COVID-19 has dealt many challenges to the student housing sector. Chiefly among those impacted are the managers and operators of properties, who have had to remain flexible and adeptly overcome hurdles including everything from keeping on-site staff members and residents safe, to effectively navigating this fall’s unique turn process and continuing to make their residents feel at home while also maintaining strict social distancing. While operators have had their hands full, they’ve found — or reinforced — a set of best practices that will lead to community success during and after the pandemic. Read on for some wise ideas that will help take your property and employee best practices to the next level.
Anna Flores, Vice President of Operations, Campus Advantage
- Prioritize filling open positions and build a bench of talent. Businesses are not meant to operate with open positions, and it is important for leaders to remind and require hiring managers to prioritize filling open positions. Follow up and hold them accountable by asking for updates regularly. Building a bench by identifying talent in existing employees is a great way to be prepared in advance of openings. Cultivating relationships and providing growth opportunities for employees is great for company culture too.
- Take care of your people and they will take care of business. Making an effort to build and maintain relationships with employees — especially those that directly report to you — will pay dividends. People that like coming to work will work harder and look for ways to make improvements and move the business forward. This will also come into play when building a bench of employees ready for the next step when openings inevitably occur. Scheduling weekly one-on-one sessions is a great way to open the door. Use that time to discuss growth, goals and to have a more candid conversation.
- Place a focus on time management. Employees who manage time well have a better work-life balance and are more productive at work. That being said, it is often one of the areas people struggle with the most. Part of focusing on time management is focusing on organization. Leaders should maintain a relationship with direct reports and understand how they approach their work. Step in and provide guidance when it appears there is need for an adjustment. Providing optional training or ‘lunch and learns’ to share tips and tricks has proved to be successful for our team members.
Julie Bonnin, COO, Asset Living
- Effectively Communicate. One of the most important lessons learned during the coronavirus pandemic was how important it is to effectively communicate with residents, vendors, parents and clients. With little to no notice, we had to change almost every operating process, including how we interact with residents, market our communities and work with vendors and staff. It is important to be as transparent and factual as possible when conveying information with employees, residents and suppliers. Having a plan in place and effectively communicating information to all stakeholders during an emergency is a critical component and your residents, staff and clients will feel more comfortable knowing you are prepared.
Casey Petersen, COO, Peak Campus
- Invest in people. The student housing business is too competitive, too reliant upon the team and, frankly, life is too short to do anything different. We spend an extraordinary amount of time focusing on how to create a culture and environment where our people are able to feel part of something bigger. They are recognized for their efforts and they can see a bright future for themselves. As we always say, ‘We are in the people business. We just happen to rent apartments from time to time.’
- Over-communicate and be candid with everyone. This was an adage that became even more important during the pandemic. If there has been any certainty throughout this crisis, it has been the uncertainty. At Peak, we made a decision to establish more touch points and share as much we could with our teams, our residents, their parents and our partners.
- Experience makes the brand, not the logo or colors. At Peak, one of our operating mindsets is to allow our team members to create moments for their co-workers, residents, parents, vendors and partners. We have found that the teams that fully embrace this concept and feel empowered to make it happen outperform their peers and their markets regardless of department, location, construction, product type or university. We are focused on making the Peak experience — as an employer, property management company and partner — an outstanding one.
Chelsey Harper, Regional Manager, The Preiss Co.
- Push renewals. A key operational tool in student housing property management is to launch a successful, thought-out renewal campaign as early as the market will allow. This seems like an obvious practice for most student housing operators, but renewals can truly make or break a successful leasing campaign. Immediately after move in, teams should be working with current tenants to make sure they’re as comfortable as possible in their new apartments. Happy residents share their positive feedback and can influence new tenants to move into a community. Renewal campaigns should include attractive and desirable rates, so that the tenant base is shown appreciation for their loyalty.
- Execute a successful turn. A successful turn contributes to a community’s overall reputation. This year’s turn was extremely challenging with the need to turnover thousands of beds while keeping our residents, vendors and team members safe, but it also brought about some protocols that will make the turn process easier and more efficient in the future. The small transition to having all of our check-in forms available virtually and collecting as much paperwork electronically in advance made our move-in days smoother than in years past. This allowed most sites to do a ‘drive-thru’ or ‘curbside’ move-in process. Several of our markets also had universities that moved up the start date of school, which shortened our turns by a week. By securing additional vendors per trade, we were able to execute successful turns quickly. Virtual check-in procedures and back-up vendors will be operational tools that we will continue to implement in the future.
Brittany Pieper, Site Marketing Coordinator, COCM
- Serve more than you take. Serve more of your time, your talents and your resources than you take from your team and residents. This creates an abundance of inspiration, connections and productivity. Leading from the front is the best way to develop a thriving team and engaged residents who want to live in and support your community.
- Focus on providing value. When your primary focus is to create as much value for your team, residents, prospects, campus partners, student organizations and local supporters as possible, you win by proxy. Whether you’re creating a unique program specific to residents, supporting a student organization through a unique collaboration or revising your maintenance process to accommodate more residents, a value-add approach is critical for long-term success.
- Incorporate a ‘wow’ experience philosophy. We all want to exceed our occupancy and retention goals! The best approach is to have a daily goal that answers the question, ‘How can I provide a wow experience today?’ Can you hand-deliver a package to a resident in need, hop on a virtual tour instead of sending long emails, call a few residents just to check in or send a thank you note to a hard working member on your team? The act of going above and beyond is key to creating a rockstar leasing team. You must become a rockstar if you want your team to be the same.
Sylvester Brandon, Operations Director, Cardinal Group Management
- Focus on what matters. In student housing, we are often tasked with mission impossible directives and forge forward by creating a culture of ‘whatever it takes.’ This culture yields the forward progress that has defined purpose-built student housing as a force to be reckoned with in commercial real estate. As our industry faces challenges due to enrollment declines caused by COVID-19, it will be imperative for providers and managers to focus on what matters the most — the students. Students are the core of our business and their evolving needs should influence and shift the fundamentals of how we operate. Engaging, listening and supporting will be the mission through and post-COVID-19.
- See the value in grace. Over the last eight months, on-site teams have been on the frontlines fighting the effects of COVID-19. These teams leaned in when it was revealed that student housing was deemed an essential service and focused intently on residential care. The heart of our communities lies within every maintenance, leasing and on-site operations leader. We must display empathy while finding opportunities to celebrate their continued success.
Jonathan Bove, Senior Vice President, Landmark Properties
- Speak like investors, not just operators. We pride ourselves on the ability of our teams to discuss their communities as assets, not just apartments. We communicate openly with our owners, partners and clients to ensure that our daily, monthly and annual goals align with their investments. We plan tactics for each community and market and we strategize for the investment life cycle. Cookie-cutter operational processes or marketing plans make no sense in that context, so we customize tools for each property’s targets as an investment and go out of our way to educate our site teams and mid-level corporate staff on the ins and out of commercial real estate and the student housing asset class.
- Rely on the market experts. During the ongoing pandemic, it has been Landmark’s observation that market-to-market differences across the country have been dramatically exacerbated, not diminished. Rather than centralizing marketing plans, social media posts or promotional items, we rely on local experts and our teams to create solutions. We provide them with resources and extensive corporate support in order to do so, but we rely on their education and experience as leaders in their markets to define the best tactics for their assets.
Michelle Dixon, Vice President, Michaels
- Get creative with your events. Get creative with the events you host at your properties. We have hosted socially distant movie nights out by the pool, and it has been a true hit with residents. You can select a popular movie that fits the particular season during which you host the event. We’ve selected family-friendly movies, rented popcorn machines and served canned soft drinks. This type of event is a smart, inexpensive way to safely gather residents. We’ve also held food truck extravaganzas, which are a great way to say ‘thank you’ to your residents and express how much you appreciate them. Survey your residents from time to time and ask them to provide three styles of foods that they would be interested in. These events are also a fantastic way to invigorate small business owners and they are a wonderful way to reach out to prospects/future residents. These events can take place once a month or bi-weekly — we’ve usually held ours on Thursdays and Fridays from 5 PM to 7 PM. We have also hosted talent shows like ‘Hill Country’s Got Talent’ for our residents where they can showcase their unique abilities.
Jerry Wojenski, CEO, Varsity Campus
- Never be afraid to break the mold. While standardized processes and strategies are important to providing a consistent product and service, it can also handcuff a team when conditions change, causing more harm than good. There needs to be some level of flexibility baked into the system to allow for changing market conditions. We often customize our management approach to each market and each property. This may include changing the staffing structure, using different advertising vehicles or even allowing the on-site team to audible leasing incentives. In one market, we changed our lease term from the standard August-July term to a June-May term. In that particular market, only seniors are allowed to live off-campus. We recognized that seniors preferred to move out of the residence halls directly into their off-campus housing and they did not want to be burdened with a rent payments as they start careers in other cities after graduation. By changing the lease term, we were able to pre-lease to 100 percent occupancy — with a waitlist — while our competition, which stuck to the traditional lease term, fell below 70 percent occupancy.
- You’re spending too much on marketing. When we assume management of a new property, more often than not we find that more dollars have been spent on marketing and not nearly enough has been spent on maintenance. Our industry is one where the leasing cycle is very defined and we have a finite amount of time to bank leases before our rent rolls are baked. Under this pressure, we tend to focus too much of our attention on marketing. Marketing is vital in that it draws traffic to your property and helps persuade prospects to consider your asset over the competition, but the reputation of the property is even more important. That’s where proper maintenance plays a critical role. Properties with a top-notch maintenance program often have the best reviews, and word-of-mouth is — and will always be — the most powerful driver of leases. You may have all the best swag and the coolest ads, but it won’t help if your property has a reputation for having latent work orders, leaky faucets and broken appliances. Reallocate marketing dollars toward the maintenance program, make the necessary repairs and make sure your property looks great for tours. A well-maintained property will have a greater impact on leasing than offering a gift card.
Michael Davis, President & CEO, Alpha Management Partners
- Build relationships. In today’s unprecedented times, students need a little extra attention. Building relationships through events was easier prior to the pandemic. COVID-19 restrictions make this challenging, but not impossible. Old school methods like periodically calling and texting residents go a long way in building relationships. Going the extra mile to call on their birthday or text about an exam shows genuineness. Office staff should get up and get out. When a resident calls in a service request, get up, go look at it and talk to the residents involved — do not just send maintenance. It is very important to be involved with the day-to-day operations outside of your office walls.
- Don’t just manage — lead. Leading — not simply managing — during challenging times may not be in the forefront of your on-site team’s minds, but it is critical. Ask questions like, ‘How can I reach prospects?’ ‘How can I keep residents engaged?’ ‘How can I keep staff morale up when they are facing personal challenges with family members having COVID-19?’ These are real-life scenarios. Leaders find a way to succeed, not just manage, during these times.
—Compiled by Katie Sloan
This article was originally published in the September/October 2020 issue of Student Housing Business magazine. To subscribe, please click here.