Every property has a story to tell. Take Sparrows Point, Maryland, for example. The four mile wide square peninsula that juts into the Chesapeake bay has a geographic story. Once a marshland it was granted to Thomas Sparrow, Jr. (no relation to the fictional pirate) in 1665 as England was in the midst of a civil war. It was used for peach orchards, hunting and a vacation spot for Baltimore’s elite until 1887 when an engineer recognized its potential to make a deep-water port. The Pennsylvania Steel Company then convinced the owners of the land to sell and set about creating the world’s largest steel mill. The Bethlehem Steel Corporation purchased the mill in 1916 and spend the next half century making metal for some of America’s most important projects like girders for the Golden Gate Bridge, cables for the George Washington Bridge and war machines for the two world wars. All along an illuminated star sat high above the building, like the fabled one that brought two Jewish refugees to the town where their son was to be born, to which the mill owes its namesake.
The property also has an economic story. Decreasing shipping costs, industrialization of poorer countries and new technologies to refine scrap metal all pushed steel prices to historic lows. This led to Bethlehem Steel’s bankruptcy in 2005. The site, once an economic generator and local point of pride, had become a symbol of America’s dying manufacturing prowess and was used even used as a backdrop for the gritty crime series The Wire.
Finally, there is an aspirational story. For years, the property cycled through owners before being bought out of bankruptcy by Hilco Global in 2012, which teamed up with Redwood Capital Investments in 2014 to create a joint venture called Sparrows Point Terminal, LLC. In January 2016, the project rebranded to Tradepoint Atlantic. One of the biggest ports in the U.S., the nearly five square miles site will allow companies to import goods via supertankers into its docks, manufacture products, and ship domestically via rail and trucking hubs. There will be everything from a logistic center, breakbulk storage to 8 acres of retail, all incentivised by tax breaks from the local government keen to see the land brought back to its past productive glory. This is the story that property brokerage giant JLL and award winning architect Gensler are tasked with telling.
Recently I was lucky enough to moderate a panel discussion at our popular educational seminar series CRE.tech LIVE. I was joined by three of the most influential people in this effort to ask them a little more about the momentous task of finding this land’s new highest and best use. What designer Kate Kirkpatrick, real estate strategist Amanda Zank, and property broker Ryan Burrows had to say about the cutting edge techniques used to market this piece of land illuminates the future of real estate.
Gaping the physical/digital divide
One of the first things that jumped out at me about this project was how the team designed a clever way to display the property’s highlights that is both tactile and tech-forward. “We didn’t want to have sophisticated clients looking over maps in a trailer,” said Kate. At the same time, doing site tours was often not an option. The enormity of the site means that touring the entire thing takes over three hours and requires special footwear.
So, they built a simple but modern makeshift office out of shipping containers. Not only does the construction material stick with the theme of the project it allowed a two story interactive map to be created inside. Prospective tenants can zoom in and out to see where any site is located in relation to the plan. They can also see where the site is geographically, giving them a better understanding of the logistical advantages of the project’s unprecedented access to the eastern seaboard. A huge amount of data, such as drone footage, can be instantly accessed for every plot.
“We really wanted a choose-your-own-adventure approach,” Amanda explained. Instead of focusing on the specific technology to use, they first thought about the story they wanted to tell. For a property like Tradepoint Atlantic, that story changed drastically depending on the tenant. Uses for the property range from a palm oil processing plant to a pharmaceutical manufacturing facility to UnderArmour’s e-commerce logistical center to temporary storage for Volkswagon’s recalled diesel cars. Since each use case is so varied, there needed to be a way to tailor each client’s experience.
Since mixed use buildings are becoming the new standard in many urban areas we might see a lot more of these interactive interfaces. This makes for a much better experience than having to package the entire value proposition of every property every time. As Kate from Gensler so expertly put it, “We don’t want to make every client have to go through 70 slides.” As anyone in sales will tell you, nothing disengages a captive audience like a long, drawn out presentation.
Branding the experience
For such a large, important project the marketing team realized early on that it was critical to stick to a branding strategy. “People interact with the brand before they even arrive at the place,” Amanda said. The steel mill was a part of the city’s identity. A large neon star, meant to resemble the star above the biblical town that gave Bethlehem Steel its namesake, was visible from downtown Baltimore. The mill’s closure added to the hard times that fell on the historic city and the extinguishing of the star was a constant reminder of the loss. Now JLL is trying to reconstruct the identity of the location while paying homage to what built the plot into what it is today.
“Branding for a project like this is all inclusive,” Amanda told the crowd during our conversation, adding “How is the signage? How easy is it to find and park? How are you meeting with each client?” She tried to think through all of these details beforehand to keep the message and delivery consistent. She showed this video that was produced for the project to highlight the significance that the new development will have to the surrounding community. The website has a great look and feel and does a great job showing how much work has already gone into the cleanup and what the facilities will look like upon completion.
Most listings are not large enough to support a multi-media filled web page or professionally produced video. But this shows the type of marketing material that is being demanded by potential tenants. For innovative projects, ones that tenants generally pay a premium to be part of, part of the sales process is proving that the concept is well thought out. Signs that simply state the brokerage logo and listing agent’s telephone number do not show the audience that the building was created with cutting edge designs. The purpose of branding is to go beyond displaying information. Done successfully it can convey emotions and emotions have a way of converting prospects into customers like nothing else.
What they want vs what they need
Sales is an artform. It goes beyond order taking and instead inspires the customer to think bigger. A broker is seen as a property expert and so they can help guide a client to make the most of their real estate decisions.
The Tradepoint Atlantic project is a great example of how this can be done. On its surface, the location is a great access point for a large port. Therefore, most of the leads that inquire are thinking about a shipping warehouse for their products. But, the land also has features like a water treatment facility, easy access to freeways and a rail depot that make it an ideal location for manufacturing.
Ryan Burrows, the broker on the panel, spoke to this point, “Some of these groups are trying to fulfill one local need, but we are trying to show them how they can change their whole supply chain to be more efficient. A building product distributor for example, most of their raw material comes in gets sent to a manufacturing facility and then sent by rail. They can do all of that here far more efficiently.”
He noted that these kind of suggestion didn’t come without pushback. He is basically telling companies that they need to shift the way they organize their supply chain. Again, most people see brokers as property experts, not supply chain gurus. But since so much of logistics is tied to geography his suggestions often made a lot of sense. Many companies took these suggestions to heart and ended up utilizing far more of the site than originally intended. This comes at the benefit of both the landowner and the tenant.
Real estate decisions tend to affect every aspect of a company’s business. It is important for brokers to realize this and help the client understand what these impacts will be. Don’t be afraid to counsel the client about what is the best use of a property, even if it means disagreeing with them. If it helps them improve their bottom line, they will thank you for it in the end.
Broker marketing done right
This is one of the best examples I have seen of how to successfully market a property. It is not an easy task for a project like this. The size of the lot and the huge spectrum of potential uses make it a complicated story to tell. But, with the help of some savvy designers, marketers and brokers, JLL was able to utilize technology to create a campaign like no other. While most brokers will never have to market anything remotely as complex, the techniques that were deployed can be used as an example of what the future of real estate marketing should and most likely will look like.
If you have any questions for the team, feel free to reach out and I will be happy to put you in touch with them. Please join us for our next CRE.tech LIVE event where we will kick-off Real Estate Tech Week in New York on October 9th. The theme will be The Future of Work and we will be talking about another great case study examining how technology is changing how workplaces are designed and marketed.