Fifty years ago, a group of three managers for real estate multiple listing services met in a hotel room in the state of Washington, forming a regional council that evolved over the decades into a large international group that draws hundreds of MLS industry professionals to its annual conferences.

Founded as the Northwest Council of MLS, the group was renamed as the Council of MLS in 1998 to reflect its expanded membership.

Though the group does not function as a trade association or a lobbying and advocacy arm for MLSs, participants say the group plays an important role in educating members about current industry events and issues and providing a forum for networking.

"Now we’ve got MLSs from all over Canada and the states coming," said Anne St. Dennis, a former Council of MLS president who serves as manager of communications, industry relations and legal affairs for the Greater Montreal Real Estate Board in the province of Quebec, Canada.

A benefit of the organization is not that it has grown larger, she said, but rather that it has remained relatively small. "The most important thing about CMLS is that we’ve managed to keep it intimate enough. It provides a forum and opportunity for MLSs to get together in an intimate setting to be able to learn from one another. You really, truly network with one another on a first-name basis."

There are already groups like the National Association of Realtors and the Canadian Real Estate Association that lobby on behalf of members, and the goal of CMLS is not to overlap with those groups, St. Dennis said. "(CMLS is) meant to be there for the networking and the relationships we build. One thing we decided was not to do advocacy work."

The Northwest MLS, a regional multiple listing service in the state of Washington, last month hosted the CMLS annual conference, which drew about 425 attendees from 46 states and Canadian provinces, including representatives for about 100 MLSs, and vendors to the MLS industry also play a role in the conference and the group’s leadership.

MLSs are typically represented in the council by top management, including CEOs, presidents and executive officers, though non-members can also attend council conferences. Vendors can display products in a small trade show.

St. Dennis said that her board’s participation in the council played a big role in a transformative MLS initiative in Quebec. A group of 12 real estate boards in the Montreal area, representing about 14,000 subscribers, are consolidating MLS information into a single database, she said.

Membership in the council "helped in spades. If we were to be very insular and not go out there and see what’s happening in the world we would not have accomplished what we did in Quebec in the last five years," she said.

MLS data-sharing and consolidation are a hot topic in the MLS industry, with several regional and statewide initiatives in the works. The California Association of Realtors last month approved the creation of a statewide real estate data-sharing effort that could develop into a statewide MLS, for example, and there are already several regional data-sharing and consolidation efforts established in that state. Also, three Wisconsin MLSs in September announced the creation of a data-sharing system to serve most real estate professionals in the state.

Proponents of data-sharing and consolidation plans have said that such programs can create greater efficiencies and potentially lead to cost savings by eliminating the need of brokers and agents to join multiple MLSs in a given market area that they serve. Also, consolidation and data-sharing efforts can eliminate the need to enter property information multiple times into a variety of MLS systems. Meanwhile, opponents of such plans have argued that regionalization efforts do not necessarily lead to cost savings for individual members, as they can leave existing organizations in place while adding new entities to operate and maintain.

MLS data-sharing initiatives were among a range of topics addressed at the CMLS conference in October. Speakers at the conference included U.S. Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission officials, who offered presentations about competitive issues and antitrust enforcement efforts related to MLSs. The conference also focused on technological changes in the industry.

Real estate consultant Ann Bailey, in a presentation about industry changes, stated, "Innovation is critical to the future success of the brokers, agents and MLS organizations," and encouraged rules "that foster innovation and position the brokers to compete effectively."

And Michael Vaska, a Seattle lawyer for Foster Pepper PLLC who has experience in antitrust lawsuits, posed questions in his presentation about how MLSs can set rules that "foster innovation while not determining winners and losers among member brokers on service or rate innovation" and how MLSs can equitably serve the interests of member brokers while adapting to industry changes.

University professors and MLS executives were among the other presenters at the latest conference.

Monica Beck, the new CMLS president who serves as chief operations officer for Northwest MLS, said that the host organization for the conference forms the agenda each year, and the Seattle conference was intended to help participants better understand industry challenges, such as legal and regulatory scrutiny, technology, competition and changing business models.

"We have controversial topics that come up," Beck said, adding that CMLS "is the least political organization you’ll find. We try not to have political discussions. We stick strictly to the business of MLS."

In addition to its annual conferences, the group also has planning sessions and telephone conferences. Like St. Dennis, Beck noted that relationship-building and networking are at the core of the council.

"It’s a small enough group; you literally end up knowing everyone," Beck said. MLS organizations pay annual dues to participate in the council. Most board members are MLS officials, and the board also features two members from the MLS vendor community.

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