It’s spring and the distinctive posters for one of Toronto’s most notorious conferences are plastered all over the city’s transit once again. The headshots of this year’s speakers remind me of a sleazy Mount Rushmore: aging celebrities long past their heyday, promising to tell you the secret to obtaining vast fortunes.
The Real Estate Bitcoin Wealth Expo has rolled into town.
This year, Sylvester Stallone promises to educate us on “knockout strategies.” He’s joined by retired baseball player Alex Rodriguez, who will impart his knowledge about “winning”, and Mr. Worldwide himself — Pitbull — who will deliver a “genius talk” about “turning a negative into a positive.”
It’s hard not to be morbidly curious about it all. And when I found out that my editor would be sending me to this thing, I was secretly thrilled.
Journalists, bloggers and housing bears love to hate on this expo. It’s become Toronto’s rallying cry that we’re in a housing bubble, and many blame real estate investing for bringing us to this point. The lead-up to the expo powers a negativity treadmill of sorts, where we take to social media to decry it, and in turn, promote it just as hard — and maybe even harder — than the actual organizers.
The truth is, there isn’t any good content at the expo. And it’s obvious just by looking at it. The presenters don’t have anything insightful to say about the state of the market — any market. It does, however, say a lot about us — the people who attend these things and talk about it. Despite all the mocking the expo receives, we, as a society, can’t turn our heads away. We’re obsessed with real estate and wealth and the bombastic personalities who either get rich from it, or try to hawk it to us.
And that’s why I found myself up at 6 a.m. on a Saturday, hopping into an Uber to the Metro Toronto Convention Centre.
When I arrived, I went down an escalator into a space the size of an airport hanger. About 7,000 seats were set up and ushers wearing white shirts and black pants directed people with glow sticks to seats sectioned off with yellow caution tape. Attendees, some already dressed in furs and heels or pinstripe suits, filed into the rows of chairs. This was more wealth cosplay than anything.
The lead-up to the expo powers a negativity treadmill of sorts, where we take to social media to decry it, and in turn, promote it just as hard — and maybe even harder — than the actual organizers
A networking activity was already in full swing by the time I arrived at 7 a.m. Networking involved a hype man instructing people to ask attendees questions such as, “Tell your neighbour what makes you awesome!” and, “Tell your neighbour about one person in your life who matters to you!” People had to yell over the blaring pop music.
I’ve been to professional conferences before: at no point have I ever been asked to share personal, almost confessional, information about myself to my seatmate. But the promises of real estate and bitcoin wealth require a brave new world.
Once networking was over, I wandered out to the show floor where I found Nancy Dass, a “rent-to-own specialist” from the Niagara region. Dass said she works at a bank full-time, but founded her own business connecting people with rent-to-own homes a few years ago after taking a seminar from Guy Kiyosaki, author of Rich Dad, Poor Dad. She estimates she earned about $60,000 last year from her side hustle as a middleman. “I came out here to look for investors,” she said. “But also, just to give out my business card, and because it’s entertaining.”
Dass was soon approached by Michael Okulicz, a 32-year-old self-described real estate collector from Durham Region with nine properties in his portfolio, who also juggles a day job in capital markets on Bay Street. He took Dass’s card and confessed he planned on leaving early.
Of course, networking aside, what people really come here for is the panels.
The first featured current Dragon’s Den judge Manjit Minhas, co-founder and CEO of Minhas Breweries & Distiller, and Daymond John, a judge on Shark Tank and founder of Fubu, the apparel company that peaked in popularity in the late nineties. They offered generic advice — as would most of the panels I attended, unsurprisingly — on how to be an entrepreneur.
As I listened, I realized I hadn’t seen anyone wear Fubu since I was in middle school. At its peak in 1998, Fubu raked in $350-million in sales. But the company cranked up production to the point where excess inventory made its way into discount stores and outlet, which destroyed Fubu’s cachet. Before John came on stage, we were treated to his media reel: a collection of all his past appearances on reality TV since (essentially) shuttering Fubu.
My takeaway from all this? As long as you can keep up the appearance of being hyper-successful — no matter how many failures you have in your wake — you can can continue being relevant for a long, long time. Sometimes, it even gets you to the White House.
“I’m so tired,” remarked a local teacher from the sidelines. “My friend brought me to this. I was curious, but I don’t think I’m going to stay past the afternoon.”
Next on stage was Brian Allen, a real estate investor from Orange County, Calif. It was a long sales pitch for the seminars he organizes on flipping paper: purchasing foreclosed homes in the U.S. in cash and selling them shortly after to contractors or wannabe home flippers.
As long as you can keep up the appearance of being hyper-successful — no matter how many failures you have in your wake — you can can continue being relevant for a long, long time. Sometimes, it even gets you to the White House
While this was happening, some scaffolding holding up curtains collapsed onto a catering kiosk. No staff seemed to be injured, but they struggled to get out from underneath the giant curtain that fell on them. It took a few minutes of wrangling to get the structure up again.
Next up was a presentation that was billed as an educational seminar about buying U.S. properties with liens on them, but in reality turned out to be an infomercial for the Tax Lien Buyers Club, which sounded like a pyramid scheme.
While a man with a vaguely Southern accent droned on in the background, web developer Faisal Usmani, 24, and Service Canada employee Ahmid Pazhwak, 26, both from Scarborough, looked on incredulously.
“If people truly need the courses sold here, they’re not going to be successful,” said Usmani, who got his ticket from Groupon.
“The speakers here are making money off of getting people hooked on the courses,” said Pazhwak. “It’s multi-level marketing.”
At this point, it was clear the people at this conference were a self-aware bunch — not mindless suckers. It made me wonder whether what’s being sold here is really courses to the naive or tickets to the skeptical, who come to mock but, in the end, give legitimacy to this beast.
The speakers here are making money off of getting people hooked on the courses,” said Pazhwak. “It’s multi-level marketing
There were other seminars happening in breakout rooms on another floor. Without the giant screens and stage lights, they had a veneer of sanity. Though, one seminar on how to use blockchain technology to invest in real estate was likely too complex to offer any benefit to laypeople.
Back in the main room, former New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez delivered a keynote on being a winner. When one attendee asked him what hockey and baseball have in common, A-Rod responded, graciously, that “they are both sports,” deftly using it as a springboard for a motivational speech on entrepreneurship that went on for about five minutes.
The conference occasionally veered into the realm of the absurd, giving a few knowing winks in the process. A dance competition midway through the expo was the peak of this nonsense, with people volunteering to dance to “Uptown Funk” by Bruno Mars in front of thousands, all for the chance to win a briefcase full of cash, which would be bestowed to them by dancers in hot pants.
One man in khakis, who monopolized the stage by flailing and waving his coat around like a lasso, took the top prize of $1,000.
Marshall Sylver, a life coach and hypnotist who has performed on the Las Vegas strip, was next. “You’re millionaires already, your cheque just hasn’t been deposited into your account yet,” he told the audience.
Sylver, who had fraud charges brought against him in 2003 by some of his former clients, was selling a self-hypnosis course on CD, which annoyed me to the point that I tried asking my editor if I could leave early.
“Do you need me to stay for Stallone?” I texted. “My brain is fried. I don’t think this is going to get any better.”
My editor didn’t want me to leave.
Sylver, who had fraud charges brought against him in 2003 by some of his former clients, was selling a self-hypnosis course on CD, which annoyed me to the point that I tried asking my editor if I could leave early
It was at this point that I started to wonder if this thing would even survive without the negative attention. Maybe it would just be another life-coaching session in a third-rate venue in Mississauga if all of us decided to collectively ignore it.
The blowout performance by Miami-based rapper Pitbull finally got underway at around 4 p.m. Pitbull, whose real name is Armando Christian Pérez, gave a motivational speech about his experiences growing up in Miami in the eighties. No mention of real estate, save for the plug for the chartered high school he built in his old stomping ground, Miami’s Little Havana neighbourhood. Perez told the audience his first brush with entrepreneurship was with the cocaine trade (he didn’t elaborate, but his mother caught him selling coke when he was 16). This was his segue into his performance, which, of course, included pyrotechnics and plenty of confetti. Pitbull-branded thundersticks, which had been distributed to the audience beforehand, were waved around.
Finally, Sylvester Stallone got on stage. He spoke at length about his birth, in which he was delivered through the use of forceps; wanting to beat up Arnold Schwarzenegger; being broke and needing to sell his dog; his big break from selling the Rocky script; and why fear is good and therapy is bad. Real estate did not figure anywhere in his keynote.
As Stallone spoke, I couldn’t help but think about how every think piece that references the expo — even this piece — gives it SEO value, which will help it rank higher in search results, which will help it survive. Google and social media determines what becomes news. And whatever we choose to collectively gawk at is in turn able to thrive.
When the lights came on, garbage was strewn about the floor: spilled coffees, fast food wrappers, brochures, even business cards. The loud speakers announced that plans for next year’s event were already underway.
There will be no next year for me, though. But there will be for the bloggers, media and skeptics who go to laugh and mock — but really, give this whole thing life.
I’ve done my bit. And frankly, I can’t say I feel good about it.