Taking on Design, Marketing Challenges in Student Housing

A National Apartment Association conference reveals how five-star service and selfie spaces are changing the industry.
Erin Mahone, National Director of Hospitality and Resident Relations, Campus Life & Style. Image courtesy of Greg Isaacson

The student housing industry is laser focused on the question of how to lure the next generation of college students to private, off-campus accommodation, as many investors and developers in the space grapple with concerns about weakening enrollment growth and oversupply in secondary markets. 

It’s no surprise, then, that student housing providers are sweating over the details of design and marketing to give their properties a competitive edge. “That kind of bedroom-in-a-box, dorm-in-a-bag—this is definitely not the generation that reacts favorably to that,” said Chelsea Dora-Shibley, vice president of interior design at HPA Design Group in a recent panel discussion. 


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“When you’re designing a space for Gen Z, it’s kind of a balancing act, because you want to satisfy all the needs of Generation Z, but also you need to appeal to the parents,” said James Kenner, Senior Director of Design at Greystar, on the same stage on at the National Apartment Association (NAA)’s CampusConnex conference in New Orleans. “In a lot of these places, we’re finding the parents are still footing the bill.”

The design maven at the country’s second-largest owner and manager of student housing noted that the sensitive needs of today’s young scholars have become an important factor in things like furniture selection. “This table may have come from their grandmother,” he said. “They want this particular sofa because it’s so very comfortable.”

Working hard, in style

Selfie space at a Greystar student housing community. Image courtesy of Greg Isaacson

Findings from HPA’s recent canvassing of roughly 1,500 college and university students nationwide backed up that picture of a finicky generation. For example, 53 percent of students considered on-trend furniture to be “important” and another 19 percent deemed it “very important.”

On the other hand, today’s students haven’t forgotten why they’re in college in the first place. The desk was the single most important piece of furniture on students’ wish lists (aside from beds), requested by 82 percent of survey respondents.

Dora-Shibley said that HPA is incorporating more interactive artwork into its designs, especially in common areas, as well as smart home integration and embedded charging stations. Kenner weighed in on the importance of semi-private study spaces, safe pick-up spots for ride-sharing apps and green spaces or courtyards. 

A five-star experience

Service has become another key consideration for student housing communities. Elsewhere at CampusConnex, Erin Mahone, national director of hospitality and resident relations at Campus Life & Style (CLS), spoke about how the company partnered with Forbes Travel Guide’s global training platform to deliver the kind of customer service normally associated with luxury hotels and five-star restaurants.

CLS, part of real estate investment firm Vesper Holdings, manages 30 properties with over 18,000 beds across the country. The company pairs each member of its staff with a Forbes Travel Guide executive trainer to help ensure that residents and their parents receive a hospitality-type experience.

“Really what it’s all about is just being authentic, and those reviews start rolling in,” said Mahone.