(ran PC edition of PASCO TIMES)
Those invited to tonight's dinner reception at the Saddlebrook Resort can expect a lavish affair.
A harpist will pluck strings as guests sip free cocktails. They'll munch fantail shrimp on tartletta with lemon cream and charred eggplant on aioli croutons with roasted peppers.
Just another fancy wedding? A debutante ball?
Tonight's festivities are part of an elaborate real estate pitch from Transeastern Homes, a Coral Gables developer set to build 1,600 homes east of Bruce B. Downs Boulevard in a project called Live Oak Preserve. The 600 guests expected to attend are among those the developer "cordially invited" in a massive direct mail campaign aimed at Tampa apartment dwellers.
But don't expect the social niceties to linger too long after that last champagne bottle is uncorked.
Well past the stroke of midnight on Saturday, the party guests turn into potential home buyers jockeying for the best plot of land on the 1,300-acre development. Each one plunked down a $1,000 deposit that binds them to a meeting with a Transeastern sales representative. Those with lower reservation numbers get first dibs on choice models and neighborhoods.
If buyers can't choose a home in five minutes, then other customers can cut ahead and make their offers while the buyers consider the decision. If buyers don't choose within 30 minutes, their appointment ends and they go to the back of the line behind possibly hundreds of other buyers. Those who don't buy must write a letter requesting a refund.
Dubbed a "priority launch" by Transeastern, it's the latest approach to selling homes, en masse, in New Tampa.
"What they're trying to do is create urgency by giving buyers a half-hour to make a major decision," said John Schleimer, a national marketing consultant based in California. "It's a lot like a car dealer saying the car you're looking at is the last one on the lot. Urgency makes a buyer move."
Transeastern spent $1-million gearing up for this weekend in a media blitz that began earlier this year. Billboards, 2,500 airings of radio commercials and more than 100,000 direct mail pieces were used in one of the most aggressive marketing pushes New Tampa has ever seen.
After a similar campaign in Fort Myers, Transeastern sold 167 homes in 22 hours. Live Oak Preserve can top that, says the man behind both campaigns.
"We have about 400 who have already committed," said Joel Lazar, a Transeastern vice president in charge of sales and marketing. "We'll probably exceed that number."
Transeastern is selling a $320-million gated development with homes that look old-fashioned and range from 1,200 square feet to 4,000 square feet. Prices start in the low $100,000s and reach almost $300,000. The homes, just south of the Pasco County line, will be clustered in 16 villages set amid nature preserves.
Lazar said he designed a media campaign to target people who live in apartments. By his estimate, there are more than 14,000 in New Tampa and 40,000 in all of Tampa who pay between $800 and $1,600 a month in rent. A campaign like Live Oak's is meant to nudge apartment dwellers into considering a different option, Lazar said.
"If you weren't ready to buy a home, we wanted you to feel the urge to go ahead and buy," Lazar said.
Much of the marketing appeals strictly to renters.
"Stop shelling out big money on rent when you can plant strong family roots in a home of your own," one direct mail piece states.
"Are you still throwing away money on rent every month for a lifestyle that is going nowhere?" a radio spot asks. "Right now, you can own a home for a little as the monthly rent you pay in the most exciting New Tampa community ever."
"Family" and "roots" were the two buzz words that Lazar wanted to define the Live Oaks campaign.
One of the first direct mail pieces depicted vivid images of that idea.
A young couple and their dog stroll down a tree-lined street. An adoring husband and wife cuddle with their newborn. A boy and girl hold hands as they walk down a country road. An illustration of three majestic oak trees is emblazoned atop the images, echoing the mailer's catch phrase: where family roots can be firmly planted.
"First time I saw this, I liked it," Lazar said. "It was very appropriate. Every shot is in the shadow of an oak. It's very nostalgic."
Lazar said many of the streets will be canopied, but not all.
"We can't keep all of the trees," he said.
The campaign gives the impression that Live Oak is on land covered by 100-year-old oak trees. One mailer states that the future community will be "under the shade of century old oaks."
In fact, Live Oak is former grazing land for cattle. Much of the land is cleared of any trees at all.
That problem should be taken care of by the importing of trees, said Don Evans, the owner of the Evans Group, an Orlando firm, who is the project's architect.
"I've been out there and looked around and said, "Oh my God, it's so open,' " Evans said. "But I think you'll be surprised by how natural it will look. Transeastern has a real landscaping budget."
As it builds many of the homes, Transeastern will plant 15-foot oak trees that will soon grow to be 40 feet, Evans said.
"In five years, you'll have tree-lined streets that will be gorgeous," Evans said. "Overnight, it'll be like: holy cow."
In the meantime, however, Transeastern has to sell the homes.
The company was ranked in May as the 56th largest home builder in the nation by Builder magazine. Its business model is to sell large numbers of homes quickly, so that it doesn't pay interest on large tracts of land.
"If you paid $20-million for a property, just think of the interest," Lazar said. "The advantage in selling out in one day is that you minimize the carrying costs."
Tonight's cocktail hour and dinner is designed to help sell those homes, Lazar said.
"You're meeting your neighbor, seeing what your neighbors are like," he said. "We're selling lifestyles here."
_ Michael Van Sickler can be reached at 269-5312 or mvansicklersptimes.com.Line is overdrawn
The entrance is in place, now comes the real estate pitch from Transeastern Homes, a Coral Gables developer set to build 1,600 homes east of Bruce B. Downs Boulevard in a project called Live Oak Preserve. Although one mailer says the future community will be "under the shade of century old oaks," the property was grazing land for cattle and much of it is cleared of trees. Developers plan to import 15-foot oaks to create tree-lined streets.