Do you know where the saying dead in the water comes from? It was originally used to refer to a boat that was stuck out at sea with no wind. No wind means no movement and as you could imagine, no movement is not good for a boat in a large body of water. Over the last 2 years, people have been telling me that the office market in Cleveland is “dead in the water” as everyone from your nephew’s Lemonade stand to Google decide if they need more space or if they even want any space. To be honest with you I believed it for a little bit too. I thought there is no wind in the sails of the office market in Cleveland, but then I allowed myself to take a real look at the industry.
Sailboats are great but they need something to push them. A tide, current, or wind is needed to make a boat with no motor move. I believe that office rents in the Cleveland Market have stayed stagnant because they have been the tide, current, or wind in the sails of our largely vacant office market. What do I mean by that? Owners in Cleveland often think that they are in competition with each other. They attract tenants to their buildings by offering a low price, free rent, and higher tenant improvement allowances than what they view are their competitor’s. That, in turn, makes other owners lower their prices and it becomes a price war at its most basic level. For years, that has been the reason why the office market continued to truck along with very few new buildings and stagnated rent growth. Lower prices and increasing free rent packages were the slow wind that was pushing the sails of a fundamentally broken office market.
Why are low prices so bad in an office market? The answer is they aren’t when they can be controlled and used to attract quality businesses that will help the area grow. That, however, is not the situation that the Cleveland office market is in. We are in a vicious cycle of rent reduction to attract businesses that don’t choose Cleveland because of the lack of amenities, in both buildings and the city, and because they don’t choose Cleveland both the owner and city miss out on valuable tax and rental income that could be used to pay for new amenities to attract new businesses. This is the reason why the Cleveland office market is “Dead in the water”.
Nobody cared about this issue until the past two years when work from home skyrocketed and tenants didn’t care how much you reduced their rent; they just wanted out. It was no longer a price war because price mattered very little anymore. It became an agent’s job to keep tenants from bull rushing out of a building. Any wind that was ever present, was lost. No hope, right? Wrong.
Going back to what I had said earlier when technology advanced we learned that we could put an engine on a boat and we had no more need for the wind to propel us. The wind and the sail didn’t matter anymore because the fundamental idea of a boat changed. It was no longer difficult to maneuver, slow, or relied on something totally out of one’s control. Instead, a boat became fun, attractive, and a sign of success for most. Office buildings need a motor. The entire idea of an office building needs to be changed. Low rent and new paint aren’t enough anymore. You need a space that makes people want to come to work. If your building doesn’t do that, then you need to take a hard look at the future success and viability of that building. If you are a landlord you must know your effective vacancy on any building you own. I don’t mean how many people you are getting checks from every month or the number of available square feet you tell your broker to put on the flyer. I mean how many people are coming in and using your space on a DAILY basis? If you have amazing tenants that don’t want that stuff then, congratulations, you have won the jackpot. If you have large amounts of vacant space and are wondering how to change it, then hold on because I’m going to tell you.
ASK AND YOU SHALL RECEIVE
I know most office buildings or parks are purchased as a semi-passive investment which is great and I fully support it, but if you have a high vacancy you need to get a broker, or property manager or go yourself to each tenant and ask what they are looking for. Ask what your building lacks and where it could be improved. If you have current amenities in the building ask if they use them and how often. If you have someone that works in an amenity like a dry cleaner, food service, or gym, ask them how often people come through and what sort of mood they are in when they come in. If you have services in the building you need to find out if people are using them because the service is good or if it’s convenient. If tenants are using it out of convenience then that’s great, but it’s not enough to keep them there at your building. The true testament to the amenities that you provide should be if a tenant leaves and still comes back to your building to use your amenities. Obviously, not all amenities are offered to people that are not tenants, but ones that are, such as an open cafeteria or dry-cleaning service should be good tests. If you ask tenants for their opinion make sure they are valued and listened to. Asking them questions only to do nothing in hopes that they will stay is going to do you no good. If you want to have a low vacancy you need to get things in the building that people want. Let the ideas flow. Everything from a VR gaming setup, driving simulator, or golf simulator might be options that are relatively inexpensive in comparison to renovating a cafeteria or building out a new gym. Take the answers to the questions that you get from your tenants and mix them with your ideas and see if it’s possible. Maybe call me and let me come take a look and allow me to give you my opinion.
If your building represents a sailboat that is quickly or slowly losing wind then pull it out of the water and put an engine on that sucker because if you don’t make a change soon your boat will be dead in the office market water.
Have something to say? Great, I would love to hear it. Shoot me an email at Joe.Hauman@NAIPVC.com or give me a call 440-591-3723.