NAA Returns to Live Events with 2021 Apartmentalize

By Paul Bergeron |

| Updated

11 minute read

The largest, most important annual rental housing event was back in person after a two-year, pandemic-driven hiatus, allowing attendees to reconnect, restart and reenergize.

It was the ultimate self-guided tour as thousands of apartment industry professionals made their way through the wide-open halls of McCormick Place for Apartmentalize in Chicago from Aug. 31 – Sept. 2, the first in-person gathering of the industry’s largest national education event and exposition since June 2019.

Apartmentalize offered attendees the chance to reflect on where the industry was before the pandemic, how it strengthened during the past 18 months through unprecedented perseverance and where it’s headed as the recovery and increasing demand for rental housing continues.

It was the chance to reconnect with industry friends and colleagues, most of which attendees hadn’t seen in two years– aside from Zoom of course.

Even better, it was a renewal of one of Apartmentalize’s most valuable traditions: Meeting new property management professionals, re-engaging with familiar, trusted supplier partners as well as discovering new ones throughout the Exposition.

Discussions about the eviction moratorium, new technology, virtual leasing and bots, hiring, mask and vaccine policies, generational amenities, social media and the struggles with supply chain management were among the hot topics.

Attendees were informed and entertained through versatile learning areas. From panels to collaborative Open Space sessions in the common areas and Express Education in the NAA Exposition (not to mention the Live Stream Lounge), attendees accessed leading-edge education in the way they were most comfortable.

First-time attendee Kayshia Nelson, Portfolio Manager, Alpha Management Partners, Lafayette, La., said having the sessions in large rooms with plenty of space for separation, checking room counts and requiring masks made it a
safe environment.

Nelson was also impressed how the information applied to her everyday onsite operations. “I learned ways to handle the post-pandemic situations, different marketing strategies – such as using TikTok and other video [platforms] – the importance of virtual tours and online reviews,” she said. “The sessions not only gave solutions, they told us what product we needed, where we could find it, how much it costs and how to use it.”

First-time attendee Melissa McCoy, District Manager, Price Management, Garden City, Mo., hopes to return. “Reaching District Manager title qualified me to come for the first time in my seven-year career,” she said. “It’s been such a great experience.”

Amanda Lizana, CAM, Director of Asset Management, Price Management, said, “Participating live for an event like this is so much better, because it’s really hard to get excited watching speakers on Zoom. My best takeaways were learning to improve NOI [net operating income] and how leasing strategies are always changing; this helps me to keep up.”

Alan Pentico, CAE, Executive Director, Southern California Rental Housing Association, said NAA “did a great job at managing the situation. The quality of information content was beyond anything we’ve seen. Those who chose to come were there with a purpose. They had great questions and got good answers and had goals for what they wanted to get done on the trade show floor.”

Dave Magrisso has extensive experience as a supplier partner serving the apartment industry. He founded Valet Waste (now Valet Living) before recently starting iApartments.

“[Apartmentalize] this year was one of a kind for multiple reasons,” he said. “Although I’ve attended this show for 20-plus years, it was our first with our new company, and having a ‘coming out party.’ That said, for obvious reasons the attendance was lighter, but we were still able to have quality conversations and numerous client meetings that made it well worth it.  Even with all the challenges getting people to the show, we were able to accomplish our goals.”

Steve Hallsey, Managing Director, Wood Partners, said the pandemic uncovered a lot of flaws in the industry, pointing out some weaknesses. “But the pivot happened, thanks to hard-working staff and the ingenuity of supplier partners, who we have to thank,” he said.

Hallsey said operators found themselves facing three major questions: How do we get the customers through the door? What kind of technology will we need to do it? And what will we do to provide a positive resident experience?

“Addressing these things was given a lot of lip service before the pandemic, but now we are able to tackle them in a better way,” Hallsey said.

The ‘Post-Vax’ Resident

As expected, addressing pandemic conditions was the common thread in many panel presentations. As Lisa Trosien, ApartmentExpert, put it, “We need to adjust to the ‘post-vax’ renter. Mentally, the world is still in a quarantine state of mind. We’re in a post-vaccine time, not a post-COVID time.

“Prospects will be experiencing somatic markers, which means key events are bookmarked in their brains. They might see or hear something, or return to a place, and it triggers secondary emotions. Right now, ours [and your customers’] are tied to COVID-19.”

Therefore, more care is required by onsite staff. A recent J Turner Research study of more than 10,000 renters found that renters said “the staff cares about me” as the No. 1 reason for renewal at 55%.

Also, when asked about how much influence did the interactions with staff have on their leasing decision, more than 75% indicated a five or higher on a 10-point scale.

As one property sign read regarding social distancing, “Even from A Distance, We’re Still Here for You.”

Facing Challenges Like No Other

There’s no shortage of risks brought on by the pandemic-driven operational challenges apartment executives are facing today and in the unforeseeable future.

“No industry has had to navigate the pandemic like the multifamily industry has,” Julie Brawn-Whitesides, CPM, Executive Vice President, ConAm Management Corporation, said. “No industry has faced as much government interference as our industry has faced.”

“[The eviction moratorium] has really changed the landscape for us, and our teams,” said Brawn-Whitesides, whose company is based in Southern California. “They are dealing with these residents on a daily basis and have to be even more thoughtful in their actions and allow behaviors that they had never allowed before.”

The environment has contributed to an onsite hiring crisis for many operators, with a particular shortfall in maintenance technicians. It’s a struggle the industry has faced for years, and one that continues to necessitate creative solutions.

The hiring crisis is in full force. Post job openings on Facebook, says Trosien. “This gives your circle of friends a chance to see your openings and possibly even consider applying.”

How competitive is it? Case in point: It’s been so tough, Kate Good at Houston-based operator Hunington Residential said she had a maintenance team member signed on and ready to start work for her. The day before his starting date, he told her he wanted a $5,000 signing bonus. This was not even in the original agreement. She let him go.

Data Driving More Decisions

Attendees learned that data is driving key decisions more than ever. Applications for artificial intelligence (AI) offered by panelists were plentiful.

Data is helping bots assist leasing teams, saving them time and helping to avoid follow-up on unqualified leads. Laurie Lyons, VP of Client Services for Pegasus Residential, said that approximately 60% of her leases are signed with no human contact. She said that the bots, when programmed to lead prospects properly, are setting appointments with 80% of prospects that engage with them compared to 60% when they worked through a team member.

Hiring for data analytics is also on the upswing. Crystal Martin, Director of Operations, Leon Capital Group, said her company is seeking analysts who can come in and aggregate the data and present it in actionable ways on dashboards shared portfolio-wide with the team.

Its interpretation is key to high performance, and it makes “everyone on the team better at what they do,” she said.

Amenities and the Resident Journey – Including Millennials

A recent survey by J Turner Research showed that renter prospects are researching 14.32 apartment communities on average but are touring only an average of 4.2. Panelists debated the merits and popularity of virtual tours versus in-person tours.

Depending on the market and whether the property was urban or not drove much of the conversations. “Renter prospects see no difference in your bricks-and-mortar and virtual leasing experience, so you need to make sure both are excellent,” Trosien said.

Appealing to Millennials is part of that strategy. They might have more to spend on rent than you might think.

Increasing demand and limited supply are big drivers for the steady spike in rents this year. The evolving renter profile is one that can afford higher rents. Owners and managers are pointing to renters’ reduced daily expenses for things such as parking, gas, car payments and automobile insurance and what a difference that makes.

Said one operator: “They have no cars, nor do they have a desire to own one. Our parking lots are empty. They walk everywhere, and they are just fine with that. A person’s automobile expenses can total several hundreds of dollars per month, so they just use that on their rent payment.”

Millennials aren’t buying houses these days, but they are spending thousands on houseplants, Good said. Host “do it yourself terrarium parties or ‘build-your-own-bouquet’ flower events.” (Cocktail mixing workshops continue to be popular.)

Work From Home

All play and no work? Not quite. But working from home is a lifestyle trend not expected to end soon. Some communities are making that appeal part of their prime marketing messages. Others are retrofitting as such to accommodate these residents.

John Tetreau, Director of Construction, Multifamily Commercial Construction, said the work-from-home-space adjustments he’s doing involve modifying and highlighting “weird little corners” in apartment homes that could be used while working from home.

“These days, everyone does all their work on a laptop or their phone, so an office space might not be the answer,” he said.

One apartment community is touting its beautiful pool area by marketing “Welcome to Your New Office” on its collateral.

Supply Chain Management: ‘The Show Must Go On’

The industry is facing an unprecedented shortage of many key products and supplies.

John Kirchmann, Executive Vice President & Chief Financial Officer at Centerspace, said when development companies begin “hoarding” supplies, the supply shortage only worsens.

“But the show must go on,” he said. “We have to be more flexible in terms of brands and colors and find multiple suppliers to do business with.”

Kory Davis, Senior Director of National Accounts, Lowe’s Pro MSH, said things have come a long way since last spring when appliance and supply providers were “loaded” with items due to renovations being halted during pandemic lockdowns and uncertainties.

“The supply chain management issue is global,” said Davis. “It’s affecting every industry. Our recommendation is to plan early. You need to order your must-have products 90 days in advance. And you need to be flexible with brands and colors– or items such as faucets.”

Davis said he’s seeing larger apartment companies pre-buying in bulk up to $1 million in merchandise. He said he can’t forecast for inflation, but that he “doesn’t see rising prices slowing this year—especially on items such as Freon, water heaters and appliances.”

Great Ideas for Student Housing

Apartmentalize offered over 10 education tracks, including one focused on student housing. Jacklyn Arnest, CAM, Senior Director Marketing, DTN Management, said, “If you know your market, when you present these fees or added cost to residents, it’s a much easier discussion to have.”

It’s unwise to tell any owner that you can’t add revenue or that a property has peaked in how well it can perform. She creatively drives ancillary income by partnering with local businesses.

For example, as a manager of a large student-housing portfolio near Michigan State University, she struck a deal where Panera pays DTN Management to simply pass out fliers about a deal where students receive free coffee from the fast-casual restaurant during the full school year.

Paul Bergeron is a freelance writer.


Center Stage Welcomed Thoughtful General Sessions, Slew of Game Changers

Apartmentalize welcomed a wide range of inspiring general session speakers and game changers who spoke of best business practices and how to succeed in work and life.

Erik Weihenmayer, World-Class Blind Adventurer, spoke about the “No Barriers Life.” Despite having lost his vision at age 14, this accomplished mountain climber and adventurer illuminated how to move forward in our lives toward growth and purpose despite barriers that get in our way.

Diana Nyad, American Author, Journalist, Motivational Speaker and Long-Distance Swimmer, age 64, provided the message, “Never give up. You are never too old to chase your dreams.”

Lisa Bodell, Founder and CEO of FutureThink, and Best-Selling Author of “Kill the Company,” led a discussion about behavior change and how to “eliminate the complexity” that holds a company back and “get to the work that matters.”

Viola Davis, Actor, Producer and Philanthropist, is the first Black Actor to win the triple crown of Tony, Oscar and Emmy awards. She spoke about her efforts to give a voice to the voiceless.

Game-Changer Brian Fanzo explained how companies can leverage emerging technologies and digital marketing.

And Alton Fitzgerald White, who performed a record 4,308 performances as King Mufasa in Disney’s The Lion King on Broadway, wowed the crowd with thoughts from his book, “My Pride: Mastering the Challenge of Daily Performance.” The inspirational biography filled with secrets to fulfillment and joy in work and life.

Valerie Sargent, Yvette Poole and Associates, Newport Beach, Calif., said White “taught us to put ourselves out there. He said with each role he played in performances he learned something new – such as compassion when doing The Color Purple. With each chapter, there was new knowledge.”

She said he told us about the importance of thoughtfulness and to “be in the moment” during our lives.

“If you’re on vacation, be on vacation,” Sargent said. “If you are in a conversation, be in that conversation. When he sang with that booming voice at the end, he filled the auditorium and made me cry and have goosebumps. And he reminded us that even when people leave us [when they die], they really are still with us.”  


Exhibitor Awards

Best Large Island Booth:
Flex, booth 1413

Best Small Island Booth:
SmartRain, booth 2465

Best New Exhibitor:
Property TextBox, booth 1486

Best Inline Booth:
Brilliant Smart Home System, booth 831