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At Escape, Real Estate’s Elite Mix Business With Wellness by Travis Gonzalez

MIAMI — The 1 Hotel in South Beach, Miami, might as well be at the edge of the world. Rising above the beach, the sprawling complex sits on a narrow strip of land where buildable space is limited and land prices break records. Neighboring luxury high-rises place the hotel among South Beach’s most valuable real estate.

It is on this coveted sand that over 160 of the country’s top commercial real estate leaders convene annually for Escape, a two-day retreat hosted by Bisnow. Removed from the high-pressure environments of their day-to-day lives and placed into rooms with people of the same work and life experience, attendees forge partnerships, workshop business strategies and share tips personal and professional.

Taking place in a hotel flanked by the Atlantic Ocean and the growing Miami skyline, Escape is one part wellness retreat and two parts networking marathon. Attendees can breathe and reflect on their careers and lives while meeting peers that could grow their businesses. It is the allure of a safe space for relaxation and camaraderie that repeat attendees like Contrarian Capital Management partner Gil Tenzer seek out each year.

“Escape is a place to let your guard down, away from lawyers, board members and meetings,” Tenzer said. “It’s just a collection of people all at the same level.”

Check Your Ego

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.

A masseuse waits to offer attendees hand massages (Bisnow: Travis Gonzalez)

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.

Clockwise from top: a DJ at registration; leather bands help identify attendees and get them into off-site cocktail hours; Escape Director Sean Donahue greets arrivals (Bisnow: Travis Gonzalez)

Bisnow CEO Will Friend emphasized the casual atmosphere at the opening keynote later that evening.

“We want you to forget everything that you think you know, leave it all behind,” Friend tells the crowd. “Check your egos at the door, embrace new things, meet new people, cultivate existing relationships. We want you to say ‘yes.’”

Breaking From Tradition

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.”

Top center: former FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss leads a talk; bottom: Escape Vice President Jonathan Hobfoll (Bisnow: Travis Gonzalez)

Piecing together a cohort with enough common ground to have impactful conversations has increasingly played a role in the selection process. Donahue and Hobfoll meet with every prospective attendee before issuing an invitation to get a sense of who they are, and the age cut-off of 45 years old helps narrow the guest list to industry professionals with several decades of experience. Real estate is a relationship-driven industry, and Escape’s success each year hinges on having well-known, charismatic and intelligent personalities attend.

That’s what the Escape team got with Ackman-Ziff President Simon Ziff.

Ackman-Ziff President Simon Ziff at the Escape opening cocktail reception (Bisnow: Travis Gonzalez)

Somewhat of an Escape folk hero for the Bisnow team, Ziff has attended every iteration of the conference, watching it evolve and now playing a role in identifying prospective attendees. When first-timers were asked about why they were interested in Escape, many repeated the mantra: Simon told me I had to go.

“It’s something, isn’t it?” Ziff says as he watches attendees file into the auditorium on the first night to hear Friend’s opening keynote address. “The energy and the caliber of people here is incredible.”

Tribe Sessions

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.”

Bottom: Bisnow staff direct attendees during speed networking (Bisnow: Travis Gonzalez)

While tribe sessions allow attendees to take a deep and intimate dive into personal and professional development, attendees also have several opportunities to engage with the entire cohort. At speed dealmaking the first evening, attendees gather at a series of tables on the 1 Hotel’s outdoor terrace. Escape staff help guide the exercise. Attendees have three minutes to introduce themselves before moving to the left and starting the process over until everyone has had a chance to network. Speed dealmaking gives attendees the ability to meet people at the outset of the retreat, establishing new contacts early in a setting that makes networking less awkward.

Out Of Office

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.

Urban planner Jeff Speck leads a talk on walkable design (Bisnow: Travis Gonzalez)

“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.

Top: Goldman Properties CEO, Jessica Goldman Srebnick leads a tour of Wynwood, Miami (Bisnow: Travis Gonzalez)

Goldman Srebnick leads the tour of the neighborhood, and greets the crowd in front of a mural American street artist Shephard Fairey, best known for his Barack Obama “Hope” poster, designed custom for the space. Goldman Srebnick relays the company’s mission to support local businesses and artists, creating a walkable retail and arts space in Miami that benefits residents and generates a return on investment for Goldman Properties.

Starbucks once approached Goldman Srebnick to open a cafe in Wynwood. She declined.

“You can go anywhere and go to Starbucks,” she tells the crowd before hopping into golf carts to view the new developments in the works at Wynwood. “But what you can’t do everywhere is see incredible art and then go to a local shop where you are immersed in the sights, sounds and smells of making a fresh cup of coffee.”

An Intimate Gathering

From the final tribe sessions, a caravan of golf carts transports attendees to the Betsy Hotel, zipping through streets showcasing Miami nightlife. The Escape team chose the hotel for its promotion of culture and art on a national level. It is one of only three Florida hotels on the 2017 Condé Nast Traveler Gold List Award. Dinner at the Betsy is a multicourse meal, served family style. Conversation flowed freely, and there is a feeling of familiarity in the air.

“What I like about this conference is that it is more of a rifle [direct] approach,” Wood said. “Many conferences you go to you are kind of a deer in the headlights, you don’t know where to go. This was very structured and it put you in front of the people you needed to be put in front of.”

At the opening Keynote, Friend introduced what has been coined the "Escape Handshake." More hug than a handshake, the action transforms over the two-day retreat from a physical gesture to a symbol of how powerful the conference can be for attendees. In Friend’s view, real estate’s top leaders don’t have to go about changing the world on their own. For 48 hours, and hopefully longer, they are among friends.

It's the intimacy and familiarity of Escape that Wood hopes will stay the same at future conferences. His assistant called Donahue a week later. He will be back next year.

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