GR Broker Tries Something New

May 7, 2004
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GRAND RAPIDS — The reception area at Grand Rapids Real Estate's new downtown office suite doesn't look new at all, and it's nothing like what you'd expect of a firm dealing in commercial real estate.

Indeed, except for its wide-angle view of the Van Andel Arena, the reception room in the third-floor walk-up (renovation at 64 Ionia Ave. SW hasn't reached the point of installing the elevator) has enough antique furniture to look like an office out of the 1920s.

But that décor appears to be a personal indulgence on the part of the firm's chairman, Brian Silvernail, because the back half of the office consists of a recording stage, some very powerful computers and a proprietary software package called I-CAST on which the patent is pending.

Silvernail explained that he invested in the equipment and software development because — like every other industry — real estate brokerage is going through some very rapid and major changes.

And what he told the Business Journal he's trying to do with his highly computerized back shop is catch the most recent wave of change in the marketing component of the industry.

What Silvernail claims to be doing is bringing real estate agents methods of Internet marketing that he believes are incredibly more efficient and market penetrating than traditional forms. And the bottom line, in his view, is that it can do a far better job for the property seller and, hence, the agent who's doing the selling.

He stressed that he makes the technology — up to and including Internet video streaming — available to anybody in the business, for a price that, he said, can vary widely.

Silvernail will be demonstrating both bundled and unbundled services during an open house at the firm May 20.

What GR Real Estate possesses is a small film set with a green horizonless backdrop against which an agent can make his sales pitch about a piece of property. As he does so — just like one of the local TV weathermen — he sees his own image superimposed on a computer and can gesticulate accordingly.

In this case, however, the agent's image is imposed not on a series of national-to-local weather maps but on either a still or moving image of a property.

Though there's nothing particularly exciting about weather map technology, it is very new to real estate, Silvernail says. And that's just the start, he adds, of what I-CAST can do.

He said he had I-CAST developed because he had a fundamental problem with traditional advertising.

"You were spending all this money, but you had no idea how many people were looking at it," he said. "If they were interested, fine, but it is just visual clutter for most people."

Beyond a certain point, however, he said, I-CAST returns hard and valuable data — including names — to the seller and agent.

The point in question is a virtual drive-by with color imagery done on one's computer. "First, you can get a look at the property that's just like one of those sheets you pull out of the tube that's out front of the house on the for sale sign.

"But if you want a virtual room-to-room tour and a 360-degree view of the house and grounds, you've got to click for access and you have to commit to giving us your name, address and phone number before you get in. Now we know who you are and what interests you, and we can move from there."

But if I-CAST feeds back information to agents, Silvernail said it was the power of computer imagery that started him on this course.

Three years ago he went to the convention of the International Council of Shopping Centers in Las Vegas. And like all the agents and developers there, he was pitching property — in this case a number of vacant parcels along the emerging South Beltline.

But instead of handing out spec sheets and brochures like all the other agents and developers, he was handing out CDs that people could take back to the office and put into their PCs.

The CDs, he said, not only contained specifications concerning parcels worth about $300 million, but also due diligence-level market research and demographics, plus aerial photography with computerized topography and 360-degree panoramas of the properties.

He said the material astounded people at the convention.

Today, he notes, I-CAST is at the point that he can generate video streaming in which a glamorous actress can take a potential buyer — in the comfort of his home on a rainy day — around a mansion, a spec building or a vacant property next to an expressway.

He showed the Business Journal a dozen buying sites, including Ebay, on which he can make such material available. The rate of hits and nature of the responses, he added, even can tell a seller quickly whether his asking price is too high.

To Silvernail, the beauty of the technology is that sellers literally can use it to put their property before a world market. A house in Cascade, he said, can be virtually shown in Columbus, Kansas City or Denver, Munich or Aix en Provence — and vice versa. The same applies, he said, to an office building that needs syndicated owners or a parcel of vacant land that needs developers.

Moreover, any agent can walk into his shop, negotiate a fee or a share of commission, and tape anything from a simple virtual drive-by of a house to a full virtual tour with all the bells and whistles — including selective e-mailing.

"Or they don't have to do it here," he added. "They're free to contract with anybody else having software that can do this — or develop their own.

"Either way, I think it's great way for a brand-new agent to make a start."

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