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After spending five days in Orlando, Florida with the National Association of REALTORS Annual Conference, I thought it might be helpful to provide the 99.95% of the Association who didn’t go to the event with a few take-aways from what we saw. With trainers, consultants and trade show booth staff in every corner of the Conference, Matthew Ferrara & Company easily saw a little of everything going on. Here, then, are ten take-aways of what you missed.

1. If the National Association of REALTORS can only get 12-15,000 of its one-million-plus members to come together annually, there’s something much more wrong than just “the market.” If we take “attendance” as a “vote of confidence” in the National Association’s ability to put on an exciting, inspiring and useful event, it’s clear that about a million people didn’t think the event would be worth the $2000 investment in themselves (flight, hotel, registration and some Mouse ears). Not to mention that Florida is supposed to have some 90,000+ members (1/10th of the national total) who were within a few hours drive of Orlando – no flight or hotel needed – but somehow didn’t make the trip. Speaking as a vendor (you know, the ones who make the event possible with their booth fees and sponsorships) the NAR had better rethink the Convention for next year. For some ideas, see “Not Again!” next.

2. Ok. Not Again! If I see one more training session featuring the same old tired blather about postcards, sphere of influence, click-the-mouse-here-to-save and this is the off-button to your lockbox, I think I’ll become a plumber. Sure, there were sessions on social networking and SEO and other “high tech” topics – but they were there last year, and the year before. And while nobody knows better than us that it takes about five years before the majority of REALTORS think a technology isn’t “going to go away,” repeating these topics with not much new to say isn’t what the industry needs. If REALTORS take five years of education sessions to “accept” blogging and ten more to “design a recruiting plan” then somebody isn’t asking the right questions about what the membership wants. More hands-on classes on Word? Why not just put Advanced Solitaire on the schedule and we can all just forget about selling homes….?

3. The Councils have it going on! Specifically, the Council of Brokerage Managers (CRB)and the Women’s Council of REALTORS (WCR). Not only did they have great attendance amongst their members (WCR told me they were UP from last year, which was packed!) but their courses were exciting, positive and topic-new. CRB continues to innovate in response to its members needs: While most local boards were spinning around aimlessly wondering why nobody showed up to their $20/seat training classes, CRB is taking their education online, worldwide, so that time-and-space no longer set the standards for filling classes – and meeting members’ needs. Maybe we should just let CRB/WCR run the next annual conference? Good idea!

4. If you walk through the trade show with your phone to your ear, pretending to talk to someone so you don’t have to talk to the vendors, your business is dead. Last year, we ran out of things to give away; we almost started tearing up the rug and handing out chunks with our website written on the back. This year, we shipped in 1000 FREE CD-ROMS filled with ideas on leads management, online marketing and other sales ideas. We shipped 500 back home. Why would an agent walk up and down 4000-plus booths in the trade hall and not bring a wheelbarrow to fill with every freebie offered to them?

Oh, I know – to make room for the bling-bling they were going to stuff into their pockets at the jewelry booths. Oh, sure, I’m shocked that not everyone wanted our stuff; but the cool-new-text-message-marketing vendors across from us had to call for reinforcements just to get people to stop. Obviously, next year we’ll be wearing mini-skirts and dying our hair blond, too.

5. Education directors are saints. Every company and association education director we talked to should be nominated for Sainthood in the Order of Patient and Hopeful Professionals. No matter how big or small the organization, the education directors were still pushing – still hopeful – that their members could get the message that the market isn’t going to “save them” all by itself. And they are trying everything – online, offline, even offering unlimited education for a flat annual fee – to get their members to upgrade skills and technology. They stopped at every booth, sat in the back of every educational session and took lots of notes; if we could just do a blood transfusion of their learning-enthusiasm to their members, the industry might recover faster. Somebody give these people a raise.

6. Every REALTOR owes Bank of America a big apology. In fact, we owe it to every bank and mortgage vendor who underwrote the bulk of the events, including the Bank of America night out at Universal Studios. We should be ashamed of ourselves for accepting their money after we just spent the better half of the last decade demonizing banks as “trying to put us out of business.” No wonder REALTORS have such a hard time rehabilitating their image in the public: we talk out of both sides of our mouth – taking their sponsorships while lobbying against them on Capital Hill. Certainly, Bank of America shocked me for even appearing at the trade show – considering how easy it is for banks to connect with consumers through their transaction management programs, while most REALTORS can’t even send a PDF-formatted copy of their P&S agreement by email. Still, someone should have stood up at the opening session and did an honest “mea culpa.” It’s easy to argue for protectionism when the market is lining your pocket with easy pickings; but REALTORS have some gall showing up with their hats out when it’s the other end of the market.

7. It’s not your daddy’s real estate business. One of the most striking assessments of the demographic transformation happening in the real estate industry doesn’t involve the changing consumer. Rather, it’s the changing REALTOR – and nowhere does that change show up more starkly than how the different generations of agents dressed up (or at all?) at the trade show. Younger agents wore sportcoats, shoes and combed their hair. They looked you right in the eye, shook your hand firmly and asked good questions about how we could help them. Older agents showed up in near-pool-wear, rolled their eyes at your conversation and generally acted as if they were heirs to a treasure pile that somebody had just temporarily misplaced. Younger agents got up from their seats on the bus to let other sit; older, coiffed but over-lipsticked agents took up two seats with their “important” packages and purses. And the biggest differences were at the international events and trade show floor, where both foreign dress and manners put the State-side veterans to shame. There is hope – perhaps audacity? – that the industry can become something much more than it is today, when the wheels of change finally grind over the “it’s all about me” generation of REALTORS.

8. Not only did the event break down on generational lines, but a definite schism appeared along technological lines. People showed up at our booth, saying they just received a text-message from us to stop by, or they were twittering with someone on their smartphone who was talking about one of our educational sessions. A fair amount of Blackberry Hunchbacks were seen walking the floor and bumping into people (and booths). And the usual number of Bluetooth Borg did the zombie shuffle down the convention halls, whispering (and yelling) to the voices in their heads. On the other side of the gap were the agents lined up at the cyber-cafe to check their Yahoo web mail or – gasp! – AOL using a free computer. How quaint! These uber-frugal agents were obviously representing the “classic model” professional, unencumbered by batteries or backaches, though none-the-less lost as they checked their printed programmes and convention hall maps to find out where the next photocopier session was being held. Screech! Sorry! Did I run over your walker with my Segway?

9. It was great to reconnect with friends. You might get the impression that my ten take-aways are mostly negative and that the Conference was a bust. Far from it! Rather, I haven’t had so many hugs and kisses in months. From past clients to people I’d only met online, there were just as many smiling- as there were head-shaking-moments at the conference. Of course, it got a little difficult to run down for morning coffee when stepping into the elevator unshaven still didn’t stop the, “Hey, I was in your class…” or “I love your blog!” Yet it just goes to show that “real” networking doesn’t stop just because we’ve been doing social networking “online” throughout the rest of the year.

10. There’s a LOT of work yet to be done in the industry. If you put together all of the different perspectives of the Conference – from attendance to classes to the trade show floor and the friends we caught up with – the sum is simple: The industry is at the Phoenix-flashpoint where a once-glorious bird has become run down and ratty; It clings to its perch, hoping for a few more days, a few more birdseeds, fearing what’s about to happen. One of these days it’s going to go up in smoke and flames. Quick, painless, complete combustion. What will arise from the ashes will be a young, new, healthy phoenix, ready to learn, grow and reach for the skies. For now, however, the real estate industry remains precariously perched – just waiting for someone to come along and set it on fire. Now, if I can only just find a match….