Resident-Focused Websites Help Build Community

In the past several years, resident portals have been embraced by property management firms and time-pressed residents.

Bob Lamb recalls the days after the resident portal was first implemented at Gables Residential. “A resident signed online, and paid his rent through the portal at six o’clock at night,” remembers Lamb, vice president of information technology at the Atlanta-based property management company.

“The next morning he went on to his online banking account, and the money was already drafted and gone. He was accustomed to having a three-day float. He was amazed at the sheer efficiency of the new system.”

Actually, he adds with laugh, “He was more upset than amazed.”

This same experience has surely been repeated nationwide in the past several years, as resident portals have been embraced by property management firms and—the above anecdote notwithstanding—time-pressed residents.

A resident portal refers to a central online location where residents can address renting-related needs, says Lisa Williams, vice president of management systems, Bozzuto Management Company.

“It’s an online web address where they can log in, pay their rent, enter a service request, reserve our club room or a guest suite, find out about community events, and view and obtain lease documents,” Williams adds.

Others offer a somewhat different definition. “I view it as a gateway for our residents into our communities, as well as a means of interacting with the communities on a day-to-day basis,” says Lamb.

Gables’ three-year-old portal was implemented to allow residents to pay rent through electronic fund transfers, request service, view status of work orders and send emails to members of the staff, he adds.

A resident portal is different from a community’s website, in that it is resident- rather than prospect-focused, says Mike Manfred, manager of interactive marketing for AvalonBay, which owns and operates 170 communities, and has had a resident portal for several years.

But there is some crossover, such as information on the closest banks, eateries and other amenities. “Having a map that is centric around the property is important, and should be on both the portal and the Website,” he adds.

Property management companies often see resident portals as a means to achieving specified objectives. At Bozzuto, which is testing, as of press time, new portals at its Mariner Bay Apartments in Annapolis, Md. and Concord Residences in Arlington, Va., the goals range from boosting rental payment through credit card or ETF and making it more convenient for renters to enter and track service requests, to attainment of greater overall resident satisfaction, Williams says. Bozzuto feels a sense of community will result from newsletters and community event listings being posted on the portal, Williams says.

At Gables Residential, the portal is to be redesigned in 2011 as part of an overall refresh of Gables’ Website. “It’s a goal to create more of a landing page into the portal that’s very dynamic, with things like calendars of events at the property and surrounding community,” says spokeswoman Lynette Hegeman.

It will also spotlight company partners like computer equipment suppliers, restaurants and clothing shops, and identity theft protection services, making residents aware of specials or promotions offered by those partners, she says. In addition, links to Facebook and Twitter will be included. “Social networking is a great tool to improve resident engagement in communities,” Hegeman says.

While the portal is currently “a bit of a static system,” an objective is to give it more flexibility, so it can be changed and updated almost weekly, Lamb says. Parts of the system are very difficult to change because of security and protection of confidential information. But other parts of the system, such as the community calendar, should be changed daily, he believes.

Ultimately, the prime function of the portal is to communicate with residents, Lamb says. “One of the biggest interactions is the payment of your rent, which is posted immediately on our accounting system as paid. The benefit from an internal standpoint is that once that payment is made, it’s done. There’s nobody in the office posting it to the ledger; it’s all done automatically. There’s a huge performance gain [resulting from] getting people to use this service.”

At Bozzuto, the goal is to have a portal for all of its approximately 105 properties.  “If the test goes well and as expected, I would imagine it would have pretty good migration during the next 12 months,” Williams says. Features are to be added over the next year that will streamline the concierge service, including package delivery, drying cleaning and other services, she adds.

Right now, residents primarily access portals through their computers, Manfred says. “Acknowledging that a high percentage of new cell phones are Smartphones, the next thing for resident portals is to allow residents to be mobile as they make rent payments or submit service requests,” he says.

Williams observes there’s really nothing about portals that falls under the heading of bells and whistles. Instead, what truly stands out is “the convenience we can offer through the portal,” she says.

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