Industry Leaders Weigh In: How Virtual Leasing Tools Ushered in a New Era of Efficiency & Success

Last modified on December 29th, 2020
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Before the pandemic, multifamily businesses were debating the priority and pace of rolling out virtual and self-guided tours. However, when the country suddenly shut down in March due to COVID-19, these same businesses realized virtual tours were no longer a ‘nice to have’, but an absolute necessity for maintaining their leasing operations. In other words, the pandemic essentially accelerated what was already in motion and forced the industry as a whole to adopt technology.

For some, this was a pivot to the unknown, but for others, who already had the proper technology in place, it was an affirmation they had made the right decision to embrace virtual tools.

During the past year, leasing has been the most challenging workflow for property management companies to carry out remotely. Virtual and self-touring technology has proven to be invaluable and continued to gain popularity. Virtual showings benefit both property managers and prospects in that they are convenient, easy to conduct, and flexible. Some have seen so much success from the self-guided tours and virtual showings that they have made them a permanent part of their leasing flow. In fact, according to AppFolio’s COVID-19 survey earlier this year, 68% of property management businesses believed virtual showings were here to stay. 

To better understand how property management businesses have shifted their leasing operations to overcome COVID-19 challenges and how they are preparing for the future, we reached out to several real estate executives. Read on to learn from real-life examples of what has worked for others in the industry and to be inspired by the latest trends in virtual leasing.

Fine-Tuning a Full-Channel Lineup

Among the businesses who have adopted virtual showing options in 2020, Templeton Management is a prime example of how technology can really enable property managers to continue to make the most of demand and get ahead of the competition. 

“We’ve had to get creative when it comes to both marketing and leasing since March,” Sydney Webber, Marketing and Brand Manager of Templeton, says. “We spent the first several months focusing on flexibility in leasing. It was important to meet the needs of prospects by offering a tour experience curated to their specific comfort levels. We began implementing a process for video conferencing tours as well as offering a variety of tours. We also promptly installed lockboxes to facilitate self-guided tours at all communities…”

All of these measures essentially allowed Templeton to recoup any lag they experienced in the spring and to get their leasing operations back on track, “By mid-summer, leasing velocity was essentially normal. Our suburban communities had record-high occupancy and we were continuing to lease at our urban core assets. The largest struggle we’ve encountered is the turnover at these downtown core assets. Some 22% of our move-outs at these urban communities said they were moving due to financial reasons or job losses, and interestingly, 18% of them purchased a home, likely taking advantage of the low interest rates. This is why virtual showings have been important to us — they have enabled us to expand our reach and show units to out of area prospects to replace these urban move-outs.”

Rethinking the Open House

For newer apartment complexes who are accustomed to drawing in leads through open houses, the pandemic has been especially challenging. Yet, buildings like The Remy, a LIVEbe community in Lanham, Md., have been able to overcome this setback by rethinking the open house in a virtual environment.

According to Multifamily Insider, The 278-unit, eight-story property welcomed 51 participants at noon on a Saturday for its 16-minute recorded virtual tour and had nine applications submitted by that afternoon. 

“We recognized during our open house – with so many people participating – that it created a sense of urgency to lease in some of the prospects,” Community Director, Jayme Martin says. “The interaction of the group and our staff created kind of a buzz.” Overall, Martin says the tour felt comfortable, “It was more like a group conversation – which was good – rather than one-on-one conversations with staff and prospects.”

Andy Turner, PCAM and Owner of Spaces Management, says COVID-19 has forced every apartment owner to increase their digital presence. All of Turner’s leasing offices are open, and he has established in-person showing protocols based on CDC recommendations. Since October he has seen an uptick in in-person tours, but they have still had to rely heavily on virtual showing options.

“We already were using fully virtual leasing tours for our purpose-built housing communities and we have begun to do FaceTime tours for prospects,” Turner says. “We increased our digital marketing budgets to reach prospects online. We have a great digital marketing partner that maximizes the reach of our budget online. We still believe in the importance of the personal connection, and while FaceTime helps, it is not the same as being one-on-one in-person.”

Virtual Tours Vs. Self-Guided Tours

While they are often used interchangeably, virtual tours and self-guided tours are not the same. Virtual tours are when the prospect views the unit entirely online whether live or via a pre-recorded video, while self-guided showings typically involve a lockbox where the prospect will unlock the unit themselves, view the space, and return the key.

With today’s advanced technology, virtual showings can come close to in-person showings, and also save time and attract higher quality prospects. For virtual showings to be effective, they must be accessible across all types of devices, browsers, operating systems, and technologies, as to not alienate anyone from participating because of the operating system or device they have. 

“Most technology needed to do a strong virtual tour is surprisingly affordable. Communities should absolutely buy tablets or smartphones for their properties specifically for this use,” says apartment consultant Lisa Trosien. “Matterport (cameras) are great, great products, but you don’t absolutely need one to do these tours well,” she says.

Having the tools you need to conduct virtual showings directly integrated within your property management software can really work to your advantage when it comes to moving your leasing flow online. AppFolio’s virtual leasing features enable you to schedule and conduct live video walkthroughs of units with Virtual Showings, and also to host interactive 3D Tours on your website, so prospects have a seamless virtual showing experience from start to finish.

This way, your leasing agents don’t have to use their personal accounts to host video, or download and log into another tool (such as Zoom) to set up the meeting and send an invite to the prospect.

It’s important to understand that virtual tours are not the same as self-guided tours and certainly aren’t the same as walking tours. There are many common sense points that apartment communities might be overlooking if they haven’t adequately thought this through.

“It’s not just walking around with your phone taking video,” Trosien says. “You need to plan. Storyboard it. Practice it. The tour can include walking the prospect through your website or a pre-recorded video, if it’s feasible. With a live virtual tour, go out of your way to show them that during these challenging times you are still trying to go above and beyond for them. They will appreciate it and remember you for it.”

Tony Cook, COO of Bay Management Group, believes virtual tours have truly enabled his business to maintain continuity. His portfolio didn’t have to close any offices, and has even been growing this year. He says flexibility is key when meeting prospects needs, “We are working with prospects. If they want a virtual tour or meeting, we can do that. If they want to meet on-site and maintain proper distance, we will do that, too. Everyone needs to understand that people have varying levels of comfort and needs.”

Tyler Holloman, Owner of Frontier Property Management and Frontier Construction, says his occupancy rate has not decreased since the COVID-19 outbreak, “We now offer virtual tour incentives, FaceTime showings, and more 3D tour options. We host video walk-throughs of our properties, which has actually reduced the number of in-person showing requests we’re receiving.”

Tom Wood, Owner and CEO of JA Wood Management Company, says virtual tours actually have helped his team to get more work done and reach a larger number of prospects,  “We’ve been able to conduct virtual tours and include four or five potential customers on one tour, performed with smartphones.”

It’s not just virtual showing options that have helped businesses during this time, digital technology has also allowed companies to attract more prospects through marketing and to provide a higher level of service. 

Donna Block, President of Lux Communities, says AppFolio has been her number one source of truth for marketing, “The information contained within the platform is used by our operations, leasing and marketing teams and flows into our ILS listing sites and AppFolio-hosted property websites to ensure a consistent visitor experience. Additionally, our leasing teams use the platform to convert prospects into residents through guest cards and the ability to send text messages, which we’ve found to be a preferred communication method.”

Seeking a New Skill Set

“Today’s innovative approaches to leasing have caused many property management businesses to rethink who they are hiring to handle their leasing offices. Of all roles in multifamily operations, few have changed more radically during the past year than that of the leasing agent… The COVID-19 crisis has forced change on leasing behaviors and processes, but most of these changes – such as virtual and self-guided tours — were already underway before the pandemic,” writes Don Davidoff of D2Demand Solutions.

Davidoff says that companies would be wise to focus on these attributes when hiring leasing associates for handling today’s challenging environment. Here are the top five leasing agent skills he says to look out for in an automated world:

1. )Ability to Quickly Get to Know People: With the increase in self-help and AI-driven technologies, leasing associates are spending less time with prospects and usually much further into the prospect’s decision process. This puts a premium on their ability to connect and quickly catch up to where the prospect is. 

This shift in focus becomes more critical as leasing associates become less a source of information and more of a resource to help prospects make good decisions. New digital tools, like AppFolio’s AI leasing assistant, automate routine tasks, like responding to initial inquiries by prospective residents. Not only does this guarantee prompt reply at any hour (which converts inquiries at higher rates), but also allows leasing agents to focus on higher value tasks, like providing great customer service to more serious leads.

2.) Demonstrated Success in Their Past: The greatest indicator of future behavior (and performance) is to look at how people behaved (and performed) in the past. To increase the odds of hiring a winner, look for someone who has won in the past. With younger candidates, take a look at what they did in college (or even high school). Someone who succeeded in the past is more likely to succeed in the future.

3.) Curiosity: There is probably no attribute more powerful than genuine curiosity. Great selling is all about the ability to ask great questions. Someone who is naturally curious can’t help but ask questions and dig deeper — it’s in their DNA. 

4.) Competitive Spirit: Hire people who like to win. Find associates who want to win the contests, get a shout out at staff meetings, and who are driven to improve. Competitive people will use that energy in sales.

5.) Coachability: Having leasing associates who enjoy learning, want to get better, and are willing to listen and try new things is vital. The very nature and purpose of the job is shifting. That puts an even bigger premium on the need for adaptability, flexibility, and thus, coachability. 

Even with technology and innovation, the core attributes that make people good at selling to other people remain largely the same. Keep these five attributes in mind as you think about the skills you need to navigate the choppy waters ahead.

Closing Thoughts

Leasing has changed drastically over the past year. Many of the changes, such as the rapid adoption of digital tools and the transition to a completely virtual leasing flow, have helped businesses to continue to attract prospects and fill vacancies, even from afar. Now that both property managers and renters have experienced the benefits of these digital methods, it’s likely they will stay. 

As we look to the future, it’s clear that technology will continue to gain momentum and play a vital role across all aspects of property management — leasing, hiring, and beyond. With this new range of automated and virtual technologies it’s crucial to ensure your leasing agents are adaptable and open to learning new things. When innovative technology is paired with excellent service, your leasing operations will not only be more streamlined and efficient, but be able to meet the new expectations of today’s renters.

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