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ULI's secret to virtual meetings

CRE industry group has maintained member interest despite coronavirus pandemic

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  • | 6:00 a.m. July 3, 2020
  • Commercial Real Estate
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COVID-19 should have been a death knell for the Tampa regional chapter of the Urban Land Institute (ULI).

That’s because the prominent commercial real estate industry group relies heavily on in-person meetings, networking sessions and educational seminars to maintain member interest and engagement.

But while the pandemic has pushed ULI’s Tampa Bay chapter — along with dozens of other trade groups — to shift its focus to exclusively virtual gatherings, the move to an online platform hasn’t eroded the participation of its more than 600 members.

“I think it’s hinged on having a strong foundation of content and really engaged members,” says Lucia Garsys, the chapter’s chair and a deputy county administrator for development and infrastructure with Hillsborough County.

“We were able to maintain solid content for members because we had it to begin with,” she adds.

ULI is a Washington, D.C.-based global network of “cross-disciplinary real estate and land experts” whose aim is to “set standards of excellence in development” and enhance housing and communities, real estate finance, sustainability and economic performance. It also works to shape successful cities and regions, according to its website.

Some virtual events that are being conducted regionally have been even more popular than those held in person.

For instance, a recent “monthly stimuli breakfast” that’s typically capped at 120 participants due to space attracted some 200 people to its online equivalent.

A late March “town hall” symposium online on the commercial real estate industry’s response to the COVID-19 crisis drew more than 150 participants, and an early June meeting featuring county administrators and other municipal leaders on the Zoom digital platform garnered a similar member response.

“People are used to seeing each other in person, so we’ve continued to try and evolve as we navigate this new world,” says Siobhan O’Kane, the chapter’s long-time director. “But what hasn’t changed is that we knew it would be very important to maintain quality programming.”

ULI Tampa Bay has managed, too, to hold even more events virtually — at eight — over the course of the pandemic than it would have otherwise, tackling such subjects as multifamily development.

“We’ve found people are very comfortable with getting together this way, in part, because they don’t have to travel anywhere,” O’Kane says.

The group has managed to stretch creatively, too, to keep its members engaged. It’s held a series of invite-only, “Members Circle” meetings with between 15 and 30 participants, for instance, to discuss the retail business, urban development, resiliency, community health and suburban development.

The chapter also launched the first in a “Young Leader Roadmap” series discussion that brought together younger members and more senior leaders to talk about ways to navigate disruption.

The chapter also has hosted less heady get-togethers, as well, such as a “virtual happy hour” as part of its Women’s Leadership Initiative.

The Tampa Bay group has had help from its national organization, too, which has facilitated Zoom meetings and other technology that has allowed for broad meetings online.

ULI national also has made recommendations — such as background music as “bumpers” for online breakout sessions — that have kept meetings on track and running smoothly.

For now, at least, the group is planning to hold future tete-a-tetes virtually. In August, the chapter will host an online overview of new office development in Tampa Bay — a gathering that had originally been scheduled for April.

O’Kane says the chapter is monitoring guidance from local health officials, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and ULI national in regards to when it will physically bring members together again.

It also intends to take the collective “comfort of members” into consideration before scheduling in-person gatherings, she says.

If and when ULI Tampa Bay does reconvene “in real life” meetings — perhaps in the Fall, Garsys and O’Kane say, depending on the status of the virus in the area at the time — it will start small. Meetings will likely be limited to 30 members, O’Kane says.

“We intend to get creative about how we bring people together again when we’re ready to do that,” O’Kane says. “We may start off resuming walking tours exclusively, as we’ve done in Tampa and downtown Sarasota and elsewhere.”

Regardless of how members come together in the future — either virtually or in person, Garsys says what’s stayed static is the membership commitment to the organization and its prosperity.

“The soul of ULI is moving forward,” Garsys says. “That’s really what makes it a different trade organization than many. Our members have a belief system that comes into play and they take it seriously.”





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