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Colliers COO Cline on Competing in Saturated Markets

Jennifer ClinceJennifer Clince has been in student housing all of her professional life. A graduate of the University of Tampa, she began her career working on-campus housing for her alma mater as a resident assistant and then a hall director. From 1995 to 2005, she was on staff at GMH's College Park Communities division before being hired away by the Collier Cos. to serve as a regional community manager.

In her current position as COO, she oversees Colliers' asset management and operations. As such, she has played a major role in the company's success operating in some of the toughest student housing markets in the country. She recently sat down  to discuss the strategies she and her team have been able to employ to maintain that competitive edge:

NATIONAL APARTMENT ASSOCIATION: What makes the Collier Cos. stand out in the marketplace?

JENNIFER CLINCE: We are constantly driving and looking for new and better ways to do things and reinvent ourselves. In addition to looking forward, we always look back and spend a good deal of time reviewing performance and assets. We're a learning organization, so we're continuously trying to focus and drive and push ourselves in new and better ways to do things.

NAA: You have been especially successful at implementing revenue-driven initiatives in some of the more saturated markets of Florida. Can you share with our readers some of these initiatives?

JC: One of the more interesting things about revenue when you are in a saturated market is you have to try and be positive. You have to think positive even if you are in the most difficult situation. You also have to hire a team who will be positive, and you have to keep them motivated so that they see potential moving forward rather than focus on the obvious negatives and obstacles. We try and set some fair, but challenging goals, and it starts Day One when the resident moves in. At that time, we start our customer service efforts. That entails door knocking, asking "How was your move-in experience?" and "Is there anything we can do to improve your apartment?" We are very focused on renewals. Because in a tough market, we believe we can push revenue if we can maintain more of our existing resident base. That will mean we have to bring in less new people from the outside. We like to recognize and even reward customers who live with us to sign early with some of our best incentives.

NAA: What would some of those incentives be?

JC: It really depends. Our most saturated market this fall would probably be Tallahassee. We also have a large number of assets in Gainesville, Fla., as well. So, it could be a gift card or it could be a 'best rate' or maybe a free carpet cleaning in their unit. It depends on the asset and not necessarily the market. We evaluate each asset individually for the potential to maximize revenue moving forward in a way that is going to be satisfying for both the resident and our bottom line.

NAA: Most of Colliers' properties are in Florida, yes?

JC: Correct.

NAA: So, with regards to student housing, what are some things that residents expect in apartment communities in Florida that they might not expect from similar assets located in other states?

JC: We have found that expectations are city-specific. One of the interesting dynamics is that certain cities have more high-end luxury new product than others. So, in one city, you may expect to have top-end amenities like Ethan Allan furniture packages. Other cities might be more price-driven, so those people may be looking more for the lowest rates. Another example of market-specific preference variations includes the floor plan mix. Four bedrooms and two baths work in some markets and not as well in others based on existing supply offering comparisons.

NAA: Has the emergence of social media made word of mouth more of a challenge than ever?

JC: Again, by city, you need to know where your customers are online, where do they go on campus, and where do they socialize. Online, what websites and big social media buzz locations are your residents frequenting? Where do they congregate on campus? Where can you target those customers and maximize your marketing dollars and resources in terms of people? It's important for your team to know where people are, who they are talking with, and also what businesses or areas are they frequenting off the campus.

Millennials are eager for the novel and the authentic. This can be more challenging to deliver online. We have all misinterpreted an e-mail. Online advertising needs to come across as genuine in an electronic/less personal format. The bar for social media campaigns is rising to stay above the noise.

NAA: What advice would you have to other apartment professionals reading this who are also competing in saturated markets?

JC: I really think you have to put yourself in the resident’s shoes. But that can be harder the further you are away from, uh, [age] 20! You need to be able to realize when you can't quite relate and know who can. So talk to and use your young employee base to gather information. We really believe that it is so important to be transparent in our communications with our residents to get good, clear feedback. You want to be able to understand them and for them to clearly understand you. You're not always going to do everything 100 percent right the first time. In getting the feedback, at least we know and then have time to make corrections. It could be a leasing incentive that people didn't understand or a poor customer service issue. That can indeed mean running ideas by your youngest employees to understand how you are being received by your base.

NAA: Are there any other initiatives you are proud of that have helped you compete in the tightest and most saturated markets?

JC: In many of our markets, we have multiple assets. We often form support groups, so to speak, with our competition. We try and find dissimilar partners to cross-market with, whether it's one of our own properties or not. We may line up a by-the-bedroom, student-designed community with a traditional community in town and say, "If you're not able to satisfy students who have come to you for housing, you might send them to us. We will refer those not desiring to live in student designed community to you.” Often, using those cross-marketing efforts is very beneficial.

By Teddy Durgin
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