By Jamie Martorana
[This article appeared in the Real Estate section of the newspaper, Newsday, on February 4, 2000.]
UNTIL TWO YEARS AGO, Donna Dantuono had lived her whole life in the East Meadow home where she was born. She knew the stores, the people, just about everything around her. But when her family moved to Huntington in August, 1998, she had to get used to a whole new area.
"There were a million little stores down here," Dantuono said.
About a month after moving, she received a welcoming package with a telephone directory filled with the names of local shops and vendors, along with a coupon book full of discounts to places like Bon Bons Chocolatier and Book Revue.
"It was very helpful," said Dantuono, 42, who is married with two children. "I still carry my coupons. My coupons are my life."
Dantuono is one of 1.8 million new homeowners-including 26,000 on Long Island and more than 8,000 in Queens-who receive the directory and coupon pages annually from Welcome Wagon, a fixture in the home-welcoming industry since 1928. According to Welcome Wagon officials, the company was inspired by the Conestoga wagons that provided fresh food and water to travelers making their way to the American West. The company was founded by an advertising executive, Thomas Briggs, who recognized that local merchants wanted to reach newcomers to his town of Memphis. So he put together a team of long-time residents who knew the area well and could provide community information as well as distribute offers from local merchants.
It was Welcome Wagon, company records show, that greeted President John F. Kennedy's family at the White House, as well as President Richard Nixon and his wife, Pat.
n 1995, Cendant Corp. acquired Welcome Wagon and in 1998 the company was consolidated with Getting to Know You, a firm founded in Great Neck by Irv Siegel, who began the directory business originally to promote his local beverage operation. The two companies now are part of the GETKO Group, in Westbury, marketing their services under the Welcome Wagon name. Over the years, Welcome Wagon and Getting to Know You have welcomed more than 70 million new homeowners nationwide. And while the overall mission hasn't changed, the way Welcome Wagon greets homeowners in today's fast-moving society has.
"The problem with the old Welcome Wagon was that communities became more urbanized," said president Joel Zychick. "The moving rate became more significant and it was harder to catch people at home."
Until 1998, Welcome Wagon was sending representatives door to door with baskets full of welcoming materials, community information and free giveaways from merchants that included water bottles, magnets and cup holders.
Now the company mails all its materials to new homeowners, along with the telephone directory that was created by Getting to Know You, which lists the names of local merchants-with only one merchant per industry. The company works with 50,000 merchants nationwide and 2,700 on Long Island, charging advertisers $3.15 for each homeowner who receives the directory. Other merchants who want to get in the directory simply have to wait for an opening in their industry.
"We're the only hairdresser in the directory," said Maria Ierome, owner of Touch of Class Unisex Hair Salon in Bellerose. "It's exclusive and it's directly mailed to the houses in a very impressive address book and folder."
Welcome Wagon also has 150 affiliated clubs throughout the nation, which hold activities for new homeowners, including monthly coffee meetings, tennis matches, bowling and mother/toddler groups.
"We get the names of new residents through the Chamber of Commerce and GETKO," said Margaret Kenny, president of the 800-member Welcome Wagon Club of Garden City. Members can join the group only within a year of their move or within six months of the birth or adoption of their child.
"We send them an invitation to attend our meetings," Kenny said. "We get so many people that want to join, it's really growing."
In October, the company entered the virtual world of homeowner-welcoming, launching www.welcomewagon.com, a Web site that provides company information as well as community information, tips on getting started, managing the move, getting settled, finding local merchants, buying a home and financing a home.
"Our hopes with the Web site is to provide as much local information to as many people as possible," said Joanna LoCascio, marketing manager for Welcome Wagon. "The Web site encompasses the whole moving process from beginning to end."
LoCascio says the site gets close to 1,000 hits per day. And the company is developing an Intranet site for merchants advertising with the program, where they can access billing and customer information. All merchants advertising within the Welcome Wagon program have a presence on the site, which also provides contact to the 150 Welcome Wagon-affiliated clubs. Meanwhile, Welcome Wagon's print directories have grown to 3,200 editions nationwide, including 135 versions for Long Island and 11 for Queens, tailored to different communities. "We identify new homeowners by collecting deeds," Zychick said. "Presently we collect 4.5 million deeds per year at 1,100 county recording offices."
The GETKO Group operates in 46 states and in Canada. The Canadian Welcome Wagon, however, split from the U.S. company in 1979, when it was bought by the Canadian management team. The Canadian company has kept some of the old ways, delivering baskets door to door. Getting to Know You also mails its directories in Canada but is not tied to the Canadian Welcome Wagon. "We're still doing the same thing Welcome Wagon has always done ... visiting people in their homes," said Ann Tatangelo, director of marketing for Welcome Wagon Limited in Canada. "That was the original concept, to be a friendly face in a strange town, and people still love it." Last year, Canada's Welcome Wagon visited 130,000 families that moved and targeted 200,000 expectant and new parents and about 25,000 brides-to-be.
The U.S. Welcome Wagon does not target new parents or brides but has branched out into the pre-mover market. The company has created a pre-move planner to send to prospects, filled with informational articles such as choosing a real estate broker and getting the best mortgage, in addition to worksheets on closing costs, home and neighborhood comparisons and an eight-week moving organizer. Welcome Wagon sends out more than 100,000 pre-move planning kits a year.
With so many people purchasing homes annually - approximately 6 million people nationally - the demand for welcoming services is strong, experts say.
The GETKO Group expects revenues to be up 24 percent this year, Zychick says. Revenues totaled about $70 million for 1999.
The growing demand for mover services has attracted some competitors to the market, including real estate agencies.
"They're offering all kinds of services," said Michael Abelson, a real estate consultant who is also president of Texas-based Abelson & Co. "Everything from mover to physicians and dentists."
Abelson said the effort started three years ago but initially flopped because agents were reluctant to get involved. Many had been burned by customers who blamed them if a home improvement didn't go as planned. But he said the movement started to pick up again in the last year.
"The agents have educated the consumer that these are services you could take advantage of, not services we offer," Abelson said.
Coldwell Banker Sammis, which has 15 offices on Long Island, started its concierge program last year, said Barbara Franco, director of marketing. "The program was developed to provide clients and customers with the help and details they need for buying or selling a home," Franco said. This includes finding a plumber, painter, landscaper, mover and carpet companies. The agency works with about 80 vendors.
"Our people are very highly screened," said Peggy Sherman, concierge manager. "We give them an informed choice, but it's their choice."
National Homefinders Signature Properties Inc. in Ronkonkoma, which has 10 offices on Long Island, operates a similar program, called Personal Move Consultant.
"We have a noncommissioned person call at different stages of the transaction ... up to a year after the homeowner moves," said president Kevin McClarnon, adding that his agency has contracted with a box company, fuel company, insurance firm, mortgage shop and moving company, as well as vendors for alarm systems, financial planning and home warranty service.
Despite the growing market for moving services, Welcome Wagon's Zychick said, in general, "There is no direct large-scale national competition" facing his company.
There is, however, competition for the advertising dollars of local merchants in each community. They go up against outfits such as Yellow Book, Val Pak, Shoppers Guide and Pennysaver, company officials said. On the Internet, mover and home sites include realtor.com, housenet.com and movecentral.com.
"There are many people in the direct-marketing business," says Jo Maschino, owner of Val Pak in Suffolk County, who wasn't too concerned about Welcome Wagon. "After 30 years Val Pak has branded itself very well."
Similarly, Wendy Nelson, owner of Sunflower Welcoming Service in Wichita, Kan., says she is not affected by Welcome Wagon. "They're not really local or prevalent here," said Nelson, who sends welcoming packets throughout Wichita and the surrounding metropolitan area. Sunflower used to do strictly home visits but now does mostly mail because of the tight schedules homeowners have.
Still, Welcome Wagon has name recognition, which it has fought hard to keep. The company has trademarked its name and says that over the years it has caught many competitors trying to use it.
Welcome Wagon also has a long-standing history of service that people seem to like. "It's a nice touch," Dantuono said. "It's almost like from way back when, when people would come by and give you a housewarming gift."