3 Factors That Create Exceptional Student Housing
Alex Monreal of GMH Communities shares tips on how to create an authentic living experience for these residents.
Well over two years into the pandemic, today’s students have demonstrated resiliency and adapted to an ever-changing learning landscape of in-person, virtual and hybrid. This evolving classroom format has led to a shift in priorities when it comes to student housing, too. Before the pandemic, students were chasing shiny new builds on campus with a focus on modern amenities and bed-bath parity. Now, there appears to be less focus on the bells and whistles (though still important) and more attention on taking time to find a place that feels safe, comfortable, and offers a sense of community—most importantly, in an authentic way.
However, creating authentic living communities is often easier said than done. The first, and most critical, step: understanding your target audience.
Establishing a deeper knowledge of your target audience allows brands to be less reactive in their planning decisions and develop a more strategic approach across multiple facets of the development. Here are three factors that play a vital role in creating a successful and authentic student housing community.
It’s all in the details
Student housing owners and developers must continue to be strategic when it comes to acquiring or developing a new project. There will always be a need to dive into the market and uncover the campus culture, but operators need an approach that delivers student communities with the amenities and features residents really want and need—creating an open two-way conversation and listening.
Before committing to any student housing project, developers need to collect first-hand accounts of what the market needs through research and focus groups. For example, The Dean Reno, a GMH project slated for 2023, will begin online focus groups three months prior to launching a leasing landing page, rather than creating a full-scale website. In doing so, developers will achieve maximum occupancy, rental income and a true buy-in to the property. In taking in the needs of target audiences, GMH re-evaluates FF&E, pricing models, unit layout and resident programming to ensure the project is being built with the university’s students in mind rather than trending development packages. The goal isn’t to solely sell a product out of the gate, online surveying and a strong on-site team will create an open dialogue with target audiences and deliver more than the status quo, creating buzz around a new experience rather than a new apartment complex. Understanding your audience’s needs at a more granular, consumer level helps developers anticipate future needs and market trends—keeping one step ahead of our competition every single time.
It’s how you market your community
There’s a tendency in student housing to be reactive when it comes to marketing. But to differentiate from competitors, you have to be smart with your marketing spend and time, and market in a way that reflects your brand and target audience.
Focus less on the out-house experience and more on the in-house. When someone walks through the door of your community, what do you want them to feel? You want them to not only be amazed by what they see but also by the service and interactions they experience. Get to know the prospect, what’s important to them, and connect with them human-to-human to ensure the living experience they’re seeking matches what you’re promising. Whether you’re in student, conventional or senior living, it’s critical to evoke emotion and build an experience that matches your resident’s lifestyle. If you’re still limiting in-person exposure, you can still achieve this same level of engagement digitally through Zoom, FaceTime, calls, texting and email. On social media, find unique ways to interact with your audience through giveaways and micro influencers that are just as passionate about the university and student body– but take extra care that they are completely aligned with your community’s brand and values.
It’s about the people who work there
One key takeaway I’ve carried with me throughout my career is that regardless of amenities or how modern a building is, it will not attract or retain residents if every site employee does not love what they do. This goes beyond the day-to-day, and it starts at the top. The people behind the product will always be the most important. Management must set a positive and passionate tone that trickles down to employees at every level to create a safe and welcoming environment for their residents. In the end, authentic people make authentic properties.
The pandemic has affected the industry in so many ways, but when it comes to what students want and need, it is apparent they desire consistency now more than ever. When you have a steady, strong management team, with familiar faces that students can rely on, it really makes a difference.
You must put yourself in their shoes. Ask yourself, “How can I create a home away from home for these students?” Students want to know who’s running their building, if they are safe, whether common spaces and amenities have been disinfected, and who is at the front desk. To gain this trust, you must go that extra mile, almost like their parents would—organize safe social gatherings, be a resource, host relevant activities outside of breakfast at the gate, and so forth.
One thing is for certain—like many other industries, student housing will forever be changed by the pandemic. But college students will continue to crave on- or near-campus experiences to fulfill this major life milestone before they start full-time careers post-graduation. To compete, student housing operators and developers need to continue to find ways to set their communities apart but must do so authentically if they want to capture this important audience and ultimately achieve higher rents and ancillary income. We must stop focusing on what we as a company envision for our communities and prioritize what our students need and ultimately want. We experience different seasons in our life, and the college years are pivotal for finding one’s identity, making memories that will last a lifetime and creating relationships to propel one’s trajectory. All these things happen inside your community. It’s a privilege and our responsibility to ensure they are finding more value out of their living than just four walls and a roof over their head.
Alex Monreal is the National Director of Leasing responsible for growing GMH Communities’ leasing department and spearheading the leasing efforts across all three verticals of GMH Communities to ensure GMH is optimizing revenues through effective rate modeling, marketing plans and strategic leasing initiatives. She works closely with the Operations and Marketing teams to manage brand reputation, establish exclusive company, University, and market partnerships, all while making sure GMH’s assets stand out amongst its competitors.