Glennis Markison | July 10, 2019
From glossy touch screens to virtual reality headsets, leasing tours are changing shape as multifamily meets the digital age. Are your teams ready to balance cutting-edge tech with quality customer service? HappyCo explores the evolving nature of the leasing experience.
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In a tech-centric world, the leasing experience is a lot like a first date: there’s steep competition to attract a person’s interest and just one chance (the tour!) to keep it. Forbes makes clear — creating a favorable first impression can be costly. Contributor Jeffrey Steele notes: “in apartment communities, leasing teams typically lose $20,000 to $24,000 a year by dedicating a model unit for tours by prospective residents.”
Unfortunately, even this kind of hefty investment isn’t a sure bet. Indeed, Multihousing News reveals the extent to which things can unravel during a leasing tour. One prospective renter from Denver confessed: “the leasing agent was initially late, rude, and unprofessional. Her attitude improved during the tour, but she completely turned me away from wanting to live there.” A Houston-based renter, meanwhile, had this to report of a leasing agent: “She was friendly but the tour felt very rushed , like she had somewhere else to be.”
Importantly, Bisnow notes a sea change underway in the leasing arena, one set to affect both operator costs and renter satisfaction. Bisnow’s National Editor asserts, “Multifamily developers expect the leasing process to become entirely automated in the foreseeable future, with potential renters being able to tour buildings using augmented reality.” Multihousing News cites a more cautious prediction: “between 25 and 35 percent of all leasing transactions will happen without a leasing agent in 10 years due to automation.”
Thus, it’s well worth exploring just how operators can successfully couple the latest advances in leasing tech with the best practices in customer service. To this end, HappyCo frames the stakes in competitive rental contexts, shares insights from a leasing tech vendor, examines a range of tour-enhancing products, and offers strategies for stand-out customer service.
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The race for renters: stiff competition before the tour begins.
Before exploring the latest in leasing tech, it’s valuable to understand how tough it can be to get renters through the door. Seattle Times real estate reporter Mike Rosenberg painted the picture in his metro area, describing how: “Seattle is building more apartments than just about anywhere, and now 1 in 10 units across the city are sitting empty.”
As a result, operators had to shift tactics to get people taking tours. Rosenberg reveals: “landlords have responded by lowering rents slightly and offering more perks to get tenants in the door.” Renters like Kjerstin Wood say they’re surprised to see the tables turn this way. Wood told the Seattle Times, “I’ve been renting in Seattle since 2014, and this is the first time where I felt like I have negotiating power.”
Indeed, when searching for apartments with her partner, Wood described being “bombarded with offers like free parking,” and she sensed operators were especially eager to have her put pen to paper: “For the most part, everyone we’ve met with has been very eager to get us to apply right then and there.”
Oregon Live presents the kinds of postings meant to get people through the door: “2 bed home with 2.5k Amazon Gift Card and More” and “2 Months Free plus $1000 gift card if move in with(in) 1 Week!” As the publication notes, “those incentives are now commonplace at new buildings and becoming more prominent in older complexes that are also struggling to fill up their units.
Complicating matters, some people moving to metro areas like Seattle for work aren’t able to tour units before they start a new job. Fortunately, as a recent Forbes article notes, “VR/AR technology makes it possible for would-be buyers or renters to visualize the residence they are considering.” Importantly, author Jeff Steele stresses this kind of tech isn’t going anywhere: “valued at $3.33 billion in 2015, augmented reality is expected to be a $133.78 billion business by 2021.”
The most cutting-edge options can offer would-be renters the chance to: “walk through the kitchen or step out on the balcony and peer over the railing. It allows you to simply press a button to view a different kitchen finish or try out a balcony on the other side of the building instantly,” as the Cincinnati Enquirer describes. Before exploring specific features like these, it’s wise to consider which problems leasing tech products are poised to solve. For an in-depth take on the rise and rewards of leasing tech, HappyCo spoke with Allison Pulaski, Director of Marketing at Denver-based Engrain.
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Data that truly opens doors: Engrain talks leasing tech.
When asked what’s behind the rise of leasing tech, Pulaski is quick to answer. To Engrain’s Director of Marketing, it’s simple: “self-service.” She admits multifamily tech is far from the first industry to latch onto this trend. However, Pulaski stresses: “it’s really time to get on board!”
Far from making bold predictions about the future of automation, Pulaski frames advances in leasing tech as complementary to the traditional tour experience. She emphasizes: “Engrain is here to help our partners by providing the tools they need if they want to explore self-touring as part of their leasing strategy.” As Pulaski sees it, “there’s definitely still a group of people that likes the personal touch, but also those that, due to their own personal circumstances or schedules, prefer a more autonomous touring experience.”
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Pulaski finds that convenience is more and more sought after by renters who work fulltime. With interactive online maps and trusty lock boxes at their fingertips, renters are no longer at the whim of leasing offices sporting 9-to-5 style hours. As Pulaski puts it, “these tools help you tour at any time, which is hugely important, as our lives become busier and more mobile. When a leasing office is open 9-to-5, that’s not conducive to people who work full-time, and yet many people who work full-time are renting.”
Still, renters aren’t the only ones who benefit from a boost in convenience with cutting-edge leasing tech. Pulaski notes that “on the operator side, they’re also getting time back, because it helps to determine which tours will include people who are genuinely interested vs. those who may be simply curious or unqualified about a development.”
Pulaski breaks this down on a nuts-and-bolts level, describing how, “in a sense, renters also pre-qualify themselves because, with an interactive map, they can obtain very specific information about each available unit. For example, they might evaluate their options based on what’s in a certain price range and if a unit is physically located close to other amenities or a co-working space.”
All told, this kind of transparency helps both renters and agents close a deal, as leasing tech can display “everything you’d go through with prospective renters before they arrive, so they already know if the space meets their bedroom count and other in-unit needs. They’ve got all those boxes checked off before they get through the front door.”
Interactive leasing tech can also serve as a powerful marketing tool for operators, allowing them to showcase their storytelling efforts in an organized way. Pulaski explains: “marketers work so hard creating content, and interactive touch screens feature every piece of content in one contained space.”
Interestingly, Engrain has found that there’s no clear-cut pattern as to which touch-screen options a certain housing sector — from senior to conventional — will request. Their varying needs keep a company like Engrain on its toes, as Pulaski reveals: “I’m not seeing any specific trends in hardware selection. Depending on the asset type, from single-family to student housing, their asks really vary — especially depending on whether they have a fully-staffed leasing office or if they have nobody full-time in that role.”
Yet, Pulaski says there’s definitely one undisputed perk of having these interactive screens on-site: “everyone is looking to buy from brands that seem tech-savvy. If renters see a touch screen, they sense that tech is a priority for your business.” Furthermore, in such a people-focused business, Pulaski argues that touch-screen leasing tech also spurs strong relationships between operators and renters. In her view, “It allows a busy leasing office to keep more people engaged, too, when there’s an immediate tool like a map that pique people’s curiosity online.” With Engrain’s “self-service” and relationship-building insights in mind, it’s helpful to explore the current state of leasing tech — from VR tours to lock boxes — to understand the range of possibilities on offer for renters and operators.
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Exploring the options: leasing tech possibilities.
Bisnow’s National Editor gets right at the heart of the leasing tech evolution, noting: “with so much readily available through virtual means, today’s renters seldom have to leave the couch the find new digs.” GlobeSt.com sheds light on the benefits of this equation for both residents and operators alike, describing how Matterport’s VR-enabled property tours allow residents to “virtually tour our homes from anywhere in the world, enabling us to sign leases quicker and giving our new members peace of mind.”
In the same vein, CNET reports how Zillow’s 3D Home feature “lets you step from virtual room to virtual room as you’re shopping online.” CNET writer Stephen Shankland makes clear: “virtual reality has limited mainstream appeal, even among gamers, but it still holds potential for when you want to be transported to a different realm.” Shankland also chronicles how easy it is for multifamily staffers to make this experience possible for renters, explaining: “real estate agents can capture the imagery using an iPhone or Ricoh’s 360-degree cameras like the Theta V and Theta Z1.”
Interestingly, RoOomy’s offerings takes things a step further — Instagram style. Forbes explains how, in the company’s virtual staged models, potential renters can “shop while touring, clicking on furnishings and products they like during the tour.” Forbes breaks down why the upsides are so well-suited for a digital era: “everything seen in the vignettes can be bought, investing the experience with a greater sense of interactivity.”
Finally, when renters do reach a property for a tour, a whole different set of leasing tech products can help them experience the community at their convenience. Bisnow describes how a new partnership between Rently and Engrain allows prospective renters “to use Rently’s Lockboxes, Smart Locks and Smart Homes to tour apartments autonomously on their own schedules.”
From there, would-be renters can soak up a wide range of information through Engrain’s TouchTour iPad application, which can “guide prospective tenants around the home and give them access to apartment details, including floor plans, photos and amenities.” With help from Engrain’s SightMap app, interested renters could simultaneously seek out other information, including unit availability and pricing.”
Just as Engrain Director of Marketing Allison Pulaski stressed the benefits of “self-service,” Tour24 CEO Georgianna W. Oliver argues: “regarding the next generation of renters, providing self-service is the next big trend in multifamily.” Oliver adds: “in order to satisfy this demographic, multifamily communities are beginning to understand that cutting edge tech amenities are no longer ‘nice to haves’, but essential to the lifecycle of today’s renters.”
Still, compelling tech products aren’t enough on their own, as the multifamily industry remains inherently people-focused. Thus, it’s helpful to understand just how you and your team can pair quality tech with top-notch marketing and customer service.
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Coupling tech with top-notch service: leasing tour strategies.
Multifamily Insiders makes clear: “a prospect’s arrival experience begins before they set foot in the leasing office.” The author argues that “clear and sufficient signage” should seamlessly guide would-be renters to the leasing office, and that “a visitor should never have any doubt about where to park and where to go.”
But a sense of directionality isn’t all that multifamily operators should provide. Forbes’ Real Estate Council conjures up a powerful visual: “Whether the prospective renter is visiting the property website, looking at Instagram posts, being greeted by the leasing team, smelling the signature scent of the lobby or selecting a snack from the model unit kitchen, it is critical that everything connects and reflects the same messaging, tone and other brand characteristics.”
Above all, Forbes’ Real Estate Council advocates for an open dialogue between marketing and leasing teams, stressing: “the leasing team needs to understand why branding choices were made, and the marketing team should share the process that was taken to develop the branding and how that connects back to the property.”
In Multihousing News, marketing specialist Leah Brewer also touches on why a thoughtful marketing effort like this can make renters feel empowered by the time they reach a property. In a digital age, Brewer agrees it’s best to “give customers the ability to control their journey and handle most of the process themselves before having to reach out to a leasing consultant.” Ultimately, Multihousing News argues this kind of “self-service” backdrop elevates the leasing tour experience for both agents and renters, as “by the time you connect in person, it should feel like the next step in an existing relationship — not a cold introduction.”
Once the leasing tour gets underway, Multifamily Insiders author Karen Gladney argues that “prospects want to have authentic, natural conversations with leasing agents.” That means conversations with an organic flow — not a push toward pricing. Additionally, Gladney warns that even if they’ve “just been grilled by their regional manager,” leasing agents should always come off as warm and friendly.
With so many multifamily operators competing for their interest, prospects expect a “frictionless experience,” according to Gladney. She stresses that if prospects have already been on the phone with an agent and provided “all sorts of information, about things like their pets and the size of apartment they’re looking for,” it’s a must that the agent they meet in-person looks it all up (instead of requesting it again).
Multihousing News, meanwhile, shares a more positive lens on leasing tours — through insights from Wendy Dorchester, VP of Operations at Pegasus Residential. Dorchester suggests leasing tours are a chance to prove that “each property has a personality.” Thus, she recommends “doing something different on a tour — such as offering cocktails or mocktails and snacks” to really stand out from the pack. In a digital age where Dorchester acknowledges mobile technology can be “vital” to some communities, she’s convinced “the days of stuffiness, starchy collars and pearls are over” as well.
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By incorporating cutting-edge leasing tech into their tour experiences, multifamily operators can find powerful ways to reduce costs, boost convenience, and, most importantly, differentiate themselves from competitors. With the many benefits of leasing tech at their disposal, operators can now focus their attention on the people-to-people interactions at the heart of the multifamily industry.