Justin Wybenga: Four Silver Linings of COVID-19 for the Student Housing Industry

It’s been a full year since the onset of COVID-19 across the globe and there hasn’t been a single industry untouched by the pandemic. At first, everyone was challenged daily to adapt to a new reality, way of life and way of business. It took time, collaboration and a concerted effort, but we ultimately adjusted. 

For the student housing industry in particular, COVID-19 has created a resurgence of innovation as the vast majority of our business has historically been cyclical and fairly predictable from year to year. Fundamentals such as academic calendars that have previously been all but set in stone, and even more basic assumptions like students attending their classes in classrooms on campus, had to change. Uprooting the student housing sector in these ways has been a watershed moment for our industry, creating new opportunities and strengthening relationships with employees, residents, universities and even competitors. Read on to learn how the pandemic has re-energized the student housing industry with four silver linings in just 365 days. 

1. An industry rises to the occasion, strengthens relations with academic institutions and competitors.

In the very early stages of the pandemic, every party in the student housing industry was learning how to acclimate to evolving CDC, state and local guidelines — from employee safety considerations and sanitization protocols, to adjusted amenity use, capacity limits and new social distancing measures. To combat the onslaught of new information, and with a focus on supporting each other and the residents we serve, we quickly banded together as an industry. Almost immediately, we set up a weekly call with participation from both large and small owners and management companies, leaders of student operations, executives, legal counsels and prominent associations to share newly created documents and burgeoning data, communication strategies, insights on new legislation and brainstorm best practices. We had incredible participation, often with 75 to 100 attendees dialing in, and the topics varied based on whatever current developments we were demanded to adapt to. 

In the same spirit of collaboration, relationships were strengthened not only within our industry but also more broadly with the universities that we service. In many creative and exciting ways, and with a breadth and depth that would not have been likely to occur under normal circumstances, we had the opportunity to collaborate regularly with institutions. We helped with the de-densification of their residence halls and affiliated housing, and explored various forms of alternative options that would create a safe environment for their students. Ultimately this process demonstrated how we could successfully partner quickly, often with minimal structural or procedural adjustments, to provide quality housing solutions that aligned with their institutional needs and that would meet or exceed their standards. As a result of the bonds we forged during these challenging times and by cultivating a deepened understanding of our products and management capabilities, our relationships will have a lasting impact past the pandemic.

2. The site visit, communication and time well spent.

One of my favorite mantras has always been, ‘there is no substitute for the site visit.’ In order to improve operations, you have to get out in the field and see how your assets are performing from a quality and efficiency perspective. Interestingly though, after being forced to pivot and manage our business remotely for longer durations, we’re now finding the productivity of the site visits has increased significantly. This year has made clearer than ever the absolute value and importance of spending time face-to-face with our employees. As we’ve been returning to the field, we’re seeing this translate to a mindset of saving the emails and administration work for when we’re back at the home office, and being more thoughtful, focused and present when visiting the communities in-person. 

We’ve also taken a closer look at how we deploy resources to ensure that we maintain team building at the site level and with the corporate support roles. As remote working and Zoom calls have become the norm and the technology has become more comfortable for the average person, it has created new opportunities for collaboration across all of our teams and at every level. While nothing will replace the importance of in-person interaction, we’re seeing the video conferencing platform being embraced as an “in addition to,” not just an “instead of.” Site-level teams and corporate-level employees are talking more frequently across all channels to ensure seamless operations. As a result of these efforts there’s been a renaissance of communication – more unity and efficiency across the board. 

3. Technology platforms and wi-fi are the name of the game. 

Necessity breeds innovation, and as a result of the pandemic all owners had to find ways to bolster their technology platforms in order to strategically coordinate with sites remotely, maintain facility standards, plan and execute a new breed of virtual leasing and marketing events, and onboard new team members without losing a sense of the company’s culture. What was already in the works pre-pandemic took on a whole new life as we had to implement initiatives at a pace that otherwise would never have been as urgently relevant or achieved. One silver lining to the pandemic is that we didn’t have a choice but to improve, innovate and progress to continue operating and providing exceptional service to our residents. 

Wi-fi remains a focus for our residents as the hybrid learning model, in some form or another, is likely here to stay for the foreseeable future. While many operators had already been planning for supporting more remote learning prior to the pandemic, COVID-19 accelerated that process. We’ve seen many providers implementing stronger and more consistent Wi-Fi coverage that can support students’ academic and recreational needs (including binge-watching their favorite shows) on multiple devices.

4. Focusing on what matters most: residents 

I believe the true silver lining of the pandemic is the opportunity to refocus our attention on our residents and address their needs, the reason why we got into this business in the first place. Prioritizing their health and wellness became critical during a time of great uncertainty, and especially as the choice for most students to remain in market was very intentional. After a long day at school, a community is more than where they sleep at night. These communities are the mitochondria that keep them efficient, energized, healthy and safe – and we’re thinking about their experience as a whole. Since they’re now spending more time than ever in their apartments, owners have thought about the various ways to sustain and promote positive visual, mental, and biological health and wellbeing. They’ve achieved this by implementing better lighting solutions, looking at comprehensive building and unit air filtration systems, rethinking the use and purpose of existing spaces, and offering non-traditional fitness options that aren’t gym-centric.

Many operators previously wanted to wow prospective residents with glitzy but ultimately underutilized top-notch amenities, but the pandemic enabled us to reflect on resident “needs” versus “wants.” We’re now focusing on introducing more high-quality, thoughtful and intentional spaces and creating a healthy, positive living space that supports their educational goals and their overall happiness. 

Flexibility and resiliency are the keys to success

There’s no doubt the pandemic lasted much longer than many expected and forever altered the way we live, learn, work and play. While student housing owners across the nation have persevered, these four silvering linings of the pandemic will influence our behaviors and better our industry in the long term. 

In order for owners to flourish during these times, they must seize the opportunity to reflect, adjust and adapt to meet new demands of the many audiences they serve. By acting together, we can transform a period of adversity for us and for future generations. 

Justin Wybenga is vice president of asset services for GMH Capital Partners. Justin is responsible for the operations platform and strategy of the company’s owned student housing portfolio.