The retreat begins with registration in the airy 1 Hotel lobby. Dressed casually in t-shirts and shorts, Escape Vice President Jonathan Hobfoll and Director Sean Donahue greet attendees at the check-in table, shake their hands and warm them up for 48 hours of networking. A barista and a barber man their respective booths, ready to offer attendees a shave and shot of espresso while a masseuse offers hand massages to female attendees. Throughout the reception area, art curated by local Wynwood artist, Erik Skoldberg, is available to admire.
Soon attendees start to arrive in waves, filling the space with the sound of reunions and potential new partnerships. Gone are the suits and boardrooms, replaced with polo shirts, Hawaiian button-downs, spring dresses and sunset views. Attendees breathe easy.
Escape began in 2011 as a way to provide a networking platform for top owners, developers and investors in commercial real estate to connect away from solicitous service providers. Attendees now bond over kayaking and cocktails.
For Hobfoll, Escape evokes the ethos of doing things differently, on which Bisnow was founded. On track to become a lawyer, the recession shifted Hobfoll’s plans. He found himself at the then 20-person startup, in the company of former investment bankers, private equity players and real estate brokers. Hobfoll and his new colleagues traded button-downs for t-shirts and turned to producing events for the commercial real estate industry.
“[The recession] afforded many young people a way to do something different without feeling the guilt of being off the set track,” Hobfoll said. “It created a lot of different ideas.”
Typical real estate events, Hobfoll said, have a routine: attendees reconnect with colleagues, participate in panel discussions about cap rates, use baseball analogies about what inning real estate is in, have a steak dinner and go out to a club sponsored by a mortgage broker. While industry professionals still do deals this way, Escape offers an alternative forum based on shared experience. People who attend Escape are at the top of the career ladder in their respective fields. Donahue and Hobfoll assemble a cohort that includes investors of billion-dollar office deals, developers of mixed-use communities, pioneers of PropTech and stewards of the world’s foremost financial institutions.
More than look for their next deal, attendees concerned about business succession or work-life balance have a hotel full of people who get it.
“These people are more than just titans of industry,” Hobfoll said. “They have families, their own stresses, hobbies. Escape is not just about finding the next deal, but about being able to connect with people experiencing the same things. There are not a ton of people that have their level of success in common.”
A selling point for Escape is the opportunity for attendees to participate in two closed-door, confidential meetings with a small group of peers. Dubbed “Tribe Sessions,” these workshops offer attendees an opportunity to share business best practices, offer solutions and discuss candidly matters personal and professional.
Whisked off to rooms with names like “Amethyst” and “Coral,” attendees sit among colleagues and a tribe leader who guides discussions that range from dealing with financial setbacks to creating succession plans for company leadership. Donahue and Hobfoll curate groups based on similar industry sectors, existing relationships and business goals.
In one of these rooms, BCWood Properties Founder and CEO Brian Wood finds a group of confidants who share his concerns about the retail industry. After Ziff encouraged him to attend Escape for its caliber of attendees, Wood scheduled a breakfast meeting with Donahue. A few months later, he is in Miami.
“When I came down here as a first timer, I didn’t know what to expect,” Wood said. “I knew a couple of people down here and had an idea of what I was trying to accomplish. But the wealth of information, in all matters of operation, from debt to equity to platforms, has exceeded my expectations.”
Based in Lexington, Kentucky, BCWood Properties invests in shopping centers throughout the Southeast. The rise of e-commerce and the changing shopping behaviors of consumers has led many traditional shopping centers to decline. Wood’s tribe session, which focuses on how to adapt to the changing retail landscape, puts him in the same room with people going through similar growing pains.
“Being in the retail shopping industry, it is evolving so quickly,” Wood said. “Unless you put yourself in a place where you are asking questions to other people who are doing it in other cities and gain advice, you won’t progress.”
Tuesday morning begins with a yoga session on the beach, a more intense workout or the option of sleeping in before heading into the auditorium for the "Future of Real Estate" lecture series. On the docket are conversations about walkable urban design, blockchain technology and data transparency.
“We liked the quick-hitting format of TED, and the idea of moving away from real estate speakers,” Hobfoll said. “Attendees have so many other interests and so many other things going on outside of real estate that have a tangential or indirect impact on the industry. Where else can you learn boardroom strategies from a former FBI hostage negotiator?”
Escape’s nontraditional approach to panels and lectures encourages attendees to let go of preconceived ideas about real estate, and see a business which many have practiced for decades, from a new perspective. For Thayer Manca Residential Principal Joe Manca, whose company invests in value-add multifamily properties across the U.S., talks like Jeff Speck’s lecture on walkable urban design complements his conversations with fellow value-add investors.
“I’m leaving this retreat not so much with deals, but with new ideas,” Manca said. “It has been exciting to hear what other people are doing in the value-add space.”
Location plays a role in helping attendees engage with the content and their peers. The Escape team experimented with hosting Escape in Las Vegas, but the allure of casinos became a distraction. In Miami, they found a vacation and cultural destination that expands the conference beyond the confines of the hotel. Attendees could kayak or jet-surf around the Biscayne Bay or take in the colorful wall art in the Wynwood neighborhood of Miami.
It is at the latter that a group of attendees catch up with Goldman Properties CEO, Jessica Goldman Srebnick. Once filled with neglected industrial warehouses and storefronts, the open-air art gallery where attendees now stand is accessible daily and free to the public to peruse the changing collection of artist works.