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CliffsNotes from the 2015 NAA Student Housing Conference & Exposition

Student Housing Conference & Exposition

It takes more than the good ol’ college try to succeed in today’s student housing market. At the eighth annual NAA Student Housing Conference & Exposition at ARIA Resort in Las Vegas, nearly 900 apartment professionals convened to share best practices and hear from the some of the most influential members of their class.

Following are the CliffsNotes:

1. Ann Rhoades, founding Executive Vice President of People for JetBlue Airways and President of People Ink, welcomed attendees at the opening general session luncheon with an enlightening message about the importance of corporate culture.

“The most important thing we can do is to have the right people in our organizations,” Rhoades said. “A great brand is allowed and encouraged to make the right decisions, and hire people who have the courage to live those values.”

And those who don’t? Rhoades says Zappos will pay underperforming employees one month’s pay to leave the company. 

A culture is a collection of values, Rhoades added—and one of those values must be fun.

“If you’re interviewing for a job at Southwest, they’ll ask you to give an example of a time you used your sense of humor in a difficult situation,” Rhoades says. “Have a model for having fun.”

2. Speaker Kate Good is…well…really good. Her session, “The Evolution of Leasing: Have We Lost the Human Touch,” touched on the coolest technology out there today, while also emphasizing the importance of face-to-face interaction. “I don’t think all these tablets and mobile apps will ever replace the people who are the lifeblood of our business,” Good said. 

3. During the education session, “The Parent Trap: Effectively Managing Parent Expectations,” one panelist said his company created video tutorials to teach college residents how to do super difficult tasks, such as cleaning out the lint trap in the dryer.

Today’s student housing environment is worlds away from what it used to be. Panelist Julie Bonnin said when she went off to college, her mom basically told her to “figure it out,” and didn’t see her again until Thanksgiving.

And then came the helicopter parents. Today, it’s all about walking the line of communicating with your customers—usually the parents—while still taking care of your residents.

4. Other conference highlights included the Keynote Panel, “Student Housing Market Watch,” during which some of the industry’s top developers, owners, investors and architects shared their insights on the future of student housing.

Of particular note, several panelists discussed the potential affect rising tuition costs could have on student housing, as Millennials are looking to community college as a more affordable alternative to a four-year university. 

“I think we’re going to see the most growth in large, in-state programs rather than smaller liberal arts colleges,” said panelist William Lewittes, Director at Kayne Anderson Real Estate Advisors. “I think it’s a cost thing.”

Architect Sean Studzinski also touched on the future of student housing design, noting a transition to small communities.

“In looking at how students socialize, and looking at a project as a whole, scale is very important,” he said. “The human brain can remember about 150 people at a time, so we try to break these projects down into smaller communities. It creates a strong sense of home and comfort.”

5. The conference concluded with Ken Schmidt, former Director of Communications Strategy at Harley-Davidson Motor Company, who gave a spirited talk on taking the road less traveled.

“No one ever told a story about a time their expectations were met,” Schmidt said. “Your expectations are met hundreds of thousands of times a year. That’s a boring story.”

Schmidt said a business is a reflection of its culture, and product alone can’t curate a competitive advantage. 

“If you live by your product, you die by your product,” he said. “No product can sell itself because someone’s going to copy it tomorrow. You have to create a narrative around what you’re doing. People don’t include data and numbers when they tell stories.” 

Students—Schmidt added—are your disciples, not your customers.

“Visible passion is the most magnetically attractive trait,” he said. “When people talk, magical things happen.”

By Lauren Boston