Keeping Your Communities Eventful
By Ed Finkel
Robust event planning can make your apartment communities feel like home.
Thoughtfully planned, seamlessly executed apartment community events can be part of the secret sauce that attracts prospective residents to your buildings and keeps them there beyond the initial lease, minimizing turnover and the resulting additional marketing spend.
To be successful, community events need to be planned way ahead of time, have a dedicated budget that’s been worked out well in advance, account for the likes and dislikes of both current and prospective residents, and bring both a solid return on investment for the management company and a strong sense of community for the development.
Surveys, typically conducted early in the year to plan out the year ahead, are a key step for Fogelman Properties, a Memphis-based firm that manages more than 28,000 apartments in 88 communities, says Director of Marketing Tammy Yeargan.
Based on a budget set in mid-2019, the company started planning events for 2020 after asking residents whether they might attend. The events involve the whole company team, partly to underscore the idea that everyone is part of the “face” of the community. “We discuss ideas and organize a schedule,” Yeargan says. “Without that schedule, and those dates set, it kind of falls off the radar.”
Event Planners: In-house vs. Third-Party
Within the portfolio of Capstone Real Estate Services, an Austin, Texas-based firm that manages more than 20,000 apartments in affordable communities, some communities have in-house activities directors or concierges, while others bring in third-party groups, says Chief Operating Officer Kelly Blaskowsky. “They’re truly an extension of your team, and their sole purpose is to come in, create a sense of community, get to know the residents and plan for activities.”
When buildings do not have in-house staff in charge of activities, Capstone conducts surveys and focus groups to determine what new and existing residents want, Blaskowsky says. “If you’re going to spend money and time, you want it to be effective,” she says. “We’ll put together what we think the best plan is for the residents and for the community.”
A ground-up developer, Franklin, Tennessee-based Bristol Development Group holds events to get prospective residents interested before the community opens as well as events to forge connections among existing residents and potential new customers during the lease-up, says Lisa Gunderson, Vice President of Asset Management. Those events are very similar except the pre-opening events need to be offsite, often at a local restaurant or brewery, while those held after opening are usually at the property.
“We spend a lot of time on this subject. We think about it in the design process. In our world, we’re creating warm, inviting atmospheres for people to connect,” she says. And “they don’t have to be in a large group.”
At any given time, Bristol has four or five buildings with 1,500 to 2,000 units gearing up to open, another 1,000 units or so under construction and 1,000 more in design, Gunderson says. “When we begin the design-development process, we’re doing the entire budget for the project, and we include a hefty amount for marketing,” usually between $250,000 and $300,000, she adds. “We understand the value it creates within our community [when] people talk about us, about events they’ve been to and why they love living there.”
Partying on a Budget
Dallas-based Arrive On University and Arrive West End, whose parent company Trinity Property Consultants has communities in Houston and San Antonio, generally plan events about a month in advance and give residents at least two weeks’ notice, says Area Manager DeAnna Seward. “We generally get better participation than if we tell them the day before,” she says. “We try to separate events into different days, some on the weekend, and sometimes a daytime one to see if we can get different attendance.”
The Arrive buildings have set budgets and typically hold two to four events a month, Seward says. A wine-and-cheese night might run $100, while a larger event like a fajita dinner might run closer to $300. The buildings will ask for RSVPs for the bigger events, and if they run over capacity, they’ll try to hold something similar in the near future so other residents will have the chance to attend.
“They start to build a sense of community,” says Seward. “People can engage with their neighbors. If you don’t ever connect, it doesn’t truly feel like home.” Arrive on University and Arrive West End offer community reward points for attending events that residents can turn in at a certain point for a gift card. “Residents compete against each other—that helps create a sense of gaming,” she adds.
Fogelman plans events at least 60 days in advance to allow ample time to market the event and nail down the details, Yeargan says. The company uses social media among to promote events, and individual building owners “have to understand why you want to plan these events,” she says. “If we have $500 approved for an event, we want to make sure we’re doing a good job [with marketing]. If you have two people show up, it’s not a great ROI story.”
But, she adds, “we’ve never had a challenge getting money for these events. Most owners realize that ROI is minimal. It’s just part of your advertising costs.” Soliciting local vendors as sponsors can also help stretch the budget.
Capstone Real Estate Services needs the blessings of the building owner for its events, which can range from “Ritz Carlton-level service” in more upscale buildings to more reasonably priced activities in affordable developments, Blaskowsky says. “If you present a plan, you need to help [the owner] understand why what you’re trying to do will result in greater retention through marketing and word-of-mouth opportunities,” she says. “We can’t do Cirque de Soleil events every day.”
Overall, the marketing spends at developments Capstone manages have risen over the years, Blaskowsky says. But, she says, “if what you’re doing creates such a sense of community that retention decreases, you’re saving operating costs on turnover. The net effect is an overall positive bottom-line impact.”
About six months before Bristol opens a community, Gunderson and her staff identify opportunities to create engagement in months three, two and one before the opening. They typically spend between $1,000 and $2,000 per pre-lease event before scaling up to the grand opening and then, in some cases, continue after the building opens, often on a monthly basis, she says. “It’s heavily focused toward local community connections,” she says. “We look for feedback from residents about what they’re excited about.”
Events That Work
Lecture-type events like a wellness speaker may be fine for current residents but are not the most exciting way to attract new residents, Yeargan says. Instead, Fogelman plans events that involve more mingling, partly to give leasing and maintenance teams a chance to circulate and serve as stewards to make everyone feel welcome. For buildings with outdoor pools, for instance, summer events with food and perhaps a movie work well, she says.
“Back in the day, everyone did a DJ by the pool,” Yeargan adds. But food and conversation are “what folks desire, more than loud, blaring music.” Most of Fogelman’s communities have one major event per quarter. Many of the better-attended events revolve around food or drink—which can include cooking classes, chili cookoffs, food trucks or community potlucks, says Yeargan.
Fun events like a tacky holiday sweater contest also help to attract new residents, even those who don’t actually attend, because nowadays events can be posted on social media pages. “They want to see what’s going on in your community,” Yeargan says. “Is this a lifestyle they want to be part of? These events allow you to tell that story.” And such events can make current residents feel more at home, not only convincing them to stay put but possibly leading to their referring prospective residents, she adds.
Before Bristol developments open, the company typically holds events out in the community, such as happy hour at a local brewery or a bike ride along a trail near the development, Gunderson says. “One community has a kickball league,” she says. “We try to create opportunities that resonate with our audience. We don’t want to spend money and not have people show up. In one community, tacky Christmas lights are a big deal, so we rented a bus and drove people around to look at tacky Christmas lights.”
Once its developments open, Bristol’s monthly events can include food truck Fridays; wine Wednesdays, with a local winery as the honored guest; dance lessons; board game nights; and cookie-decorating contests, Gunderson says. “We’re having different groups of people come together who maybe wouldn’t interact on a regular basis,” she says. “It’s that kind of social engagement that everybody can participate in, that doesn’t require any special skill set.”
Event Spending: Saving in the Long Run
Ultimately, Gunderson believes that events save more on marketing than they cost, and they’re definitely more valuable than digital ads, for example. “That credibility and that testimonial that we get—it’s your friend, it’s your colleague, it’s someone you have encountered who’s speaking highly of our community,” she says. “We want to be able to [create] activities that speak to everybody, that pay dividends and create value.”
Arrive On University and Arrive West End have found that the more events buildings hold, the more often residents attend, Seward says. Popular events have included wine-and-painting evenings for up to 30 people. “I try to think of something other people haven’t done before. I ask the residents,” she says. “We’re going to do a karaoke event. I hadn’t thought of that—but by polling the residents, we’re getting their feedback on how much they like this type of event. Nothing’s off limits.”
Seward “absolutely” believes that resident events save marketing spend in the long run. “The residents talk about this. They’re at events with their friends, their co-workers, their family. They post something on their social page, and their friends are like, ‘Wow, I want to live there.’” Arrive posts events on its own social pages as well, to “create and show the sense of community we have,” says Seward. “Sometimes we allow residents to bring their friends. It helps our marketing for them to see our events and get a sense of our community.”
Events at buildings that Capstone manages can be all across the map, literally and figuratively, Blaskowsky says. “We have communities with a high pet population where we have ‘Yappy Hours,’ ” she says. “They’re very well-received. We have properties where breakfast-on-the-go is a big event. We hand them coffee and a doughnut on the way to work. It’s an easy touch point. Holidays events can be popular as well. On Mother’s Day, we give roses to moms.”
Active-adult living developments often have classroom-style events, or outings on a bus, Blaskowsky says. Others have stations for bike repairs, where residents come together to work on their bikes and then go out on rides together. “It is 100 percent all over the board,” she says. “What’s important is, you are offering residents what they want. If you’re not getting the attendance that makes sense, adjust the plan. Be flexible to their needs and responsive to the end result.”
Capstone makes an effort to invite prospective residents to its events, ranging from brunches to financial-planning seminars, to showcase a community, and in some cases the company holds events specifically for prospectives, West says. “Let’s say we leased to a number of residents who all worked at the same employment base,” she says. “We will ask a resident to host an open house for their company. It’s a great referral-based event, with our residents bringing [co-workers] over to see where they live.”
Overall, Blaskowsky says, events have far more of a “wow” factor than in decades past. “The events we host today are much more comprehensive and much more elaborate than 10 or 20 years ago, where you went and picked up muffins and coffee.” she says. “We had a fire-dancing event with a community that had so many people come, the fire department showed up and said, ‘You guys are exceeding occupancy standards.’ We do hard-hat happy hours on construction sites. How fun is that?”