Multifamily embraces tech in the time of COVID


As the pandemic continues to impact everyday life, Americans increasingly encounter the phrases unprecedented, new normal, and flatten the curve.

The innovation adoption curve—which includes early adopters, those who wait and see, laggards and even phobics—is changing shape with rapid acceleration.

The past several months have not been business as usual. The curve of adopting technology suddenly looks more like a steep and drastic incline for companies looking to attract new business. Technology adoption that once took years now takes mere months.

“The pandemic has changed the way individuals and companies understand their capabilities to do business, and virtual leasing is the primary example,” says Steve Ostipow, marketing director with Drucker + Falk, LLC, a real estate service and investment firm that manages nearly 30,000 apartments in the Mid-Atlantic and Southeastern U.S. “We’ve accelerated what would typically take two years into two months with regard to our virtual leasing capabilities.”

Leverage virtual leasing tools

While some multifamily operations already embrace technology, others resist change. COVID-19 forced many companies to rethink that ingrained reluctance.

“There’s nowhere near the change resistance mentality because it’s impossible to operate in the way you previously did,” says Scott Hill, executive chairman and co-founder of PERQ, a marketing technology company focused on multifamily, retail and automotive industries. “In a survey prior to the pandemic, only 20 percent of multifamily respondents were using virtual tours. Now, over 80 percent are using virtual tours as their primary way to conduct business.”

Ostipow echoes this point. “In a matter of weeks, we had written a series of detailed resources for exactly how to record a virtual tour video, including how to hold the device, editing, and posting to websites, as well as how to use them for follow-ups,” Ostipow said. “From corporate to property teams, working on the same priorities simultaneously emphasized what’s possible when all cylinders are working in unison.”

Hill affirms he’s witnessed the same rate of acceleration since the pandemic started. “Normally there is a five-year curve from early adopter, to crossing the chasm to where everyone is now doing it,” Hill said.

People and technology

Solving today’s pandemic problems with technology forces business leaders to reexamine the role of employees. For years, humans questioned whether technology will soon replace them in the industry. Adopting technology isn’t an either-or situation. Technology can assume human tasks, freeing up workers to interject themselves into the leasing process more efficiently and create the greatest impact for customers.

“We are seeing a high demand for automation,” Hill says. “Multifamily operators are asking what technology can do to remove work from my team, who may be at home now or who may be doing more virtual tours and with less time to follow up on leads. We remove busywork from your team so they can focus on the key parts of their job. When you look at the data, AI increases conversion and that’s compelling.”

Some multifamily properties started virtual tours and leasing long before lockdown. While technology certainly makes it easier, it still takes the right person to make it work well.

“I felt that the personality and sales techniques of the leasing associate were critical to close the deal,” says Katina Greene, senior regional property manager with Sheehan Property Management. “My most successful agents were those with knowledge, skills and personality. My other leasing associates were able to procure leases, but my rock stars consistently squeezed out more conversions. Enter COVID-19 and we have had to find a way to interject personality into technology.”

Greene believes the time is right for trying new technology as consumers modify expectations when leasing with limited or no exposure to the onsite leasing team. “It’s easy to personalize a presentation live and in person, and while it just isn’t the same, we have some level of intuitive software that’s proven to get results,” she said.

“I’ve shifted my focus to training my agents to use all of the tools available to them, and the word presentation has taken on a new identity,” Greene explains. “Presentations now, at minimum, include video tours, texting, formal quotes, and instructions on how to get into an apartment without our presence.”

Greene adds that the new normal gives leasing associates a strategic opportunity to provide an experience versus a static presentation. “Sending personalized videos using their name, providing personal live tours using the Realync app, and putting more overall thought into all touchpoints has proven to be critical.”

Keep moving forward

This period of necessary adaptation will eventually end, which begs the question of an inevitable return to pre-COVID practices. When asked about business after the pandemic, Ostipow wants the momentum of adopting new technology to continue.

“There was such a push of forward-thinking in our industry to get to where I think we could have already been,” he said. “State restrictions will continue to dictate what we have to do for the foreseeable future, but whether we choose to make virtual tours part of our standard operating procedure is up to us. I’ll be pushing not to fall back into old routines.”

Responding to the same question about a return to life pre-pandemic, Hill’s organization does not think about going back, they think about what changes from this point forward.

“Offering multiple tour options so that prospects feel comfortable is the new normal,” he says. “Some may still want to tour a property in person, but others will want to do a virtual tour with a leasing specialist, watch a video or do a self-guided tour. It’s important to let prospects know on your website that you offer different touring options.”

“The multifamily industry has developed technology muscles, because of consumers and this situation,” Hill said. “Before, it was more of the progressive properties and companies offering virtual experiences. They were the early adopters, and now everybody else is coming along.”

“You don’t really have any choice but to leap forward,” Hill says.

Author Kristy Esch, PERQ