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Developing a development: Sprinting toward selling

MiraBay's marketing team moves to the sales phase. The first buyers will become the most effective selling tool.

By JUDY STARK, Times Homes Editor
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 1, 2002


TAMPA -- The first 100 buyers at MiraBay, the new residential community rising on the eastern shore of Tampa Bay, "are the most precious buyers we will ever have," Brenda Kunkel says.

"They are the most sacred. Your first 100 make the next 500 possible," says Kunkel, the marketing muscle behind the project for developer TerraBrook. "They become MiraBay. They're part of your selling team. What we are trying to project -- they are it. They become the community."

photo An artist’s rendering of the MiraBay Club, the development’s recreation complex.

[TerraBrook illustration]

Those early buyers are the people whom later buyers will see splashing in the pool, hanging wreaths on the doors of their new homes, having a drink at the club or motoring their boats down the canals behind their homes out into Tampa Bay. They'll send the wordless message: "Wouldn't you like to be one of us? You could live like this, too!" It is these early buyers who turn the dream into reality. No wonder they're precious.

For months Kunkel has overseen the keeping of a list of "preferred buyers," people who heard about MiraBay early on and have asked to be kept informed. The list has grown from 100 last November to 790 this week, buyers who think they might want to live in one of the 1,750 single and multifamily homes that will start rising later this year along the freshwater lagoon or on the saltwater peninsulas of the 750-acre community in the developing SouthShore area of southwest Hillsborough County.

The invitations go out Monday to those potential buyers to a private preview June 22 at which the community's builders will be announced and buyers will have the first opportunity to reserve a homesite. ("It's homesites" when talking to buyers, Kunkel insists. "It's never lots.") The Web site (www.mirabay.com) goes live this morning.

photo
[Times files]

Brenda Kunkel is director of sales and marketing for TerraBrook, the developer.


Kunkel was bubbling over with excitement when she came up with an idea for rewarding those who have patiently waited in line for nearly a year to be among those most precious buyers. ("They've been clawing at the door," reported Dean Luce, the project's marketing services coordinator. "They want to leave checks with us now." Homes at MiraBay will range in price from $200,000 to more than $1-million, including homesite.)

The potential "founding owners" will be invited to write a refundable check for $1,000, which entitles them to be the first to tour the property, sit down with a builder and select a homesite.

Kunkel said she believes this plan is unique in the industry.

"I want to be fair to those who've been with us all along," she said. "We owe these people. We don't want to open up to the public until all these early birds have been served."

The $1,000 deposit also is a "way to get the tire-kickers out," said Brian Sewell, vice president and general manager for the project.

"It tells us who's qualified, who's really ready," said Kunkel, "and who decides, "This isn't for me' or "I can't afford this' or "I'm not ready to buy now."' In the home-selling business that's called qualifying a prospect, and it only makes sense to spend your time with people who are demonstrably qualified and ready to buy, not with those who are just looking.

photo
[Times art]

"They're not worried about getting the right builder," Kunkel says of these potential buyers. "They're worried about getting the right lot." Some of the preferred purchasers have been looking at site plans and determining where the sun will rise or set, what the views are, asking how big a boat can be accommodated at each dock. In a project whose major selling point is its direct deep-water access to Tampa Bay, "you're not going to sell one single lot until you have that," Kunkel says.

Kunkel had another reason for wanting to find out who's seriously interested and who's not. "We've got to find out what we've got," she told the marketing team. What do they want? What will they buy? "If 100 people give us checks and they all want 60-foot lots" -- those are the smallest; homesites will range from 60 to 100 feet wide -- "we've got to think about that: in developing and pricing and marketing. We've got to know that."

* * *

The energy and enthusiasm the marketing team is feeling these days are in marked contrast to the atmosphere six weeks ago in the windowless conference room where they meet each week. It was a grim spring, fueled by the distraction of a possible joint venture with Arvida that ultimately didn't happen and by the growing pressure to make decisions and keep the project on time and on budget.

On one cranky, fractious day, no one was happy with anything as they studied the floor plans and samples for the permanent sales center. Nobody seemed to be on the same page. A fireplace was in, then out, then back in again. A children's play area moved around the floor plan twice. The sales agents' offices moved from the second floor to the first. "I never liked having the agents upstairs," Sewell said. "I'm totally in favor of getting the agents downstairs."

Nobody liked the furniture or the dark wood flooring. "This doesn't look like Old Florida to me," said Ginger Frailey, a visiting sales executive from TerraBrook headquarters in Atlanta. "This furniture is far more formal. I'd expect to see that in Atlanta."

"This is very upscale," Kunkel agreed. "We don't want it to feel like it's brand new," she told interior designer Kay Green and her colleague Kelly Green of Kay Green Design in Winter Park.

"This is supposed to be like an existing old homeplace we've renovated," marketing consultant Don Niederpruem said, "with wood decking and a screen door slapping out back."

Kay Green scribbled a note. "Maybe I'm going back a little too far in time," she acknowledged, to a polished Victorian look instead of the coastal-casual 1920s look that the team has been reaching for. (Green will later tell the group, "We've had 27 years of experience, and we have very thick skin. We can create any look you want.")

Everybody stared long and hard at the area planned for the "topo table" -- the big scale model of the community. Everybody hated the room. At 9 feet 4 inches, the ceiling seemed much too low for a space where potential buyers will likely spend a lot of time.

The team got architect Paul Basham on the phone in Jacksonville. We need to raise the ceiling here. Can you give us 6 inches?

He gave them 12.

The team turned its attention to the restrooms. Tile on the wall or beadboard? Beadboard. Frailey insisted on hooks where women can hang their purses. "No purses on the floor," she said.

Blue and white tile is planned for the floor. "Not carpet?" Frailey asked.

"No carpet," Kunkel said. "Men don't aim well."

A week later, the team convened again, and this time they spent three hours combing over every inch of the MiraBay Club, the recreation complex. How many chairs and tables at the Poolside Cafe? Lockers or baskets in the changing rooms at the Gym? Where will massage therapists meet clients and make phone calls?

They focused on the Lagoon Room, a second-floor banquet hall for private parties and community events. They studed which way the doors swing and where chairs will be stored.

There's a catering kitchen, but there is no service elevator where food and equipment can be brought in. The caterers shouldn't be tying up the public elevator, and they can't be expected to carry heavy food and supplies up the stairs.

Well, can't we move it, or add another elevator, someone asked.

Sewell was tense, and annoyed. "We are in for permitting. We are out for bid," he told the group evenly. "We can't keep changing this."

Kunkel was clearly irritated. "This is the first time I'm seeing this," she said.

Some days no one was happy with anything.

* * *

Suddenly the clock is ticking faster and the calendar is filling up with events. On June 18, the MiraBay developers will host a party at Armani's for the eight builders who have signed on. In another burst of Kunkel's creativity, they were invited to that event when a courier hand-delivered to each of them a bottle of Dom Perignon champagne (purchased for $102.95 apiece at Sam's Club) to celebrate the christening of a new community, in MiraBay's nautical terms, with the invitation tied to its neck in the form of a miniature burgee, a triangular flag that flies from a sailboat's mast.

At the June 22 introductory event ("your coming-out party, guys," is how Kunkel described it to the marketing team), there will be gifts for the potential buyers: packages of note cards with watercolor renderings of the project -- the club, the entrance, the lagoon. Weeks ago, Kunkel pondered how they would be packaged. "A box is too ordinary," she said. "I don't want ordinary. I want out there. I see MiraBay like nothing else that has ever been. We've got to be outside the box." They've come up with packaging that reflects Kunkel's mantra for the community: "water, water, water; lifestyle, lifestyle, lifestyle": a blue box tied with nautical cording.

For the first 100 "founding buyers" there will be license plates for the fronts of their cars: mirrored rectangles with the word MiraBay in distinctive blue script, a typeface specifically designed for this project.

"You wake up in the middle of the night and think, "How are we going to do all this?"' said Kunkel, 53, who has been doing it for 23 years. ("You either love this or you hate it," she says, and there was a time earlier this spring when, looking weary and stressed, she muttered, "If ever I was going to quit a job, now is the time.") She has been an accountant and real estate agent and most recently was director of sales and marketing at another TerraBrook project, Westchase, the fastest-selling development in the Tampa Bay area. In 1994 the Southeast Building Conference named her Florida sales and marketing director of the year.

"It's very high energy. It's very high demand. It's very stressful. But we have a good, hardworking team, and we'll get through it, and it will all be worth it."

For now, the steady pace has become a sprint: to plan the event, to issue invitations, to create a video, to set up a Web site, to design brochures with information, floor plans and elevations of the homes builders will offer, to create a spiral-bound book of information and renderings that builders will take to lenders, to place ads and stories in trade magazines, to ready the temporary sales center, to order the caps and shirts and Lands' End tote bags that will bear the MiraBay logo.

The team takes a minute to proofread a brochure. Should the MiraBay Club be "club" or "Club" on second reference? Kunkel likes the capital C.

"You're the cheese, Brenda," said Niederpruem, the marketing consultant, deferring to her.

"I don't know what's right, but I know what I like," she replied.

It comes down to this: "We're only going to get one chance to launch this community," Kunkel said. "We might as well do it the way we want."

* * *

NEXT: Launching MiraBay.

About this series

The marketing team for developer Terrabrook invited a St. Petersburg Times reporter to attend its meetings and write about the process of creating and marketing MiraBay, a new residential community on Tampa Bay. This is the third in an occasional series of stories.

For more information

To reach MiraBay by phone, call (813) 286-8899. The Web site, scheduled to go up this morning, is at www.mirabay.com.

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