Losing the Convention of Conventions

by Kevin Hawkins on November 19, 2014

webinarIt was 1986. Inflation was under 2 percent, the Dow Jones closed under 2,000, a gallon of gas was under a buck, Americans were being held hostage in Iran, and it was the year the US bombed Libya.

It was also the year of my first NAR Convention, held in New York City at the then new Jacob K. Javits Convention Center. I had convinced my employer at the time, Great Western Savings of Beverly Hills, to let me scout the event for exhibiting, sponsorship and press opportunities, as the bank was ready to grow its lending model nationally.

The media opportunities I discovered at NAR that year turned out to be an amazing start to a career-long journey. NAR was the ‘go-to’ real estate convention when it came to making connections, meeting reporters and pitching story ideas.

I had been invited to attend a dinner of the National Association of Real Estate Editors, NAREE. It was held at an established Manhattan steakhouse, in a second floor private room.

David Jeffers, head of PR for Fannie Mae at the time, had a slide projector queued up when I arrived. Legendary consumer real estate columnist Bob Bruss greeted me before I could sit down, and we soon became fast friends. He had me signed up as a member before I walked out the door.

This was an era when NAR would host press conferences that were packed with reporters. It was a great place for journalists to mine news stories they needed to fill their gigantic newspaper real estate sections.

Steve Kerch of the Chicago Tribune, Kirstin Downey of the Washington Post, and H. Jane Lehman, would pepper the NAR officials and their chief economist with tough questions that yielded better reporting for everyone in the room.

The Dearth Today

Fast-forward to NAR in New Orleans the beginning of this month. Today the press room is practically barren, with just a couple of bona fide journalists camped out, conducting an interview or two, filing a couple of stories at best.

The back-to-back press conferences have been replaced by lightly attended media briefings. NAREE still holds its annual installation of new officers meeting and dinner in conjunction with NAR, but even NAREE has to wonder if the trek is worth it these days.

I pinged a dozen reporters in advanced to see if they were attending. After all, many were NAREE members and some even serve on the board of directors. Not one was attending. The common reason: Not worth the investment, or something else more pressing was keeping them away.

Does it really have to be this way?

Conventional wisdom says the lack of media attendance at the NAR annual is simply a sign of the times: Real estate editors and real estate reporters are scarce, newspapers are waning, travel budgets are still paltry and press conferences have gone the way of the dinosaur: Everyone, anywhere is only a Skype call away.

The problem I have with this argument is that the Convention itself still exists. 20,000 members of NAR still showed up this year, Skype be damned

Why?

There is still nothing more powerful and rewarding as humans than the opportunity of being face-to-face with someone.

So why is that any less true with journalists? I don’t think it is. I think what has changed is better understanding who the journalist covering real estate is today and what he or she needs. Right now, most of them are just picking the lowest hanging fruit.

The solution I believe is offering them compelling content and they’ll work a little harder for their stories and attend. If the stories available at the NAR annual were so good and plentiful and the reporters knew that to be the fact, they would find a way to get there.

It’s answering the basic WIFM: What’s in it for me?

The NAREE annual conference is an excellent example of what happens when you answer the WIFM question.

Last June, Ralph Bivens, a Texas journalist, former NAREE president, and founder of realtynewsreport.com, put on a NAREE conference with Executive Director Mary Doyle-Kimball in Houston. It is being heralded as the best ever. Attendance set an all-time record as the conference was awash with story ideas and loads of expert sources.

So much for conventional wisdom.

Could the annual REALTORS Convention regain its footing with reporters?

I think it could. We need to recognize that journalism is changing and who is generating and sharing real estate news today includes other real estate industry influencers, such as bloggers and social media mavens.

More importantly, I think it should. I would even like to see NAR try and resuscitate the back-to-back press conferences it once provided.

The dearth of press conference is robbing the real estate industry of collaborative questioning, that magic moment when one reporter’s question leads another to ask a follow-up question they never would have thought of in the first place. The result is we all get better news and it keeps us honest and open, and that benefits consumers.

The annual NAR meeting could regain its luster of being a great place to go for great stories. Think about what every NAR annual has to offer: Thousands of local experts all in one place, hundreds of national experts all in one place, every major real estate firm and vendor all in one place, and the perfect forum for offering those face-to-face encounters that result in better, stronger relationships.

Yes, a gallon of gas today is nearly four-times what it was in 1986, the Dow is up over 800 percent, ISIS is holding hostages, and this year the US bombed Syria. But inflation remains under 2 percent and people still benefit from the convention of Conventions: Meeting face-to-face does a better job of building trust, especially between reporters and the people they actually meet.

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