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Learning From Student Housing Operators

Digitizing operations and building communities


Housing is often much more than just a place to live. Nowhere is this more true than at college. The place someone chooses to live when attending university becomes the backdrop for one of the most formative experiences of their lives. Student housing has to be so much more than just housing; it has to help students learn about their new town, find out who they are, and achieve their goals of getting a degree that will empower the trajectory of their lives.

For these reasons, student housing operators need to be a bit more involved in their residents’ lives. Doing so means understanding the resident’s needs, focusing on their experience, and providing them with valuable services outside the normal scope of real estate services. While student housing operators do many things for their buildings that are unique to their residents, there’s always more to learn about the importance of technology and hospitality from the rest of the multifamily real estate industry.

Always changing, never aging

One thing that makes student housing so different from most other property types is that the residents always consist almost entirely of the youngest “adult” generation. But the consistency of the target market actually means that the product must change with every new generation’s needs. Currently, that means catering to Gen Z. One of the defining features of Gen Z is their proficiency in technology and their penchant for mobile technology in particular. “Gen Z is already proficient with digital tools, they expect them to be part of the offering,” said Dimitri Huygen, Business Development Director at Xior Student Housing, a Belgian real estate company that operates more than 20.000 student housing units in Belgium, The Netherlands, Spain, and Portugal.

Installing a digital layer onto the student housing communities helps get newcomers settled, helps students find services and even jobs, and can create a community within the buildings. Xior is committed to helping students to connect with each other and their surrounding communities. To do so, they have invested in a tenant experience app that allows residents to form groups and access important information about the building and neighborhood all in one convenient place.

From the manager’s perspective, offering essential services like rental payment and repair ticketing through a mobile self-service interface also reduces the amount of work it takes to manage a student property. This can free up workers to do more high-touch activities, like acting as community managers. “Our resident managers have much more time to really care about the tenants,” Huygen said, “that is a big value for us and is something that can really set us apart.”

Occupancy for student housing complexes almost always drops in the summer months. These months are usually the best opportunity to refurbish and upgrade the units that are otherwise not in use, but they also present an equal opportunity for students. The lightened school load often opens up more programming opportunities for residents who opt to stay in the summertime. Classes for residents, from cooking to foreign languages, help activate unused amenity spaces and create a positive experience for students that stay over the summer break.

Supporting chance

One thing Huygen found in a recent survey of their residents is the importance of a healthy lifestyle. Stressors like busy academic schedules and moving to a new town can make it difficult for students to maintain a healthy lifestyle (we have all heard of the Freshman Fifteen). So to help residents make more nutritious choices, the Xior team brought in partners to offer healthier food for students and used their community engagement tools to organize sports activities. “Accomplishing ambitious goals like improving health and sports activities is only possible by digitizing our operations and adding valuable services,” Huygen said. “We live in a digital world, we work with a digital generation.”

Accomplishing ambitious goals like improving health and sports activities is only possible by digitizing our operations and adding valuable services. We live in a digital world, we work with a digital generation.

Dimitri Huygen

The focus on healthy, communal living helps Xior set themselves apart from other options that students might have. But as big a role as technology can play in offering healthier options to residents, Huygen stressed the importance of using people who are tapped into the resident’s needs to help tailor their offerings. “We get help from student ambassadors to organize events and community building activities,” he said, “from the moment that a student joins Xior, we want to get them on board with the community feeling.”

The impact of low impact

One of the defining traits of this new generation of students is their passion for environmental sustainability. Many younger consumers favor sustainable products, and housing is no different. Property managers and owners are investing in energy efficiency technologies and implementing sustainable programs like recycling or composting to appeal to students.

The willingness of students to reduce consumption can also help student housing become more sustainable. By providing residents with information about their energy consumption and ways to reduce it, building managers can lower a property’s expenses and help it achieve its energy reduction and company ESG goals.

Student housing is different from other property types. Residents are younger, are often adjusting to a new town, and often leave for parts of the year. This requires student housing operators to create a more all-inclusive, high-touch offering. But with the changing needs of renters, traditional multifamily properties are also being pushed in that direction. Multifamily owners and operators can learn a lot from student housing. They should be thinking about how adding a digital layer to their management can help them expand their services and free up time for on-site employees to create close-knit communities. We may not all want to relive our college years, but many of us would benefit from our building looking after us as the best student housing operators look after theirs.

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