October is Luxury Month on Inman. Inman Handbooks offer deep dives on luxury marketing and agent branding, luxury staging, referrals, and more. We’re thinking about what luxury means now, examining how the pandemic is reshaping the needs of luxury buyers, and talking to top luxury agents, all month long.
The coronavirus has turned the world upside down, with everyone reevaluating what’s important. That reflection process has extended to real estate with buyers, sellers and homeowners rewriting their home must-have list when it comes to location and amenities, health and safety.
Broker-owner and REALM founder Julie Faupel has experienced this shift firsthand while leading her award-winning Jackson Hole Real Estate Associates team and launching real estate technology startup REALM in the midst of a pandemic.
Faupel sat down with Inman to discuss REALM’s evolution over the past seven months, what luxury consumers value most, what real estate professionals can learn from other industries and how the pandemic has changed her view on building relationships 100 percent digitally.
Inman: How has this year been for you and your business? I know REALM has the benefit of being a virtual platform, but how have you been dealing with COVID and keeping everything on track?
Faupel: I think it’s so interesting, because I wear multiple hats. I have a real estate company that will do about a billion dollars worth of volume this year [and] we have a real estate team that is the most successful in the region. Then I have REALM, which is now this virtual community of elite real estate professionals from all over the world. All three of those things kind of play into each other well.
Because I live in a destination — Jackson, Wyoming — our real estate market has been incredibly robust coming out of quarantine, just based on the shifting preferences of people who were living in urban environments. Now they’re saying, “Okay, I could live anywhere,” and we’ve all learned that maybe we don’t need to be married to a specific city to do our jobs.
We’ve seen a pretty massive influx of buyers coming into our market, very similar to other luxury destination markets. I think more people want to live where they love and, and we’ve all discovered that there’s much greater flexibility in that than we might have previously realized.
The real estate company is doing well, and our team is doing well. However, like many destinations, we need more inventory.
As far as REALM is concerned, we debuted at Inman Luxury Connect last year in November and then started onboarding members in March of this year. What we’ve seen is far greater diversity in people that are interested in REALM because of the virtual nature of the platform. We’ve attracted people from around the globe when our initial intention was to launch nationally in 2020 and then scale globally in 2021.
Just based on demand, we’ve ended up taking on people from nine different countries through the course of the last six months, and overall the platform, and the membership is doing really well. It’s allowing us to pivot because everybody was quarantined, and looking for that connection and new ways to do business and solve problems. It’s been wonderful to kind of build this virtual community in a way that I don’t think we ever expected, even nine months ago.
Before our interview, I read Inman’s previous articles about REALM and your launch at Luxury Connect. In one of the articles, a reader said he’d never pay $5,000 per year for a service like REALM. However, that was before COVID. How has the way people view REALM’s value proposition changed since the pandemic?
It’s funny because I think in real estate in general, sometimes it’s hard for people to shift their paradigm. It’s an industry that is really based on relationships and that person-to-person connection. I think sometimes technology or a technology-based solution is looked at with a lot of skepticism. I think that’s what you saw with that feedback.
But we haven’t had anyone, actually, [complain about the price] once they understand exactly what the platform does. [It’s] the fact you have this technology that doesn’t just activate your sphere of influence as a top producing real estate professional, but it activates the sphere of influence of all of the other members in a totally confidential encrypted environment.
When a client comes to me and I can say, “You’re listing with me because I have a track record of tremendous success in the industry,” you’re not just activating my sphere of influence. You’re activating the spheres from all of these other agents that share a similar track record to mine in all these other markets.
It’s such a compelling value proposition that we haven’t had a single top producing agent that has said, “Wow, you know, I’m not going to pay the subscription fee.” We’ve actually had quite the opposite. People say, “Wait, you should increase the price, or you’re going to get too many members.”
It’s been interesting to see that and expose it to the marketplace. We’ve seen tremendous feedback and a great response from the people that understand what the platform does and how it can enhance their business.
I know you went through an extensive testing process with luxury real estate icons, such as Gary Gold. What did you learn through that process? What have you learned since launching in March and shifting your original plans to include an international market?
One of the things we’ve been doing is asking everyone what their definition of luxury is. That dynamic and that definition has shifted through a global pandemic, where people are really craving connection.
What’s happening is the desire to be connected and to continue to serve their clients has far overwritten any of the fears that we heard of [initially]. We heard concerns early on that people didn’t want to upload their database. They were worried that maybe it wasn’t as private a platform as we had promised. But it is entirely encrypted and entirely private. Once they understand that, then they embrace it.
They’re even more excited about the information that we can provide. The ability for listings to be showcased, even if you can’t get to those different countries, [and] the listings are still being broadcast to this wider net of professionals. They really felt like, “You know what, I can go back to my clients with this incredible service, and an ability to transcend kind of geographic restrictions or limitations.”
I think we have been pleasantly surprised about the overall ethos of the agents we’re dealing with and their desire to serve. Ultimately, their desire to pivot and to find tools that allow them to practice real estate, regardless of any sort of pandemic or social unrest. What they’re looking for are ways to ultimately continue to serve and to do their fiduciary responsibility to their clients and their sphere of influence.
I’d like to touch on the meaning of luxury. I listened to a portion of the latest podcast you did, and you spoke about the importance of being able to replicate real estate experiences for consumers, similar to the hospitality industry. You said, through data, agents could immediately know what a consumer wants without the consumer needing to repeat it. So, what do consumers want now?
It’s interesting because what we’re saying amongst the REALM members, and amongst the people we’re dealing with, is that [the definition of luxury] moved.
We went from a more brand-driven luxury definition, where people were looking to iconic brands and saying, “This is luxury. I drive a Mercedes Benz, or I have a Rolex watch.” Now people are saying, “Well, I’m going to have a fabulous ski home in Jackson Hole, or Aspen, Colorado, and share experiences with my family.” That’s a luxury.
Post-quarantine and COVID, and the social unrest that we’re seeing, [there’s] now a peace-of-mind mentality. People are thinking, “If we have to quarantine again, I want to have a home that’s large enough to accommodate my family and my extended family. I want to have a community within my small sphere of loved ones.”
People are saying, “I want more elbow room, I want more space. I want to be able to go off the grid; I want to be able to grow my own food, I want to be able to raise cattle. I want to make sure I have the peace of mind that if something like this happens again, I will be able to be with my loved ones, I will be able to be self-sustainable, I’ll be able to get to the technology that I need, and I can do that from anywhere in the world.”
The shift in terms of the psychology of the client has gone 180 degrees in the opposite direction. It’s remarkable, and it’s been fun to think, as real estate professionals, how do we apply that shifting psychology to how we do business?How do we make sure that the client feels safe when they’re out looking at homes with us? How do we make sure that they know that we’re conscious of masking up, or air filtration systems or amenities that wouldn’t even have been a thought a year ago and putting those things at the top of the list?
The same thing is true with our listings. People are afraid to have people from other places in their homes because they don’t want to get sick, and they don’t want to have their safe environment compromised. So how do we give people the luxury of peace of mind?
It has boiled down to this very basic human element where it’s less about how much things cost, and it’s more about how we all live and how we all define luxury, whether we have a big bank account or a little bank account. We all deserve the luxury of peace of mind.
What you just said made me think about media, reality TV, and how people think about luxury real estate and luxury real estate professionals. It usually goes back to that brand-driven mindset you just mentioned. It’s easy to market and highlight an expensive, one-of-kind marble flooring, but how can you market something as intangible as peace of mind?
Everybody loves to look at homes and check out new things and these flashy ways of living and that’s all wonderful. But the essence of a true elite real estate professional is that we are relationship people, and everything in our lives is about excellence, about the long game, and making sure people know we’re here for them. We talked a lot about this, actually, on our REALM community calls we had amongst the membership.
Our responsibility is to be a bit of that peace of mind for people when they’re so scared, and they’re nervous about what’s going to happen in the real estate marketplace and if this going to turn into another recession. We have to be their pillars and be a resource for them — somebody that presents that trusted advisor role where we say, “It’s all going to be okay. And we’re going to get through this.”
That is the beauty of the community that we have built within REALM. It’s the people that don’t necessarily default to the sensational. We’ve all sold a lot of that really beautiful real estate, but we sold it because we are those sage advisors, and we do it in a discreet way and provide people that that peace of mind. That’s truly what luxury is — it’s something that’s understated and not necessarily so in your face.
Definitely. Let’s talk about something you do at your Thought Leadership Forum, where you bring in experts from other industries to teach your members. We’ve done this at Inman Connect and one of my colleagues wrote a story about major real estate brands bringing in outsiders to lead their companies. How has the forum enriched REALM and helped its members become better professionals?
I think it’s everything. In real estate, we can all get so busy and get so distracted that we stay pretty insular. It’s hard for us to stick our heads up and look outwards and say, “What’s influencing the rest of the world? And what are our clients out there experiencing?” [We need to ask that] so we can cater to their preferences and to the changing dynamics of industry. I think that’s such a critical facet.
It’s amazing because Abby Posner, who’s the chief creative strategist for Google, she was on one of our calls, and she talked all about the luxury of inspiration. And I was like, “What an amazing thing.” That’s such an incredible luxury because it makes you look at the rest of the world differently.
There’s a lot to be said about [having outside knowledge], where you start to think about your business a little bit differently, or you start to think about ways to activate your sphere of influence or market a home.
It’s such an incredible luxury, but it’s also a responsibility of ours because we’re not necessarily selling to other real estate people. We’re appealing to people in other industries; we’re appealing to people with other lifestyle interests. If we don’t look outwards, then we’re not necessarily serving our clients the very best that we possibly can. And that’s our job.
So whether it’s Abby talking about that, or Ryan Estis, who’s the sales coach for Motorola and the Dallas Cowboys and, talk about the statistics around people’s mind shift post quarantine and how to better serve and build relationships, all of those things are so terrific.
They all give an opportunity to take a deep breath, reevaluate your personal business, and then deploy different skills that you might not have otherwise had.
The gift of inspiration. That’s such an interesting concept. How can real estate agents give themselves that gift? How are you giving yourself that gift between being a broker-owner and running REALM?
It’s something that has to be deliberate because otherwise, your responsibilities will pull you in so many different directions. You have to have something that forces you to pick your head up and say, “Okay, wait a minute, this is going to be time for me.”
We’ve seen that in some of the resources that we’ve been able to pull in, whether it’s sharing a call with somebody that is from another industry and talking about what they’re seeing. Or [looking at] some of the trends outside of real estate and some of the ways they’re adapting and changing, or ways they have found to work through the challenge and find new ways of conducting business or new ways to create community.
We’re very fortunate in the real estate industry that our clients offer a diversity of skills and backgrounds. Oftentimes, I will find that gift of inspiration from people I’m serving and people I’m transacting real estate with. They’re from a field where you can take a minute and learn about what they do or about their success story.
It gives you that moment to say, “Wait a minute, this is a similar path, or they came from this type of adversity. And if I can apply this to my life, here are some lessons they learned, and there’s some sage advice that I can glean.”
We also have a wellness advisor within REALM, and every week, she comes up with a new wellness tip and some new way that our members can be more mindful, more healthy, [and] advise our clients on things like well-kitchens, Feng Shui and all these other different facets of living.
We’ve already touched on this a bit, but I wanted to talk about real estate being a relationship business. Of course, COVID has limited our face-to-face interactions, so we’ve had to turn to technology. What has REALM taught you about building and maintaining rich relationships virtually?
I was never a big proponent of video calls or growing relationships digitally. I’ve been pleasantly surprised that you can actually do it. When you take the time and you’re mindful, and you’re actually giving somebody your full attention over a video call, it’s a powerful thing. You can’t be the one that’s distracted, that’s doing 47 different things, where you’re zooming in, checking your email, and checking your phone. If you are mindful and attentive, there are relationships that have been formed [through video].
The biggest thing with any of the professionals I’ve talked to, or any of the colleagues who belong to REALM, it’s been all about reaching out and telling people you’re thinking about them. And picking up the phone and calling clients and calling loved ones, and staying on top of those connections.
At the end of the day, I think ultimately, technology has allowed us to do things like virtual happy hours and community meetings that were never on our radar. We’re doing virtual happy hours with people from overseas and from all over the country and connecting more than we probably would have if it had just been a regular year.
[Technology has] enabled a lot of communication and enhanced a lot of relationships.
In talking to you, I’ve been thinking about a common theme in my previous Inman Interviews. Everyone is talking about getting back to basics and reconnecting with the soul of real estate, which is helping consumers fulfill one of the most important and basic needs: housing. What do you think about that sentiment and how does it fit into REALM’s mission for 2021?
Real estate and the desire to buy or to sell is the culmination of something. When you look at somebody buying their first home, or you look at somebody who is selling a home and moving on to a new adventure, or somebody’s who is buying a vacation home, all of those things are significant life events. We get to play a very small role in a very big aspect of somebody’s life, and that isn’t anything technology can ever replace.
There are feelings and emotions and incredible joy and opportunity, and sorrow, and all of these different very human aspects of real estate. I think that is exactly right, we can all convince ourselves about [the importance] all of these different tools.
We’ve developed one in REALM that that can help to enable real estate transactions. At the end of the day, it is all about human connection and using technology to enable human interactions and relationships. That’s at the heart of things and what the real estate industry will always be about.
That wraps right into the goal with REALM. We never want to replace any of those relationships with the technology we’re building. We’re looking to enhance and to develop greater relationships and deeper connections and empower those trusted advisors who have devoted themselves to being a part of these incredible life experiences of their clients.
They’re devoting themselves to building a community and being a part of the [REALM] community success, so then the [REALM] community, in turn, can help elevate that real estate professional’s success. We just want to be an ally to those people, and we want to honor the commitment and luxury they’re creating for others.
Editor’s note: A question misquoted the price for REALM. It’s $5,000 per year, not $5,000 per month. We apologize for the mistake.