing virtual reality ski machine at the Cal Fed booth.

Everybody's here and hustling, from the smart young lads and lasses from Microsoft and HomeShark to Baby was not the only wildlife. At the Insect Lore booth, John R. White was selling butterflies and ladybugs as 'unique and different closing gifts.'

the folks selling signs that say "For Sale" and "Must See Inside!"

The industry these days is all technology, all the time. Who's got the best online multiple listing service? Whose online mortgage application Web site is faster and better? Whose mapping software is better? Who has the best school information reporting system? Who can tap into which database to profile a neighborhood?

Yet Realtors constantly preach that "high-touch" is just as important as high-tech. Emboldened by my encounter with Baby, I set off in search of the high-touch. No dots, no com, no mice to click, nothing to download, the stuff that seems more state fair than state of the art. Here's what I found:

Baby was not the only wildlife. At the Insect Lore booth, John R. White was selling butterflies and ladybugs as "unique and different closing gifts."

Typically, real estate agents send buyers flowers or a bottle of wine or a coffee gift basket after the closing, "but those are for grown-ups, not kids," White said.

He's offering something for the whole family: a container of butterflies in the caterpillar stage. Kids and parents can watch the caterpillars develop into black-and-orange Painted Lady butterflies, then release them into the garden at their new home.

The 30-year-old family business, based in Shafter, Calif., deals regularly with schools, museums and nature stores and also sells butterflies for release at weddings and other celebrations.

White said he decided to come to the Realtors' convention just two weeks ago, "and there's no way this isn't going to work" as a new revenue source for his company.

He had just written an order for 1,000 ladybug hutches for a company whose motto is, "'Ladybug, ladybug, we'll find you a home."

"They love the sparkly crap," said Cheryl Leviton of Badges USA, a Redmond, Wash., company that offers jewelry, novelty items, desk accessories and business equipment.

She gestured to a ball decorated with Austrian crystals that dangled around her neck and the lapel pins on the display rack. Her biggest seller this show was a crystal pin for loan officers that reads, "Loan Goddess." Coming soon: a gold-tone metal version for men: "Loan God."

There are also multi-bladed pocket knives and screwdrivers, each stamped "Realtor." How does this stuff compete against the software systems and full-motion digital cameras that were the toys of choice at this year's convention?

"That is information. This is fun stuff," said Jerry Josy of Garland, Texas, who presided over a booth of glittery jewelry. "'We'll get more activity here" than vendors will at the computer booths, he said.

Robin Snyder, chief executive of M&I Concepts of Cary, N.C., pointed to a new item at her booth: the Brag Bag. This is a handbag with plastic sleeves on the side in which Realtors can insert photographs of their newest listings.

"I've had Realtors who sold houses in a supermarket out of that Brag Bag," she said.

Chet Macomber of PH Enterprises in Garden Grove has this business goal: "I want to get into every real estate company in the country." He sells massage equipment.

"We're so exhausted from walking the show," said Rachel Coffari, a Connecticut Realtor who was looking blissful after she'd had her feet vibrated and her back and shoulders massaged.

Exhausted? It's 9:30 in the morning! "We're getting rejuvenated for the day!" she recovered. "Now you know why I'm in sales."

Macomber seems to have found the spot where high-tech and high-touch intersect. "'We make all these high-tech people who sit at their computers all day feel a hell of a lot better," he said.

I will say this: After having my back and shoulders massaged, I was willing to sign any real estate contract, for any amount of money, for any property anywhere.

Agents, take note.

Everybody needs another coffee mug, right? Especially one with a picture of your new house on it. Or maybe your old house. Robert Selenis of Images USA in Livonia, Mich., recalled that a Realtor gave one of his mug sets to a client who had just sold her longtime family home. "She cried," Selenis said. "She said she didn't have a picture of that house, and now she does."

The Realtor's name, company and phone number are printed on the back of the mug, so when it's time for a new home, you won't have to look hard to know whom to call. And if a mug doesn't do it for you, how about a wall clock with a picture of your old or new home? Two mugs or one clock, $39.95.

Tarbell Realtors of Santa Ana may want to rethink its approach. It offered convention-goers a chance to spin a wheel of fortune and win a Seven Dwarfs doll. Come on: Do you really want consumers to flash on Dopey, Sleepy and Grumpy every time they think of your agents?

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