Look Across the Industry for Competitive Edge

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By Mary Shanklin

From managing social media reviews to introducing bike shares, some of multifamily’s fastest emerging ideas are being borrowed from other sectors within the industry.

Student housing veteran Mark Wilkie said conventional apartment providers can glean lessons from niche operators. Whether it’s figuring out how to fund poolside barbecue socials or balancing must-have amenities, executives can benefit by looking at successes in other tiers of multifamily. 

Stakes are high 

A pipeline of 77,000 units in major metro areas throughout the state has industry executives borrowing best practices. Trends transcend the price spectrum, aimed at everything from affordable housing to luxury communities.

As the state’s population shifts more toward renting, Wilkie said, offering lifestyle and community is paramount. Management companies in the student-housing sector have been early adapters, organizing social events to help retain residents. 

The same concept works at all levels of the industry, he added.  

“It doesn’t have to be fancy,” said the senior vice president of The Collier Companies, based in Gainesville. New restaurants may offer a cooking class at nearby communities, and vendors may sponsor social events to meet prospective customers.

Marketing Lessons Learned

Yoga platforms, fire pits, and auto-irrigated flower planters can differentiate properties without busting budgets, said Chuck Whittall, president of Unicorp National Developments, which has rental community projects in the Orlando area and in Longboat Key. 

At his Drake Midtown mixed-use project in Lake Mary, for instance, residents can play chess on a life-size game set.

Walkability to shops, markets, restaurants, and pubs has helped drive leases across metro areas. While pedestrian-friendly sites can fetch a premium, longtime apartment executive Lori Trainer said other properties can still compete.

“Apartment communities are using bikes — the bikes you can check out,” said Trainer, president of the Florida Apartment Association. ”Walkability is huge. What’s your walkability score? A lot of people look for that. Communities are also offering scooters that residents can take to restaurants or the grocery store.”

From student housing to luxury offerings, renters seek more energy-consciousness with programmable thermostats, LED lighting, recycling initiatives, and conservation certifications, Trainer said. Many of those features can also shave overhead.

Efforts may unravel with negative reviews on social media platforms. Shannon Claunch, marketing director for Gainesville-based Contemporary Management Concepts, said her company posts signs with matrix barcodes known as QR (Quick Response) codes.

Residents and would-be residents use their phones to capture the codes and download surveys. Claunch and her group use selected survey results for fresh content on apartment websites. The survey responses also help alert the management company about issues that need to be addressed.

“Text marketing” helped pre-lease a Gainesville student housing project ahead of the competition, Claunch said. The management company texted prospective residents an offer: Tour the Courtyards rental community and get a $5 Starbucks gift card. 

Contemporary Management Concepts also targets its customer base with telephone “hold” audio that is geared to a target audience.

“An audio track may be jazz, blues, rock, or country,” Claunch said. “And writing lively, branded script keeps callers on the hook if they have to hold.”

New Guides for Asset Protections

The student-housing world has benefitted from another practice that could translate to other types of rental housing — more regular inspections. Inspections are now at least quarterly, Wilkie said.

And while online payments have become the norm across the board, conventional properties see prospective residents shop for apartments online, use electronic keys, and “sign” virtual lease contracts — all features likely to find their way to more affordable and senior projects, experts said.

But online navigation requires constant policing. Like other industries, multifamily operators face security breaches.

Data collected by managers can be hacked in operations with a lackadaisical approach to password resets, off-site file sharing, data shared on staff members’ personal devices, Wi-Fi settings, and security of the management’s laptops and smartphones.

Unverifiable data on credit reports has further challenged the industry.

Vetting prospective residents is almost impossible, said Michael McVety, owner of Fort Myers-based Realty Services Property Management).

“There is no such thing as a national check. Short of you working for the FBI, there is no one true, reliable source for this information,” McVety said. Not only does faulty background data lead to managers leasing to the wrong tenants, but it may also weed out financially reliable residents, he added.

Apartment managers should take the time to speak with current and/or former employers and get pay stubs for at least the last few weeks, McVety added.

Senior Demand

Florida’s rental population almost doubled compared with the increase in homeowners during a five-year period that ended in 2015, the University of Florida’s Shimberg Center found. The state added more than 800,000 renters during that time and about 460,000 homeowners.

With that growth, CBRE Vice President Shelton Granade said interest has piqued in the active-adult sector.

“That’s kind of popped up on the radar in the last six months,” said Granade, who has specialized in multifamily sales at the commercial brokerage. “The demand is there and occupancy is high. It may have been a niche that was a little underserved.”

The pool of senior renters has grown across all income levels — not just the high end of the market — and has become the fastest growing segment of the rental population, according to RentCafe’s analysis of Census data.

In South Florida, developers are marketing yoga instead of golf and tennis at 55-plus projects in Miami Lakes, Doral and Dadeland.

Trickle down of Cost Cuts

On the cost-management side, several developers in more urban areas have turned to new construction techniques aimed at efficiencies. Tilt-wall construction systems have matured and help reduce completion timetables for the multifamily sector.

William Finfrock, president of the Apopka-based Finfrock design build group, said he has seen demand grow for dual decking systems that reduce change orders and gain other efficiencies. The product, he added, is aimed largely at hotels, apartment buildings and student housing with at least five stories and integrated parking.

“We are somewhat of a niche player geared to density,” said Finfrock, who is using the system at Broadstone apartments in Winter Park and student housing at the University of South Florida.

And, in Gainesville, Contemporary Management Concepts’ marketing chief said apartment operators across the financial spectrum can find savings by reviewing agreements with subcontractors and vendors.

She said it’s wise to stay on top of new products and technologies emerging in the market.

“If you’re a marketing professional and you’re not annually looking at contracts, you’re probably wasting money,” Claunch said.