News & Research Listing
Communication is a priority in 2021, necessitating the right tools, tactics and training are in place.
Marketing to potential prospects has grown increasingly sophisticated during the past decade. But the move from an old-fashioned grassroots approach to digital lead generation intensified during COVID-19.
“2020 really accelerated the rollout and adoption of technologies that allowed us to maintain continuity during a rapid transition to a virtual way of doing business,” says Melissa Brady, Vice President of Strategic Marketing at Fogelman Properties. “Given the pace of innovation and the corresponding change in consumers’ expectations for more virtual and self-service options, we will continue on this path while looking for ways to optimize and consolidate our MarTech stack.”
The situation is similar for interaction with current residents. Some property managers have reported that COVID cases spiked in their communities. “We have several properties where we have employees in quarantine or out ill,” says Steve Hallsey, Executive Vice President of Operations for Wood Residential Service. “This situation puts a lot of pressure on other site employees.”
Social distancing is essential to prevent these virus outbreaks, but it has made it difficult for onsite teams to connect with residents in ways in which they have grown accustomed.
“I think it’s a challenge, especially for some folks that are right out of college, to be able to connect with the residents and be authentic as they’re also trying to socially distance,” says JoLynn Scotch, Managing Director of Operations at Bozzuto.
To be successful in this environment, apartment operators need to think differently.
“Creativity is at a premium to maximize leasing velocity and generate higher retention rates,” says Woody Stone, Executive Managing Director of Operations Cushman & Wakefield, Multifamily Asset Management, Americas.
In a digital, socially distant world, there are many ways to introduce your brand to potential residents. For Cortland, social media has been a strong driver of leads during the pandemic.
“With more people working remotely, we’ve also noticed an increase in social media usage this year,” says Tim Hermeling, Executive Vice President of Marketing for Cortland. “As a result, we have shifted marketing dollars to social media advertising.”
In 2021, Fogelman plans to rely on customer relationship management (CRM) software to optimize its media mix and drive lead conversions. Once those leads come, it plans to roll out live chat and text options across its portfolio to maximize engagement with prospects and use artificial intelligence (AI) to respond to leads in real-time, 24/7.
On average, Brady says customers use 10 channels to communicate. Fogelman’s teams will need to lean on technology like CRM, AI, chat and text to identify viable prospects and respond in near real-time this year.
“This requires a continued focus on training so that our front-line teams are confident in not only managing these tools but also delivering personalized experiences and great customer service, virtually or in-person,” Brady says.
Before prospects get to an apartment operator’s front-line teams, they usually check out a property’s reviews. In the digital world, one can argue that online reviews are the new curb appeal. Depending on positive online reviews is nothing new. Review sites have been around for decades. But with apartment searchers cooped up at home, they may be even more critical.
“Drawing prospects to our properties is heavily reliant on positive online reviews,” Stone says. “In this virtual environment, a poor reputation is much harder to overcome.”
Good reviews start with good management. At Bozzuto, enhanced resident engagement and awards have increased customer satisfaction. Cushman utilizes various software options to enhance communication with its prospects or residents and address issues before they are posted online, which helps it elevate scores. “We have also been reminded during the pandemic how important it is to go beyond the basics of simply managing a unit,” Stone says.
During the pandemic, part of the management process has been working with customers who need help with payments. Technology, again, can play a role in these discussions. Scotch says her company has relied on its CRM during this time to put those customers on payment plans.
“It has been instrumental,” she says. “We also used Zoom and FaceTime as additional communication tools.”
In 2021, as in 2020, having the right tools to communicate with prospects and residents will help operators successfully navigate what is bound to be a challenging year ahead.
Les Shaver is a freelance writer.
Pet fees are up while late fees are down.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to cast a long shadow over the rental housing industry, ancillary revenue would seem to be a low priority. In previous years, collecting ancillary fees was an important — though legally fraught — concern. But now, with job losses mounting around the country, many apartment operators are simply focused on collecting rent on time.
For example, Haven Realty Capital, based in El Segundo, Calif., is sacrificing the flow of one ancillary revenue stream in exchange for trying to keep its residents in place. “Month-to-month premiums were waived to allow flexibility for residents who had lease expirations during the pandemic months,” says Sudha M. Reddy, Managing Principal of Haven.
In a recession, apartment operators are justifiably focused on just “keeping heads in beds.” Operators may even need to think twice about imposing ancillary fees.
But in the longer term, the COVID-19 lockdown may present new revenue opportunities, if residents receive financial relief and the unemployment situation stabilizes. If trends such as teleworking become commonplace, the COVID-19 lockdown could change the way residents use energy and bandwidth and give operators the chance to consider residents’ high-speed connections to the outside world.
Not Pressing the Issue
The general rule for multifamily ancillary revenue is about 5 percent of total income, but many of the fees are also accompanied by attendant costs. In the short term, Max Sharkansky, Managing Partner of Trion Properties, based in West Hollywood, Calif., is more concerned about on-time rent payments.
“We [could] charge higher pet rates and higher lease-break fees, but we’re just not pressing that issue because it’s tough out there,” Sharkansky says. “We’re signing leases, we’re doing fine, our collections are in the mid-90s. But we’re also in a 12 percent unemployment market, so I don’t know if this is an optimal time to start increasing our fees.”
As the amenity wars heated up during the past decade, ancillary revenue took a back seat to services, such as dog walking. But as the recession lingers, those services are also in jeopardy.
“It’s so hard to compete on what has become a commodity,” says Brian Zrimsek, Industry Principal of the tech firm MRI Software, based in Solon, Ohio. “The apartment can only be so big; the pool can only be so grand. So we found operators moving to adding services, dog-walking services, laundry pickup services and yoga classes — amenities as a service. But when a recession comes, that’s the first thing to go.”
This strategy is a throwback to the 2008 housing market collapse. “In 2008 they lowered prices and increased terms to lock people in,” says Zrimsek. “They’d rather have sure but thin revenue. In good times, it’s okay to have a little nickel-and-diming for things. We’re also seeing concessions come back. It would not surprise me if things that people charge for in the best of times they change their mind on now.”
Sorry, You’re Late
Early in the pandemic, municipalities, states and the federal government moved to curtail evictions and late fees to help keep residents in their homes. Now, six months into the crisis, what were once seen as temporary measures are being extended in many parts of the country as the apartment business takes the hit.
At Haven Realty Capital, late fees have traditionally been a large revenue stream, followed by pet rent and admin fees. “[But] late-fee revenue has dropped to zero since April,” Reddy says. “The moratorium on late fees has also eliminated the incentive to pay on time, resulting in a delay in our collections at some of the properties.”
It’s the same story at Trion Properties, as Sharkansky simultaneously eyes what’s happening in collections and the state legislature. “We’re in California, and not allowed to charge late fees,” he says. “In California, it’s open-ended. It’s a function of when they remove the emergency order. In Oregon, it was set to expire but was then extended to Sept. 30. We still get the majority of our rents in the first week [of the month], but the next 20 to 25 percent are paying in the following three weeks.”
As many residents have been hunkered down for months now, apartment operators are seeing an increase in their energy and data consumption. Even before the pandemic, says Todd Richman, Senior Vice President at Morgan Properties, based in King of Prussia, Pa., marketing contracts with cable providers and Internet providers did well for his company.
Richman is predicting that addiction to Netflix and Zoom dependence is going to raise the income from fees. “I would assume that once we see the numbers, we might have higher income from these services,” he says. “With people working from home, they may have had to upgrade to a better Internet service, they may have ordered more services. It’s possible it’s remained the same. But I’m expecting Internet penetrations to be higher than they’ve ever been.”
Laundry rooms are another small but reliable revenue source for Morgan, and Richman is expecting to see an uptick — again, because people are spending more time at home.
Trion’s Sharkansky also is bullish on laundry. Trash collection, water usage, pest control and sewage fees are also looking up. “Ratio utility billing [RUBS] is huge,” he says. “Although I don’t know if you can qualify that as ancillary income; it’s more of an expense reimbursement, but it’s on the income side of the P&L.”
Doggy Day Care
The pandemic has been a huge boon for pet adoption, according to a number of sources. The consensus is that people who had been putting off getting a dog or cat because they didn’t spend enough time at home suddenly have no excuse.
In April, Kitty Block, CEO of the Humane Society, told the Chicago Tribune, “I think it’s a combination of reasons. We’re going through a global pandemic, and its anxiety-provoking and it’s isolating. Those who are fortunate enough to work remotely are doing it from home, so people have the time now and the desire to open up their homes to a pet, to give that animal a chance.”
The trend is confirmed by the numbers Trion Properties is seeing. “In April, May and June we had an uptick in pet fees,” Sharkansky says. “Looking at year-over-year for June, portfolio-wide, we did about $9,400, and last year [it] was around $7,000, so we’re seeing a 34 percent increase.”
But even enforcing pet fees will likely get some pushback from residents, demonstrating, once again, that at this point in time, fees are a touchy issue
“I don’t know that the first thing a resident does when they get a pet is call the office and let us know,” says Richman of Morgan Properties. “We’re trying not to be intrusive to residents about being in their apartments. We’re not doing walk-throughs of each apartment; it would be very hard to do that.”
Scott Sowers is a freelance writer.
Joe Melton, Vice President of Marketing and Management Support Services for the Morgan Group, offers 10 considerations for operators now that so many residents are working from home.
- Understand the demand. Survey residents to assess how many are working and schooling from home during the day and their technology needs. This can help ensure adequate internet bandwidth, Wi-Fi hotspots and cellular reception.
- Be proactive about noise. Having more people at the community during the day means higher noise levels. You may already be fielding complaints. Consider implementing revised quiet hours.
- Your community is now their office. But residents lack access to their usual office services and technology. Consider partnering with a supplier to bring wireless, self-service printing, copying and scanner technologies to your community.
- Offer multiple work spaces. Many communities already offer residents co-working spaces, while other residents may prefer a quiet, personal space outside of their apartment home. See what spaces could easily be converted into individual working pods.
- Offer a change of scenery. Some people need fresh air to recharge themselves. Make sure the Wi-Fi in your outdoor spaces is optimal and consider adding more tables and umbrellas.
- Be inspirational. Create and share Pinterest boards with design ideas for at-home work or school spaces. Pull together helpful articles about work-from-home productivity and introduce a community-wide discussion board via a resident app or portal.
- Be practical about deliveries. Allow direct-to-door delivery for extra-large items like office desks and chairs to keep them from cluttering up the leasing office and to ease the burden on staff.
- Create a “commute.” Some new stay-at-home workers may actually miss their commute, which can offer an effective separation between work and home life. So offer socially distanced “breakfast-on-the-go” bars and “after-school” snack stations to provide a bit of a commute, even if it’s only down a flight of stairs.
- Engage more virtual services. Virtual happy hours and events like cooking or exercise classes can supply a remedy for Zoom fatigue. Look for events and services that don’t require participants to have their videos on.
- Be a fun coworker. Consider hosting a fun Office Space-themed event where you run a raffle for a $500 gift card to West Elm (or, even better, a local furniture store) for office furniture.
Joe Melton is Vice President of Marketing and Management Support Services for the Morgan Group
Apartment companies think outside the box to protect staff from COVID-19.
By Bendix Anderson
Apartments companies across the U.S. have worked hard to keep residents safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. But they have been just as focused on protecting employees—even as growing business activity brings their leasing professionals and maintenance teams into contact with residents or prospective residents.
“As the colder seasons approach and the pandemic continues, it will be critical that team members remain vigilant about safety practices,” says Mike Brewer, Chief Operating Officer of the RADCO Companies.
Many apartment companies are now sending staff members back to leasing offices that operated with skeleton crews during the height of the pandemic. Others are beginning to engage with residents in person and sending maintenance crews into apartments to address the backlog of problems that have piled up since the pandemic began.
“Most amenities and leasing offices were closed over the summer,” says Demi Sterling-Kinney, Vice President of Operations at Aspen Heights Partners. “We have since reopened many of these with policies in place that support social distancing.”
Leasing Offices Gradually Reopen
Numerous apartment communities closed their leasing offices to residents and potential residents in the first few months of the pandemic.
“Our existing technology gave us confidence that closing our leasing offices would not unduly interrupt business continuity,” says Brewer. A skeleton crew of property managers still showed up to work behind the closed doors of the leasing offices at RADCO’s communities, he says. They did the basic business of keeping the apartments safe and habitable, communicating with residents through phone, email and the internet.
“We remain closed to the public,” Brewer adds. “We have since returned to fully staffing our leasing offices with appropriate social distancing and personal protective equipment protocols in place.”
Apartment companies typically decide what their staff members can and cannot do by following the regulations set by local health officials to the letter. But some companies have gone beyond what local regulations demand to help keep their staff and residents safe.
“We began taking steps to ensure safe operation nationwide two weeks before the national emergency,” says Patrick Appleby, President of WinnResidential.
Experts now largely agree that COVID-19 often spreads through the air, especially indoors in spaces with weak ventilation where viral particles can hang in the air for as long as three hours. For safety in the pandemic, health experts recommend a tough standard of six to nine air changes per hour in rooms where people gather—at least twice the standard required by many building codes.
Apartment managers also have followed the level of infection increases in their areas. “Our local managers and their teams have followed infection rates closely as well to decide on a property-by-property basis if there were adjustments that needed to be made… in advance of and addition to local regulations,” says Elie Rieder, Founder and CEO of Castle Lanterra Properties.
Leasing Continues Despite COVID
These apartment companies have had to continue to lease new apartments—while keeping their employees safe—during the pandemic. They quickly learned how to conduct as much business as possible through the internet.
“Virtual or contactless leasing techniques will be an important option for everyone for the foreseeable future,” says Appleby. They include virtual tours and online applications. Many companies are also experimenting with self-guided tours.
Some companies had already planned to allow potential renters to lease an apartment largely online. The pandemic simply sped up their plans. “RADCO moved to 100 percent virtual or video conference-style leasing within days of pandemic-related closures,” says Brewer. The company hired its first digital leasing consultant two years ago, when the company first included virtual leasing tools in its technology innovation road map.
A virtual tour can be as simple as a video posted to an apartment community’s website. More complex virtual tours allow website visitors to explore a three-dimensional apartment model, similar to the three-dimensional environment of a computer game.
Apartment companies are also using “smart apartment” technologies like electronic door locks and online ID verification to let potential renters arrange a tour of an apartment through the community website and enter the apartment without ever seeing a leasing agent.
These technologies are likely to be important for apartment companies long after the pandemic is over. “Self-guided tours of apartments will become a more significant part of the sales process,” says Castle Lanterra’s Rieder.
Potential renters seem to have already gotten used to the new process. “Once our teams were past the initial learning curve, our same-store leasing and occupancy statistics began outpacing prior-year results,” says RADCO’s Brewer. “Consumer acceptance of virtual leasing signals that this is a trend that will continue.”
Virtual leasing tools will also give property managers more time to provide residents with new kinds of services. “In the near future, as technology takes more of the administrative burden away from frontline staff, we expect resident service menu to expand,” says RADCO’s Brewer.
Virtual leasing is also an important option for cautious potential renters. “There is a lingering reluctance for in-person leasing in the hard-hit markets, with a great deal of enthusiasm for virtual leasing techniques,” says Appleby. “Our priority through year-end is wooing reluctant consumers back into the leasing market.”
Maintenance Workers Take Extra Care
In the first months of the pandemic, many apartment companies sharply limited how often they would send maintenance teams into apartments to make repairs.
Spending a significant amount of time in someone’s home—long enough to fix a sink, for example—could be one of the riskiest things a person could do during a pandemic, if the resident happened to be infected with the coronavirus and the worker didn’t have access to the right protective gear.
“We limited in-unit work orders to emergencies only,” says Winn’s Appleby. More recently, Winn’s maintenance teams have been more productive—with the proper protective gear. “Our maintenance teams are at full strength, working hard to catch up on work orders and capital projects,” he says. “We have asked them to maintain the same vigilance about safety even as conditions have improved.”
These same issues have made it difficult to complete inspections. “RADCO had several properties in due diligence during the pandemic,” says Brewer. “That typically includes access to occupied units for inspection,” says Brewer. “Navigating the competing demands of buyers, sellers and residents requires open-minded collaboration.”
Some of the same technologies that have made contactless leasing possible—including simple video calls—were also helpful for some inspections during the height of the pandemic.
“The reliance on and performance of virtual tools has been incredible for inspections,” says Rieder of Castle Lanterra.
The Future of Work in Apartment Communities
Many apartment companies also shut down their corporate offices, sending workers home to work with their colleagues through email and video calls.
These companies have adopted new tools to help employees stay productive. “Our monthly virtual town halls have been exceptionally well-attended,” says Rieder. The company-wide intranet Castle Lanterra created in March, she adds, also continues to serve as an effective clearinghouse for the sharing of knowledge and techniques among employees.
Most of these companies expect to have staff eventually return to the office. “I am surprised by the growing expectation that companies will completely capitulate to a work-from-home model,” says RADCO’s Brewer. “I expect to see a new hybrid operations model, but not a full-blown forfeiture of the traditional in-office experience.”
In particular, Brewer looks forward to joining meetings in person. “The biggest lesson is that ‘Zoom fatigue’ is a real thing,” he says. “In-person meetings are 10 times more valuable in terms of moving the business forward.”
Bendix Anderson is a freelance writer.