Finding a new home is a personal experience. A new apartment may be where residents will bring home their first child, or perhaps it represents a fresh start. And normally the leasing associate can help set the stage for that experience.
During the global pandemic, however, it has become much more difficult for leasing teams to cultivate a personal connection with prospective residents, as apartment operators scramble to uncover the most innovative solutions to do so. Touring and leasing processes have largely transformed to digital platforms to ensure social distancing, and onsite teams are learning on the fly which tech features best enhance personalization.
In the effort to most effectively simulate an in-person experience while prospective residents virtually tour or self-tour amid COVID-19, apartment operators have gotten creative. Following are some ways they have been revolutionizing the leasing experience and perhaps creating a blueprint for future economic recovery in multifamily housing.
Leveraging the Capabilities of Social Media Tools
Cortland, an Atlanta-based apartment operator, has been using FaceTime and Google Duo to simulate live tour experiences. While the company is testing other platforms to offer more stable images during a tour, prospective residents have responded better than expected. Associates have been diligently flipping the cellphone camera back and forth, from the face-to-face with prospective residents to viewing the community, maintaining the personal connection while being able to read visual cues.
Early in the pandemic, Cortland associates also used smartphones to create video tours of some of its most popular floor plans. After including captions and music as part of an internal edit, the team added more than 600 video tours to the Cortland website during a three-week span. It’s been a popular option for prospective residents who want to see floor plans and the community layout but don’t want to schedule a live tour. It was also Cortland’s best option, with 160 communities but no way to deploy professional film crews during the pandemic.
“We’ve asked prospects which of our media elements they have used and to rate those on a scale of 1 to 5,” says Brian Ericson, Cortland Vice President of Marketing Insights and Technology. “The reaction to the in-house videos has been very positive. They are averaging a rating of about 4.2 or 4.3. But the more compelling stat is how often they’re being used. The first month they were live, our 600 videos received more than 60,000 views.”
Enhancing Virtual Leasing, Virtual Move-ins
Already adept at leveraging technology for operations purposes, LMC, a Charlotte, N.C.-based apartment developer and operator, was able to make a smooth transition into virtual leasing.
“We utilized existing media from our digital platforms, such as Matterport videos, interactive sight maps and self-guided tours, to enhance our virtual-leasing process,” says Lee Bradford, Vice President of Operations and Training for LMC. “We leveraged our platforms for online applications, payment and lease execution. We added the ability to self-schedule virtual and self-guided tours and to chat with a leasing associate on community websites. We utilized our relationship with CheckPoint ID, locker systems, mobile facilities app and our access control systems, including remote locks and cameras, to facilitate virtual move-ins.”
LMC also employs virtual-meeting platforms for leasing associates to maintain customer service levels and cater to the needs of both current and future residents. The company’s resident portal has become a hub for communication between residents and associates, as well as an opportunity for residents to build their own virtual relationships. Through the portal and social media platforms, LMC has hosted virtual movie nights, trivia, scavenger hunts, talent shows and more.
While virtual resident events, self-guided tours and virtual leasing have become very popular among residents, LMC has received its largest number of compliments for its virtual move-in process. “Our new residents moving in appreciate the efficiency of the social-distancing process, and we intend to keep our virtual move-in as an option even after communities have reopened,” says Bradford.
“Our prospective residents have embraced anything that gives them immediate and personalized information, such as live chat, two-way texting and the sight maps powered by Engrain on our websites,” Bradford says. “They enjoy getting a sense of the community through our embedded 360-degree Matterport videos.” She adds that LMC has also done more online chatting with residents to get their feedback on living in the community.
For self-guided and remote tours, community teams are more often utilizing interactive maps. This helps prospective residents become familiar with the community before they’re onsite and to navigate it when they arrive. Location-awareness features—such as Google’s “blue dot,” which provides real-time location and movement—were not available as part of the tour experience until recently.
Cortland has been piloting Engrain’s location-awareness feature and aims to incorporate the “blue dot” as part of the self-guided tour. “One of the biggest things missing from most of the solutions currently available is the lack of a location service,” says Cortland Marketing Technology Specialist Brianna Bocker. “That blue dot represents the first location service that provides wayfinding on a map and can be used on a self-guided tour route. Adding location awareness lets prospects know exactly where they are [on] the property and allows them to move around much more efficiently.”
A top theme in Cortland’s prospective-resident feedback has been the idea of having a sight map while virtually leasing. Now, teams are often using interactive maps when leasing from afar with prospective residents, both in webinar-style interactions and when they are on the phone and walking them through the website.
“Visually, it helps the prospect know where they’ll be located within the community and their proximity to amenities, green spaces, major roads and more,” Bocker says.
Screen-sharing 3-D Images, Maps, Floor Plans
Many apartment operators use 3-D technology to help reach prospective residents. These images, along with interactive maps and floor plan visuals, have experienced a dramatic uptick in screen shares.
Through this process, Cortland realized it had been showcasing only two to three floor plans per apartment community on community websites, when each community has about nine or 10. The increased engagement with digital platforms has prodded the company to add Matterport videos to all floor plans with high availability of apartments to give prospective residents increased visibility into the various layouts.
The removal of traditional site visits has also shifted LMC’s focus to connecting with potential residents through any digital manner possible. The company has combined web conferencing with 3-D videos and sight maps.
"We’ve often compared leasing to dating,” Bradford says. “The most successful relationships start with getting to know the other person and identifying shared interests. Now we are ‘online-dating,’ and prospects have already completed their online research.”
The pandemic has transformed many everyday processes from in-person to virtual. It’s no different in the apartment world. The silver lining is that some of the technology utilized by necessity could become part of the regular multifamily housing framework in the years to come.
Paul Willis is a Content Manager with LinnellTaylor Marketing.