A New Generation of Portals Helps Residents Connect

Some say the growing use of resident portals is ushering in a more impersonal era. Not so, argue property managers who have embraced, and are now enhancing, resident portals.

Some have said the growing use of resident portals at rental communities is ushering in a new, more impersonal era. Gone are the days, they lament, when residents and the management team got to know each other face-to-face.

Not so, argue property managers who have embraced, and are now enhancing, resident portals. The portals are freeing on-site managers to better serve residents, and at the same time actually helping bring neighbors together around shared hobbies and interests, strengthening their ties to the community.

One thing’s for sure: Portals are important to apartment residents, says David S. Smith, chief operating officer at Kingsley Associates, a San Francisco-based real estate research and consulting firm.

Over the past few years, the company’s research indicates substantial growth in residents reporting they have used a portal system. In 2008, roughly 59 percent of residents reported using a portal. This number increased to 68 percent in 2009 and 71 percent in 2010. Further, Kingsley Associates found, of those residents who utilize their portal systems, about 60 percent report accessing it on at least a monthly basis.

As for the features residents most valued, electronic rent payment and maintenance request submittals were numbers one and two in popularity, according to Kingsley Associates. Among residents using a portal, the percentage using it for rent payment grew from 75 percent to 80 percent from 2009 to 2010, and those using it for maintenance requests grew from about 40 percent to 50 percent in the same period.

Asked what priority they placed on being able to accomplish different tasks over a portal, renters again named electronic rent payments and requests for maintenance as numbers one and two, Kingsley Associates found. These were followed by accessing community events/neighborhood information and directly contacting or obtaining contact information for the management office.

At Arlington, Va.-based AvalonBay Communities, a developer and manager of 170 apartment communities nationwide, Vice President of Marketing Kevin Thompson confirms that residents value being able to make rent payments and service requests through a portal. But, for residents, just gaining these services isn’t enough.

“They’re looking for more transparency,” Thompson says. “In the old days, you might send in your maintenance request and get an automatic email response. They’re asking for more. They want to see when we received the request, and what its status is. They want transparency, and that’s not always easy to deliver, given the volume of requests that come [in].”

Kingsley Associates found that after rent payment and service requests, residents most want portals to help enhance their social lives. Residents are seeking more chances to socialize both within and outside of the community.

“Social pages provide opportunity to push information out, to engage with residents on their questions or comments, and to have residents engage with one another,” Thompson says. “They might have items like furniture for sale and use these pages for a kind of classified ad within the community. They might also use them to meet like-minded people in the community.”

The same trend has been observed at UDR, the Highlands Ranch, Colo.-based company with more than 59,000 apartments. Vice President of Property Operations Elaine Williams reports that UDR is moving into its next generation of resident portals. Earlier iterations were about making tasks easy and convenient for residents, she says. With the latest generation portal, it’s the act of meeting neighbors and making friends that will grow simpler.

Through the portal, residents can learn of—and make plans to join like-minded people for—outings such as Thursday night classic movie screenings, regularly scheduled wine tastings and running club meetings, Williams says.

“The customers are the ones who choose what to participate in,” she adds. “They make new friends based on what they like. They’re creating these social connections themselves. That’s very powerful, because they’re forging friendships that make it difficult for them to leave the community.”

While resident portals may reduce the personal, face-to-face interactions that once marked resident-manager relationships, they paradoxically may actually be generating more old-fashioned human contact with neighbors, Williams says. “What we’re trying to do is build a better sense of community and help residents feel more connected to their neighbors,” she remarks.

“At the same time, our team is able to give residents better service, and services they value, like concierge services. Through technology, we’re able to meet those customers’ needs more effectively, because we have the time to focus on them. We’re not focusing on paperwork; we’re focusing on selling to our customers and giving them features and benefits they desire.”

As for Thompson, he stresses that the opportunity for human interaction hasn’t evaporated. “If they need a face-to-face transaction, it’s just a click or call away,” he says. “And with us, it’s just a door away. We’re still staffing a leasing office, and they’re welcome to come in at any time.”

To comment on this story, e-mail Erika Schnitzer at [email protected]

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