This is the first in a series of upcoming interviews with thought leaders in the PropTech space. The series will focus on topics such as: usage of technology in CRE and multifamily property management, internet of things (IoT), smart buildings, HVAC technology, and energy efficiency.
We are excited to introduce Shannon Failla, CEO of SFive consulting. Shannon is an expert in student housing, with over a decade in the industry. She has held on-site through director level positions with firms such as Trinitas Ventures and Cardinal Group Management. Shannon has experience in operations, sales, training, employee development, and project/program management. In this interview, we ask Shannon about usage of proptech in the student housing space, importance of culture, and managing through the pandemic.
Use of technology in student housing communities. Is it important? What types of technology are being utilized? What do you feel are some trending technologies which have not yet picked up steam in the industry?
Even before the pandemic I would have told you that technology in the student housing space isn’t just important, it’s almost mandatory. After adding COVID to the mix, I would change my answer from ‘almost mandatory’ to ‘required’. Gen Z is who we are selling to, and we can’t forget that they’ve had access to new technologies their entire life. They bring unique expectations to the table and if your property isn’t meeting their ‘innovation or safety needs’, you run a high risk of being overlooked. There are so many different types of technology today, and decision makers are asking, “where should I put my capital for the best ROI?”
The most important technologies, especially with the movement to remote learning and work, are high-speed internet and superb Wifi connectivity. If residents have issues connecting or are waiting for web pages to load or videos to buffer, they will lose their patience and think twice before they renew.
The second most important tier of technology in student housing is the “can’t live withouts”; things like Amazon, Netflix, and Venmo. Those popular apps and websites translate to text led package lockers, already installed Smart TVs, and access to apps that let you pay rent, enter service requests and reserve amenities with a click of a button. Many companies have shifted to these technologies and have seen positive results.
An area that is really picking up speed in the industry is “smart building” technology. Self-guided tours are becoming more popular and for a good reason. With self-guided tours, applicants can pick a time that is convenient for them and simply access your model through a programmable keypad or smart lock. The property can set restrictions to who has access, can sync with systems like Alexa, can change passwords after tours and monitor interactions through cameras. This style of touring holds little pressure and will limit the number of human touch points and help the social distancing movement.
Other smart technologies taking off in the space include smartphone controlled door entry, strategically placed USB charging outlets, showerheads with built in bluetooth speakers, and common area audio systems.
Outside of touring, Nest-type thermostats and all-encompassing smartphone remotes will be the norm in the coming years. Residents will want universal controls and algorithms for things like light switches, dishwashers, washing machines and even coffee makers.These technologies are well worth the up front investment because of the huge time and money savings they return in the long run.
COVID. How do you feel the pandemic has affected the student housing industry?
From a high-level view, my takeaways are:
COVID hasn’t negatively impacted leasing or collections like we thought it would.
Many of the big players in the space have reported that they are trending in-line or even ahead of where they were last year in regards to leasing. We are finding that even if students are learning online, they want to be out of their parents basement and around their peers.
Another contributing factor to the recent uptick in leasing is the fact many shared room dorms and communal bathrooms are not meeting COVID guidelines, so students in those housing situations are actually migrating to off-campus apartments that meet social distancing needs.
The days of crammed dorms may be over, which is good news for off-campus operators.
We are seeing more collaboration and open communication between property management companies and universities.
Relationships between off-campus management companies and university housing departments are improving. We are seeing leaders in the space collaborating like we’ve never seen before. Everywhere you look, COOs, CEOs and VPs are sharing thoughts on industry panels and webinars, sharing their leasing and collection data without hesitation and talking budget and staffing strategies as we navigate new waters.
We are going to see joint efforts and gain access to more open forums related to calendar planning, preferred housing and master lease programs. This is an ‘us’ vs. ‘me’ shift and you can tell everyone is proud to be doing what they are doing.
COVID has changed the way we look at staffing.
I’ve asked a few clients what their biggest challenge is right now and they said the same thing: “staffing”.
Companies can do their best to control what is happening while employees are at work but they can’t control what happens outside of the workplace. The reality is that sick employees and COVID-19 are creating temporary, unplanned for vacancies.
Because we can’t control what the next few months will bring, many companies are implementing remote hours, utilizing virtual leasing software and working off of block-type schedules for when in person projects are needed.
How are property managers preparing for the Fall?
Property managers are being proactive when it comes to planning for the Fall. Property management companies are also doing a great job educating their employees, giving direction and sharing resources to help spark change and action. As we prepare for the rest of 2020, areas of focus for the industry are budget planning, touch point planning, and use of new communication techniques.
- Budget planning. Property managers are shifting the way they plan for two of their biggest budget categories: marketing and maintenance. On the marketing side, we are going to see an increase in digital footprint spend and a decrease in event planning (for things like pool parties, events centered around food, bar tabling, etc.). Where you show up in web searches, ILS sites, Instagram and Facebook matters, and you must be willing to plan and spend there. On the maintenance side, the focus will be ensuring communities have enough PPE on hand to keep team members and residents as safe as possible. In the past, you didn’t have to worry about items going out of stock, but it’s a different story now. PPE budgets will be a new focus area so managers will be looking for the best rates, vendors and suppliers. Items that will need to be accounted for this year in bulk capacities are N-95 masks, disinfection foggers, shoe covers, gloves, goggles, hand sanitizer stations and refills, clear shield barriers, social distancing signage and more.
- Touch point planning. One way property managers are planning to slow the spread of illness is by monitoring and controlling the amount of touch points they have with vendors, residents and prospects.
- Companies will pair up with consultants to identify the top traffic areas throughout the community to help monitor areas that will need heightened cleaning and signage.
- Reservation hours will be required for in-person meetings, amenity reservations and for move-out and move-in activities.
- Online payments will be recommended or required in states that allow it.
- Vendors will only be allowed to have one representative in the office at any time. Gone be the days of entire crews coming in to chat, get keys, inspection forms, etc.
- New communication techniques. The way we send messages or make phone calls will be more important than ever before. We will no longer surge energy to door knocks or urge residents to ‘just stop by and chat with us in the office’. Everyone in the industry will need to shift to a more granular and tailored communication mindset. Property teams will need to eliminate the fluff and get down to specific details by clearly answering the 5 W’s behind a message. A few techniques managers are exploring are QR codes for surveys, spreadsheets and articles; Text2 numbers for maintenance follow ups, reservation questions and general community questions; Already existing chat functions or new AI apps for lead to lease questions and answers.
How do student housing communities build culture? Why is culture important?
The value of a healthy workplace culture, especially in the climate we are in now, cannot be overstated. Culture is ultimately the DNA of a company and you can feel it in the air when you walk in a door, hop on a phone call, or visit a website. You either want to be a part of what you feel or you don’t. When culture is strong it’s great but all it takes is one mutation in the chain to cause substantial harm to your reputation.
First, it is important for leaders to understand that experiences related to culture have to start from day one; you can’t just pick it up halfway through someone’s tenure at a company. Interviews and onboarding should be culture and value driven, not only tactically focused. Habits form quickly and it is up to the employer to set culture expectations so they can hold their employees accountable.
Second, you have to actively train, act, speak and host events that focus on your values, using the approved company lingo. The way you treat small events like someone’s first day, their birthday or their work anniversary matters; people remember how those days made them feel. Instead of giving away money, you could buy an experience. If you have an in-person environment: take your team to dinner, take a workout class together, go see a movie, or go to a sporting event (all once approved, of course). If you are moving to a remote culture, small touch points are even more important for increasing engagement. If remote, you can hire experts to teach a cooking or floral arrangement class, send supplies to create a ‘community garden’, or have your team deliver Ted-style talks where they train on a unique expertise they have. Moments and memories build culture, money does not.
Lastly, it’s important to recognize your culture’s champions while also addressing those straying away from your vision. I can’t count how many times I’ve seen an employee act completely out of line in front of their boss with no corrective action or follow up conversation. The bad behavior was accepted, which now makes it an accepted action of the culture. Like we’ve heard many times, “the Culture of any organization is shaped by the worst behavior the leader is willing to tolerate.” Your most loyal will leave if bad behavior isn’t addressed properly.
Learn more about Shannon’s work on the SFive website.