Behind the scenes at Real Estate Connect

How ideas spread and deals get done at legendary real estate conference

Editor’s note: For this first-person report, Inman News reporter Paul Hagey shadowed Gregg Larson, founder and CEO of Clareity Consulting Inc., for a day at the Real Estate Connect conference in New York City, to observe how business is conducted in the hallways, hotel lobby, and restaurants during the event.

NEW YORK — Gregg Larson has attended every Real Estate Connect conference held in San Francisco going back to 1997.

The roots of the conference go back to an executive retreat Inman News Publisher Brad Inman held in 1996 in Sonoma, Calif. The retreat brought about 50 real estate CEOs and technologists together to share ideas — something some weren’t accustomed to doing at the time.

Many who attended the first retreat could see that technology was going to transform the business of real estate. The next year, Inman expanded the retreat into a full-blown conference in San Francisco. More than 800 people attended.

Now in its 17th year, Real Estate Connect is held each summer in San Francisco and every winter in New York City, attracting real estate and technology leaders who are looking to network, make deals, and explore trends and technology.

Based in Scottsdale, Ariz., Larson is a 30-year real estate industry veteran who is founder and CEO of Clareity Consulting Inc., a real estate consulting firm, and Clareity Security Inc., an information security company.

Larson has attended a handful of New York City Connect conferences and made the trip this year, in part, to introduce Clareity’s new online store. The store, which features products and services for agents and brokers, integrates with the multiple listing services Clareity already partners with.

Larson and I met early on day two of Connect New York City — Thursday, Jan. 17.

8:20 a.m. Larson and I meet in the lobby of the Grand Hyatt New York, the site of the Real Estate Connect conference, as we had arranged by email the night before. It was our first time to meet in person.

"I haven’t even registered yet," Larson says, soon after we met. Some years, he says, he’s been so busy in meetings and connecting with other Connect attendees that he never even picked up his registration badge.

We sit down on one of the couches in the hotel lobby. Larson pulls out his iPhone 5 and runs through the day’s calendar — a mix of scheduled in-person meetings, and free time for impromptu meet-ups.

In addition to helping launch Clareity’s new online store, Larson’s in town to see old friends in the industry, connect with current clients, and forge ties with new ones.

We get a coffee and some light breakfast from the hotel’s market — Larson gets a banana and a cappuccino — and sit down in the lobby and chat.

8:40 a.m. Still on the hotel lobby couch, Larson receives a call from Ben Caballero, a Houston-based real estate broker and founder of a new nonprofit, the National Association of Real Estate Professionals (NAREP).

Caballero is at Connect to drum up support for NAREP’s real estate syndication bill of rights, a list of requirements Caballero wants listing portals to adopt. Larson says he agrees with many of the tenets of NAREP’s mission, and thinks Caballero is sincere in his desire to protect brokers’ rights.

Although Larson’s not sure how realistic NAREP’s goals are, he’s agreed to introduce Caballero to some of the brokers and multiple listing service executives he knows. Caballero’s invited Larson and any brokers and MLS execs Larson can round up to dinner that night, which is part of the subject of the call.

8:50 a.m. Scrolling through his phone’s calendar, Larson shares how the day before unfolded. He spent much of the previous morning and early afternoon at the Connect CEO Summit at the New York Times’ headquarters.

Later in the day he consulted with an industry acquaintance on a social media network for real estate agents, brokered a meeting, and called a couple of clients. In the evening, he went out for drinks and an early one-on-one sushi appetizer with Realtor.com President Errol Samuelson before attending dinner later with a group of industry folks.

9:10 a.m. Jay Gaskill, president of real estate tech services firm Real Estate Digital, comes over to say hello to Larson. The two have known each other for years, and spend a few minutes catching up.

9:20 a.m. Two Clareity colleagues — Amy Geddes, Clareity Security’s COO, and Eric Hoglund, the just-promoted Clareity Store manager — come over to check in with Larson. Larson has asked Geddes and Hoglund to meet all of the vendors participating in "Start-Up Alley" as possible partners in Clareity’s new store.

Larson and Geddes also discuss Caballero’s dinner invitation. They’re concerned about how much time they should invest with everything else going on at Connect. They think his intentions are genuine, but are not sure Clareity should play a role.

9:30 a.m. Larson has scheduled meeting on the lobby couch with Lorne Wallace, CEO and founder of Lone Wolf Real Estate Technologies Inc., a real estate-focused accounting and management software company.

Before the meeting starts, Larson says he’d shown Wallace details of Clareity’s store a few months ago. They’d talked about the possibility of working together, but Larson never heard back from Wallace.

On the first day of Connect, Larson heard from a vendor that Wallace was planning his own store. This meeting is a chance for them to clear the air, Larson says.

During the light-hearted, but pointed, meeting, Larson tells Wallace that he understands if he wants to build his own store, but that he would have liked a heads up.

Larson asks Wallace to reconsider doing a store together. Working together, Larson tells Wallace, the Clareity Store’s reach would extend not only to the 100 MLSs currently partnered with Clareity, but to the thousands of individual broker offices that are Lone Wolf clients.

"We’ll have better reach together," he tells Wallace.

9:40 a.m. Larson finishes with Wallace and then stands up to meet Matt Casey, a past client and president and CEO of Knoxville, Tenn.-based Courthouse Retrieval System Data, a service provider of data to MLSs.

Larson and Casey head up the nearby escalators to the hotel’s second-floor balcony, looking for a quieter place to meet. They pick a low wooden table near the top of the escalators and adjacent to the balcony overlooking the lobby.

CRS Data is updating its website, Casey says, and Casey wants Larson to review the new website’s content and user interface and give his feedback. They also talk about a Realtor association in a large city that may be looking for a new vendor, and the potential for CRS Data to sign a deal.

Realtor associations often hire Clareity as a consultant to help them choose vendors. Larson explains to Casey how the process usually unfolds.

Casey asks what Larson’s up to, and Larson tells Casey about the the Clareity Store.

"It doesn’t cost you anything, until you sell something and then we take a cut," Larson says of the store’s business model. Casey laughs at the smooth line, teasing Larson, who says Geddes delivers it much more smoothly.

As the meeting’s winding down, real estate services sales vet Jack Jominy joins the group standing at the long table. CRS Data hired Jominy in January to help expand its business nationally. Larson’s known him for a while. They talk briefly and then the meeting breaks up.

10:30 a.m. Larson heads upstairs to registration. He still hasn’t checked in to the conference and picked up his ID badge. On the way, Larson passes Move Inc. CEO Steve Berkowitz, who says "hi."

10:35 a.m. After registering and placing the Connect badge around his neck, Larson takes a turn around Start-Up Alley, pausing at a booth that catches his attention — the agent website development and hosting service WebsiteBox.com, which offers IDX-enabled agent websites for $99 with various upsale features.

Larson tells WebsiteBox.com President Peyman Aleagha that the tool would be a perfect addition to the Clareity Store. Aleagha had already heard about the store. Geddes and Holgund had come by the day before.

They exchange business cards and plan to set up a phone call for the following week. "You send us traffic to our store, and we’ll send you dollars," Larson tells Aleagha.

10:50 a.m. Larson has a meeting coming up in the hotel lobby. On the way down, he decides to walk through "Vendor Alley," where Connect sponsors have booths set up outside of the Connect main stage room.

In Vendor Alley, Larson passes longtime industry friend David Charron, CEO of the one of the nation’s largest MLSs, Rockville, Md.-based Metropolitan Regional Information Service Inc. Larson and Charron chat for a few minutes, catching up on what each has been up to.

Continuing down Vendor Alley, Larson passes and says "hi" to Chris Bennett, general manager of MLS solutions at the big real estate and mortgage data firm, CoreLogic.

At the top of the stairs down to the lobby, Larson runs into Kathy Condon, president and CEO of Massachusetts-based MLS Property Information Network Inc.

"Those were the best meatballs ever," Condon tells Larson, of the meal they shared the night before at LAVO, an Italian restaurant recommended by Matt Fagioli, founder of the Xplode Conference, an event targeted at real estate agents.

Condon tells Larson that she’s looking forward to the three-day MLS executive workshop Clareity is hosting in late February and wants to try spinning at RhythmCycle Scottsdale, a fitness studio owned by Larson’s wife, Lisa. Condon had seen a news clip of the studio posted on Vendor Alley, a popular industry blog written by Greg Robertson, co-founder of the MLS software developer W&R Studios.

11:15 a.m. Larson arrives in the lobby, where he meets Geddes for a scheduled meeting with Tracy Weir, a real estate marketing consultant, and David T. Garland, an executive at the commercial real estate finance corporation Pacific States Capital Inc. and a consultant with residential real estate franchisor Re/Max LLC.

Larson, Geddes, Garland and Weir head upstairs to a long table in the the bar’s waiting area. Garland introduces himself and breaks down his idea. Larson loves Garland’s vision, thinks it’s innovative and says he had a similar idea but dropped it because it was too big for Clareity to do alone. Larson offers to send Garland a copy of the prototype he prepared last year.

Garland and Weir say they would like Larson’s take on the technology and business aspects of the plan when it’s ready, and his perspective on positioning and messaging as they prepare to publicize it.

Weir also asks Larson if he thinks the idea would fit into the agenda of Clareity’s upcoming workshop.

Larson agrees to look at the business plan and thinks that the idea will make a good addition to the conference. He says he’ll work Garland into the conference’s program if the plan is ready to be unveiled.

Noon. After the meeting with Garland and Weir wraps up, Larson and Geddes walk a few steps to the hotel restaurant, where they have scheduled a lunch meeting with Saul Klein, senior vice president of listing distribution platform Point2 Technologies.

Walking to the table, Klein and Larson talk about their Connect strategies. Klein says he always debates whether to set an agenda. If he doesn’t set an agenda for the conference, there’s room for chance, unexpected and fruitful encounters. If he sets an agenda, he gets a lot of things done but it’s all predictable. There’s not room for out-of-the-box connections.

At the table, they order and then Klein pulls out a notebook and starts into the business he wants to discuss with Larson: Point2’s new publisher contract alignment initiative (announced in November); some suspicions he has about how Realtor.com handles leads from listings; and the new "Zillow Special Offer" feature on some Zillow "featured" listings. Klein thinks the new "feature" option increases a listing’s visibility on Zillow in return for the portal receiving a cut of the listing agent’s commission (Zillow says sellers fund the feature). He’s curious to hear what Larson thinks.


Gregg Larson and Saul Klein at lunch during Real Estate Connect New York City on Thursday, Jan. 17, 2013.

As lunch wraps up, Larson nods in agreement when Klein says, "The time is now," for control of listing data to swing back to brokers and MLSs. Klein thinks the momentum for change is building as the big, publicly traded portals introduce new strategies to increase profits.

1:10 p.m. After saying goodbye to Klein and Geddes, Larson runs into Ben Graboske, CEO of CoreLogic MarketLinx, in the lobby. They’ve been meaning to talk, and since both have some free time, they decide to meet.

Larson and Graboske head upstairs to the lobby balcony and find a corner table. Larson relays some information he’s hearing about CoreLogic that Graboske may be interested in. They talk for a while about the ins and outs of the industry, overlapping interests, and catch up in general.

"I haven’t even picked my (Connect) badge up yet," Graboske says before they split. It doesn’t look like he will.

2 p.m. After the meeting with Graboske, Larson heads back down to the lobby to meet Katie Yeager, a 26-year-old Kansas City broker-owner with a full-service, flat-fee brokerage that she’s looking to expand.

Yeager had contacted Larson out of the blue because she’d heard from several sources that he was a good person to ask for advice. Larson says he likes her gumption and her determination, and is giving her some perspective and introducing her around to others in the industry.

They’re set to meet at 2:30 p.m. in the lobby with Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate CEO Sherry Chris, after Chris finishes up some Connect-related duties.

Larson and Yeager stand talking in the lobby as they wait for Chris. Some friends of Larson’s drift by every now and then to say hello, and he takes a couple of phone calls.

Pat Stone, CEO of Williston Financial Group (WFG) and WFG Title Insurance, stops by and asks Larson for feedback on Connect. Stone says Brad Inman has asked him to ask around for honest feedback on how to improve Connect.

Larson jokes that Inman should demand that the Hyatt install faster elevators. They both laugh, and discuss a few of the conference sessions before Stone heads off.   

2:55 p.m. Chris arrives, held up by a Connect video shoot. Larson introduces her to Yeager. 

Yeager hands Chris a business card imprinted with her brokerage’s name: Your Future Address LLC.  

"Great name!" Chris says.

Larson steps away to take another call. Yeager tells Chris that her firm has handled 65 transactions in its first year, involving property valued at $14.25 million.

They chat for a few minutes. Chris says she’ll make time to sit down with Yeager when she visits Kansas City in a couple of weeks to check on Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate’s newest franchisee. The brokerage, Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate Kansas City Homes, was affiliated with Prudential Real Estate before signing up with Realogy’s newest franchise brand in December.

As they chat, Chris sits down on one of the lobby settees and takes off her pink shoes, putting on more comfortable ones as Larson returns. 

3:10 p.m. Larson has a scheduled meeting with Abe Schwarz, an agent with Realty One Group in Scottsdale, Ariz., and a director with Arizona Regional MLS Inc. (ARMLS). Schwarz has three ARMLS execs with him, including CEO Matt Consalvo and operations manager Austin Drew. Larson and Geddes want to introduce them to Clareity’s new store and answer their questions.

They find a nook in the hotel lobby balcony, and stand and talk. Larson casually pitches the benefits of the Clareity Store to them.

Consalvo and his team are interested in learning more, and make plans with Larson to follow up.

3:40 p.m. Larson heads back to the lobby. He runs into a good friend — Carlos Grass, CEO of Stratus Data Systems — and they spend some time chatting.

While hanging out with Grass, Larson sees Cary Sylvester, executive director of technology at Keller Williams Realty, in the lobby and walks over to set up a meeting with her. She agrees, but says she has to be somewhere. She hopes to be back around 5 p.m., but isn’t sure she’ll make it.

4 p.m. Larson chats with friends in the lobby, which begins to fill up with Connect attendees as sessions for that day start to wind down.

Jim Harrison, CEO of MLS Listings in the San Jose, Calif., area, comes by to say hello. Larson and Harrison talk about advertising, and what MLS Listings is doing in that area.

Trulia CEO Pete Flint comes by to chat with Larson. They talk about meeting up at Trulia’s San Francisco headquarters — Larson’s never been.

Sylvester doesn’t make it back.

5:15 p.m. With a full night ahead, Larson heads up to his room to call his wife and recharge for the evening.

6:30 p.m. Larson arrives at a Connect party near the hotel’s lobby thrown by Citibank, an event sponsor. Yeager meets him there. After some drinking and chatting, Larson pitches John Laracy, vice president of strategic initiatives at Citi, about Citi sponsoring the Clareity Store as an advertiser.

Laracy seems intrigued by the offer, and brainstorms with Larson and Yeager about how Citi can be involved beyond advertising. Laracy mentions a Citi mortgage tool that might be interesting. Laracy says he’ll bring up the store at an upcoming Citi mortgage planning meeting and get back to Larson.

7:30 p.m. Larson has decided to keep the dinner date with Caballero. Throughout the day, he’d asked several broker friends he met in the hallways if they were interested in joining him. Most already have dinner plans. But Chris Nichols, a broker with Prudential Utah Elite Real Estate in Orem, Utah, agrees to come.

8 p.m. Larson, Yeager, Geddes and Nichols sit down for dinner with Caballero at Sparks Steak House, a few blocks away from the hotel. The conversation drifts, but toward the end of the meal, Larson, sitting next to Caballero, offers his take on NAREP. Larson points out some of the challenges it must meet for the organization to realize its mission.

10:30 p.m. Dinner ends. Larson, Yeager and Geddes walk back to the hotel. Nichols had left earlier to deal with a business issue that came up toward the end of the meal.

11 p.m. After hanging in the lobby for a few minutes, Larson says good night to Geddes, who goes off to her room. Larson heads up to the hotel bar to see who’s there and meets some Connect people. I leave him as he orders a nightcap.

Early the next morning. I learn that Larson’s day had not ended at the hotel bar. I find an email message Larson sent at 2:33 a.m., with the subject line, "What a fine day," recapping the events of the night before.

"It was a long day for an old dude like me," Larson signs off.

Early Friday afternoon on the last day of the conference, Connect attendees mill about in the lobby of the hotel, decompressing in the afterglow.

A glance around the room: Inman News reporter Andrea Brambila sitting on a lobby couch talking with Drew Uher, co-founder and CEO of HomeLight; Imprev CEO Renwick Congdon dozing in a lobby chair; real estate consultant, speaker and entrepreneur Chris Smith standing and talking with leadership from real estate transaction management software company dotloop.

"Connect is the biggest expense-saver of the year," says Imprev Inc. vice president of communications and marketing Kevin Hawkins, who served as director of marketing at Inman News from 1997 to 2002 and helped put together the first Connects.

Accessibility is a big part of the conference’s appeal, Hawkins says. CEOs and other C-level executives are approachable for off-the-cuff discussions, and open to new ideas and products.

This aspect of Connect is why Paul Grasshoff, client services director of Silicon Valley tech startup Matterport has come to New York. On the final day of the conference, Grasshoff approaches Krisstina Wise, CEO and founder of an innovative 12-agent brokerage, The GoodLife Team, to demo his company’s product.

Wise sits alone on a couch in the lobby, bags at her feet, prepared to leave. Grasshoff introduces himself and gives a brief description of Matterport’s product.

"Can I show you what we’ve been up to?" he asks. Wise agrees.

Grasshoff pulls out his iPad and begins demoing the image service — a 3-D photographic rendering of a home’s floor plan that allows a user to virtually "walk" through a space much like Google Street View.

They speak for a few minutes and agree to stay in touch.

Grasshoff says he’s demoed the Matterport image service to more than 100 people during Connect. The following week will be spent going through business cards and following up, he says.

These types of meetings are a large part of what Connect is all about. Some attendees, like Larson, never even make it to a session.

Before Connect New York City, broker-owner Matt Beall of Hawaii Life Real Estate Services tweets that he hasn’t even looked at the conference schedule yet, and he’s already booked solid with meetings.

"Yep," Beall writes in another tweet. "The magic (of Connect) is in the space AROUND the content."


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