The Global Reach
Attracting and Serving the International Student.
Today's successful student housing provider caters to the unique needs of international students.
Student housing providers have a promising market in international renters. According to the 2013 Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange, the number of international students at colleges and universities in the United States increased by seven percent to a record high of 819,644 students in the 2012-2013 academic year. There are now 40 percent more international students studying at U.S. colleges and universities than there were a decade ago, and the rate of increase has risen steadily for the past three years, with most of the growth driven by students from China and Saudi Arabia studying in the United States.
With the numbers increasing, owners and operators must pay attention to the unique needs of international students in an effort to attract, serve and retain this important segment of the student population. The first step, says Dan Olsterdorf, senior vice president of Campus Advantage, is "to acknowledge that we don't know it all."
"We have students coming from literally hundreds of countries with different cultures, traditions and levels of comfort with the English language," he notes. "Just like any resident, our goal is to provide them with a level of service that meets them where they are, and gives them a great experience. With international students, that requires some additional work."
One of the best resources for housing providers with international residents is the international student services office on campus.
"Too often, this department is seen simply as the contact when it comes to reaching these students," says Oltersdorf. "While this is true, they know the unique challenges faced by these students and will happily share what they believe we should be doing to serve these students well and to learn about their needs."
Kim Cory, director of student media for For Rent Media Solutions and former director of marketing and leasing for Ohio State University, agrees. Cory worked with MGI Communities, an apartment management company based in Columbus, Ohio, with two large communities – University Village and Olentangy Village — that served the students of OSU and had a strong international presence.
Cory says that having the university as a partner or liaison, who understands your procedures and how you manage things, will help to facilitate communication with international students coming to the university.
"The university is looking for a trusted source to refer these students to — that will take the time and initiative to not only market to them and get them in the door, but follow through with various types of services, like overcoming language barriers, understanding lease policies, safety and other things that we, as Americans, may take for granted."
The Woodlark Companies, a privately owned real estate investment company headquartered in Miami, FL, partnered with Michigan State University to create a unique marketing tool for international students . The onsite management team was instructed to create a video that showcased the experience that international students may have living at the community.
"We did not want to target specific countries with this video, but wanted to express to all international students what living at our community would provide," says Erin Sunderland, Regional Manager of the Woodlark Companies.
The onsite team hosted a brainstorming event with international students to see who may want to participate, and each student was able to showcase things they had experienced that differed from their home.
"This allowed the video to be very real and relatable," notes Sunderland.
The video was used at all international orientations as a backdrop to the property booth. Woodlark also showcased the video on its websites, ILS sites (ForRentUniversity) and Facebook, and embedded it in all auto-respond e-mails to traffic, which allowed the property heightened exposure to all international students on all online mediums.
When searching for a place to live off campus, Cory says international students rely heavily onword-of-mouth, from the university itself, or friends or family who are already in the United States or attending the university. In a recent survey, Campus Advantage asked international students at their communities how they found out about the properties. 47 percent said they found out from a friend.
"It is still about word-of-mouth marketing, even when that word of mouth spans the globe," Oltersdorf notes. "When your campus contacts see that you genuinely CARE about their students, they will refer students to you."
Of course, international students also rely on online resources like Google and Craigslist. But marketing encompasses more than just letting students know about your community and your brand, notes Cory. It really comes down to what you do to differentiate yourself and how you make your community more attractive for an international student.
"It could be the fact that you have your own private shuttle system or you're on some sort of campus or city bus line," Cory notes. "A lot of international students will not have transportation of their own, so it's critical that they understand your proximity to campus as well as how they can get to and from the university."
Oltersdorf tells us that by first putting the focus on how we SERVE international students, it's not only "the right thing" to do, it also yields amazing results when it comes to marketing.
"International Students present a great opportunity for those in the student housing industry, and they also present unique challenges and needs," he says. "It's critical for housing providers to be very intentional about meeting these needs as they work to serve non-U.S. students."
One way Campus Advantage meets the needs of international students is through an online leasing system, a key component in attracting students because it allows them to complete the process at a time that is convenient for them. Regardless of the time zone, students can complete the entire leasing process through a self-guided online leasing tool.
"Our teams include versions of translated leases online and in the office for international students to reference while completing the lease agreement," says Oltersdorf. "This helps communicate the community policies, but it also reminds the students of our dedication to accommodating international students."
Online roommate matching and the ability to sublease are also great services and incentives for new international residents.
"They are coming in and out of the country at various times throughout the school year, so offering flexibility, such as subleasing, is a big draw," Cory notes. "And the ability to do online leasing is extremely valuable, especially if they are being asked to complete a lot of information prior to move-in."
Roommate matching solutions through applications like Facebook, where students can connect with other students within the university space, is another attractive and valuable service.
The Woodlark Companies launched a social roommate matching program called "Woodlark Match Me," which allows for current and potential residents to choose their own roommates.
"We have found with experience that most international students want to live with English-speaking students so they can experience the culture more," she says. "Therefore, this has been a large piece of our customer-service tactics for our international students."
In order to reach the Chinese community socially (as they do not use Facebook in their country), The Woodlark Companies hired a social media maven for its RenRen page (a Chinese social network equivalent to Facebook).
"In my experience with international students, the most important amenities are technology (Internet speed), study rooms and resident events," Sunderland adds. "These items have increased our word of mouth and, in turn, have increased our retention rate among international students."
Programming that immerses international students in the American culture can translate to a higher rate of retention, according to Oltersdorf.
"The more students feel a part of the community and the 'American way of life' there, the more they tend to stay at the community."
Cory recommends a Dean's List incentive or reward, which may appeal to international students who tend to be heavily focused on academics. Of course, social opportunities are also popular.
"These residents are going to want to socialize within their own peer network at first because it's comfortable, but they are also here to meet American students and learn our culture," Cory says. "So having the outlet and opportunity to socialize within their own communities is important, as well."
Will they attend every single resident event? Likely not, but opportunities to tie in both cultures, like a cultural potluck dinner, can help build a community of belonging, both domestic and international, Cory adds.
Intramural events can also engage both parties. At one Campus Advantage community with a number of Indian students who played Cricket, the community arranged an event where Indian students taught American students how to play the game.
"We have enjoyed hosting programs that not only immerse international students in American culture, but allow those students to share their culture," Oltersdorf notes.
Comprehensive digital resources can also help build retention. They help international students assimilate, offering not only local attraction information but additional resources like banking, bus stops, grocery stores, even different departments within campus, such as Resident Life Services who can help with job seeking and interviewing skills down the road.
Campus Advantage is working on adding international resources to its website to point students to what they need on campus and in the United States in general. The company has even created reference cards with visuals that help a staff member communicate with someone who struggles with English.
Campus Advantage's staff also works with universities to help train on cross-cultural communication. This helps not only in retention but also in serving and marketing to students. And a lot of this happens when the students arrive, says Oltersdorf.
"Being in front of them as they are arriving and helping them bridge the gap from their home country to the United States goes a long way."
— Susan Fishman