Real estate agents caravan is all about the food

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

APPARENTLY, the way to a real estate agent’s heart is through his or her stomach.

With buyers continuing to hide in the weeds and the price of gas still stinging, brokers have had to improve the curb appeal of a principal marketing strategy. The so-called agents caravan -- in which, on a designated day, agents tour one another’s new listings -- has upped the ante. No longer is the mere thrill of previewing a new listing enough to bring out the troops. Now they must be fed, and fed well.

Caravans of old offered little dishes of M&Ms or a pot of hours-standing coffee as reward for an agent’s trouble, but in the current molasses market, candy and caffeine just don’t lure the masses. And if the agents who sell in the area won’t come, who will bring the potential buyers?

No one is certain exactly when the food offerings went uptown, but the weekly caravan list circulated in Malibu now specifies what refreshments will be served at each house -- information posted as prominently as the asking price and number of bedrooms.

In the MLS/CLAW Open House Guide, a knife-and-fork icon alerts agents to which homes are offering the proverbial free lunch; a wine glass symbolizes just refreshments.

Alan Mark and Tony Mark of Prudential Malibu Realty recently provided omelets -- cooked to order by a private chef -- to those agents who made the trek to their new $36-million Broadbeach Road listing. With a salad and pastry bar on the side, agents could order their omelets prepared with 20 different fresh fillings. Spinach with feta cheese, anyone? To quote from the Malibu Assn. of Realtors’ Caravan West weekly bulletin, “This is the beach house of your dreams! . . . And everybody’s favorite omelet bar!” By all accounts, the $1,000 spread was well-attended.

Addictively good delectables also play a role. “Monus’ Malibu Bonuses” -- freshly baked chocolate chip cookies by Coldwell Banker Malibu East agent Susan Monus -- are a huge draw in this coastal community, according to area agents. She makes the cookies from scratch and, because presentation matters when it comes to both real estate and baked goods, displays them in a fancy silver bowl. For agents on the run, Monus also offers them in personalized cookie tins with her logo -- to go. When the new listings are located up an inconvenient canyon road, Monus -- a woman who clearly knows her audience -- pulls out all the stops and makes white chocolate chip macadamia nut cookies.

Wailani O’Herlihy, who sells with her husband, Cormac, out of Sotheby’s International Realty, Malibu, says that in the summer, mocha frappes -- blended on site -- are a crowd-pleaser. “Realtors don’t have much time to stick around,” she said, “so bite-size vegetables, fruit or cheese and crackers work well.”

Without question, “more Realtors seem to come to see your listings if food is served,” although, she added, the more seasoned Realtors come to see new listings even if food is not served “because they’re in the business of moving real estate.”

Drew Fenton of Hilton & Hyland, Beverly Hills, always hires a professional caterer who sets out a buffet. It’s part of his marketing budget and the cost of doing business, he said, and most of the open houses he visits are professionally catered.

Mauricio Umansky of Hilton & Hyland, Beverly Hills, debuted his $45-million Beverly Park listing with a spread befitting the newly constructed mansion. It was a catered Mexican food buffet, and the outdoor patio table for 10 held a steady rotation of agents chowing down. The home has an indoor, swim-against-the-current pool that several agents might have benefited from after the feast. Realtors’ cars lined the block during the event in this guard-gated community, annoying some neighbors, who include Denzel Washington and Sylvester Stallone.

Not far away on the same day, the agent for a home leasing for $41,500 a month was seeing far less traffic with a plate of vanilla cookies, two liter-sized bottles of water and a stack of cups. Michael Libow, Coldwell Banker Beverly Hills South, says that, as a rule, he’d rather spend his marketing budget on advertising. Lease open houses generally garner minimal agent interest, he added.

“And one of the problems is that you draw in agents not looking to do business but who are looking to do lunch,” he said of open houses with more ample spreads. Fully catered lunches, he believes, are a distraction.

Libow had 23 agents sign in at the North Alpine Drive rental. “If it was listed for sale at $13 million and the agents were getting a bigger commission for their work,” he added, “there would have been 120.” He also would have provided finger sandwiches.

Brooke Knapp of Sotheby’s International Realty, Beverly Hills, is also not a fan of the food caravan. She finds it off-putting “to be walking around a $20-million house with a wrap in one hand, a Diet Coke in the other.”

She prefers to “get in, look at the house and meet with my team over lunch after the caravan to talk about potential buyers for what we’ve seen.”

Besides, she says, sellers don’t really want a bunch of agents traipsing around the place dropping crumbs in rooms they probably don’t eat in themselves.

Still, an agent’s got to do what an agent’s got to do. For Frank Sullivan and James Quill of Coldwell Banker Previews International, that meant serving Pink’s hot dogs to those who came out to see their Fareholm Drive listing in the Hollywood Hills on a recent day from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. -- and a wine and cheese party for those who came in the evening.

Bottom line for Lynn Yang of Prudential California Realty, Brentwood, who has a mountaintop gated estate in Malibu listed at $2.95 million: “If you want them to come,” she said, “feed them well.”