Five years ago, I had the opportunity to tour Rosemont-based VHT Studios, a company that promised to turn the residential real estate industry on its ear with a portfolio of professional-grade tools designed to set a higher bar in marketing homes for sale.
How things have changed in those five years. In addition to high-tech marketing tools, new technologies like 3-D videos and drone photography continue to revolutionize the real estate industry.
What's next? Grab your gogglesWhen you think 3-D goggles, you likely think of immersive video games.
But you could be touring a home with a pair in a few years.
VHT Studios President Brian Balduf sees 3-D technology as the next wave to hit the real estate industry. Though mainly aimed at the gaming industry now, the goggles have been tested in sales and other industries. Some automakers, for example, offered 3-D virtual test drives for customers sitting in cars on the display floor at this year's Chicago Auto Show.
Balduf said the technology can allow a property buyer to virtually walk through several homes without leaving the agent's office.
"You're literally in it. When you put on the goggles you are in that house," Balduf said. "You can look 360 degrees in any direction and move through the house without yourself moving at all.
"When you go to an office, instead of immediately jumping the car, you put on a pair of goggles virtually visit five or six homes."
Balduf sees companies creating online channels that buyers could tap into through their own goggles.
"You could be playing Zelda for a while, then switch to look at some homes," he said.
And VHT continues to lead that revolution. The company has added features like drone photography and videos, as well as virtual staging, to its portfolio that highlight and enhance a property's visual appeal and potential to buyers.
"What's evolved in last five years has completely changed the face of real estate marketing," said VHT Studios President Brian Balduf, noting that the rise in popularity of sites like HGTV, Houzz and Pinterest has increased the consumer demand for professional-grade visuals in marketing real estate.
Among VHT's more popular tools is virtual staging, which involves measuring and photographing a room or property, then using technology to create a vision of what it would look like furnished or with improvements. The technology can add furniture, desks, artwork, carpeting or other amenities, as well as adjust natural features, like sky or grass, to provide a more natural look.
"Or if there is furniture in the room, we can remove it and put in something else that more neutral to show the potential for the property," Balduf said. "We have teams of image specialists. They can green up a lawn, make a sky blue, or clean up a pool."
While residential real estate remains about 85 percent of VHTs business, Balduf said the need to up the bar has spilled over into commercial marketing, where technologies used to sell homes today is becoming a necessity for businesses to sell themselves to consumers.
Just like real estate, online sites like Yelp or Expedia have led businesses to visually sell themselves to attract customers. For example, Balduf said, a restaurant may post a virtual tour of its dining room on Yelp or OpenTable to make itself more attractive to potential diners.
"If customers are able to walk into a restaurant and see what it looks like before they actually go there, then they're never going to go to a restaurant that they can't see inside first," he said. "Consumers expect it nowadays ... it doesn't matter the size of the business."
Another growing industry for VHT is senior living facilities.
"It's a booming business," he said. "They have to market their properties and their clients aren't mobile or able to get around.
"The more they can show them through photographs and videos, virtual tours and floor plans, the better."
While a small business may think a professional-grade virtual tour or staging to be a marketing luxury, Balduf notes the $500 to $1,000 investment a company can make has a good ROI, given the number of ways those tools can be used to promote the business.
"You're using those assets over and over again," he said, noting that in addition to posting on your business' website and community sites, they can also be used in social media promotions as well.
"To make sure they are the best representation of your business, it's well worth it the cost," he said.
The company has tripled in size over the past three years as it moves into new markets and acquires smaller companies that complement its services, Balduf said. While VHT is in most major U.S. markets, Balduf said he sees its growth continuing as it moves into secondary markets.
"We want to be the best in the industry," he said. "We've built a great reputation already ... there's just so much opportunity out there."