Living Social Activities Put the "Community" in Community Associations

 Social activities offer an opportunity to improve relationships within the  community and add a far more convivial atmosphere to condo properties—something many prospective owners anticipate in a new location.  

 Sponsoring leisure time activities in any season builds lasting strains of  creative interaction, teamwork and commitment within the community. That being  said, such support does not come without cost. Boards must consider both the  costs of socializing and the potential insurance or legal hit that could follow  a mishap. (We’ll explore that later.)  

 Opportunities to mix and mingle may help ease friction when problems occur down  the road, property managers say.  

 Justin Gargiulo is senior vice president and director of corporate operations at  Great North Property Management in Exeter, New Hampshire. The company manages  more than 200 condominium associations with 13,000 units in New England. He  considers socializing a win-win proposition, noting that event planners—often resident and staff volunteers—have an important role, superceding “fun.”  

 “When you have, in many cases, hundreds of residents living in a community, it’s a positive way to bring everyone together and allow them the opportunity to  discuss things outside of the normal condominium or HOA living issues that  arise during a normal meeting,” said Gargiulo. “It also allows our property managers the opportunity to interact on a more  personal level with our resident clients, which again enhances our relationship—which is ultimately what we want with our associations. This is as much a ‘people’ business as it is managing real estate assets. You cannot be successful in this  business without being cognizant of this fact.”  

 Jeffrey Robinson is an association manager at Evergreen Management, Inc.,  headquartered in Bedford, New Hampsire, with 8,500 units in Massachusetts and  the Granite State. “Ideas mainly come from homeowners within the community,” he said. “Oftentimes, if the suggestion is approved by the board, the homeowner who  proposed the event will become the committee chair for organizing it.” He’s noticed an increase in such activities, perhaps because they offer less costly  entertainment.  

 The activities they plan depend much upon residential makeup, managers say.  

 “These events typically start out as ‘BYOE’ events (Bring Your Own Everything), and are held at an association amenity—a clubhouse, pool, tennis courts, or open field,” Robinson said. “If and when the event becomes larger, with high attendance, it can become a line  item in the budget, and the association will pay a portion of the expenses. For  smaller events, such as a book club, the association will often donate the use  of their clubhouse with no rental fees. For the most part, homeowners  appreciate the community events. People in general like to get to know their  neighbors and these community events present the opportunity to do so.”  

 Costs aren’t usually on residents’ backs. Management budgeting may include these events; some boards approve a  line item for social gatherings. “It depends again on the association, as to whether or not they want to budget  for it,” said Gargiulo. “I’d recommend getting an opinion of the overall community. Residents may feel it’s not a part of the overall management of the common area of the property, and  outside of the typical scope of what their association dues are for. Getting a  majority of owners to buy into the idea would be my recommendation to an  association board. The alternative solution would be to take donations from  members—which, in many cases, can be successful. Hearing what the people of the  community want is the best place to start, though.”  

 Managers agree affluence and age have an impact. Some of the most enthusiastic  partiers are among the 55+ condominium communities, where activities may  include cultural events, book clubs or wine-and-cheese gatherings.  

 “Overall turnout depends on many things, like the demographics of a community,  the layout of the community (whether there’s a clubhouse or not), and the type of events scheduled,” said Gargiulo. “Are they geared toward adults, or are family events planned, with things for  kids to do? If a social committee balances the types of events they’re offering, they can be very successful over time in enhancing the overall  living experience at their respective association.”  

 David J. Levy, president of Sterling Services, a management company in  Holliston, Massachusetts, which oversees 3,000 units, agrees that older,  upscale communities initiate activities more quickly, even independently. “They have a stronger sense of community,” Levy said. “I’m not sure if it’s the chicken or the egg, but people who are social may select a property with a  clubhouse.” Having a clubhouse tends to encourage more socialization.  

 He advises managers to create a social budget. “Not every board wants that kind of activity, but try to budget $2,500 for social  activities. Where everyone is fighting about the budget, the treasurer might  say ‘Let’s cut it.’ As an owner, I’ll say, ‘I’ll pay for it myself.’ I believe there’s a value; the sense of community is worth it. So if you are cutting back, cut  back on what you’re serving — but have the event.”  

 Despite the lethargic economy of recent years, 50 to 60 percent of his company’s communities sponsor events. “In one area, joining together eight properties, we do a joint social,” Levy said. Cost of this annual event is allocated according to the size  population each property represents. “We also go to vendors for contributions,” he said. They are the people who provide maintenance, repair or construction  services, etc., to the community. We raise a lot of the cost that way.”  

 Variety is the spice of life. “We’ve had catered events, magicians, an ice cream truck, barbecue cooking, bands,  kiddie events,” Levy said. Few management firms take it to the extent he does, though. After a  rented clown’s off-color jokes riled some mothers, Levy donned a clown costume for the event.  

 “I turned to my youngest daughter and said, ‘I know how to juggle; we need costumes.’ My daughter escorted me to an iParty store and we purchased the whole shebang:  big, floppy feet, gloves and wig, outfit and happy face makeup.”  

 He often helps set up tents and tables in the morning, returning later as a  clown. He’ll juggle two balls and eat an apple at the same time, or teach kids to juggle.  Sometimes, he brings extra garb, so children can also clown around.  

 This has a serious purpose, Levy says. “It’s the concept of trying to be part of a team. We want to teach the trustees to  move beyond facility management. In some places, we are primarily a negative  force in their lives in everyday life, but here they see us instead in a social  role, a serving role, and that builds more connection with them. It makes other  things easier to accomplish. People understand we’re not just a corporation, and they’re not just numbers. It’s worth the effort.” In locations where there’s a multi-lingual, multi-cultural residential mix, these activities tend to  cross barriers and ease relationships.  

 There are a few pitfalls to beware of, Levy says – led by the time constraints of the condo manager. To add a social obligation a  Saturday, several times over summer, is an extra constraint on their lives.  

 Then, he notes, there is fiscal pressure. “Some board members will say, we’re raising the fee 10 bucks this year, and we should cut social. They don’t see the value in it.”  

 And there’s the allure of giving in. “Managers dislike conflict. They’re more likely to cave if somebody pushes back. A strong-willed trustee  convinces them to cancel the party. It takes a lot of energy … but once it’s going, it’s easier.”  

 A Few Words of Caution

 Attorney Frank Flynn says, jokingly serious, that if boards listen to an  attorney, they probably won’t sponsor anything. Most boards, however, weigh the negatives against the  positives and lean, somewhat wiser, in the direction of social events.  Forewarned, they hopefully will not engage in anything that ends up in an  expensive court wrangle.  

 Flynn, a managing partner with the Boston law firm of Downing & Flynn,which represents condo associations and rental property managers in  Massachusetts and Rhode Island, says liability is the big threat. “The number one danger is social host liability. In Massachusetts, and other  states, when anybody has an event and serves alcohol, if they serve too much—and a person drives and perhaps kills somebody, they could be liable,” he says.  

 “Let’s say it’s a Super Bowl party. Commonly, alcohol is served at parties like that. If the  board is hosting the party, it may well be held liable after a tragedy. Even if  the board hires a vendor or a bartender—and that may be a good option if one is providing alcohol—there may be an assumed liability. In defending cases like that, the personal  injury attorney will sue everybody they can—the board, the caterer that brought the bartender in, the place where the event  was held.”  

 Serving alcohol is probably not the best idea, Flynn says. Consider it  carefully, and talk with the insurer.  

 He advises keeping a careful eye on what’s being consumed and getting event insurance.

 Robinson concurs. “The biggest concern with any community event is the association’s exposure to liability. The association/committee should not purchase or serve  alcohol for any event; additionally, the board or committee should not  advertise any events as permitting alcohol. While it may seem like overkill, we  oftentimes will recommend that they hire a police officer when alcohol is  permitted. The presence of a police officer will strengthen the association’s position in the event of an accident and subsequent liability claim.”  

 Plan carefully. “The committee should work with the board and management company in risk  management, to minimize the possibility of an accident and subsequent liability  claim,” Robinson said. “The group should take the time to identify the potential risks, and put together  and implement a plan to eliminate or minimize the risks.”  

 Jeff Grosser at Rodman Insurance Agency in Needham, Massachusetts, advises  double checking the policy. “An association’s general liability coverage affords protection for the association against  claims of third party bodily injury and property damage resulting from the  operation of the premises—including social activities. If alcohol is being served (assuming there is no  charge) then many policies provide some coverage for Host Liquor Liability.”  

 Don’t assume anything, he says—check the insurer regarding coverage and implement controls, such as a police  detail, to avoid claims.  

 Ultimately, events are another way to reach out to residents. “We’re much more cloistered now,” Levy says, “so we try to bring that sense of community we used to have in the ‘40s and ‘50s.”

 Anne Connery Frantz is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to New  England Condominium.


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