The last few months of the calendar year are peak leasing season—the most important time for student housing. In the past, this season has been relatively straightforward for the industry, with many students knowing what they wanted and needed in housing for the following year—allowing for consistent leasing numbers especially in the context of those students renewing for the upcoming year.
However, in 2020, student housing professionals are being forced to reassess the “norm” and pivot to find solutions to new challenges. Between academic uncertainties, concerns over safety and social restrictions, students across the country are left with more questions than answers.
In this difficult and confusing time, student housing providers have an opportunity to improve and enhance their operations to meet the changing needs and wants of residents, both current and prospective. Transitioning to virtual leasing, ensuring safe access to coveted amenities and providing personalized customer service all along the way can help stabilize student housing leasing, even for an unpredictable year. For universities served by student housing operators, close interaction is the recipe for success in this complicated business environment.
Taking leasing virtual
In the age of COVID-19, one of the most significant changes in the industry has been the acceleration of the virtual leasing environment. Campus Apartments moved to an all-online leasing platform in 2014. At the time, it was done to address many college students’ desires to minimize in-person engagement, while maximizing their ability to close a transaction in a timely and convenient manner. Six years on, this shift has been critical to success in a difficult time. From the first look to the completion of the lease agreement, students have access to all information that would traditionally require a trip to the building itself, in the palm of their hand. As a result, this system has allowed operations to continue as normal, even while complying with changing social distancing mandates.
Three components are essential for providing a comprehensive leasing experience online:
- Virtual Tour: A virtual, self-guided tour of the apartment space and the amenities allows renters to make informed decisions about the building environment as a whole, giving them the experience of being in the space without actually having to make the visit in-person.
- 3D Floor Plans: 3D floor plans enhance the virtual experience by allowing prospective residents to fully conceptualize the apartment layout and envision their future in the space. A detailed floorplan also ensures the prospective resident knows exactly what to expect from their living space, decreasing the amount of concerns that often arise on move-in day.
- On-Demand Leasing Specialist: It is likely that prospective residents, and their parents, will have questions about the leasing agreements, units, building, area, etc. It is imperative to provide an easily-accessible chat feature on your website or virtual tour platform to encourage proactive engagement with a leasing specialist and ensure a prospective resident isn’t leaving a tour with unanswered questions.
Amenities, Amenities, Amenities
Even in this time of mass concern surrounding health and safety, students value common area amenities. Fitness centers, study lounges and other indoor gathering spaces remain among top priorities for students looking for housing. But, if you can offer them, do it safely or not at all. Careful disinfecting efforts that are transparent to the customers and occupancy limitations allow cautious, but continued access to these coveted amenities—boosting the profile of a residence. Consistent, clear communication about all policies is also essential.[click_to_tweet tweet=”Op-ed on student housing in #highered: ‘Fitness centers, study lounges and other indoor gathering spaces remain among top priorities for students looking for housing. But, offer them safely or not at all.’ ” quote=”Op-ed on student housing in #highered: ‘Fitness centers, study lounges and other indoor gathering spaces remain among top priorities for students looking for housing. But, offer them safely or not at all.’ “]
In addition, outdoor spaces continue to be highly desired by residents and prospects for relaxation, pet outings and social gatherings with friends. Encouraging the use of these spaces with well-designed features remains an important aspect of accommodating residents. The availability of outdoor areas plays a large role in promoting health and wellness. As experts continue to stress the superior safety of outdoor gatherings versus indoor, renters will look for easy access to fresh-air living.
So, incorporating these spaces into developments should remain a priority. Properties that can offer a wireless overlay for the property so residents can enjoy the outdoors while remaining connected has become an essential feature to meet the expectations of all residents.
For college students, this is a time of uncertainty. They are unsure what school, graduation, study abroad and housing will look like in 2021. Last-minute decisions over binding leases might be necessary. None of it is ideal, but, in student housing, you should be prepared to guide current and potential renters through all of these situations. When they choose to reach out—whether online, via phone or in person—students should feel supported. The first step in creating that trust is to provide a positive leasing experience, from start to finish, that is consistent across all platforms.
The customer service experience doesn’t just impact the potential of signing the student at hand. Prospective residents continue to be influenced by their friends and peer groups in terms of where to live. Furthermore, in the age of a pandemic, online reviews can make or break your reputation. So, giving your teams permission to put the customer first and to spend the time nurturing these relationships will yield great results now, especially when it comes to stabilizing leasing numbers and meeting your financial expectations.
Even though the future of higher education may not be clear now, this leasing season doesn’t have to be turbulent. By stepping up internal operations and providing a seamless, engaging and supportive leasing experience for every prospect, you are taking steps to stabilize leasing for this unpredictable year.
Miles Orth is executive vice president and chief operating officer at Campus Apartments.