How to Prepare for a Safe, Successful Peak Rental Season
What property managers should know in order to meet prospective renters' needs after a year like no other.
With the vaccine rollout making prospects more comfortable to begin searching for a new apartment and people going back to work or getting new jobs, the U.S. multifamily market is showing signs of recovery.
The rental season is in full swing, concessions are not that common anymore and optimism levels are sky-high. It goes without saying that this year’s peak rental season is all about safety and the right marketing strategy.
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“The peak season is right now. Hopefully, the market continues this ride and when peak season ends, we should be back to where we were in 2019,” Diana Pittro, executive vice president with RMK Management Corp., told Multi-Housing News. Her company manages more than 6,300 apartment homes across Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin and Minnesota, with foot traffic up 10 percent from 2019.
With everything changing so fast in the industry and the economy gradually reopening, it’s vital for multifamily owners and operators to do their due diligence to make the most of the peak rental season. And when it comes to embracing change and dealing with the unknown, the experience accumulated over the past year will most likely guide them forward, and help them maximize revenues and mitigate vacancies.
One by one, many U.S. cities started lifting several of their COVID-19-related restrictions and taking steps toward resuming normal life—but the danger has not yet completely gone. Social distancing, thorough cleaning processes for common areas, wearing masks and capping the number of people in shared spaces should continue to be the norm across all communities.
James Love, vice president of marketing and brand with Draper and Kramer Inc., said his company is still strictly following government guidelines. “Besides ensuring the safety of our residents and our team, our goal is also to make sure we have coverage for all services on-site, should we need to quarantine staff, so we’ve created staffing plans around different scenarios,” he noted.
And with foot traffic on the rise, being extra careful is essential. At Porte, a 586-unit community in Chicago’s West Loop that opened in June 2020—in the middle of the pandemic—cleanliness is top of mind.
“As we continue to lease up and gain occupancy, it’s very important to ramp up our cleaning schedule and consistently wipe down high touch point areas,” Jennifer Bell, the property’s manager, told MHN.
Getting the staff ready
As multifamily owners and managers prepare for the first full rental season after pandemic-induced lockdowns and restrictions, ensuring their staff is prepared to handle any situation is crucial.
At The Habitat Co., for example, all teams participate in sales, customer service and marketing platforms trainings—an approach that has led to an acceleration in leasing, according to Vice President of Marketing Maureen Vaughn. In addition to tapping third-party professionals who specialize in multifamily training, the company also took on conducting leasing workshops.
“We conduct the workshops in-house and all our leasing consultants and assistant community managers participate, so they feel excited and ready to take on the leasing season,” Vaughn explained.
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However, it takes more than just preparing the staff. Multifamily operators also need to make sure they’re properly staffed to accommodate the influx of prospects and secure as many leases as possible. “It is imperative to prepare in advance as we anticipate our traffic to double during the coming months,” Bell said.
According to Love, hiring and training leasing agents should be an ongoing aspect of preparation, since agents are among the first people future residents meet and interact with.
Emphasizing the digital front door
One of the biggest changes the 2021 peak rental season is adopting is the growing importance of technology in multifamily marketing.
Many operators were slowly but steadily embracing virtual and self-guided tours before the pandemic, but the trend has only accelerated since the onset of the health crisis.
“Before COVID-19, we had all this technology we didn’t need, but then suddenly we needed it. We increased our use of self-guided tours, which are a great convenience to property managers and potential renters. One benefit of preparing for peak season this year is the virus brought us in tune with what tech works for us,” Pittro said.
Apart from self-guided tours, virtual tours have become highly popular and will likely continue to be a preferred way of touring properties until the virus fully subsides. Additionally, both prospects and landlords use them more now not only for safety reasons but also because they are more convenient.
“Just about every apartment community has invested in excellent visual assets, from extensive photo galleries to 360-degree virtual tours of model units, so (prospects) can get a real feel for the building and units before ever stepping foot in the door,” said Ericka Rios, co-founder & director of leasing at brokerage company Downtown Apartment Co.
But now that the infection rate is on a downward trajectory and vaccines are becoming more widely available, the hands-on, face-to-face leasing experience is slowly making a comeback. It’s a matter of renters’ preference, experts agree, so being flexible and offering multiple touring options is vital.
Adjusting marketing strategies
Digital strategies now require a lot of creativity, and marketing teams are working to create a sense of urgency as renters don’t seem to be in a hurry to decide on one apartment or another, according to Bell. Spot specials, weekend promotions and resident referral programs have become popular ways to attract and retain residents.
“Our marketing efforts change weekly. Managers can’t assume the advertising and marketing are working—you can’t sit tight and just rely on the numbers. We have found you need to keep a close eye on all marketing campaigns and efforts, which is more work for the site teams and marketing teams,” Pittro noted.
More work means more time spent online, as more people rely almost entirely on the internet in their apartment search. This saves time for both prospective renters and leasing agents: Prospects don’t have to drive around town anymore to see as many options as they can, while agents only meet in person with prospects who actually enter the leasing office door and are further along in their decision-making process, according to Love.
“I can’t over-emphasize how important the digital front door has become in the leasing process,” he said.
More work also means more back-and-forth emails and messages, which translates to more administrative work, according to Beth Argaman, general manager at 727 West Madison, a 492-unit tower in Chicago, in close vicinity to Porte. “It also means that our digital assets need to be in great shape and abundant,” Argaman noted.
For this year’s peak rental season, besides taking stock of digital tools, Argaman said it’s vital to facilitate quick responses to prospects and residents who need to renew their leases, but also ensure all units and amenity spaces are in good shape.
“These are all foundational to the leasing process, and during peak rental season we need to be able to execute quickly, keep an eye on details and make sure prospects feel welcome,” Argaman said. “If any of these steps are lacking, you could miss out on potential leases.”