When you were a child, you probably tuned into the PBS show Mister Rogers Neighborhood, where a homespun sweater-clad Fred Rogers often sang “Won’t you be my neighbor?”
Mr. Rogers might be singing a different tune today if he were a property manager of a big co-op or condo community, where it’s often a challenge getting residents to mix and mingle. Often, buyers or shareholders choose communities, not only because they like their units or the neighborhood, but because co-ops and condos offer a level of socialization and community that other neighborhoods with single family homes might not have.
Co-ops and condos operate as little communities or villages unto themselves—they have their board, their manager, their residents and their maintenance and door staff, and that seems to be all they need. They key question, though, is with everyone so busy and insulated, and with leisure activities often devoted to indoor activities in front of a TV screen or a computer, how do residents actually get out and meet and greet their next-door neighbors?
For many associations, the answer is simple: social events.
“We are finding that many of the associations we manage are interested in having these types of events,” says Marla Jackson, CMCA, vice president of property management for The Habitat Company in Chicago. “It's a good way for everybody to get together, socialize and get to know their neighbors better. It helps to build a community within a building,” she says.
However, between residents' busy schedules and ever-growing tendency to rely on a keyboard and an Internet connection to socialize, convincing them to engage in these events is no easy feat.
“Condo living in a high rise is different than living in a single family home,” Jackson explains. “Many times, in a high building, the only interaction is in the hallway, or in the elevator. It helps bring people together and get to know each other as neighbors.”
Choosing the Best Event
But fear not, hope is not lost. While it might take a little extra encouraging to lure residents away from their in-home activities, if propositioned with exciting events, they will show up. From holidays to sporting events, there are a lot of causes for celebration. The key to a successful event is pinpointing your audience and appealing to their common interests.
“Some communities hold parties which can range from simple Memorial Day barbecues to a big holiday celebration,” says Elena Lugo, the director of marketing and operations at Wolin-Levin, Inc., a property management company in Chicago. “When planning these events, make sure that it fits your demographic. You don’t want to spend association money on events that won’t appeal to the majority of your residents,” Lugo says. “When planning activities outside of the community, I think you need to ask yourself what the goal is. Are you trying to create a more neighborly and considerate environment? If so, I’d probably stick to events that would help foster that. Some communities are near a hospital or college, so they will create social groups around those residents so they can become better acquainted with each other.”
Also, be sure to switch up event days to ensure people with limited availability can get in on the fun too. If a potluck is scheduled for a Saturday one month, schedule the next corresponding event on a weeknight to accommodate those who have to work on the weekends.
Organizing these social events is essentially a self-weeding out process. Those that don't pique the interests of attendees will be replaced by other events, naturally. If an event is executed well and deemed a success, it might just become an association tradition for generations of residents to enjoy.
“We have some communities that have made a tradition for some of their events,” Lugo says. This had helped them create an event that gets bigger and better every year. Family events where there's something for everyone are really successful. One of our communities has a summer family event around the Fourth of July which includes everything from children games to a car show. These types of events rely on a dedicated group of homeowners who take the time to plan every detail, which is why they are so successful.”
Holiday extravaganzas are practically a surefire way to start a building tradition.
“One of our condo associations holds an annual holiday gathering in December,” Gail Filkowski, CMCA, the vice president of portfolio management for First Community Management in Chicago, says. “They offer food, beer and wine, and this year over 75 residents attended. I think one of the reasons this gathering is so successful is because there are many long-term residents of the building.”
Form a committee, with a leader—often the person who suggested an event—to plan. After listing the tasks and assigning a name to each one, plan a budget. Don’t forget to check vendors and local businesses for contributions to the activity, whether it’s funds, paper supplies or activity coaches.
Where’s the Party?
There are several options when it comes to choosing the location of the event—don't be afraid to switch it up. Between the plethora of fine dining establishments, art galleries and museums in Chicago, there is a lot of potential for group outings. Why not organize a night on the town? There's no better way to get to know your neighbors than over a delicious dinner and drinks.
Conversely, staying in is also an option. Because a percentage of association fees go towards maintenance of public communal hangout spots like clubhouses, it's a good idea to take advantage of your resources and hold events there. Doing so not only minimizes the budget, it's also more convenient proximity-wise, and eliminates the added hassle of commuting.
“Most communities’ rules and regulations state that amenities or community rooms can only be utilized by residents,” Lugo says. “This is to protect the association from frequently housing outside events, heavy traffic into the community and protecting them from potential liability or security issues. Those that do not have rules against this may host different neighborhood events for neighborhood groups or the like.”
Get creative with on-site locations. A rooftop deck, the community pool and even the lobby all make for good party spots.
“Another building we manage has great views of the city, so every year, the Chicago Air and Water Show is a big event, so they have a party where residents can go up to the rooftop deck and barbecue and socialize and watch the air show,” Jackson says. “ A lot of them have holiday parties, which have been really successful events where they get together in the lobby or another common area and have refreshments, music and a chance to socialize with their neighbors.”
All this party planning is challenging and time consuming, so don't be afraid to use your resources and ask the manager for help.
“Some buildings have pretty active social committees and they plan the events. Management is always there to support them with it because we've got experience in doing different events in different buildings, so we lend our expertise to help them plan,” Jackson says. “For example, at one building they celebrated their 100-year anniversary, and we had another building we manage have a 40-year anniversary, so we were able to connect the planning committee of the one planning the hundred-year with the one who had done the 40-year [celebration]. We can bring our expertise to connect buildings with the resources they need to plan these events, if needed.”
Sending Out the Invites
A social committee could spend weeks planning the perfect poolside barbecue, but without proper notice, the seemingly promising event could become a total flop due to lack of attendance. Enter the importance of sending out timely invites. Getting people to show up to events is hard enough, but adequately spreading the word can be a problem in itself.
“You really have to put some effort into reaching out to residents,” Jackson says. “Be it email blasts, a community newsletter, posting notices in elevators and other common areas, talking to people as they stop in the management office, recruiting the whole team in the building to help out. Bring the whole team together to help publicize these events to get more participation and hopefully, information will start spreading by word of mouth with residents.”
Dissemination is vital, but there is such a thing as overdoing it, Lugo warns. “You don’t want to over communicate and inundate residents, otherwise, they’ll be easily turned off or burned out,” she says.
There’s No End to Ideas
Event options are limitless. Switch them up to keep residents coming back for more and avoid interest burnout—believe it or not, even potlucks can grow tiresome. Instead, try a progressive dinner party—don’t worry, it’s not about politics. These are popular where residents are able to walk from home to home. Participants provide a different course, from appetizers to salads, entrees, and desserts. Everyone prepares a dish or two to contribute and they’re dropped off ahead of time at the selected dining areas (the community room may be ideal for the entrees). Small residences may break the groups into smaller parties.
An Internet café activity could be weekly, monthly or quarterly, depending on popularity. The community room provides WiFi, and perhaps activities for those not at a computer. Provide a coffee bar with flavored creamers, chocolate shavings, etc., along with pastries or healthy snacks. The room can simply be available on the selected day, with residents invited to bring their laptops or iPads and share the space.
Hold a talent show. Invite one and all to display their best, whether it’s artwork, photography, musical and vocal performance, juggling. Have fun with it, and be sure to ask each participant what he or she will need to have, in terms of space or equipment, ahead of time.
Party planning on a budget? Some wallet-friendly options include game nights, potluck dinner and cards, a movie night in which members bring their own favorite movie and people vote for which will be shown that evening, karaoke or dance contests (especially good for family activities), or themed barbecue nights—Hawaiian, Tex-Mex, Caribbean.
Lastly, check out Resident Events (www.residentevents.com), an online resource for property managers, on event planning.
Offering monthly events, annual events or even occasional newcomer welcome parties is important to keep residents happy and create a sense of community within the building. Residents want to feel that the building they live in is a place where they can comfortably meet and socialize with their neighbors.
Filkowski agrees, saying “I think many communities would benefit from an annual social gathering. When residents know each other, they are more likely to address a ‘neighbor’ issue, such as noise, directly and amicably with their neighbor rather than filing a formal complaint that results in a violation notice.”
As a plus, Jackson notes that holding social gatherings can result in residents respecting the rules more. “Our hope is to build that community and make it a better living environment for everybody, because when you know your neighbors you have that connection and respect, and you know them as a person, Hopefully that will translate into people following rules and regulations a little better.”
Enjolie Esteve is an editorial assistant at The Chicagoland Cooperator.