During the pandemic, the real estate industry, including apartment managers, learned that they could keep it together while being apart. The shock of COVID-19 was quick, but the response, one of adaptive persistence and innovation, should pay sustained dividends for the multifamily sector in the form of elevated efficiencies and customer service. That includes technologies that centralize leasing capabilities and maximize staffing resources.
Virtual leasing had been on the rise before 2020, of course, but the pandemic pushed it into overdrive. From the many short-term adjustments to COVID-19 came a long-term value-based reality: a robust website can act as a 24-hour leasing center.
Smart apartment property managers have long been committed to real-time information delivery and transparency, which put them ahead of the game when the need for comprehensive virtual property information became that much greater after COVID-19 hit. Fee-based property managers should put on their sales hats and convince owners of the benefits of putting as much content on the website as possible. Actionable information, transparency and, of course, speed and convenience are the goals.
The 24-hour leasing center, i.e., website, should include interactive site maps, virtual, self-guided tours, 360-degree tours and lifestyle videos, but also better, higher-resolution photography, including virtually staged photos of all floor plan types. More online information and better visual engagement have always been important, but the last two years have really driven home the advantages of these things in a robust website and what they deliver in terms of traffic volume and leasing conversions.
When pushing rents and driving revenue, a bigger burden is placed on the marketing team. That necessitates casting a wider net, so to speak. Including persuasive imagery and better visuals on a property website increases the chances of pulling from a larger renter demographic. The traditional train of thought used to be that if you have high occupancies you can kind of pull back on some of the extra marketing spend, but rent growth and revenue drive have changed much of that mindset.
Technology certainly helps property managers do more with less, which is particularly important in this tight labor market. Automated widgets, conversation loops and chatbots can be developed and deployed for greater efficiencies, but also to help cover staffing shortages. Digital delivery and contactless transactions will continue to be popular after COVID-19.
Chatbots boost speed and efficiency on the management side while enhancing customer experience. They can provide real-time information from the essentials of pricing, unit availability, amenities and property tours to where a resident’s package was dropped off.
Renter prospects have really embraced scheduling appointments online. Prior to COVID-19, about half of prospects were willing to do so, with many preferring to pop in on their own after confirming office hours. New technology resembling OpenTable, the online restaurant-reservation service platform, allows prospective renters to self-schedule and find out when units are available for showing and when the management team has extra leasing agents on a given day and thus can give more tours.
Rather than partner with a pricey call center, apartment property management is leveraging AI to answer phone calls with a range of inquiries being addressed a la Alexa or Google Home. This is a really fun part of the industry because it’s evolving so much. Also, automated e-mail is being used to respond to electronic leads from Zillow and Apartments.com whereas they used to sit in a box until the management team could process them and address through a marketing drip campaign.
QR codes and digital brochures are in as the old paper trail trails off into obsolescence. For example, a prospect not only can download a property brochure via a QR code, but can also instantly load the management agent’s contact info into their smart device through the use of touch-less, Bluetooth-enabled business cards.
With the work from home move during the pandemic, Internet connectivity at apartment communities has become crucial, moving from the amenity list to a necessity. And one study found that Generation Z’s average screen time is estimated at eight hours per day.
COVID-19 threw the world off-kilter, forcing everyone from big property owners to Gig Economy worker-renters to find a new equilibrium. Technology bridged the gap, but the rate of adoption surpassed that of innovation and introduction.
There are a few fintech offerings that many jumped on. With flex rent and deposit alternatives during the height of the pandemic, it was really about helping renters find a way to reserve housing. Such fintech solutions provided a way to serve both renters and the landlords.
Self-service became the main model for multifamily operators during COVID-19, but the basic human need for housing—and finding creative ways to help prospective renters afford accommodations—reminds many of the human element still involved. The view here is that the industry needs to finesse the appropriate balance of technology and face-to-face service, remembering the range of renters and the many touch points along the customer journey.
The pandemic spurred the multifamily industry to deliver even more value virtually. A robust apartment property website serves consumers with an increased level of online engagement, but it also fulfills the property management team’s need for centralized leasing. The benefits extend from personal to portfolio-level with companies striving to manage multiple properties as efficiently as possible in a tight labor market.
Jackie Impellitier and Jeremy Brown are vice presidents with ZRS Management. ZRS is a stand-alone third-party management company, without any direct ownership or development conflicts. ZRS is an NMHC Top 50 manager and currently manages over 60,000 units for various institutional clients, partnerships and individual owners.