tampabay.com

A resort at home

New Tampa's Grand Hampton knows a built-in social life sells.

By EMILY NIPPS
Published May 11, 2007


TAMPA - Developers of super-planned gated communities have long dictated all the details needed to keep their neighborhoods neat and pretty - from approved color palettes to the right mailbox styles.

Now LandMar Group, developer of New Tampa's Grand Hampton, has upped the ante. It doesn't just offer the usual amenities, like a state-of-the-art fitness center and sparkling pool.

It offers buyers a built-in social life and sense of togetherness, carefully scheduled by hired activity planners.

Or, in the company's parlance, "directors of fun."

Having a neighborhood cruise director isn't for everyone. But residents in Grand Hampton don't need to look past their front gate to enjoy tennis camps, toddler play groups, happy hours and parenting classes. Bible study, yoga and business networking hours happen right in the community clubhouse. Residents don't even need to get in their cars to enjoy holiday festivities; Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny come to them.

Can door-to-door foot massages be far behind?

Maybe not. But as LandMar executive Michelle Branham says, "We try to offer a little of everything to everybody."

"We want it to feel like a fun home, someplace where people feel special, " said Branham, senior vice president of lifestyle services for LandMar and its affiliated Hampton Golf.

While this particular brand of fun might not appeal to loners and individualists, plenty of people apparently are in the market for both a home and a good time, all in one package. The directors of fun plan everything from craft groups to pool parties to billiards nights.

And when residents get the itch to venture outside the gated boundaries, directors plan that fun, too.

Careful marketing studies of each of LandMar's communities show that Grand Hampton families prefer to stay close to home, with the occasional group outing to the zoo or Busch Gardens. Residents of other LandMar developments actually vacation together; Brooksville's Southern Hills is planning a trip to a Colorado resort in August and a wine tasting in California's Sonoma Valley in September. At LandMar's Osprey Cove subdivision, near the Florida-Georgia border, as many as 50 people go on a cruise every year.

Homes still selling

LandMar brands this lifestyle as "club living, " something that homeowners have come to expect in large new developments. Southeast Hillsborough County's FishHawk Ranch is known for its packed activities calendar and self-contained entertainment.

"People aren't happy with just a big home in a good neighborhood anymore, " Branham said. "They want things to do, and they want it right outside their front door."

The idea of master-planned activities for the entire neighborhood doesn't necessarily appeal to all.

Jay McGee, a longtime resident in Tampa's non-gated and eclectic Seminole Heights neighborhood, said he likes the idea of encouraging neighbors to gather socially. Seminole Heights is known for its "porch parties, " where several homes host neighbors and guests at one time.

But if the director of fun's programming is used as a sales tactic, "I would worry it would draw only a select type of person to the neighborhood, creating a lackluster cluster of sameness, and meeting the needs of a few types of people and excluding others that don't necessarily want to have the director's version of fun, " McGee said.

However, he said, people can make their own choices whether to buy homes there or not.

Many do. There's enough demand to keep Grand Hampton selling homes priced at $300, 000 to $1-million when some planned communities are halting construction. LandMar is still in the buildout phase of the 1, 100-home development, and around half the homes have sold quickly in the past two years.

Meeting neighbors

Christy Malone moved to Grand Hampton with her husband and two small children two months ago and loved the ready-made sense of community when she arrived. As a stay-at-home mom, she liked how easy it was for her children to find playmates and how safe she felt with active neighbors around her.

"It doesn't feel like you live in a subdivision, " said Malone, 47. "It's almost like living in a resort."

The lifestyle programming is built into her $490-per-quarter homeowner association fees, "which really, if you think about everything you've got here, isn't bad, " she said. At the Malones' last home in Lakewood Ranch on the Manatee-Sarasota county line, they paid $2, 500 per year just to maintain the grounds.

Stephanie Foust, one of Grand Hampton's first homeowners two years ago, likes how easy it is to have adult interaction. She has a 2-year-old son and tends to meet only mothers and their children, so she likes the option of having aerobics classes and poolside barbecues to attend when she wants to meet different people.

"It's really just a way for LandMar developers to differentiate themselves from other communities, " said Barbara Lafferty, a University of South Florida marketing professor.

Above and beyond

Planned fun is not for everyone, Lafferty said; some people prefer to make their own friends, or keep a low profile. But the concept does appeal to people crunched for time who want an instant social life.

And it's good business, Lafferty said, especially during a housing market slump.

"They're trying to go above and beyond what people might expect from a gated community."

Finding the right mix of activities involves extensive research. And selling the concept is easy in the information age.

Each LandMar community, including Grand Hampton, has its own Web site, called eStreet Interactive, where residents can log on and see what classes and activities are offered. They can post messages and ask questions that are quickly answered by LandMar or Hampton Golf representatives. Online scrapbooks show children taking Zumba classes or visiting the Easter Bunny.

All of these ingredients create a sense of community, Branham said. They nurture a feeling of privilege. And they get families excited about their new home, sometimes taking classes and attending parties before they have even moved in.

"They moment they sign that contract, " Branham said, "their lifestyle begins."

Emily Nipps can be reached at (813) 269-5313 or nipps@sptimes.com