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Preparing For The Fall Move-In Is No Longer Miles Away

Miles Orth

Miles Orth, Chief Operating Officer and Executive Vice President of Campus Apartments, has been in student housing his entire 18-year career. The company he works for ranks as one of the nation’s largest privately held student housing companies, with operations in 25 states serving approximately 36,000 student residents.

As colleges and universities prepare to welcome students for the fall semester, Orth sat down with Campus Connections recently to discuss the final lease-up. He also detailed some key selling points in luring on-campus residents to off-campus housing, as well as gave his thoughts on where student housing is headed in general.  

What follows is our chat:

NATIONAL APARTMENT ASSOCIATION: Mr. Orth, what are some of the keys to attracting new and incoming students to a property each fall?

MILES ORTH: For the August 2013 move-in, we began leasing in September 2012. Our portfolio right now is about 87 percent pre-leased for the fall.  To attract that final 13 percent, the focus at this point is on social media, in particular – to draw students in on Facebook and develop relationships. We rely heavily on referrals in our business and spend a great deal of effort on customer interaction. We do that by surveying our residents and really trying to get to know what it is that drives them. We then use that information in order to encourage them to refer their friends. Our experience has always been that if you take really good care of your customer, they will encourage their friends or their relationships to your property, even if they may be graduating. Our number one source of traffic is referral.  And, in second place, is social media.  

NAA: Has it always been a “referrals business” for Campus Apartments?

MO: It’s the way we have developed the Campus Apartments brand. Then, once the brand has been developed in a market, it is important to invest heavily in activities, events, and staff to take care of those customers. 

NAA: In terms of the final lease-up, what are some ways operators can communicate with prospective residents without having to spend a lot of money?  

MO: At this late stage, an operator is going to be really focused on on-campus interaction and making sure through orientations and through relationships on campus that new students – whether they be transfers or international students or incoming freshmen – are really aware of what the options are in the off-campus housing world. There’s a number of ways to do that. There is advertising in the student newspaper. Craigslist, as well, has become an enormously important referral source for apartment traffic. But the best way is again social media. There’s no cost, and it’s high impact.  

NAA: What are some key selling points to luring on-campus student residents to off-campus housing properties?

MO: Students who live on campus are typically freshmen and sophomores. For many, there is a strong pull and urge to live off campus for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is to enjoy the amenities that off-campus student housing properties provide. Many students also want to move away from some of the rules and regulations and restrictions of living on campus. There are still rules and regulations and lease agreements to live up to off campus, but many students feel that it’s more ‘free’ to live off campus.

NAA: What are some of the more popular amenities that have emerged in recent years?

MO: You’d be amazed. The student housing that you and I lived in years ago still exists on campus and in some of the older facilities. But off campus, you are looking at clubhouses that have elaborate game rooms and media centers. There are pools that have everything from swim lanes to volleyball and basketball in the pool. There are hot tubs that can accommodate 30 or more people. There are volleyball courts, golf simulators, tanning beds, computer labs. There are even rock-climbing walls. The new product that is coming online redefines luxury in student housing. The steak is the housing and the clubhouse and the amenities are the sizzle. Good developers know that.  If they have the ability to build that into their project, they will do that.

NAA: At the same time, there is another group you have to deal with. Parents!  They’re often the ones paying. They want to know Junior is in safe environment. How do you keep the message on point with them, too?

MO: That is a critical and important point. And, by the way, all of our leases are guaranteed by mom and dad or a financial party. That has a very positive impact on collections. A student might contemplate spending their rent money on a ski trip with their buddies. But Mom and Dad understand the impact to their credit in the absence of making a rent payment. Because Mom and Dad are guarantors of the lease, they are guaranteeing the terms and conditions and the rent. If there are damages, they are responsible for that. During the lease process, we communicate that to Mom and Dad.  But also during the time the student is living with us, we’re communicating with parents via our website. Parents can send care packages, order flowers, birthday cakes, and those types of things via our website. Maintaining a relationship with Mom and Dad is very important. Even if the student feels strongly that they want to be able to select where they want to live, the vast majority are still engaging with their moms and dads in that discussion. So, a good operator has to have the ability to communicate not just with the 18- to 22-year-old, but also the parents. For Mom and Dad, safety and security and access control are some of the amenities that are important. For the student, it’s the pool, the clubhouse, the activities, and events.

NAA: What will the next generation have to look forward to in student housing in terms of amenities and trends?

MO: There are three fundamental trends that I see developing. One is the continued evolution of the importance of Internet. An off-campus student housing operator has to have a very robust Internet connection with really strong upload and download streaming capabilities. Students are watching television, communicating with their parents, sending papers to their teachers all via the Internet.  . . . An operator can’t just be a real estate guy who builds nice housing. You have to fundamentally understand technology. That can’t be understated. For the student today, if you lose electricity, it’s not the end of the world. If they lose Internet access, you would think that it is the end of the world!

NAA: And the second and third things?

MO: Second, I think amenities are going to continue to evolve.  The luxury amenities will continue to be important. But, three, I think they will be muted somewhat by a change in expectation on value. One of the things we’ve seen in just the last two to three years is more and more students looking for location AND value.  They’re looking to make their dollar go further as it relates to housing. There are fewer and fewer people who can afford the highest rents. So, when you are building new product, you need to be able to have unit types and product that can draw a larger pool of students than, say, the top 10 percent of people who can afford to live in the nicest complexes.

By Teddy Durgin

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