Examining the future of apartment touring as the industry emerges from the pandemic era.
By now, most of the apartment world is fully aware of how 2020 shook up the industry’s tour process. Essentially, most operators had to fast-track contactless tour technologies to remain afloat in a touch-free environment.
Properties were forced to eschew in-person tours for self-guided, virtual, pre-recorded, live video and other contactless tour options. Now, as the industry moves past the pandemic era, it is determining which of these options to incorporate in the tour process moving forward.
“The industry fast-tracked many of these options, and the majority of them are here to stay,” said Sarah Greenough, Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer for Princeton Properties. “The consumer has gotten a taste of
these options, and we’re operating in a technology-forward world, so once people get a taste for certain options you should keep them available.”
As operators hurriedly unveiled self-guided and virtual tours, it became clear that they were not only for show. These types of tours achieved competitive industry-wide conversion rates, too. An Entrata analysis of 214,000 self-guided tours and 102,000 virtual tours taken between July and September of 2020 revealed that nearly 51,000 resulted in signed leases (28,940 for self-guided tours and 20,740 for virtual tours).
But many questions remain as the new normal sets in: Should all tour types continue to be offered? And if not, which ones should be? Are there any initial glitches from the hurried rollout that need to be ironed out? Will the conversion rates for contactless tours remain as high now that in-person tours are once again an option?
Tours vary by property
Princeton Properties owns and operates a variety of product types in the New England area. Greenough says that offering all tour types at all locations would be something of an overload.
“Certain tour models work better for certain locations or certain properties,” she said. “I don’t think all of us will keep all five or six options running full bore moving forward. Really high foot-traffic locations might be more geared toward self-guided tours when agents can’t be there, and more tertiary markets might lean more into having pre-recorded videos that they can distribute via email or have QR scanning at the door when the offices aren’t open.”
So far, self-guided tours have been perceived as something of a golden ticket in the industry. Most of the buzz indicates that these are a must-have at every property. But Greenough recommends a more judicious approach when selecting tour types.
“Self-guided tours are so new and so popular, but early data indicates that urban and high-foot-traffic markets are where they will have a little more sustainability,” she said. “They don’t seem to be taking off as quickly in rural or suburban markets.”
‘Contactless’ doesn’t mean ‘impersonal’
One of the root concepts of the multifamily housing industry is personalization. The best leasing agents are those who create a connection with prospective residents and can help them fully envision living at their community. So how can that be done now that contactless tours are the preferred medium for many?
“I think it’s all about the level of communication,” said Ryan Perez, Senior Director of Marketing for TRG, a subsidiary of The Related Group. “That includes communicating at the pace the prospect wants and within their preferred means of communication. We find that Millennials and Gen X often prefer to be texted while other various groups prefer to be emailed and it’s about finding that balance.”
TRG, a Miami-based operator with a wide-ranging portfolio of rental properties, also has continued to book tour times for virtual tours in the same manner as an in-person tour.
“We’re still dedicating time to that prospect—who might be in a different time zone or may be sitting in their living room—but still expecting instant correspondence,” Perez said. “We’re making sure that those are calendared events so we can still cater to them.”
While much of the modern-day personalization component is about responsiveness, operators agree that it also involves maintaining relevant and fresh content across any prospect-facing platform. For some, it’s simply about offering all of the available tour options. And although personalization methods might vary with so many age groups and product types in the mix, Perez says the key to personal connections will be rooted in how sophisticated teams can get with their communication. “It’s still all about engagement, the follow-up and the touchpoints—and the touchpoints don’t have to be in person,” she said.
Flexibility moving forward
Sight-unseen leasing was largely regarded as taboo in a pre-pandemic world.
“Fast-forward 16 to 18 months, and it’s a whole different mindset about the sight-
unseen renter,” Greenough said. “It changes that relationship-building piece that we always talk about in the rental market, in that now we’re trying to build connectivity with people we’ve never met.”
Greenough says that the industry cannot be stubborn and attempt to go back to its comfort zone of in-person tours only. She alluded to a time when it seemed extreme to leverage social media, but the industry adapted and now it’s a part of the fabric of the outreach process.
“The premise back then seems to still work now—give the consumer what they want, where they want it and when they want it,” Greenough said. “Pretty simple. If they want to look at our info via 3-D virtual tours, make them available. If they want to have a scannable custom tour after a visit and want the leasing agent to follow up, give that to them.”
Greenough also recommends finetuning any tour platforms that were fast-tracked in 2020. Some platforms were added with something of a patchwork approach, and the industry can benefit from a broad cleanup with help from IT teams. Many operators offered videos on servers that couldn’t handle the bandwidth, offered video tours that only worked on a specific device and delivered other clunky options in a hurried rollout. With time to breathe, those issues can be ironed out.
Once the effects of the pandemic are in the rearview mirror, operators agree that the touring process will certainly be different—but it won’t abandon all elements of the past.
“I think that it’s going to be a blend,” Perez said. “There will always be a subset of prospects that like the in-person experience. But I think we’ll also cater to a lot of people moving from out of state who don’t have time to do in-person and prefer to lease sight-unseen, which is why we work hard to keep our websites optimized.”
The industry spent more than a year training its renter base to be virtually served in absence of the face-to-face option. For many, that created a new preference. For others, it served only as a way to get through a transitional time. As such, the industry must offer more tour options to ensure prospects still feel catered to, regardless of preference.
“As a whole, I think all of these tour options are going to be around, and possibly even more options,” Greenough said. “Because we do need to listen to the consumer.”
Paul Willis is Content Manager for LinnellTaylor Marketing
Sarah Greenough and Ryan Perez will be panelists in the “What’s Next for Apartment Touring?” session at Apartmentalize (naahq.org/apt) in Chicago. The session will take place on Wednesday, Sept. 1. Trevor Riley, SVP of Product, Leasing and Marketing Suites at Entrata, will be the moderator.