In November, NMHC virtually hosted OPTECH 2020 Conference & Exposition. In a year where everyone has had to scramble to adjust to the changes, OPTECH was a space to discuss what has worked, what hasn’t, and where multifamily technology and operations are headed. The online platform made it possible for OPTECH to feature more sessions than it could have in-person. There was a good variety of content and lots of discussion about the unknowns of the future of multifamily. Here are our eight main takeaways from the conference.
1. The NMHC/One11 Advisors Apartment Industry Technology Report
The first of its kind, the Apartment Industry Technology Report included responses from 46 NMHC companies (representing over 1.3 million apartment units). NMHC and One11 Advisors teamed up to fill the gap of information on technology-related topics, challenges, and future opportunities. A 50-minute panel discussion went over the findings of the report which set a baseline for future reports on technology in multifamily. Company size seemed to influence the results, so as a result, responses in the survey were sorted and displayed by portfolio size. The panel went over the findings on the roles of I.T. in companies, cybersecurity, whether or not companies have a Technology & Innovation Steering Committee, and Property Management Systems satisfaction/concern. The highest satisfaction in PMS’s was product performance/upkeep and account manager. The highest challenge areas were integration with other applications and integration. Some other challenges at the top of the list were ongoing fees and customer service. Margette Hepfner, COO - Residential Management for Lincoln Property Company said when it comes to approaching challenges, “we could all learn from being a customer-focused company.” She said if the tech companies they work with could approach challenges from the perspective of customer service, that a lot of the challenges could be mitigated.
2. Adapting to and preparing for the unknown with new technologies
Almost every session, if not all, had to address the looming fact that COVID-19 has created unknowns across the board. Gen Zers have moved back home this year, community events meant to bring people together have been canceled, amenities have been closed, and so on. Nobody can predict when things will go back to “normal” or to what extent they will. Luckily, there are so many solutions that have emerged this year to keep multifamily operations running smoothly and hopefully improve in the long run. The Opening Pitches were filled with exciting new products and services. Among those new technologies were releases like Boingo Wireless’ WiFi for multifamily and Luminous’ new product: Community Boss. Community Boss is an interactive hub for shared community spaces. It integrates with any geospatial platform or tool and pulls together Parking Boss and Amenity Boss in an interactive map that brings the community to life for prospective and current residents. Residents can virtually tour a community, book amenity time, register guest parking, and connect with their communities in a whole new way.
3. New tech requires new skills
Cody Hamblin, Director of Consumer sales for CenturyLink shared his top 5 pandemic takeaways in an OPTECH Express session. Like other presenters throughout the week, he recognized the fact that nobody saw this year coming, and emphasized the importance of proactively keeping up with changes. In this new, mostly touchless territory, the status quo doesn’t cut it like it once did. With so much new technology becoming available to fill the gaps of customer service, businesses and employees have to learn how to engage with customers virtually while still maintaining the personal touch multifamily has always had. The tech world is moving quickly, and it’s up to each person to adapt.
4. QR Codes have found their place
The need for contactless communication has skyrocketed, and the existing technology of QR codes made it possible. As Cody Hamblin said in his quick take, “Crisis has a way of making these opportunities present themselves.” They’re in restaurants, churches, businesses, and as communities develop more contactless/virtual tours, they can be strategically placed to offer information leasing agents would share if they were there.
5. High tech and high touch
The multifamily industry is a high-touch business that isn’t historically considered high-tech. The trick for everyone right now is minimizing human contact for high-touch experiences through the use of technology. One session was posed as a debate between high tech vs. high touch apartments. The co-founders of Knock and Realync were given the chance to make their cases for what residents want from their communities but ended up in agreement that high tech is high touch. They shared a survey result stating that ⅔ of customers would say no to a transaction if the experience wasn’t personalized for them. With trustworthy, tech-enabled data, managers are able to make better decisions and improve their NOI. Improved tech can create a high-touch experience when managers are paying attention to their customers’ needs and wants. They advised companies to listen to their teams who are listening to their customers.
6. Future tech for healthier buildings
Companies like Fetch Robotics have helped to create robotic disinfecting machines to keep communities healthy. We’ve been warned that this isn’t the last virus to create a pandemic, but when it does happen again, preparedness is key. The disinfecting robots are able to autonomously travel around spaces to disinfect. The discussions also included using software to collect data on the health of HVAC systems and different technologies to push through the systems to improve air quality.
7. The future is virtual
Paper checks are a thing of the past in most industries except multifamily, but the time has come for that to change, along with lots of other upgrades. The key is to meet customers where they are, and they’re online. Online rent payments, along with lease signing, need to be available online. Other things like maintenance requests, virtual tours, and an online leasing experience are an important part of progressing in the virtual world. It’s important to note that anything you implement in your community is something your customers assume is your brand, so the more seamless the experience is, the better.
8. Gen Z renters
The next wave of renters has been on the horizon for a while now, and with COVID-19, they may be waiting a little longer to flood the rental market. In July, 67% of 18-24 year olds were living at home. They’ve been hit hard this year as recent college graduates and current students. Surveys from before the pandemic can help get a baseline on their preferences post-pandemic. Gen Z is more likely to be interested in co-living than any other generation. They also want the ease of transaction that comes from online rent payments, virtual/self-guided tours, and internet access. The survey from early 2020 also found that 16% of Gen Zers would rent sight unseen if they are provided with unit photos/slideshows, photos of the community and amenities, and are able to see the location of the unit within the community. Technologies that have emerged this year may prove to be worthwhile installations for attracting the next generation.
This year at OPTECH, we noticed a common theme was the widespread implementation of virtual and self-guided tours. Embracing virtual tours and new technologies make it possible to continue providing a great resident experience. Creativity and innovation showed as exhibitors shared features and products that bring communities to residents’ fingertips in new ways. Community Boss introduced attendees to the value of an interactive hub that brings shared spaces to light on an interactive map for residents, prospects, and even delivery services. The biggest takeaway from all of this? No matter how socially distant or technologically advanced the industry gets, a high touch experience will always stand out for the better.