Apartmentalize Special Report: Operating a Connected Community

IT, property management and connecting communities were major topics of discussion on the conference's first day.

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Image by Denile Doyle

On the opening day of the National Apartment Association’s Apartmentalize conference, industry leaders shared insights on the evolving property management landscape and how IT infrastructure and centralization can help operators enhance productivity and resident experience.

Today’s residents are more connected than ever before, but residents themselves aren’t always aware of just how dependent they are on these connections. “They don’t realize it until they’re trying to do something and it’s not there,” said Jeffrey Kok, CEO at Aerwave.

The digital divide

Panelists identified a “digital divide” as when Wi-Fi-based applications don’t work for operators or residents, impacting daily life. Property management software, maintenance request software or the Wi-Fi connection itself can all be impacted. “For me, that digital divide is about having constant connectivity to a network anywhere on the property,” said Dave Semyck, vice president of technology services for Equity Residential.

A property should have a strong digital foundation, something that goes beyond Wi-Fi. Being adequately digitized and tech savvy allows for self-guided tours, access control, video surveillance, leak detection and smart thermostats, said Kok. “You need the capability to put in that robust backbone to be able to do all the things you want to do,” added Guntram Weissenberger, president of the Westover Cos. How you achieve this largely depends on the structure of your property.

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High-rise buildings, for example, typically have poor connectivity. When you add smart appliances to these properties, they either can’t connect at all or they can’t stay connected, explained Semyck. Taking these factors into consideration can help operators determine where they should focus and what upgrades to invest in.

Resident-focused approach

Centralization, which has yielded many benefits for on-site management teams, was also a major focus. Benefits include enhancing efficiency, reducing redundant tasks, giving managers more time to spend with residents and standardizing processes and communication across one or multiple communities.

Having the right platform to meet your needs is key. To implement centralization the right way, Veritas took the time to build their own platform. “We had to think about each little piece of the journey,” said David Thomas, director of innovations at Veritas Investments. Veritas relies on centralization for their maintenance teams and customer service roles.

NAA Apartmentialize audience
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Bozzuto uses a hybrid approach and has had success with using centralization across ownership groups for billing and accounting. Accounting managers are one of the centralized positions within the firm. This role doesn’t replace the property manager but rather focuses on all the central tasks and responsibilities. While centralized, the manager is in close communication with residents and leasing agents and is available to be on-site when needed. “Communication is key in this industry,” said Lucretia Kumah, senior vice president at Bozzuto, so managers can also support residents over the phone if any issues arise because they’re trained on the same tasks and processes that leasing agents are trained on.

From leads to customers

The lack of reliable connectivity also makes it more difficult to turn leads into customers and to deliver a seamless experience to your residents. “If you don’t have good Wi-Fi, it’s going to hurt your operation quite frankly,” said Semyck.

Without connectivity, residents can’t submit maintenance requests through a system that automatically creates and assigns work orders to get issues resolved quickly. This should be a frictionless process for residents and should be something they don’t need to worry about. “We’re trying to leverage any type of technology we can so the resident can fully run their home from the palm of their hand,” said Semyck.

Tangible benefits

To keep their maintenance teams operating efficiently, Veritas relies on data from the platform residents use to submit a work order. This data helps the company inform which maintenance technicians are always on time or can resolve more complex issues or are better suited for HVAC replacement jobs, for instance. By tracking that data, including survey response data, the firm can then use those insights to more effectively route technicians where they need to be and align the best person for the job every time. “That really helps the customer,” said Thomas.

In his experience, call centers are not the most effective way to be available to prospects and to respond to them. He thinks the focus needs to be on texting as a communication tool, which can lower response time and improve conversions. Adoption will lead to long-term success, and Veritas is working toward this shift, shared Thomas. “(The industry) isn’t ready for texting yet.”

Apart from impacting the resident experience, connectivity also benefits your bottom line. You’ll also struggle with optimizing your profitability and progressing in your operations. From May to January this year, Equity Residential conducted more than 7,800 tours across 28 properties, which saved $100K in labor hours. “If you have a strong Wi-Fi foundation, your financial returns can be enormous if you start adding benefits,” said Weissenberger. And you also have a stream of ancillary revenue because your residents are willing to pay you for the service rather than paying a third part more money.

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