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EscapeHomes' Lessons In Online Survival, Success

Written by on Thursday, 25 April 2002 7:00 pm

At a time when so many real estate dot coms have been voted off the Web, the boot strapped EscapeHomes has emerged as a survivor.

What's more, the Orinda, CA-based online purveyor of second dream homes managed its success in the new economy the old fashioned way -- with a business plan steeped in childhood dreams, grown-up business acumen and not a dime of venture capital.

"The story of entrepreneurship is alive and well. From day one we had a revenue model and we were the first to acknowledge the demographics of the large baby boomer group and its impact on real estate for purchasing recreational, vacation and second homes," says Clark Thompson the founder and CEO of EscapeHomes, Inc.

Since April of 1999, EscapeHomes has used information technology to match second home buyers and sellers with real estate professionals and affiliated segments of the second home industry.

Not merely a struggling survivor on an island of failures, EscapeHomes has enjoyed a conversion rate of site visitors-to-agent leads that has soared 100 percent from 2000 to 2001. Real estate agent registrations have increased 35 percent this year and in February Web traffic increased by more than 200 percent, compared to February in 2001, Thompson says.

Three years ago, Thompson boot strapped his start-up with $100,000 from his personal savings and the company hasn't looked back since.

"No debt. None. I think that alone is incredible, but I'm no different from any other entrepreneur. I used my own personal savings as a commitment to my idea and faith in online real estate, at a time when (Web sites devoted to) second homes and vacation living wasn't something anyone was ready to put money into," Thompson says.

Niche grab

Including vacation, resort or retirement homes, the second home market enjoyed a 10 percent jump in sales in 2000, after rising 9.3 percent from 1997 to 1999, according to the National Association of Realtors latest figures.

That's largely because of the nation's 82 million so-called "baby boomers," people born between the years 1946 and 1964. Now aged between 38 and 56 years, the baby boomers comprise almost one-third of the nation's population and are expected to boost the second home buying trend even more as they age. Del Webb, a Pulte home division that specializes in retirement communities, says 43 percent of boomers plan to move when they retire and 39 percent plan to move out of state.

As the first online operation with full-fledged services devoted to the second-home market, the appropriately tagged EscapeHomes is a natural vehicle for second home buyers looking for, well, escape homes.

The Web site features listings of vacation and resort homes, retirement homes in active adult and continuing care communities, timeshares and fractionals, both for sale and for rent in 275 cities nationwide and 20 countries worldwide.

Visitors can search for properties by city, by town type -- beach, ski, golf, island, lake or world town -- or by category -- timeshare, resort or adult communities. The Web site also showcases destinations by describing the unique flavor of each of the more than 300 communities, the climate, local attractions, amenities and events for each.

A home for RASes

EscapeHomes also has helped validate the Resort Area Specialist (RAS) a real estate agent, broker or developer with special skills in second home and community marketing. The Web site also gives both RAS agents and buyer's agents (who only represent buyers) an opportunity for special niche marketing generally not otherwise available.

"People once traveled to cities where they thought they might buy a second home. As they walked down the street they'd walk into a real estate office. Our generation is no longer driving to San Diego or Phoenix or Miami. They are going to do it online, but they are going to do it with those same, once obscure, small real estate companies and agents who know the community" said Thompson.

RAS and other second home real estate professionals are key to EscapeHomes' successful triple-tiered revenue model, which is based on time-tested realty revenue models.

The model includes non-transactional fees, such as area specialists' and vacation home owners' annual fees for marketing Web pages, and timeshare developers' set-up fees for Web pages for resorts marketed on EscapeHomes. Also, close fees are charged to real estate professionals who obtain EscapeHomes leads that develop into closed sales. And lead-generation fees are paid by timeshare developers for inquiries from EscapeHomes users.

"From day one, we had a revenue model. It was the first business plan based on being paid for online leads -- a traditional aspect of the real estate referral business," said Thompson.

EscapeHomes has begun to remove disarray from the fragmented timeshare industry by offering it a ready-made online marketing system. Among the more than 200 real estate firms and industry professionals with the EscapeHomes network, EscapeHomes' consortium of major time share developers includes Marriott Vacation Club International, World Mark Trendwest and Bluegreen. Top resort developers, vacation and rental home property listings and time share offers, together, under one electronic roof, is unique to online real estate marketing.

"We realized a year and a half ago that time share was going to be a major player online and that no one had been working with time shares to build a lead generation system that provides quality leads," said Thompson.

Credible consumer content

Instead of pounding the media with reams of public relations materials, EscapeHomes also generates content for publications including a "Top 10 Town To Buy A Vacation Home" survey that's used by 50 publications on and off line, including the Wall Street Journal, Kiplingers, CBS Market Watch and Coastal Living.

Smart Money, Second Home and RealtyTimes also have featured stories about EscapeHomes and Thompson has been an expert source on the "It's Your Money" radio broadcast.

"I have not spent one cent on public relations and we've been fighting off advertisers" says Thompson.

Thompson, a residential broker and partner in a San Francisco Bay Area real estate brokerage firm, and a member of the National Association of Realtors and the California Association of Realtors, was once a wide-eyed kid fascinated by vacation and resort areas he visited with his grandparents in Wyoming.

"I'm a real estate broker and I've always been interested in how real estate agents get their business. I had a sense early that real estate online would work. I had an early Web site and when I put up my listings and realized that it worked I thought this must be a great way to have lead generations online," Thompson said.

"The second part of my story is that since I was a little kid, I always loved vacation areas. We grew up in Wyoming and used to go to Jackson Hole, Wyoming and I always just had this keen interest," Thompson said.

Thompson who owns vacation homes in Palm Springs, CA, is taking EscapeHomes to the next level with co-branding, affiliate programs and distribution partnerships as he opens the doors to the first round of investors.

EscapeHomes also plans to broaden the market niche into further recreational and vacation living, including vacation rentals and more retirement communities as the Web site continues to exhibit how a small niche isn't necessarily a small market.

"It's not enough to just survive," Thompson says.

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  About the author, Broderick Perkins

Individual news stories are based upon the opinions of the writer and does not reflect the opinion of Realty Times.