MainStreet America: ‘Biggest Home Automation Showroom on Earth’
Houston developer Design Tech Homes bets consumers will pay to browse a dozen model homes in one Disney-like setting. See why vendors like Crestron and Control4 are jumping at the opportunity.
Julie Jacobson · October 3, 2012
Thousands of consumers pay to race around any given city for a chance to glimpse at other peoples’ pads during those ubiquitous Parade of Homes events. So why not cut out the driving and bring these buildings and amenities - including A/V and automation - to one central location?
A Houston homebuilder is doing just that in a single-site “Parade.” The destination, called MainStreet America, sits on 14 acres of land in Spring, Texas, just north of Houston. It comprises 12 model homes in virtually every size, shape, style and price range - from $150,000 to $1.5 million (sans real estate).
“You can see an English Tudor right next to a high contemporary right next to a beach house,” says marketing director James Babineaux, who provided CE Pro with an exclusive tour of the community prior to its expected completion in October 2012.
Ten years in the making, MainStreet is the brainchild of Michael Feigin, a custom homebuilder in Houston and a local celebrity via his weekly call-in radio show, “The Better Home Show.”
His company, Design Tech Homes, is one of the “bigger custom homebuilders in the area,” Babineaux says, adding that the builder is an entrepreneur with big dreams. Design Tech currently builds about 120 homes per year, but Babineaux suggests MainStreet will boost that number to about 300 homes.
Entry Fees and Event Planners
MainStreet hasn’t set the final price of admission yet, but it is expected to be around $10 or less, with various discounts and memberships available. So why charge customers to enter the grounds, given the rewards that Design Tech expects to reap?
“By charging, we create value,” says Babineaux. “We feel if they have skin in the game, they’ll do what they can to make sure they get a return.”
At the same time, charging for admission makes MainStreet seem more like a destination - a family vacation stop - rather than simply a place to see a bunch of model homes. Indeed, the look and feel of the place is a lot like Disneyland, from the turnstiles at the entrance to the food courts inside to the perfectly manicured grounds and idyllic surroundings - sometimes too idyllic.
It’s a family-friendly place, but if parents want to keep the kiddos behind, MainStreet provides limited daycare in a fun space with lots of entertainment including video games. Surely, though, the adults will want to return with the whole family to any number of events that MainStreet is planning: Christmas on MainStreet, Easter egg hunts, trick or treating and tailgating parties, to name a few. In all, MainStreet expects to draw 300,000 visitors in its first year of operations.
“We have a full-time event planner on staff,” Babineaux says.
He explains that such activities address the age-old dilemma of homebuilders, retailers and custom integrators alike: “How do you get people back?”
Show(room) the Money!
Design Tech will make money on ticket sales and through an uptick in the builder’s own custom-home business - the 45,000-square-foot Guest Center on site includes a complete facility for designing, equipping, financing and building a Design Tech home.
But that’s not all. For starters, most of the materials and labor are provided gratis by suppliers of everything from roofing to flooring to artificial grass (you won’t find the real stuff on the premises) to TVs and home automation systems. In return, suppliers gain access to potential buyers who see their wares. The vendors don’t pay a flat fee for this privilege, however. Instead, they pay per lead - for any prospect that swipes a proprietary Technological Education Device (TED) across a placard bearing the sponsor’s logo and product information.
They set up an individual profile for creating project lists and, if they choose, register their contact information - via a scan of their drivers’ license - for follow-up calls from vendors. No paper changes hands.
Swiping the TED across an RFID affixed to product-related placards brings up information about the product and vendor. Visitors can save the information to their project file, request a call from the vendor, or pull up a list of local dealers.
“The manufacturer directs the traffic,” Babineaux explains. “They determine who the customer should call.”
Each lead costs the sponsor “only pennies,” Babineaux says, but one vendor interviewed for this story calls it “more than just pennies.”
The revenue generation doesn’t stop there. Naturally, MainStreet makes money on food sales, from its own food stations and cafes, and presumably from trinkets and t-shirts sold at special events.
But there’s something even bigger than that: In what could be the biggest profit center for the builder, MainStreet is also a furniture store. Unlike traditional furniture stores, however, MainStreet doesn’t offer options and doesn’t showcase any furniture except what’s in the 12 model homes and a small space attached to the Guest Center.
“Every home is an active furniture store,” says Babineaux. “You like the couch? Scan the RFID and it tells you how much it costs. You can buy it on the spot.”
And what the heck, if you like the whole room there’s an RFID for that, too. You can buy the whole space as is (and arrange for financing, too). You can’t change the fabric color, though, and you can’t request a different finish on the coffee table - not that you’d want to, though, because “everything is in context,” says Babineaux. “We have the right scale, the right accessories. The couch looks more appealing with the right paint on the wall.”
He believes, “We’re going to change the furniture business.”
Julie Jacobson is founding editor of CE Pro, the leading media brand for the home-technology channel. She has covered the smart-home industry since 1994, long before there was much of an Internet, let alone an Internet of things. Currently she studies, speaks, writes and rabble-rouses in the areas of home automation, security, networked A/V, wellness-related technology, biophilic design, and the business of home technology. Julie majored in Economics at the University of Michigan, spent a year abroad at Cambridge University, and earned an MBA from the University of Texas at Austin. She is a recipient of the annual CTA TechHome Leadership Award, and a CEDIA Fellows honoree. A washed-up Ultimate Frisbee player, Julie currently resides in San Antonio, Texas and sometimes St. Paul, Minn. Follow on Twitter: @juliejacobson Email Julie at email@example.com
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