How I Did It: Eric Van Maren

Originally published in Business in Vancouver - July 2014

Business in Vancouver’s “How I Did It” feature asks business leaders to explain in their own words how they achieved a business goal in the face of significant entrepreneurial challenges. In this week’s issue, developer Eric Van Maren explains how he was able to quickly pivot when he realized that baby boomers, not vacation home buyers, were the real market for The Cottages on Osoyoos Lake. Located on Osoyoos Indian Band land and leased from the federal government, the land is not constrained by restrictive municipal land-use bylaws.

"My brother and I have been in the construction and land development business since 1973. Since 2002 we’ve been doing more development and real estate investment.

“We originally envisioned The Cottages on Osoyoos Lake to be primarily a vacation home development, with perhaps a smaller group of budget-conscious retirees. The innovation we had was recognizing, very early on, that the market for our product was different than we thought it would be.

“The home plans were small, they were cottage-style. We put in a good basic level of finishes but thought we should have a limited number of upgrades that people can choose from. Great concept. But when we started selling, we discovered quite quickly that the second-home buyers, there were fewer of them than we had anticipated. But what our project was doing was attracting wealthy baby boomers who were looking for a sunny place to retire.

“What we really missed was the fact that baby boomers have a ton of money, they want to spend it their way and when a developer comes along and says, ‘Here’s the house, you can’t change it,’ they’re disappointed and they walk away. They were looking at our drawings, and a lot of them said, ‘You don’t give us enough choices, we feel a little bit restricted on what we can do, and don’t you have a larger house plan and can’t you put garages on some of these houses?’

“So about halfway through that first year, we said, ‘We may be missing the market. Instead of this being a vacation home development with some retirees, perhaps it’s the reverse.’

“That required us to change our designs quite a bit, which we did very quickly. We started offering larger plans with double garages and made a decision that any change was acceptable. When we looked at the profile of our buyer, we recognized that cutting costs to save money, and cutting quality, was absolutely the wrong way to go. We no longer have homes built ready to move in because everybody wants to customize.

“We had one very wealthy couple from Ontario, they ... may spend $1.5 million here with the house and the lot and all in.

“We needed more staff because this whole customization process is very intensive – two on the marketing and design side and one person on the construction side.

“The Osoyoos Indian Band really doesn’t have a zoning bylaw, so they approved the original concept for the development and the concept was really broad-ranging. Being able to radically change our target market and floor plans within a 30-day period ... without having to go through all kinds of approvals and hoops to jump through, that’s what was key to our success.”

 To read the Business in Vancouver version click here.


Back to Marketing Basics for Okanagan Developer


Simple marketing proves successful for Okanagan developer selling nostalgia—and cottages

With the South Okanagan's busiest tourist months (July - September) upon us, developer Eric Van Maren of The Cottages on Osoyoos Lake has tweaked a simple but effective marketing tool in order to evoke the old Okanagan summer cottage experience for consumers.

Van Maren's marketing secret: over-sized beach chairs that inspire a nostalgic response.

This year and last, Van Maren placed the billboard-inspired, 3.5-metre tall beach chairs in 20 areas around the Okanagan and the Lower Mainland. This year, nearly half of Van Maren's registrants say that tool is the reason he caught their attention.

“Last year, almost 46 per cent of our 3,000 registrants of The Cottages came directly from these... beach chairs. This year, with our first phase of development complete, and product available to see and feel, we’re expecting these chairs to be the push to bring in even more interested buyers, especially around the upcoming long weekend."

Van Maren says that approximately 50 per cent of the sales of the Cottages (20 of the 39 sales; there are 285 cottages in total)  to date are the direct result of the interest garnered by his chair billboards.

Ontarian Laura Steele who, with her husband Michael, purchased a cottage at Van Maren's development (they plan to vacation there for the next few years, then retire to the Okanagan), say the chairs are to credit with their purchase. While holidaying in B.C. last year, they spotted the chairs while driving from Vancouver to the Okanagan Falls.

"We kept driving past these eye-catching lawn chairs on the drive to Okanagan Falls from Vancouver and we decided we had to take a quick stop in to check out the site," says Laura Steele. "What was supposed to be a quick visit, ended in us purchasing one of these amazing cottages on one of the warmest lakes and most beautiful settings in B.C."

 To read the BC Business version click here.


The Okanagan Nation Negotiation


Personal trust seals First Nations 
development deal with The Cottages at Osoyoos Lake.

If you happen upon a vintage Airstream trailer hurtling down the highway this summer, it’s likely you’ll be hit with a silver bullet of nostalgia. Don’t think for a second that’s accidental.

“I can remember when I was a kid sitting on the fruit stand watching those trailers come by and thinking, ‘man oh man, I wish I was rich enough to have one of those,’” says Chilliwack-based developer Eric Van Maren, who is now 56. 

He’s betting most will revel in the blast from the past when they catch a glimpse of the mobile sales centre for his latest project, The Cottages at Osoyoos Lake, making the rounds in B.C. and Alberta this summer.

Situated on 28 hectares of lakefront property and rolling hills near the town of Oliver, The Cottages promises a Rockwellian fantasy harkening back to a simpler time when kids played barefoot and didn’t come home until dark, neighbours chatted over lazy barbecues and afternoon naps were de rigueur. 

But there’s one aspect of cottage history Van Maren is happy to leave behind: the fraught, often exploitive relationship between First Nations landholders and non-native developers. “I think there are a lot of examples of people approaching natives with the idea that they can make a big score and either get the property super cheap or enter into some kind of a deal that’s really one-sided,” he says. 

Not a chance that would happen with Jane Stelkia, the feisty 81-year-old matriarch of the Okanagan Nation who agreed to lease a portion of her family’s ranchland to the developer for the project, which will include 284 detached cottages, ranging in price from $295,000 to $900,000. “I very quickly realized that this was one bright lady,” Van Maren says. “Nobody was going to pull the wool over her eyes – not that I had any intention of doing so.” 

The respect was mutual. A shrewd negotiator, Stelkia had already turned down two lucrative offers from developers who failed to pass her gut test. “I’ll take a liking to a person right away or not. Let’s put it that way,” she says, taking a breather from ranching the land her family has worked for generations.

It was with family in mind that Stelkia began searching for a development deal of her own in 2007, after drought hit the region and business fell off. A mother of four who has to stop and tally her grandchildren (she has 11, plus four great-grandkids), Stelkia wanted assurance that if and when she chose to develop, the deal would be on her terms and in her family’s best interest. 

Van Maren won her over with his willingness to collaborate and pressure-free tactics, including months of meeting face-to-face, with nary a mention of paperwork. “I believe in partnership and as we went along I really trusted Eric; he was really true to his word,” Stelkia says. Conversely, Van Maren was surprised by Stelkia’s ability to separate emotion from business, which she demonstrated by ending one particularly tense negotiation with the offer of a hug.

Together, the two negotiated a “significant seven-figure sum” for Stelkia and an ambitious $100-million development, but they also achieved a rare level of trust to complete the sensitive transaction, which eventually gave rise to an unconventional friendship. Due to federal regulations, the Osoyoos Indian Band was required to approve the 99-year lease in a referendum. It did handily, with nearly 70 per cent voting in support. Van Maren credits his bond with Stelkia for bringing the rest of the band on board. “Jane was very outspoken about how this was good, not only for her but for the band as a whole,” Van Maren says, adding the band can expect to gain $1,500 per unit sold plus an estimated $400,000 to $500,000 in annual net tax revenue. 

As for Stelkia, she’s one of the first 30 people to have purchased the first phase of 57 cottages, expected to break ground early this fall and complete next spring. But that doesn’t mean she’ll be slowing down anytime soon. “I don’t know about taking it easy,” she says, “but I’ll enjoy it.”

To read the BC Business version click here.