Chicago real estate firm goes beyond the run-of-the-mill appreciation party to bring clients something completely different.

The real estate business is all about making and keeping in touch with contacts. Making contacts usually is easy. It’s the keeping in touch part that can be a bit tricky. That’s where customer appreciation events can help.

For many in real estate, an annual party to thank clients for their business is the way to go, but Mike McElroy, managing broker at Center Coast Realty in Chicago, would rather take a January dip in the Chicago River than host one of those affairs.

Managing broker Mike McElroy, right, and comedian Jonah Jurkens during a recent House of Laughs event. Photo by Eric Michael Clarke

“The client appreciation party has got to be the most boring thing I’ve ever heard of,” McElroy said. “I’m always hearing about real estate agents inviting people to an event literally titled Client Appreciation Party.”

And now for something completely different…

A few years ago, Center Coast Realty (formerly Access Chicago Realty) put a smile on the face of the mundane client appreciation party. Center Coast has been hosting stand-up comedy shows on the first Friday of each month at its office to entice clients and anybody else who might be looking for an evening of entertainment to drop by.

The House of Laughs events, which began in 2014, have been a big hit and have allowed Center Coast to accumulate an email list of about 1,000, said Center Coast Community Engagement Specialist Katie Rapheal, who is in charge of coordinating the shows.

A sponsored open bar is just one of the perks of the Center Coast Realty House of Laughs events. Photo by Eric Michael Clarke

“It was started as just a place where we could invite house clients and friends and people in the neighborhood to come in and have something to do,” Rapheal said. “We had free admission, open bar, some food out. Just a place where people could come and hang out and see some good comedy.”

The free shows feature top stand-up comics from iconic Chicago comedy clubs such Zanies and the Laugh Factory, who are paid for their performances. McElroy said comics often are looking for places to try new material in front of fresh audiences, and House of Laughs events provide the perfect setting.

The transformation of Center Coast’s office into an intimate comedy club begins with moving desks and chairs to clear space for about 50 guests. Rented lighting and a P.A. system Center Coast bought for the shows help complete the conversion.

What kinds of innovative events do you host? In what ways do you help give back to the community? Tell us about it!

The missing link

In December 2016, Rapheal and others at Center Coast started asking themselves how they could make the shows even better.

“We were kind of figuring out: What’s our next step with the show? How can we make it more meaningful and have it align with our message of helping out our community?” Rapheal said. “We went on a mission to find a nonprofit we thought really aligned with what we were looking for, and we found Inspiration Corporation.”

Inspiration Corporation helps the homeless get back on their feet by providing job training, mentorship and even housing. The centerpiece of the nonprofit is Inspiration Kitchens, which teaches the homeless service industry skills and includes its own restaurant.

“We help people make moves and find their dream home and go on to the next phase of their lives,” Rapheal said. “We felt like Inspiration Corporation did something similar and thought they were really special.”

Inspiration Corporation Chief Development Officer Evan Cauble-Johnson provided details about his organization’s Inspiration Kitchens at the April 8 event. Photo by Eric Michael Clarke

Inspiration Corporation Chief Development Officer Evan Cauble-Johnson said the feeling is mutual. Center Coast has raised more than $3,500 for Inspiration Corporation as a result of donations made at its first four shows and matched by Center Coast.

“If [they’re] thinking of doing this, I would challenge agents to tap into one of their passions. If you love to play golf, put together a golf outing and invite all your clients to that. If you like wine and painting, put together a wine and painting party.” Mike McElroy, Center Coast Realty

“We really weren’t expecting the fundraising aspect of it to be as successful as it is,” Cauble-Johnson said. “We usually don’t see this kind of money coming in from small, outside fundraisers like this, so that was a pleasant surprise. It’s just out of this world.”

“At the beginning of every year, you’re putting together your budget and trying to anticipate what’s going to come in and what kind of money you’re going to be able to raise,” Cauble-Johnson continued. “When something new like this falls into your lap, and you’re able to make thousands of dollars off something that you weren’t anticipating, that just gives you more flexibility. It gives you the opportunity to try different things with your programs.”

Headliner Kellye Howard is a working stand-up comedian, as are all the performers at House of Laughs events. Photo by Eric Michael Clarke

Cauble-Johnson has attended a couple of the shows and has found them to be highly entertaining.

“It’s legit stand-up,” he said. “This is not like somebody’s brother that wants to be a stand-up comedian. These are actual, working stand-up comedians.”

The follow-up after the fun

McElroy, the self-described “designated talking head” of each event, starts the shows by telling the audience that not only will they have a great time, but that they will be supporting a great cause.

Those who attend the shows are required to give an email address when they register. Center Coast uses those email addresses for a couple of purposes.

House of Laughs audience members contribute to Center Coast Realty’s database of clients.

“We … survey our audience to see, first and foremost, did they like the show? Do they have any suggestions for it? McElroy said. “But we also ask them if they’re interested in buying or selling a home. We do get people who say, ‘Yes, in fact, I am,’ and we follow up with them, of course.”

“It’s all about building a database and keeping in touch with that database,” McElroy continued. “We just get to set ourselves apart. People understand that we’re a company, and we’re REALTORS®, who think differently and have a fresh approach to things. That showcases itself in this event and also just in working with us as people.”

McElroy encourages others in real estate to try new approaches to keeping in touch with their clients. That doesn’t mean everyone has to start a pop-up comedy show.

“If [they’re] thinking of doing this, I would challenge agents to tap into one of their passions,” McElroy said. “If you love to play golf, put together a golf outing and invite all your clients to that. For us, it’s comedy. If you like wine and painting, put together a wine and painting party.”

Whatever you do, please don’t call it a client appreciation party.