In April, Villa Builders held its first open house. The event was precipitated by a difficult 2006 for the 10-year-old company - and the stark realization that its owners, Jeff and Joanne Hall, of Arnold, Md., had to market continuously to keep their business afloat in the wake of the building boom. "The open house was a very positive event," Joanne says. At least 36 people came, enjoyed hors d'oeuvres and snacks (including M&Ms personalized to say, 'Your Home ... Love It!'), and chatted about their experiences with Villa Builders and possible projects on the horizon.

Villa Builders plans to host more open houses soon. Looking back, Joanne identifies two things she'll do differently next time:

  • Designate a person to greet guests, and only greet guests. “Once people started rolling in, it was a very steady stream,” she says. “When Jeff and I started mingling, it was difficult to break away. Many didn’t sign the guest book. With the homeowner’s help, we were able to put together a list of everyone that came.”
  • Provide easily accessible sign-up sheets to let guests request more information. Next time, Joanne expects to set out a few stacks of these sheets, “and our greeter could mention it to guests on their way in and/or out," she says. "I think it should be subtle, but not so subtle as to be invisible.”

Other tips from Joanne:

  • Pick the right project and the right personality. For the Halls, who consider themselves introverts, “the homeowner had to be a real extrovert” who loves to entertain and show off her house. The project itself should show well and provide a comfortable space for mingling, she adds.
  • Ask early. “The right time to ask [about hosting an open house] is at the signing of our construction agreement,” Joanne says. “Jeff asks, ‘Would you be comfortable with us having an open house at the end of the project?’” The question should be low-pressure, and the client should feel comfortable saying no. If they are open to the idea, “Jeff explains that we are proud of the work we do, and we showcase our work with photography, award submissions, and open houses as much as we are able,” Joanne says.
  • Have the homeowner invite friends. On the invitation list of 112 people were some of the homeowner's friends and neighbors, along with hand-picked members of the Halls’ “COI,” or circle of influence. “For us, this includes every past client, every current client, some prospects, each trade and vendor partner, and others we consider friends of the company,” Joanne says.
  • Find a convenient time. The Halls’ open house was from 4:30 to 7 p.m. on a Thursday. “On Fridays, people just want to get home,” Joanne says. “Earlier in the day is too busy for most people. And weekends seem inappropriate, as this was a business thing.”
  • Hire a professional caterer. “The food was simple and elegant, with freshly made lemon bonbons to top it all off,” Joanne says. In all, the total cost was a little over $2,200, but having the food and beverages taken care of freed up the Halls to mingle with guests. Plus, there was leftover wine at the end.

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