The Real Deal New York

Making moving real estate

November 27, 2007
By Alison Gregor

Some real estate agents are finding that moving images can make it easier to move properties.

In a highly charged real estate market where brokers are unloading unfinished properties that don’t yet exist, a virtual tour of real estate still under construction can give marketers an edge.

Computer animation techniques now allow video presentations to offer a sweeping if still imaginary tour of an entire building, peopled by Prada- and Gucci-wearing virtual residents. Marketers are even speculating about the day when video presentations will feature celebrity pitchmen.

“The speed at which pre-sales are going, [you] need to sell much more than floor plans,” said Kevin Small, director of branding and creative marketing at Alpha Vision. “If you don’t have some version of virtual presentation, it’s like you’re not in the game.”

Alpha Vision, which has helped market Florida developments by Philippe Starck, is working on several New York projects, including 1600 Broadway on the Square.

Jeffrey Katz, chief executive of Sherwood Equities, which is developing the property, said he incurred the expense of a virtual tour presentation, which can run from $5,000 to hundreds of thousands of dollars, because he felt the property was one that couldn’t be fully appreciated without one.

“Most developers do it because they’re selling early in the job, and there’s not too much to see,” he said. “We’re selling onsite much further along in the construction cycle and will have a half-completed lobby and fully furnished model apartment. But we are in an environment that’s hard to describe and it’s the one thing that separates us from all the other buildings in New York.”

The condominium tower will be smack in the middle of Times Square, with terraced apartments and a third-floor roof park surrounded by constantly moving stock tickers, shimmering neon signs and the changing images of gargantuan billboards at the intersection known as the Crossroads of the World. The virtual tour playing in the sales office and also available on DVD will highlight all this.

Shaun Osher, head of Core Group Marketing, which is using a virtual tour to market a Ritz-Carlton condominium project on Baltimore’s inner harbor, said video animation costs are directly determined by their quality. Prices are dropping, he said, but high-grade animation can still get pricey.

“If you could videotape it, you would, but nothing is existing yet,” Osher said of why he uses virtual presentations. “It gives you a feel of how it’s going to be to live in the space.”

Still, the relatively large cost of creating virtual tours means that typically only larger projects use them.

Brookfield Properties hired a company called Screampoint to create an animated three-dimensional model of Downtown Manhattan.

“They put together a presentation of what Lower Manhattan will look like as it develops over the next five years,” said Melissa Coley, spokeswoman for Brookfield Properties. “We’ve found it really helps potential tenants envision their future neighborhood.”

Screampoint also did a video animation for the new New York Times headquarters in Times Square and, on the residential side, for the 16-story Hubert in Tribeca, showing figures mingling on terraces and entering its lobby. Developer Robert Siegel of Ghent Realty Services chose to do the animation since the building was one of the first to be marketed in Lower Manhattan after September 11.

Siegel said he’s in the process of deciding whether to use computer animation to market the 20-unit Waverly in Greenwich Village.

“We’re converting an existing office building to residential,” he said. “So you have some of the bones, but the interior isn’t there.”

There are other considerations, especially with the large number of potential clients outside the city.

“What happens when you’re not marketing to people in New York City,” Siegel asked. “Even a fabulous sales center won’t help.”

Screampoint New York director Wendy Cohn said video animations cost typically less than 1 percent of the cost of a $100 to $200 million building. She said her company also offers additional value to those in the real estate industry, using custom-designed software to create an interactive model to which information databases can be attached.

“In, say, a model of Hudson Yards, you can click on a building and get the zoning or all the tenants of the building or whatever databases the owner of the model is interested in,” Cohn said.

The technology is growing in sophistication, Small agreed, enabling video designers to evolve from using stock footage of people to actors in custom shoots.

“A lot more custom shoots is where things are heading,” said Small. “Before, in order to be economical, you had to pre-shoot a generic model and use it for multiple projects. Now, a stylist picks out belts and shoes for a shoot for a particular project. A developer might ask, ‘Why can’t they be wearing Fendi?’ We want customers to bond with the person in the movie.”

That means developers could even use celebrities in their computer animations one day, he said.

“I would love to do that,” Small said. “It would be a win-win for a developer.”

But Osher said featuring real celebrities in virtual tours might be a bit over the top.

“What these three-dimensional images hope to achieve is something as real as possible,” he said. “Celebrities take it out of the realm of reality in my opinion.”

How to make something from nothing

By Stuart W. Elliott

Marketers bring virtual reality to life through a variety of means, utilizing everything from detailed architectural drawings to pieces of molding that will adorn a still unfinished building.

Typically, AutoCAD plans are supplied by developers or architects to help create the structure of the building in virtual reality.

“We also get physical samples of material,” said Kevin Small, director of branding and creative marketing at Alpha Vision. “It might be a specific type of marble, or a photo of what the marble looks like, or glass, or a wenge surface on a wall.”

Small said non-video renderings “are still the bread and butter of project marketing” but “don’t have the same emotional impact.”

“If the market flattens, virtual reality will be more important,” he said. “Consumers will want to know what’s the difference between projects.”

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