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Execs Dish on Today's Student Housing Trends

Not since Charles Dickens have we seen such great expectations. 

There’s no arguing that today’s student housing residents are entitled. However, they’re also paying customers. 

Following are some executive responses to some of the more pressing issues within the student housing industry. These questions and answers were  discussed during the General Session “2014 Exchange & Engage: Executives, Meet your Customers” at the 2014 NAA Student Housing Conference & Exposition at the ARIA Las Vegas in March. 

Panelists: Scott Duckett, COO, Campus Advantage; David Neef, COO, INNOVATIVE Real Estate Companies; Alex O'Brien, President, Cardinal Group Management; Miles Orth, EVP & COO, Campus Apartments; Donna Preiss, Founder & CEO, The Preiss Company; Christine D. Richards, CPM, Senior VP  & COO, EDR; with moderator Jessica Nix, VP of Marketing, Peak Campus Companies. 

The Executives at the General Session, "2014 Exchange & Engage"

What are some of the most recent amenity trends in student housing?

Donna Preiss: A lot of us are doing Starbucks cafes inside our clubhouses. We’ve also done a lazy river. 

David Neef: Weather is a factor at a lot of our properties, so we look for indoor activities. We’ve experimented with two- or three-lane bowling alleys. 

Chris Richards: We put in space for a hair salon or spa but that hasn’t been very successful. 

Miles Orth: Lazy rivers, golf simulators, bowling alleys. It’s interesting—the amenities are certainly changing, and becoming developer-driven as opposed to customer-driven. We’re trying to compete with each other and have to create some advantage over our competitors. When you think you’ve built the best-in-class, someone else does something extraordinary. 

There are some markets where it’s add, add, add. Are we starting to over-amenitize projects? 

Scott Duckett: First and foremost, I think you have to focus on customer service and location. Many folks think they can sink a fortune into an amenity package, but you have to look at other things as well.

Preiss: We would love to have granite in our communities but we looked at our assets and saw that when you over-amenitize, students will always like it but you may not be getting a yield for those dollars. You have to understand who you are and what place you hold in that market.

Orth: You have to decide if you want to put the limited money you have into interior unit renovations or the clubhouse. The clubhouse is the sizzle but unit interiors are the meat that will sustain the customer over time. 

Alex O’Brien: You have to be the No. 1 something. Internally we were joking and said, “Let’s just be No. 2. Let’s just be the second-hottest girl there.” But in all seriousness, be the No. 1 something.

What is your strategy for figuring out what will keep you competitive?

Preiss: We’re trying to figure out how to be the leaders in student housing and Alex is trying to figure out how to be the hot girl!

Richards: We can’t relocate existing properties, so I have to figure out what makes a community feel closer to campus. Services like night-time shuttles help with that.

Neef: We think about investing in programs that are truly customer-service based. True customer-service programs are appreciated as much as amenities sometimes.

Duckett: Word-of-mouth is the biggest source of traffic and leases. We really focus on the current resident base and encouraging them to reach out to their friends. 

For the full interview, check out “Engaging the New Age” in the May issue of units Magazine.