Managing Student Housing Communities Now and Beyond

On the last day of the NMHC/InterFace Student Housing conference, a panel of industry executives shared their strategies during the pandemic and how to prepare for the future.

(Clockwise from top left) Rand Ginsburg, Bob Clark, Julie Bonnin, Jennifer Beese, Eddie Moreno.

In the student housing world, 2020 will largely be remembered as the year of operations and management being in the forefront. And every day of the past seven months brought new challenges, situations or issues.

On the last day of the NMHC & InterFace Student Housing Conference, a group of student housing executives discussed management and operations strategies during COVID-19, overcoming challenges and preparing for the future in a panel moderated by Bob Clark, CEO of Peak Campus. The panelists were Julie Bonnin, COO for Asset Living; Rand Ginsburg, senior vice president of Asset Services at GMH Capital Partners; Jennifer Beese, executive vice president & COO at American Campus Communities; and Eddie Moreno, executive vice president for Cardinal Group Management.

Unique Situation

Business was not as usual from the onset of the pandemic in mid-March to the end of the 2020 leasing season in August, the panelists agreed. “There was no blueprint for this. I think that, while we all likely had emergency response plans … managing through a pandemic that affected everybody—not only inside the four walls of their offices, but in their homes and personal lives—was significant,” Moreno said.

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Despite the uncertainties, collections remained high across most portfolios and markets. The management and operations teams bonded together closer than ever before and collaborated well to come up with new processes and procedures and to effectively communicate all the changes with the residents, Bonnin noted. “As industry leaders, we recognized that this was a very unique situation … We got together on weekly phone calls to discuss best practices,” she added. And constantly sharing information was extremely helpful, both at the corporate level and when communicating with residents.

Communication Is Key

One of the biggest challenges for student housing leaders through the past seven months was the fact that requirements and restrictions were different from market to market, which sometimes made it difficult for property staff to keep up with different restrictions and handle day-to-day operations. “FaceTime tours became very helpful to make sure we were doing the right thing at all of our assets, but it was very difficult,” Beese said.

Developing protocols and processes that scaled nationally but addressed local concerns was another challenge across the board, according to Moreno. “Our team focused on humility, frequency of communication and as much transparency as we could have in those early days … as we were trying to put a plan together and deploy it nationally and then within each market,” he said.

Communication was also crucial throughout the move-in process and helped retain a good relationship with the customers, the panelists agreed. “We learned very quickly that over-communicating was probably better than not having any kind of communication,” Bonnin noted, adding that her company formulated new processes that were effectively communicated to the residents and the guarantors through e-mail blasts, hosted virtual town hall meetings with residents and vendors alike—thus setting the expectations for the new no-contact move-out process—and, most importantly, gave the residents the opportunity to ask questions.

Building Communities in Pandemic Times

Building social communities in a COVID-19 world is a collective effort and taking resident surveys proved to be a helpful tool in managing the crisis. For example, Cardinal Group Management execs found that the virtual learning experience was not popular among students: “ … having their social experience upended without them having chosen that is difficult,” Moreno said. As a response, the company established a virtual amenity platform to host national events that allow residents and staff to interact with each other.

Similarly, ACC partnered with Hi, How Are You—a platform for conversations and education on mental well-being—and sent out surveys to all of their residents (totaling about 12,000 participants) across all portfolios. One of the questions ACC asked in those surveys was “While learning remotely, what have you missed most about your university experience?”—and the top three answers were: Socializing with friends, in-class instruction and attending events on- and off-campus, Beese noted. With the help of technology, ACC got creative and implemented an array of virtual events that helped residents to interact not only within their community but across markets, from Ohio to Texas. “Virtual is the way to go,” Beese said.

Preparing for the Future

In the last seven months, most student housing operators implemented various permanent changes to prepare for the future. One of the top changes is the no contact move-in and move-out procedure, which alleviates the stress among both existing and prospective residents, Bonnin said.

In Ginsburg’s opinion, flexibility is crucial. For example, when in-person property tours can’t be done, virtual tours come in handy. “Realizing how much of our business can be done virtually is something that we really have to embrace and carry forward,” he said.

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For portfolio teams, doing business online will slow down the amount of traveling that was being done between markets. “The understanding that we can effectuate change and positive performance, albeit not onsite, may be something that we’ll see (in the future) and the idea of having the time to think strategically will have a bigger value on it,” Moreno noted. Furthermore, some aspects of traditional marketing will have to be changed permanently. “Our focus has been social and digital and it’s working,” Beese said.

And on the maintenance side, instead of completing every non-emergency work order, ACC created a media library of maintenance videos for the residents to help them understand how to deal with minor issues—such as replacing a light bulb—that can be fixed easily and without a maintenance request.

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