CREtech CEO Michael Beckerman has launched a new offshoot of his event, consulting and content platform for commercial real estate technology. Known as CREtech Climate, the new initiative is meant to galvanize the real estate industry to reduce its carbon footprint. — Courtesy: CREtech
By Joshua Burd
For Michael Beckerman, the conversation began as a means of brainstorming for virtual conferences in the midst of the pandemic. Soon it would become a full-fledged epiphany.
That’s how Beckerman — the commercial real estate technology guru, trade show host and former public relations maven — describes his discussions in 2020 with entrepreneurs Lindsay Baker and Brendan Wallace. As he recalls, the startup founders pointed to how real estate was affecting climate change, noting that the industry is the source of nearly 40 percent of all carbon emissions.
Beckerman pushed back, he said, but after hearing the facts from Wallace and Baker, “it was not even a lightbulb, but a sledgehammer just knocking me on my head, in a way.”
“Like everything in life, I’m just such a late learner,” said Beckerman, who was incredulous that the industry on which he built his 35-year career was impacting the world in such a way.
Such is the origin of CREtech Climate, a new outgrowth of the conference, consulting and research platform that Beckerman founded in 2017 to highlight the growing role of technology in commercial real estate. The offshoot is part of what he calls his “personal and professional mission to decarbonize, to get the real estate industry to net zero,” largely by tapping the vast network he has built during his time in business, including some 25 years in public relations.
Central to that mission is his CREtech audience, which provides a foundation of 100,000 people globally and a space to promote the use of technology to lessen climate risk, he said. On May 17, CREtech Climate will kick off its inaugural Climate Global Leadership Summit, in Copenhagen, a location that Beckerman notes was recently voted the world’s most sustainable city.
He believes it’s a fitting choice to launch an event that he also plans to stage closer to home, when the time is right.
“In Europe, climate is table stakes. ESG is table stakes,” he said, referring to environmental, social and governance initiatives by corporations and other institutions. “It’s not here yet — particularly in our New York, New Jersey metro area, it’s just not getting the focus that it needs. And my fear is that there’s such a confluence of forces … on this industry that, at some point, if they don’t wake up, it’s going to be too late for a lot of companies.
“So what I say is that the climate crisis is the single-greatest threat — and opportunity — to ever confront the real estate industry.”
Beckerman founded CREtech Climate in partnership with industry heavyweights such as Fifth Wall, the largest venture capital firm focused on real estate tech, along with RXR Realty, Savills, Oxford Properties Group, EY, Rudin Management Co. and Logical Buildings. Doing so would have been unimaginable at the start of his career in the late 1980s, when he launched a marketing agency and “stumbled upon” public relations. Even then, he said, he had little intention of serving real estate clients, but he found himself doing so by the early 1990s when he was hired by the Bizzoni Group, the homebuilder.
He would spend much of the next two decades growing Beckerman PR into one of the industry’s largest independent public relations firms and a key player in commercial real estate. Its clients included some of the biggest names in New Jersey and the region, from the Morris Cos. and Gale & Wentworth to SJP Properties, Matrix Development Group and Roseland Property Co., as the agency expanded organically and through acquisition.
“Like everything in my career, it’s really just making enough mistakes every single day that you hopefully learn from a few of the big ones and you don’t repeat them in the next version of your journey,” Beckerman said. “So it’s just been this evolution for me of understanding where markets are moving and trying to pay attention and not screw it up along the way.”
It was 2012 when he stepped back from his day-to-day involvement with the firm, admitting that he “just kind of hit the wall, personally, and was looking for the next blank canvas.” He asked himself: “What else is next? What else can I do where I could start from the beginning, build something, learn along the way and get my ass kicked, of course, every day?”
He landed on technology, which provided a challenge personally and to an industry that had largely endured without innovation. In 2012, he launched The News Funnel, an aggregator of commercial real estate news that is still used by hundreds of thousands of readers. At the suggestion of CBRE broker Jeremy Neuer, a longtime friend and fellow tech enthusiast, Beckerman in 2017 purchased what was known as CRE/Tech Intersect, a networking group that both belonged to and had around 2,000 subscribers at the time.
The company, which Beckerman rebranded as CREtech.com, laid the foundation for what would become a fast-growing conference and content business focused on the role of technology in real estate. The use and awareness of so-called proptech was noticeably on the rise at the time, he said, as the industry was attracting venture capital funding and a growing list of startups.
He pointed, for example, to the launch of Fifth Wall, which was co-founded in 2016 by Wallace. The space also drew investment from a host of other institutional sources and attention from brokerage giants such as JLL and CBRE.
That partly explains the growth of CREtech under Beckerman, from an initial event in San Francisco that he estimates drew around a hundred people, to multiple conferences and thousands of attendees annually. That includes flagship programs in New York and London that last year had some 3,000 attendees, from entrepreneurs and real estate service providers to some of the world’s top investment bankers and investors.
“They all have heads of innovation,” said Beckerman, who sold his interest in the PR agency in 2017. “A lot of them are investing in venture — and it’s not just the big ones. It’s the super regionals. A lot of players in Jersey have heads of innovation (and) are adopting a lot of these tools that are in the marketplace.”
The pandemic accelerated real estate’s adoption of technology, as with most industries, which ultimately led to continued growth for CREtech’s audience. And, ironically, the crisis only reinforced the importance and the demand for in-person shows. The company successfully pivoted to virtual programs during widespread lockdowns in 2020, he said, but “then you just watch the numbers on webinars and virtual conferences — they keep going down because there’s too many of them and everybody discovered this fun toy at once.”
“And so I just made the decision: Virtual conferences is not a business for me.”
The decision was validated last fall, when the company’s in-person conferences “just came back roaring” with thousands of attendees at the New York and London events.
It was also in the early months of COVID-19 that Beckerman latched onto climate as the focus of CREtech’s new offshoot. As he prepares for his first CREtech Climate conference, he believes the audience could ultimately be exponentially bigger than that of the pure technology platform.
He also expects the mission to be immensely more difficult, citing industry estimates that it would take 100 years and at least $18 trillion to decarbonize the built world. By comparison, he said, the internet is a trillion-dollar industry, “so now you’re talking 20 internets that has to be invested in just the built world to get it to net zero. Think about the scale of that problem.”
Yet Beckerman is buoyed by the growing attention paid by young people, governments and the fast-growing list of global companies and institutions with ESG requirements.
What’s more, he said, “technology gives me hope.” Commercial real estate, for instance, has embraced innovation in building materials such as concrete, steel and mass timber, and in areas such as prefabrication and 3D-printed homes, all of which help create healthier working and living spaces.
That makes it all the more likely that his new initiative will be a true extension of the original CREtech, highlighting the types of tools “that are available for the industry to adopt so that they can achieve whatever their objectives are” with respect to net zero emissions or greening their portfolios.
“It is all through the tech lens,” he said, later adding: “The technology will get us there, I do believe, but the problem remains adoption. And this has been the whole arc of my career. I have those relationships, I know this industry, so I’m just focused every day on the adoption side … to get the industry to pay attention, to understand the risk and then understand there are solutions, there are tools, so let’s go. Let’s create greater, healthier work and living places and let’s save the planet for the next generation that’s coming up.”