Industry-Wide Collaboration Grew During COVID-19 — Will This Level of Sharing Continue?

Student housing has not historically been an industry synonymous with the sharing of data. Sources for industry-wide metrics are slim, and the vast majority of owners within the sector are privately-held. This all changed with the emergence of COVID-19 last spring. Weekly industry calls sprung up in response to the pandemic, where owners and operators shared information from collections and occupancy rates, to leasing and tips for handling the issues inherent with the virus. Seemingly overnight, the sector banded together to create a gold standard for best practices, working in collaboration to provide the safest possible standard of living for student residents. Student Housing Business recently spoke with a number of owners and data providers on their experience over the past year and whether or not we can anticipate this level of collaboration within the sector as we move out of the pandemic. 

Miles Orth, EVP and COO, Campus Apartments

Miles Orth

Tell us a bit about your experience with data sharing and collaboration throughout the pandemic.

The ongoing and evolving global pandemic resulted in varied protocols by state that real estate operators and other businesses are still grappling with, even a full year after the emergence of COVID-19. This created an opportunity for the student housing industry to find ways for owners, developers and operators to share ideas. We’ve shared information on protocols for managing through the pandemic as well as dealing with residents and the colleges and universities that we serve to ensure a more coherent response to the issues we have faced during this unique time. This took the form of a weekly conference call that is now bi-weekly. The information sharing and collaboration is unprecedented.

Do you think collaboration and data sharing within the industry will continue as we emerge from the pandemic?  

The student housing industry is small compared with multifamily or other commercial real estate asset classes like office or hospitality. This has allowed owners, operators and managers to interact closely at conferences and build trust over time. This relationship is unique to our space. While the bi-weekly calls may evolve or end, the collaboration and information sharing that has improved over the past year will continue.

What is the biggest challenge today with regard to access to data?   

Our challenges are similar to that which other firms experience — inconsistent data collection standards, the context of data collections, the complexity of obtaining the data, the absence of quality assurance with data collection and data comparability.

Do you think the student housing industry needs to revamp its approach to data sharing? If so, what would be your recommendation?  

We are working with other firms to create a data clearing house for student housing similar to that which exists within the hospitality sector. That system has been built with competitive data from a massive network of hotels, and provides owners and operators with clarity around key metrics in each market. We want to provide a reliable system that all operators can use to track and make decisions based on comparable products and locations. As the student housing industry becomes more sophisticated and institutional, there will continue to be systems designed to improve information sharing and data analysis across the sector. We believe the close interactions that developed during the pandemic will continue and will expand and lead to new tools for owners and operators to review and share data.

Whitney Kidd, Vice President, RealPage

Whitney Kidd

Tell us a bit about your experience with data sharing and collaboration through the pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated digital adoption and industry collaboration in nearly every business segment around the world. McKinsey & Co. conducted a study that found a six-year acceleration in digital adoption in North America, with the top-contributing factor being improved collaboration. Similar to the 2008 financial crisis, we are experiencing monumental changes in technology and the utilization of underlying data. Several of our partners had the opportunity to attend the bi-weekly industry calls and — from my perspective — they have been a breeding ground for innovation. As a supplier of data-driven software to the real estate industry, this is the first time we have seen a unified interest from owners and operators of student housing to measure resilience and success through the lens of transactional data and industry-backed key performance indicators (KPIs).  

Do you think this collaboration and data sharing within the industry will continue as we emerge from the pandemic? And why?

Utilizing transactional data to drive asset performance is not a new concept. Conventional multifamily started benchmarking asset performance through unified platforms several years ago. The ability to illustrate industry- and company-level performance is here to stay in student housing. 

Do you think the student housing industry needs to revamp its approach to data sharing? If so, what would be your recommendation?

Industry standard KPIs are an area of opportunity regarding data integrity in the industry. While some KPIs are relatively straight-forward, like occupancy, and delinquency, others are defined differently from company to company. An example is pre-leasing. Some operators define a file as pre-leased when a student signs a lease agreement, while others require the student and guarantor to execute the lease agreement prior to marking a file pre-leased. Developing industry-wide standards for operating metrics will improve data quality and power the insights needed to drive positive business outcomes.

Keith Thompson, Vice President, The Scion Group 

Keith Thompson

Tell us a bit about your experience with data sharing and collaboration through the pandemic.

The past 12 months have represented some of our most challenging times, both as a sector and for each of us individually. I have been impressed with the resiliency and adaptability that the student housing sector has demonstrated. As an essential business where residents depended on us for their homes, we only had one option: figure it out and fast. Many providers in the sector collaborated quickly and constructively, supporting each other and our collective customers. Recurring Zoom calls — which still occur to this day — quickly grew from a handful of attendees to many. The ideas and information sharing that transpired during these calls helped develop and share best practices and have strengthened the student housing sector as a whole.

Do you think collaboration and data sharing within the industry will continue as we emerge from the pandemic?  

This will likely be a trend that continues. Professional relationships between operators have been strengthened throughout this process. While we will continue to compete vigorously in the marketplace, we know the power of collaboration to improve operations and learn from each other’s experience.

Tell us a bit about your internal systems for collecting data. What information do you collect and how do you go about doing so?

Scion has invested significantly, particularly during the pandemic, in our ‘Financial Planning & Analysis’ resources. We are harnessing the power of our data in ways we never have before. We continue to invest in new tools to give our people efficient access to information through our proprietary business intelligence visualization platform.

What is the biggest challenge today regarding access to data?

The challenge isn’t as much gathering or collecting the data but rather making sure it is accurate and synthesizing it in a way that is easily consumed by the end business users in an actionable format.

Do you think the student housing industry needs to revamp its approach to data sharing? If so, what would be your recommendation?

This has been a hot topic for some time now. There are a lot of individuals within the space championing this effort. We’re never going to discuss rent pricing and other consumer terms — that’s off-limits. Still, we are at the precipice of what this will ultimately look like for the industry in the areas of operational and market knowledge sharing. This includes identifying which independent third-party platform will best collect and report on industry performance.

Charlie Matthews, Principal, College House

Charlie Matthews

Tell us a bit about your experience with data sharing and collaboration through the pandemic.

The student housing industry has always shared data at the property level to help benchmark during leasing cycles. The industry itself — as large as it is — is tightknit and cordial. When the pandemic hit, dynamics changed. The influx of information from every media outlet about the world ending, mixed with the lack of transparent information with regard to what was happening at each respective university, presented issues for all players in the space. The transparent nature of sharing property information trickled up to the organizational level where operators started contributing more behind-the-scenes metrics that weren’t commonplace before the pandemic. Data points like portfolio occupancy, pre-leasing and collections percentages were shared amongst the larger companies. And it wasn’t only metrics and data points that were starting to be shared — operators discussed operational precautions they were taking, the opening of community amenities and how they were handling the challenges they faced due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Do you think collaboration and data sharing within the industry will continue as we emerge from the pandemic?  

It will be interesting to see if collaboration will continue at the level we have seen over the past year. I think it would be beneficial for it to remain commonplace — the sharing of information benefits everyone in the sector. With everything surrounding the vaccine rollout and university plans to reopen for in-person learning, my thoughts are that it would be beneficial to see similar information continuing to be shared as we return to normal circumstances so that the industry can see how much of an effect the pandemic ultimately had.  

Compiled by Katie Sloan

This article was originally published in the March/April 2021 issue of Student Housing Business magazine. To subscribe, please click here