.We’re finally approaching the halfway point in 2020, and it’s been a year like no other, with no networking events or handshake deals. Back in March, when the Covid-19 pandemic sent us home, it silenced construction sites and created soaring unemployment numbers. Few of us expected that three months later, most of us would still be working from home. Our cities are still subdued and our summer plans mostly cancelled. Amongst all of this, we continue to do business together. Closing deals and opening new essential businesses is how we serve our communities.
But how does an industry filled with extroverts, where deals are based on handshakes and human connections, keep moving forward without the in-person events and networking that traditionally bring us together. The cancellation of this year’s ICSC RECon and countless smaller networking events led us to question the role of these events in our business. As we move into a down economy, the bigger question is whether these events, especially ones as big as RECon, still have value in a world of Zoom meetings and Docusign.
We asked our most frequent conference attendees about their experiences, and brought in a couple of our partners to share their insights, as well.
Building Relationships During Lockdown
Our team has been working hard to maintain business relationships over the course of the lockdown. It requires a conscious effort, but making the simple effort to check in with a few contacts each week, we’re building deeper connections and actually increasing communication with people we would normally only see a couple of times a year at events. The ever-changing circumstances of lockdown have helped to break down barriers – there’s nothing like seeing someone’s kids, pets or bookcases to provide new insight and empathy. Ryan Beckmann explained, “Covid has allowed us to deepen our existing relationships with tenants, brokers, etc. but has made it very difficult to form strong new connections.“
“Very difficult to form strong new connections.”
There is consensus that even the most purposeful and creative efforts to create connections are primarily effective only within your circle. Expanding your network without the serendipity of events isn’t impossible, but it’s difficult. As Ryan Tomkins at SRS Real Estate Partners explained, there are “lots of ‘let’s meet in the future’ conversations.”
In a down economy, success will come from working to create opportunity, in and outside of your existing circle.
Facing a Down Economy
It’s too soon to truly predict the overall impact of the pandemic on the economy, but it’s a safe bet that we’ll be facing a down economy in the near future. Our belief is that events will be even more important in that case. “Conferences create connections that enable us to discuss needs and challenges outside of specific transactional venues” says Lucy Dinneen. In a down economy, success will come from working to create opportunity, in and outside of your existing circle. Robert Edwards of Blue West Capital suggests that “people network more in down economies because they are doing fewer deals and need to cooperate and communicate to survive.”
Smaller events may become more important, as some companies limit the expense of a big showing at RECon but rely on smaller, local events to build their connections, especially while travel and large groups remain a concern. Regardless, preparing for any event is critical. As Jeff Parker explains, “We all need to arrive at the events with a plan and goals for how to use our time and energy. If you just show up, you won’t accomplish nearly as much as if you know what you are trying to accomplish beforehand.”
There’s a lack of diversity in the industry, but do conferences and events simply reflect the state of the industry, or do they keep people out? We actually find that it’s a little of both. Events can have high barriers to entry, whether financial or logistical. Once inside, the opportunity to make face-to-face connections is unmatched. As Lucy Dinneen explains, the energy at events “can break down access barriers that traditional networking might unintendedly reinforce.” We each have to make an effort to ensure that we are not implicitly judging potential new contacts based on what they look like, but on who they are.
Overall, after a season without events, it turns out that RECon and the smaller events that bring us together locally are missed. As Ryan Tompkins put it, “This industry was built on person- to-person contact, handshakes, and networking… ” The saved effort and money cannot make up for the new connections we make and deals we close when our industry comes together. As Stephanie describes, “actual deals come out of happenstance meetings with brokers” at events, and that serendipity cannot be replaced with any number of Zoom happy hours or virtual networking.
The days of handshakes still feel like they’re a world away, but we look forward to gathering with our colleagues again. In the meantime, expect a few more calls from us, and don’t worry if your dog wants to be a part of the conversation – we all have office dogs these days.