My name is Uta Birkmayer. Born in Germany and half Hungarian, I have lived and worked in Europe, Asia, the Americas and aboard a five-star cruise ship, where I wrote my thesis on "Living and Working Cultures on Cruise Ships". I have always been fascinated by the people-place interaction and have dedicated my life to inspiring human transformation by creating experiences that add meaning to people’s lives. After all, what's life, if we're not living it to our full potential? My academic background is hospitality management and design, specifically creating authentic customer experiences that connect place and people.
After spending eight years in Asia, in 2001 I returned to the US for the third time and realized that so much of real estate development surrounding me was not “real” at all, but often a copy of Tuscany or the English countryside or other glitzy, themed creations that left me void of emotions. Such "copies of " places do not elicit the emotional connection humans experience when visiting the "real thing". One developer actually shared that “we have nothing here, so we have to borrow from Europe.”
Uta at age 5, hiking with Dad in Germany
“We have nothing here, so we have to borrow from Europe.” Yes, this statement came from a real developer, who ended up hiring us to achieve the highest ROI in the 150 year history of the company. (His testimonial here). Now, back to the story...
It is this very statement that inspired me to create Xsense, a consultancy for developers to ensure that their designs, concepts and eventual customer experiences connect to the real roots of place and therefore creating environments that bring the joy, meaning and connection we are so missing in real estate today.
Xsense was a hard sell from its humble beginnings 18 years ago. The question was always: what is the ROI? How much (monetary) value will it add? Why spend the money? And, in real estate, it takes a long time to get to this number. Now I have this number and I am excited to share that not only did we help the developer save money, but we also added 3.5% ($27M) to a development that was launched in 2008, the last economic downturn. It also became the most successful project in the 150-year history of the company.
Trilogy Vineyards, the site before construction. Originally seen as obstacles, rocks were included.
I set out to create more culturally connected, meaningful and therefore socially sustainable places that people love to live in, visit and share with others. In order to figure out what to do, I studied the places we copy: Tuscany, the Provence, the English countryside, Swiss chalets—all places we love instinctively. What was it about these places that makes us fall fall for them so much that we want to copy them and bring them home--and, at the same time, realizing, that the elements we love cannot be copied.
First of all, loved places have deep history; ideas are passed from one generation to the next; every generation is expected to adapt what they learn from their elders to fit into the world we live in today. Therefore architecture changes, fashion changes, dishes change, music changes—but we can always tell that it still has an authentic connection to the roots of the place, to the way of our ancestors.
Second, authentic places don't need marketing brochures or sales offices! They are full of stories that have to be peeled away like the skins of an onion. Rather than marketing brochures they have guidebooks that explain what we are experiencing and why. Thus, every touchpoint one sees, touches, smells, hears and tastes is deeply connected to the culture of its people. These places tell the real stories of the genius of their people.
Those two key principles are embedded in all of our work.
I knew that development and marketing cost would be lower and I was hopeful that the developments would create a higher financial return—but the financial return was never my main purpose. However, it’s imperative for investors.
Now that we have learned what the actual numbers are, we want to share our story, and inspire other developers, municipalities and academia, to consider our approach.
15 years ago, Xsense was an obscure startup and Jason Enos, in the true spirit of Trilogy innovation, gave us a chance to introduce experiential design to the Trilogy Central Coast Project (now called Trilogy Monarch Dunes). Subsequently, I was invited to meet Dan O’Brien, Stephen Tindle and the leadership team in Scottsdale. I remember former CEO Rick Andreen saying to me that “anything we can do to add elements of authenticity, meaning, and culture, something that moves people in ways new real estate rarely does—gives our communities an edge over competition and is worth investing in.”
Rick’s foresight has paid off with the Vineyards development, adding $27 million to the bottom line, making it, according to Dan O’Brien, Shea’s most successful development in its 150-year history.
John Marsh House, Brentwood, CA