MHN Interview: Campus Apartments’ Miles Orth

MHN catches up with Miles Orth, EVP and COO at Campus Apartments, for details on the firm's new tech-forward leasing and roommate selection practices for student housing. Conventional multifamily developers and managers might want to take notes.

By Joshua Ayers, Senior Editor


Miles Orth, EVP & COO, Campus Apartments

Campus Apartments recently rolled out its new product Smart.Lease, a lead-to-lease platform for student housing, across all of its student housing properties. In addition to the new platform, the company has partnered with RoomSync, a smartphone and Facebook application that helps students select their roommates, to complement the company’s software offerings.

MHN talks to Campus Apartments’ Miles Orth, executive vice president and COO to discuss the differences in student housing and conventional multifamily housing, as well as how technology that Campus Apartments is using now could be the future of normal in multifamily property management service.

MHN: How many properties does Campus Apartments own and manage and where are those communities located?

We operate in 24 states and we have 64 properties in our portfolio.

MHN: What are some of the challenges for property managers in terms of managing student housing as opposed to traditional multifamily housing?

That’s a great question. We think that it’s more intense.  If you think about it, in our world, in the student housing world, we have multiple stakeholders and customers.  You have the residents who are signing the lease. You have mom and/or dad who are guaranteeing the lease, and you have the university as a customer. The students that live at your property attend their university so they tend to be very aware and concerned about their students living off-campus. That’s a relationship that’s important. There are really three important customers that a manager has, whereas in a conventional multifamily world, it’s the manager and the lease-holder.  It’s sort of a one-on-one relationship. It’s different in that regard in terms of the expectations of each of the customers that we deal with.

MHN: Why would you say it’s important for companies to embrace mobile options and other automated or on-demand services and how does that help with student housing?

Students that live at our properties graduate and then go on and become the residents and lease holders at conventional multifamily properties.  In a very real way, the residents at Equity Residential or Archstone or wherever the case may be, their tenants used to be our tenants.  The residents that live at our properties have an expectation of everything being real time and everything being online. As an example, they want to be able to apply online, to qualify online, they want to be able to lease online. Once they are residents, they want to be able to pay online, they want to be able to get their work orders or service requests online, and they want to communicate with our staff at the property online.

What we found is that there aren’t a lot of off-the-shelf products that work and meet the expectations that we have and that our customers have, and so we’ve had to design software to meet the expectations and the needs of our customers and our managers. And those customers graduate and move on to become residents living in conventional multifamily, which is why I think a lot of conventional multifamily operators are paying attention to what student housing companies are doing with partnerships like RoomSync or other online platforms.

You guys recently deployed the Smart.Lease platform. Can you tell me a little bit about the product and what differentiates it from similar products out there for student housing?

We ended up designing our own with a team of technology wizards that work for us. They write the code and are excellent in terms of being able to develop software. We explored the offerings that were off-the-shelf that we could buy. We found that they were marginally designed around conventional apartments or maybe even designed around other applications that would be morphed into multifamily or apartment product. We were more comfortable designing something that was going to work specifically for student housing and specifically for our needs, which is ultimately what we ended up working to do.

We’ve been testing it for some time, it took some time to design it and test it, and now it’s fully rolled out at all of our communities. All of our residents are applying online, are qualifying online and leasing online. We think it’s been successful. In terms of when you’re rolling something out, you don’t always know immediately if there’s a hiccup, but when you have the opportunity to find a hiccup, you can fix that. But you don’t always know, it takes some time.  Our system integrates with our property management software and it helps us get to the next level of online services.

Some of that other software you’re talking about, would that be Smart.Click? Is that a portal type of product?

Yes. Smart.Click is our portal for our residents.  It can also be a portal for their mom or dad. Often times the student finds the place to live and their mom or dad are approving it and paying the rent. So the parents or the student can go on and pay their rent, renew their lease, or file requests that say ‘my sink has an issue’ or ‘my toilet is overflowing’. It’s their access real-time, 24-7 to our staff and then we can respond.  So if they submit a work order for some need in the apartment they get an automated response with a ticket number and then our team gets an order and they have a certain amount of time to respond and to address that need.

Campus Apartments recently partnered with RoomSync to incorporate that company’s app into Campus Apartments’ software offerings. Can you tell me a little bit about how that works?

That is a great example of where we were able to find a company that was already matching the software system that was better than something that we could design or more quickly able to deploy. In many instances when we lease to students — let’s say it’s a four-bedroom apartment and the student comes by their self — they will still need to be matched with three other people. The RoomSync software uses Facebook and social media to query me on specific desires and interests. Things that pertain to me such as am I a smoker, what are my hours in terms of am I an early riser, do I stay up late? So they ask very specific questions that yields a list of people from which I can choose a roommate. We found that their software and their system was excellent and it could integrate with our online leasing platform and it could also use Facebook, which is so ubiquitous. It’s faster and cooler than anything our team could take the time to design, so that was an example of how we could outsource that and use their system.

There are some elements that our web-tech team is working on with RoomSync to offer so that their API better integrates with our proprietary system, and our team is helping them do that so we’ll end up with a better product offering in the end. We love what they do and they’re very creative people and we thought it was going to be a good match in terms of creating really a concierge service when you’re doing the leasing so that it’s online. At the same time it’s very customer friendly, resident focused and it uses pretty cool social media tools to be able to help match people who are also looking at apartments to lease.

Is there anything else you want to add about Campus Apartments’ services or Gen Y renters?

I’m on the NMHC board and the Apartment Association board and when I talk to owners of conventional apartments, I think the owners that are with it understand that residents of student housing properties are going to be part of their future and so they’re very interested in what we’re doing. We’re always trying to find an edge and meet a need. And what’s cool about our customers, a college student customer— sort of the 18 to 22 year olds on the undergraduate level and graduate students that could be up to 40 or 50— is that they’re inquisitive, they ask a lot of questions and they are very technology savvy. They’re forcing us to stay on the cutting edge. It’s fun. It’s practical. There’s so many ways to use technology tools to meet the needs and expectation that our customer has and it also helps us from a management standpoint to get to the next level.

I just think it’s really cool that the use of technology in property management operations is happening in our industry and that it’s fundamentally transforming things. Our customer today is tomorrow’s multifamily customers. There are so many things they can learn from us and this is an example of it.

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