Standing Out in a Sea of Sameness With Cortland

Executive Vice President of Marketing Tim Hermeling on the the health crisis and the company's plans for the rest of 2021.
Tim Hermeling, Executive Vice President of Marketing, Cortland. Image courtesy of Cortland

Cortland is one of the multifamily market’s giants, with the company now managing more than 60,000 units across the U.S. The firm is involved in development, design, construction, renovation, operations and management functions to ensure hospitality-inspired living experiences for its residents.

Founded in 2005, Cortland is a two-time survivor of economic downturns. Even though we’re not out of the woods of the current distress yet, with vaccines available and companies announcing a type of return to a more social way of doing business, the waters are somewhat calmer.

During this time—which hopefully is more than just one of the pandemic’s intermezzos—Multi-Housing News approached Cortland’s executive vice president of marketing, Tim Hermeling, to discuss his take on the health crisis and what’s next for the industry.

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How has work life in the virtual environment been for management and employees?

Hermeling: After the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, we learned quickly to adapt to this new environment by finding creative ways to work collaboratively to serve our residents and achieve our goals. Our teams remained on-site to serve our residents safely and consistently throughout the pandemic.

What key lessons did Cortland learn from the pandemic?

Hermeling: This was something we knew, but the pandemic reinforced the importance of ongoing communication with our residents. We typically communicated with them about resident events and other key operational things, but during the pandemic—when there really was no ability to have face-to-face discussions and people were secluded—communication was even more important.

We made sure to keep residents updated about any changes in our operating procedures, including how we were making a safe living environment through our sanitary procedures, whether the office was open, and how they could access the office. Having ongoing communications with our residents and having that open dialogue with them became even more important or affirmed the importance of that. That’s something we took very seriously.How did the health crisis impact retention and leasing across your portfolio?

Hermeling: A lot of people chose not to move during the lockdown. As such, fewer people were looking to move for obvious reasons. However, the people who were looking for a new home were more committed to finding something—they were more serious shoppers.

While our associates continued to staff our community offices, these were closed—except for emergency issues—for the safety of our residents, prospects and associates. Therefore, we had to pivot quickly and create a new touring and leasing experience that was predominantly, and sometimes entirely, digital. We had to find ways to create virtual touring and deliver content that made people feel confident in leasing in an environment where you couldn’t physically come in for a tour.

Our solution was to offer live video tours using mobile phone applications and provide more virtual video tours of our available apartment homes so that prospective residents could see and virtually experience their future homes.

We also began testing self-guided tours. In our industry, there’s been a lot of discussion about self-guided tours. The pandemic has forced us to get to self-guided tours as an industry more quickly than we maybe otherwise would have.

While people are now going back to the traditional, in-person tours, live video touring has now become a permanent option for prospects. It allows people to tour based on their personal preference.

Your growth strategy for 2019 included a focus on suburban areas, which boded perfectly with the trends induced by the virus. How has the health crisis affected your planning?

Hermeling: 2020 reaffirmed our investment strategy as people fled to the suburbs. Because we were already well established in those markets, we were well positioned to immediately serve resident needs.

Our focus has always been to be near the areas where people aspire to live. Cortland’s brand focus is about offering residents locational access, plus all the contemporary amenities and furnishings they seek, at an attractive price.

At the core, community amenities encourage social interaction, but the pandemic came with strict social distancing measures. How did you solve this issue?

Hermeling: We followed the CDC’s guidelines for safe social distancing, which unfortunately meant we had to close many of our amenities for a while. However, it was extremely important to find ways to foster a sense of community, so we got creative. Throughout the year, we found different ways for our residents to connect with us and each other, including live, virtual fitness classes; virtual events, such as cooking, mixology and painting; holiday events with treats delivered to residents’ doors; and resident contests through social media, such as talent, pet of the month and décor.

How important are ESG practices in the company’s investment strategy?

Hermeling: Cortland is committed to enhancing our ESG practices so much so that we’ve established a sustainability team whose sole focus is to find opportunities for us to improve our ESG practices wherever possible.

At present, all business plans for asset renovations and repositioning will identify capital improvements related to ESG initiatives, including the reduction of energy, water and waste consumption through the use of Energy Star appliance upgrades, low-flow fixtures, utility billing management and energy-conservation measures.

As Cortland builds its ESG policies and programs, we intend to continue to investigate best practices, both corporately and at the asset level, to better address sustainability opportunities. Our ultimate goal is to continually evolve our ESG programs and goals.

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Halfway through 2021, what’s next for Cortland?

Hermeling: We are continuing to look for opportunities to grow our brand as we continue to differentiate ourselves from our competition. So far, this year has been robust, with the opportunity for us to grow our brand footprint. We are building great awareness of who Cortland is and what our value proposition is.

Secondly, we are providing options to people no matter where they work or play. It allows us to differentiate ourselves in a commoditized market where there’s a sea of sameness. We can tell our story and allow people to more easily understand why Cortland is the right solution for them no matter where they’re located in our markets.