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It is hard to find a silver lining in the COVID-19 tragedy, which has killed more than 100,000 Americans, impacted the economy and put the real estate sector in an anxious waiting pattern. It takes a special kind of optimism to persevere through a challenge as vast as a pandemic and national quarantine, but real estate professionals might be uniquely suited for this kind of opportunity.

After all, carrying the burden of people’s biggest transactions is all part of the job. So, when the industry slowed down for several months, all of that free time and energy more than likely was focused on a positive outcome. For many, the shutdown was a time to reset their real estate careers, assess what is working and what’s not, and get to work on getting better.

“Folks in this profession are thinking positively,” said Diane Hartley, president of The Institute for Luxury Home Marketing, an affiliate of Colibri Group which educates real estate agents working in the luxury residential market. “I was pleasantly surprised to see how many of them said, ‘I’m going to learn.'”

Hartley said her organization began offering virtual training in March shortly after the outbreak escalated, and the easy-to-access “Launch Into Learning” webinars were a big hit with agents of all experience levels. Typically offering one or two webinars per month pre-coronavirus, The Institute quickly scaled to sharing two to three per week.

Another Colibri partner, the Hondros Education Group, found an uptick in both students completing their professional and continuing education, as well as new agents completing education and entering the real estate business.

“There seems to be a pivot toward professional development. The top agents of today, who have opened up their minds to the new environment for real estate and how to successfully deliver virtual services, are launching into learning,” said Tina Lapp, president of Hondros Educational Group. “We are seeing a tremendous pull forward of progressive agents thinking ahead and utilizing this time to refine and build their skills and become proficient in areas such as commercial, luxury, property management, buyers representation and others in an effort to make themselves more marketable and build their business.”

The common denominator within this trend is technology. Teleconferencing on demand, coupled with the time and motivation to get to the next level has produced a surge in real estate training and networking during one of the scariest down markets in recent memory. Brokerages big and small have ramped up digital training programs—not just to teach the new regulations, remain compliant and close more no-contact deals, but to improve as complete real estate professionals.

Before the lockdowns went into place amidst the pandemic, National Association of REALTORS’® (NAR) CEO Bob Goldberg ordered a company-wide remote work test—its success was mirrored in the Association’s highly-attended, completely virtual mid-year conference.

“We have now become the model for success, and other organizations are reaching out to us for advice,” says Patrick Newton, director of Advocacy and PR Communications at NAR. “While we normally have around 9,000 members travel to Washington in May, more than triple that amount participated in the virtual conference.”

Newton says NAR may never go back to a solely in-person conference, ensuring a virtual component of some kind moving forward for all events.

Perhaps one of the best positioned outfits to lead this technology trend is the fast-growing, agent-owned publicly traded company, eXp World Holdings, Inc.. With 29,000-plus agents, the brand uses its VirBELA Open Campus to hold virtual meetings with features such as spatialized voice chat, avatar customization and embedded web browsers. Recently, its first virtual shareholders meeting was attended by 9,500 and included 75 break-out sessions.

“Our agents have always been actively engaged in life on campus and we have seen even greater engagement during the pandemic as agents attend classes, meet with their broker, receive technical support throughout the business day…or just engage in water cooler chat with their peers or guests,” said Jason Gesing, CEO of eXp Realty. “During the pandemic, we’ve been able to continue to support and work with each other as we always have and we’ve also extended an open invitation to agents from across the industry who may wish to participate in a series of classes we recently launched (eXcel Initiative) specifically geared towards continuing to grow the agent’s business and thrive in a COVID environment.”

Regardless of how agents seek to better themselves, Mark Stark, CEO/owner at Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Arizona/California/Nevada Properties, sees the shift in training and professional improvement as an evolution of the industry toward seeking the best of both worlds—merging the advantages of the pre- and post-pandemic eras.

“I see the world we’re in as an and environment, not an or environment,” Stark said. “People say there’s a ‘new normal.’ I don’t believe that. I think consumers will want everything they loved about the old and everything they love about the new.”

He said his team has been focusing on virtual training while still practicing in-person business—at a safe social distance, of course. The meetings are recorded for those who don’t feel safe attending, and agents concerned about on-site visits have co-workers on standby who don’t mind it to fill in at a minute’s notice. The result, Stark says, is a well-suited client experience and better-educated agents thanks to his increasingly popular Facebook Live training program.

“We are going to use all the virtual communications and we’re going to do everything we did live,” Stark said. “Consumers want to see face to face. They often say: ‘That’s great that you’re on my TV, but separate from that I can’t commit to you without seeing you and I want you to physically see my home.”

Katy Robinson, director of events, Learning and Development for RE/MAX INTEGRA, said the response to her company’s online training and engagement tools have been incredibly well received by agents and clients, alike, and she expects the platforms to continue in this distant direction.

Prior to the pandemic, we were able to reach a fairly large swath of our network with the programs, but amid the current situation, it has become clear that virtual programs like these will be a focus moving forward as well,” Robinson said. “As of now, more than half of the RE/MAX INTEGRA agents within our U.S. footprint have opted in to complete this new training.”

According to the latest Online Learning Survey conducted by NAR, which looks at purchasing data from the Center for REALTOR® Development, most members who are interested in eLearning tend to be younger than 50 years old. Those who purchased online courses in the last year or so were largely 49 or younger (62 percent). In terms of online products, the most popular tend to be archived webinars, online videos and online courses.

But while many may assume this embracing of technology is skewing the industry toward younger agents, brokers are quick to point out that it really isn’t the case. The pivot, they say, is cutting across all generations—largely because it’s such a necessary part of today’s professional survival.

“Unsurprisingly, the early adopters of these programs have been the younger agents. They were some of the first to participate in these training techniques, but in a short period of time, more agents have tuned in and now it seems that the entire RE/MAX INTEGRA network has found the value in the easy-to-access tools and series that we have provided,” Robinson said. “Agents know that the ‘more you learn, the more you earn’ and are always focused on improving their business and themselves.”

Andrew King is a contributing writer to RISMedia.

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