How to canvass tenants for retail properties? What are some techniques to get a new tenant? Who should you target? Beth Azor, the "Canvassing Queen", CRE leasing coach, developer, investor, author/speaker, and CEO of Azor Advisory Services shares her knowledge.

Tell us a bit about yourself.
I live in South Florida, which is a vibrant market, both in terms of deals and temperature. I've been in the commercial real estate industry for 38 years, specializing in shopping centers and retail.

You're often referred to as the canvassing queen. Could you elaborate on what that entails and provide insights into canvassing for retail properties?
Canvassing is when we knock on doors to find tenants to lease spaces in our vacancies. I was taught very early in my career not to sit around and wait for the phone to ring, and instead to go out, and knock on doors. If you think about what would qualify as a great tenant, they would have other locations, and it's someone that is paying another landlord rent. How easy is that? This is why I love retail, but I've done it in office and industrial, too. It's just great to be able to go within 1 to 2 hours from your property and knock on doors of retailers to see if they're interested in expanding or opening a store in your shopping center.

I've been preaching about canvassing my whole career but about 20 years ago, 15 years ago, I was on stage at a shopping center conference and someone sarcastically said, oh, there she is the canvassing queen and I said, I'm going to trademark that. Even though he was saying it sarcastically, it worked well for me all of these years since I've trademarked that.

I remember recently:
1) You took a picture of a truck that you were driving by, and said, "Here, guys, that's one way to canvass."
2) You gave multiple flyers to fill out a bigger center.
Let's delve into these techniques and others that you would recommend to people doing it, whether they own a small center themselves and for leasing agents.
The one with the truck that I posted is this: I was sitting at a red light, and there was a van across the way from me. On the bottom of the van, there was a plumbing supplies company, and they had five locations listed. What I always tell my students or my leasing agents who work for me is this: if someone has one location, it's a 50/50 shot if they want a second; if they have three, four, or five, they want more – they're in the expansion business. That is why I took a picture of that van, saying, "Hey, everyone, open your eyes, this is a business; they have five locations, here are their locations." Now, I know that one of my shopping centers was a hole in their doughnut of locations. I called the place, and they said they weren't interested in my area, but they gave me two other areas, and I have no friends that own properties there, so I sent my friends the information.

There are prospects everywhere. There are prospects on bus benches, where you're driving down and it's like, "Hey, have a smoothie!" and then they list multiple locations under the bus bench, so I'm always looking for prospects. I love getting the little magazines that they hand out at doctors' offices or pediatrician offices, where it's the little community magazine. I grab those, and then on the weekend, I go through them, and I have found tons of prospects, because what does it tell you if they're advertising in a magazine? They've got money because we know the first thing that goes, if attendance is not doing well, a business isn't doing well, is marketing. Now, they have another location, and they have money to spend on marketing, so I'll call them.

I just did a deal with a men's clothing store that I found an ad in a magazine and called them up. I said, "Hey, I've got this property; we'd love to have men's clothing," and they were very interested. Within 90 days, they opened in one of my properties. And then the flyers, it's just easier. I say to people, when I went canvassing, it didn't work. I go, "Well, how many times have you gone? Once? Nothing works when you try it once." But someone goes, "No, I've gone a few times, and it just doesn't work." I said, "What do you take with you? What materials?" They got a business card, but that doesn't work because business owners are very busy. Let's say they're not at the store, and you get a clerk, a gatekeeper, and you hand them a business card. The business card gets on the guy's desk in the back little office, the owner comes in and he sees a business card. "Azor Advisory Services" tells them nothing, versus the one that I posted on Twitter that you saw. I lease a property in Cleveland. I own shopping centers in South Florida, but I have an assignment that I'm working on in Cleveland, where I took over a 15% occupied mall and we have signed 49 leases in two years.

I've met over 1800 businesses in Cleveland personally in two years. That's how you sign 49 leases. I realized that because the property was in downtown Cleveland, with lots of office buildings around and the food court had only two or three tenants, but because we got their sales, we knew that they were doing very well. I created a flyer that showed a picture of the nine available food court spaces. I said, "Food court spaces are available. I think it's a great rate, utilities included." Then I asked, "Which ones had hoods and which ones had refrigeration?" And I went and handed it out to 50 restaurants like fast-casual restaurants. Within 90 days, we leased five of them. Flyers—where the guy can come into the store and the gatekeeper goes, "Oh, this lady dropped this off, but it's got nine food court spaces; this one has a hood, this one doesn't have a hood." This is better than a business card.

People will tell you a lot more when you're present versus over the phone because you can build rapport; they pick up on your energy and other cues. Let's say somebody says, "Oh, call me six months from now." What would you do?
I would say, "Oh, okay, that's excellent. We would love to talk to you in six months. Can I ask how long it took you to sign your lease here? If we talk in six months, and your lease is up in six months, will your current landlord give you hold overwrites in case we haven't made a deal very quickly?" I'll just try to ask him some questions, but let's say he says, "Call me back in six months because my lease is up in 18 months." "Okay, no problem. I'll give you a call back in six months." Now, what I might do between now and then the six months, let's say it's a bike store. First of all, I'm going to set up a Google Alert for his name and business so that if he's mentioned in the newspaper for anything, I can then text him, "Hey, saw that you opened another location in Atlanta, Georgia. Congratulations, I'll reach back out to you in June." Or if I see any articles about biking events, like a race in Europe, I'll send him those articles too because I want him to remember who I am. I don't want to show up in six months and he's already decided to go with someone else. Timing is everything, so I'm going to try to provide him with value without pressuring him about taking my space. Instead, I'll say, "Remember me, I'm the girl from Jones Plaza. By the way, we just signed the Miami Heat Panther store. They're doing really well, they made $200,000 last Saturday." I'm giving him feedback about my property. And I'm not just telling him about the nail salon I signed, I'll tell him about other tenants that I think he would be interested in, like a hobby store. They had their grand opening and did really well in their first month. I'm giving him feedback about my property without asking him if he's ready yet. I'm trying to send him information that adds value to his life, just so that I remain top of mind. And I'll probably follow up again around the 90-day mark, but he should know who I am because I've been consistently providing him with information via email or text in the meantime.

I'm thinking of myself as a property owner. That's absolutely what I would want to hear - not pushy, but you're on top of communication, and now I'm starting to remember who you are. And because you're following up multiple times, even if you don't reach out within the two weeks that I'm looking to start the search, I'll remember you because you're probably the only one, or maybe one of two, who have been following up and providing value.
I know many in your audience are buyers or investors, and I do this too with properties I'm trying to buy. I was just telling someone else on my last call, "Finally, after 14 years, I've joined a partnership for a property in my area," and someone asked, "Well, what did you do over those 14 years?" I said, "My partner's 90 years old." He never wanted to sell, and I would call him every quarter. In the first year, I'd call him, and he'd see my number and say, "No Beth, I still don't want to sell to you." But at least now I knew that he associated me with wanting to buy his shopping center until they get there, until a retail prospect. If I walk into the bike store, and every time I walk in, I start all over, I haven't done enough to create the relationship for them to make the decision. For 10 years, "I don't want to buy. I don't want to sell." But I would send him things like, "Hey, Mr. T, I just used this great paver. They were clean, they brought security, it was barricaded, it was a great vendor." "Hey, Mr. T, I just used the worst painter. I'll never use them again, don't use them." or "Hey, Mr. T., someone called me, I can't do a deal with them because I haven't been exclusive on coffee, but I don't think you do." So, building the relationship to where now, fourteen years later, he had a partner who wanted to sell, and he called me and said, "Hey, I have great news. I have a partner who wants to sell, and none of our other partners want to buy her out, but you should come in and buy it." I got to buy a piece, and then within six months, we're talking and meeting, and he said, "I've decided that my five kids aren't the ones who should be taking this property over, and I'm turning 90 this year, so we're going to create documentation and my will, and then over the next couple of years, you'll become a bigger and bigger partner. As of January 2, I'm a 12% partner, and a year from now, I'll be a 22% partner, and I hope that he continues to be around for a long time. I'm like Charlie Munger, but if he doesn't, I have the first right of refusal."

A great example of following up and keeping in touch. Regarding canvassing, is there anything else you want our audience to be aware of, or any other tips you want to cover?
The last thing I want to say, which is the most important, is when you walk into a retail space, never ask for the owner. I know there has been decades of sales training that says, "Get to the decision maker," but I promise you, if you walk in and say, "Is the owner here?" you're going to shoot yourself in the foot. It's just a terrible thing to do because they'll immediately think, "Why doesn't she think I'm the owner?" and they might even lie and say, "No, the owner's not here."

If you walk in and encounter a gatekeeper, a young person, or a clerk working in the retail store, and you say, "Hi, is the owner here?" you've just insulted them. "Why don't they think I could be the owner?" It's a lost battle. So, I walk in and I say, "Hi, I own shopping centers in the area. What are your expansion plans?" If the clerk says, "Oh, that's not me," I respond, "Oh, okay. Can I give you a flyer? Do you know if the company has ever thought of expanding?" I treat them as if they know what's going on. I have an assistant, she's my director of operations, and she's been with me for 20 years. When vendors call, like roof vendors, I don't deal with that person, she's the boss. Anyone who treats her with importance, as if she might be the decision maker, gets their attention. So, 90% of the time, I walk out with the owner's name and number because I treated the gatekeeper with dignity and respect. And a lot of times, they are the gatekeepers, so you can treat them with respect, and they'll provide you with the information. Similarly, if I walk in and they are the owner, and I just start talking to them as if they're the owner, very quickly, the person might say, "Well, I'm the owner. How did you know I was the owner? I just got that title last week." I respond, "I treat everyone as if they're the owner." Don't ever walk in and ask for the owner because you won't get very far. That's my biggest tip for canvassing.

As my entire audience knows, we never get paid for anything, we don't have advertisers, so this is not paid at all. It's really because your conferences are fantastic. This will be my third year attending, and it has been hugely valuable because I've met so many incredible people, leading to potential properties and partnerships. I would love for you to share with the audience what the conference is about and what you're going to be talking about.
Five years ago, I learned that of all the commercial real estate investors in the US, only 3% are women. Then I delved further and found out that of the 3%, 50% were spouses who had just signed on loans or inherited. You and I are part of the 1.5% that invest in commercial real estate in the country, which I found deplorable. I was 58 at the time, now I'm 63, and I have a goal. By the time I turn 70, I aim to get that number to 10%. I don't know how I'm going to track it; all I know is last year, I asked everyone to stand up who had invested for the first time that a year prior they had not, and I think 25 women stood up. That's out of 160 women in the room, so I know that we're making an impact. How are we doing it? Why are women not investing? At first, they said, "Well, I don't have the money. I don't have a million dollars." I said, "Okay, well, you don't need a million dollars, so I knew that was education." And it's too complicated. So I said, "Well, do you invest your money at all, or is it under the mattress?" "Oh, no, I invest in the stock market." Oh, and that's not complicated? My Netflix stock dropped 80% last year. That's complicated. How did that happen? Well, I'm afraid of the risk. I understand that, and that's a valid reason. I'm just afraid. But what it came down to is they would say, "I don't know any other woman in my circle doing it." Aha, this is how I can help.

Our first year was virtual because of COVID, and I interviewed seven or eight women virtually. Two years ago, we interviewed, I think, eight women, nine women last year, and you were one of them. And this year, I think we have 11 women. A couple of the interviews, I am interviewing two women at the same time, so we probably have 13 speakers. These are women who have invested in self-storage, hospitality, multifamily, retail, and industrial offices. Women who have written checks, raised money, got loans, so that the women in the audience, and I think we're going to sell out at 200, can learn. So, I interviewed the women: What was your first deal? How scared were you? How did you get the loan? We talk about the good, the bad, and the ugly so that the women hear all of it. The speakers go into breakout rooms. We take a room of 200, and each speaker, let's say there are 10 speakers, and there are 20 people in their rooms, and they get to go deeper with the speaker. This year, we're trying to figure out how to do speed dating. We're going to line up LPs and GPs. As you had said earlier, you've met people who have talked to you about your deals. I have met people that I have invested as an LP with Natasha in multifamily, so the goal is to educate them that it doesn't take a million dollars, educate them from our specific examples. It's scary sometimes, sometimes you lose money, sometimes you make money, but just getting the word out and exposing the women to this is another diversification that you should be familiar with, and we've made an impact, which I'm just so excited about.

Last year, we didn't do it because we had moved it to Orlando. This year, we're doing the bus tour again, and we're going to do three of my retail properties and three multifamilies. It's again, the journey. I didn't know who Natasha is, this is a woman who invests in multifamily in Miami. I didn't know her before I started this. Not only do I know her, but I've now invested with her in four different multifamily projects, and so have other women in the room. It's great to give a check and get a check, by the way, being an LP instead of being a GP, but that's what the conference is. It's 200 like-minded women in a room, some like you have done it and are doing it, some are dipping their toe in, and then phenomenal women on the stage sharing like "Open the book, open the kimono." Some of the things you guys say on stage I'm like, "I can't believe they're saying this, but this is awesome" for the women in the room.

For all the gentlemen listening, you all have wives, girlfriends, sisters, or mothers, and you might want them to start learning what you do. Women just think differently. Once they learn or become interested in real estate investing, they will consider other angles about a potential property that you're working on and similar aspects. It's really important to have the ladies in your lives learn about what you're doing and send them over to Beth's conference; it's a fantastic event.
We don't exclude men; last year, we had about five guys attend. We're open to all, but the focus is on educating women. I've had friends of mine who have invested with me send their wives, and it did open their wives' minds. It has also helped them as a couple when it comes to investing.

Women's Real Estate Investing Summit 2024: March 14 and 15th in South Florida.

Beth Azor