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The Real Deal Los Angeles

The sell of the party

Over-the-top bashes are almost a mandatory marketing tool for ultraluxury listings, as brokers employ #hashtags and sponsors to amp up the buzz factor — but do they move the properties?
By Aimee Rawlins | October 19, 2018 07:00AM

On a Saturday in early October, 150 guests descended on a penthouse in Santa Monica. Stepping off the elevators, they were greeted by women in ’60s-inspired dresses and immediately ushered through a hallway lined with 1,100 yellow pinwheels. It was the first stop in a party dubbed “Endless Summer Insta-Penthouse” — a series of rooms designed to be highly Instagrammable.

The party was a chance for guests to get an exclusive look at the 8,000-square-foot home, which was not yet on the market. Built in 1962 and recently renovated, the penthouse at 535 Ocean Avenue boasted stunning views of the coastline and a 2,600-square-foot rooftop (hot tub included) from which to soak it all in.

The Endless Summer event is just one example of the high-end, over-the-top parties that Los Angeles brokers are using as a way to generate excitement for their listings. It’s rare that these parties yield a direct and immediate sale — and, in fact, a number of homes that have hosted extravagant parties are still for sale — but brokers say it’s a way to differentiate themselves and their properties, especially as luxury homes are spending even longer on the market.

“It’s the first time I’ve embraced the power of Instagram and done something to this extreme,” said Rochelle Maize, of Nourmand & Associates, who has the listing for the penthouse and threw the party.

The $15 million property wasn’t even listed yet when the #EndlessSummerPH hashtag was pushed out by partygoers. Maize said her vision for creating advance buzz for the space is part of what helped her land the listing over other brokers who were vying for it.

“There was a whole process of elimination over five interviews. It was quite difficult,” she said. “I thought the best way to showcase it would be to do some sort of Instagrammable-type museum, because there’s just so much going on. I pitched it that way, not knowing how I was going to do it.”

To make her vision a reality, she brought in Alexander Ali, founder of the Society Group. The PR firm works with a variety of luxury brokers to throw high-end parties, never repeating the same concept, according to the group’s pitch.

The Santa Monica penthouse is owned by Dr. Howard Murad, founder of Murad Skincare, whose “whole philosophy is staying in touch with your youth,” Ali said. “In our pitch, we said, ‘We’re going to remind people of their childhood, pour them a martini and sell their property.’”

That also translated into catering from Hot Dog on a Stick (which was founded on the Santa Monica Pier), entire rooms filled with beach balls, bathtubs turned into ball pits and, most impressively, a trampoline photo booth on the roof.

Celebrating the “Estate of Zen”

The desire to showcase the spirit of the property was the driving force behind another high-end party this summer that Ali collaborated on, thrown by Compass agents Sally Forster Jones and Tomer Fridman.

The party, dubbed “Estate of Zen,” showcased a $25.5 million home on Thrasher Avenue, high in the Bird Streets. Guests were greeted by a line of women in identical white dresses — one hostess for each pair of guests. As the sun began to set, guests released butterflies from the balcony. A sit-down sushi dinner was followed by a taiko drum performance and then by a Japanese geisha performing opera from “Madame Butterfly.”

“Right now, on unique and luxury properties, just having a broker open house or a broker open house with some food isn’t quite enough to get the buzz,” said Jones. “We’re trying to get as much excitement, as much action, as much drama for the property.”

The hope was that guests — roughly 40 to 50 high-net-worth individuals and influencers — would experience the property as they would if they lived there and entertained: from daylight through dusk and into the evening. The home had a reduced price of $22.9 million as of press time.

But the goal of opulent parties isn’t just to appeal to potential buyers who attend the events — it’s also a way for high-end brokers to stand out from the competition, said Andy Butler, marketing director of Aaron Kirman Partners at Pacific Union.

“As the industry evolves, it’s harder to distinguish between broker X and broker Y. The natural progression is seeing how far you can push the envelope,” he said.

Also, since so many homes on the market are spec homes, he said they often need something to elevate them above the rest.

“A spec home doesn’t have architectural significance or pop culture significance,” said Butler. “So an event creates its own moment of significance.”

Butler said Aaron Kirman has thrown several of these parties over the last few years, noting one in May at 277 St. Pierre that featured a sommelier and classical music for several hundred guests, primarily brokers and high-end buyers. They wanted to encourage guests to experience every aspect of the $50 million home, which includes an underground gym, pool and bowling alley. The home was still on the market for that price as of press time.

The sales cycle on high-end properties can be quite long, and, in fact, luxury homes overall are spending more time on the market. A recent report from Douglas Elliman found that luxury single-family homes spent 120 days on the market in the second quarter of 2018, compared to 85 days in the second quarter of 2017.

On top of that, Butler noted that while listings might get press when they first come on the market, interest can drop off after a few months.

“You need to keep reinventing yourself, reinventing the property,” he said. “A party is a really easy to way do that. The hardest part of a party is the venue, and we have that.”

Financing the fêtes

Even with the venue locked down, the parties are expensive, and brokers said there’s a definite calculation in determining whether “the push is worth the squeeze,” as Butler put it.

The brokers shoulder many of the costs themselves. Butler said they’ve thrown events that cost anywhere from $5,000 to $250,000. But for the parties at the top end, he said it’s “really, really rare that an out-of-pocket is that big.” Principals take on some of the cost, as do sponsors, who are frequently part of these events.

The Endless Summer party was co-sponsored by Maize and Vesta Home, which does high-end stagings (and revamped the penthouse’s look as well). The liquor was donated by companies eager to get their brands in front of influencers.

Ali declined to say how much that party cost, but said he’s planned events that run from $10,000 to $100,000, depending on the size and the feel.

“These types of parties are a lot more economical than you would think,” he said, referring to the Endless Summer event. “Because Instagram is about simplicity and color.”

For the Estate of Zen party, which Jones said cost about $80,000, they really wanted to embrace the whole idea of zen. She said one of the first things they did was reach out to sake companies to find an alcohol partner. Costs were also shared by Fleetwood Windows and Doors, which created 16-foot windows for the home, and Creative Art Partners, which does high-end art staging. Guests received engraved stainless steel chopsticks as a luxury memento to take home.

Santiago Arana, a managing partner at the Agency, said their first really extravagant open house was in 2013, an event that boasted “Top Chef” winner Michael Voltaggio and was co-sponsored by Lamborghini.

“Now we have multiple events with clients who we co-brand with — alcohol, luxury cars, jewelry — depending on what the house calls for,” Arana said. “They bring their top clients, and sometimes the clients end up buying the house or the car.”

More recently, Arana, Mauricio Umansky and Stefan Pommepuy, also of the Agency, threw a “twilight soirée” at a $40 million Santa Barbara estate that was built over 100 years ago and has hosted luminaries like JFK and Martin Luther King Jr.

The guest list was 80 to 100 people, largely from the Agency’s Rolodex, but Arana said they also invited high-end brokers in Montecito. He said that while the event was expensive, it’s already paying off. People immediately started talking about the property, and he showed it to a billionaire the next day, which he said was a direct result of the soirée.

The events aren’t always huge blowouts. Intimate dinners for 10-15 people can be incredibly effective — especially compared to traditional showings for one or two people, according to Arana. He added that the Agency often works with money managers or wealth management companies that want to host a dinner at a property. The company will pay for the chef, the servers, the valet — “all we have to do is provide the property,” said Arana.

“For us, it’s great; it’s essentially doing 16 showings at once for people who can afford it or know someone who might be interested,” he said.

The “like” factor

With the ubiquity of social media, an over-the-top event can have reverberations far beyond that one night.

“The marquee sales in the ’80s, with celebrities and studio heads who were buying, I’m sure they were having parties,” Butler said. “But there wasn’t a way to say to all the wealthy people in the world, ‘Look what you can do with this house.’”

At the Endless Summer party, the entire space was decked out in ready-made Instagram backdrops, and guests were encouraged to use the #EndlessSummerPH hashtag in Instagram posts (and received gift bags from Murad and Jo Malone if they did so).

Ali said they also invited several influencers back to the penthouse to shoot it for their personal accounts, in exchange for tagging the property.

“Marketing the property is more about finding the identity for the property,” Ali said. “The Insta-Penthouse party helped brand the property and find the identity — it informed the marketing video, informed the broker’s open house, informed the social media campaign.”

Planning the party

Conceptually, many of the brokers start designing the parties in-house. Jones said she has three people on her staff who are devoted to marketing, and they start brainstorming concepts at the beginning of the process. Butler said all of Aaron Kirman Partners’ parties start with him and Creative Director Matthew Momberger generating ideas. They pitch them to the property owner and Kirman, and once they get the green light, they’re responsible for the vast majority of the planning and coordination.

The Agency, meanwhile, is unique in that it has an entire creative studio in-house, The Agency Creates, which includes a division dedicated to events and partnerships. This enables them to cultivate relationships with luxury brands like Tesla, Moët Hennessy and LVMH, which might be interested in co-sponsoring events. It not only helps agents secure listings but can extend the marketing cycle beyond that one night, according to Mike Leipart, the managing partner of new development and founder of The Agency Creates.

“We are able to narrate events specifically for each property,” said Leipart. “From concept, design, and execution, we are able to oversee every detail.”

Butler said that with the ultraluxury properties, the goal is really to showcase what the property is capable of, throw a party that people enjoy and generate intrigue from people who didn’t attend.

There’s also, crucially, the fear of missing out, which brokers can use to their advantage.

“In L.A., there’s a bad case of FOMO,” said Ali. “So we really try to create that FOMO and reinvent it every time.”