Las Vegas — Conference speakers and even its format urge student apartment leaders to stay ahead of a rapidly adapting demographic of renters.
Las Vegas — The National Apartment Association's Student Housing Conference & Exposition concludes today after several speakers and sessions posed creative challenges to the way the student apartment business is run. Opening general session speaker Peter Sheahan, founder and CEO of ChangeLabs, urged the audience to intercept and stay ahead of the way consumer behavior and desires are evolving. "Change is really slow. Until it's not," he said, citing examples of how evidence has been available preceding seismic social changes over the years, such as the way 99-cent apps are surpassing gaming consoles in the marketplace. He discussed the damaging effects of assumptions, particularly when the tone is set by competitors and not clients or customers. Student renters, like the rest of the population, will come to expect the same services everywhere. "If the airline lets me check myself in, I should be able to pay for and sign my lease online," he said. "Outsource services to the customer, and they'll love you for it."
Sheahan also described a new element of business that exists today that didn't before. More than speed, price and quality, customers look to purchases, be they bananas or apartments, that tell a story about who they are. "Students may not use the amenities in a property, but they will like the story it tells about themselves," he said.
Further challenging traditional ideas, some of the sessions at the NAA Student Housing Conferencewere billed as "Un-sessions." These were developed, according to NAA, because conferences have tended to be too passive and one-way in the past. These formats involved the audience asking questions about the topics, including turn and international students. The sessions had high participation and several lively debates were sparked by the format. Participants in the audience had questions about turn related to hiring, renewal rates and software. Moderator Heather Sizemore of Campus Apartments noted the prevalence of white boards and poster boards at most properties during turn. "We are technologically advanced in every area but turn," she said.
In the international student un-session, audience members revealed what they struggle with most and where they've had successes in renting to increasing numbers of exchange students. Language turned out to be one of the largest obstacles, and several audience members shared tactics for overcoming this, such as working with your university's international groups to help them draft flyers and other communications in renters' native languages and other ways to help students feel welcome. One operator said he asked his international students to name food items they miss most, sourced them and opened a supermarket in the property, which generated large amount of traffic through the property and helped word of mouth.
The NAA Student Housing Conference finished its Tuesday afternoon sessions with a panel of chief operating officers from several of the nation's top student housing owners. Panelists were Donna Preiss, The Preiss Co.; David Neef, Innovative Student Housing,; Christine Richards, EdR; Alex O'Brien, CGM; Miles Orth, Campus Apartments; Scott Duckett, Campus Advantage. The panel was moderated be Jessica Nix, vice president of marketing at Peak Campus Cos.
The theme of the panel was "meet your customer" with students supplying questions and "must haves" from several campuses. Capture The Market provided video of the students' comments.
New amenities that owners mentioned included coffee bars, bowling alleys, jumbo televisions, and "lazy river" pools. Amenities don't necessarily guarantee results in leasing. "If it's just the amenity package you are banking on, you're not going to be a success," said Duckett.
Preiss also added that her company had recapitalized several projects where the amenities had been scaled back to keep pricing in line with what the market would bare.
Neef said that his company had investigated customer-focused amenities like valet services to set certain properties apart from others in a given market.
Orth noted that the pedestrian-to-campus developers are fundamentally changing some markets. These properties, by their location, create a premium in development costs, rents and operation costs.
He also noted the increase in international students, who have different expectations and criteria than domestic students. Word of mouth marketing is extremely important among international students.
Students mentioned Instagram, tumblr, Pinterest and Facebook as websites that are popular with their peers. Richards said EdR utilizes its pool of 700 student employees to find out what's hot and what's popular. Orth and Duckett both said their companies survey students on a regular basis. O'Brien also said that CGM has regular focus groups as well as larger ones when redevelopments are underway in a market.
"The million dollar question is what you are going to do once you've polled all your residents and you have all that data. What call are you going to make?" said O'Brien.
"Just because you think something is of value, it may not be relevant to that property. We've found a lot of value in bringing in outside firms to qualify some of these ideas," said Neef.
Communicating with residents is also important. Preiss said that TPCO does not wait for residents to reach out to management. Such communications are generally negative, while communications initiated by communities generally result in positive feedback and response from residents.
"We have the most entitled population in our country, and there is an expectation that you will immediately engage in communication with them. We have an unbelievable social media team who has proved their worth by increasing NOI," said Orth.
Customer service extends to employees, said Preiss. "When a maintenance person or leasing agent gets a positive note of thanks, it's important for the community manager to get that news around," she said. "That encourages other employees to turn their positive comments over as well."
Neef said that social media allows upper management access to see what's happening at the property level. How to get to the root of the problem beyond the initial comments is important for community managers to understand, he said.
Many of the operators on the panel said they looked to the hotel industry as a role model for customer service.
Check back with NAA for further conference coverage.
— Randall Shearin and Lynn Peisner