You’ve seen the news. Due to COVID-19, travel bans are escalating, curfews are in effect, and most non-essential businesses and schools have closed or have limited hours. For the ones still open, most employees are working remotely. Right now, people are not inclined to drive around town to view properties. Tours put tenants at risk of exposure, especially in commercial spaces.
Steve Lefkovits, Executive Producer at Joshua Tree Conference Group, explains that there is “a huge chunk of the renting marketplace that won’t feel comfortable mixing with strangers over the next couple of months, even if they are allowed to travel.” Commercial real estate professionals are looking for innovative solutions as social distancing progresses. Deals still need to get done.
Bryan Colin, the CEO of the digital visualization company VirtualAPT, explains how deals will still get done in this climate. “Aside from the noise coming in from every direction right now, this market has winners, and it also has losers. That hasn’t changed. Getting people in the door is the name of the game. That hasn’t changed either. What’s changed is how you get them in the door. How you use technology to show them what they can’t see in person,” he says. Virtual tours are enabling prospective buyers and tenants to get to know properties without ever setting foot in them. “Suddenly the storytelling and visualization is center-stage. Leasing isn’t about technology, it’s about fitting the story of the space to the lifestyle of the person,” says Lefkovits.
Getting people in the door is the name of the game. That hasn’t changed either. What’s changed is how you get them in the door.
Some real estate brokers have begun relying on Facetime to show properties. This may work as a temporary band-aid, but grainy, flat images can only do so much. For most people, a Facetime tour won’t be enough to make a decision about a property, and any real estate decision can become costly if not well-chosen. VirtualAPT creates moving 4K-quality video tours using 360-degree technology, which allows a person to tour a space just as they would in real life. By touching or clicking their device’s screen, they can look in any direction as they move through the space. The company builds autonomous robots that film their clients’ properties. “For a large property, the turnaround time from filming to project completion is around four business days,” Colin explains.
Owners with properties that are vacant or still under construction might assume that virtual tours won’t work for their space, but new technology makes it possible. VirtualAPT created a proprietary type of media called AVR (augmented virtual reality) which allows clients to visualize what an asset will look like once it’s fully built out and staged, even if the property is under construction. While filming, the robots simultaneously measure and map thousands of data points, which are then used to incorporate 3D objects into 360-degree video. Craig Panzirer, Senior Vice President and Director of Leasing at Global Holdings Management Group, has used VirtualAPT for projects at various stages. He believes AVR provides “a competitive advantage because it allows us to show a vacant space with a virtual layout catered to the type of tenants seeing the space.”
Virtual tours may be in high demand now because of COVID-19, but how will the industry respond once things begin to return to normal? Lefkovits believes that “technology has to improve the experience in a meaningful way to get adopted and paid for.” In order to enhance their user experience, VirtualAPT embeds data into their videos to provide further information and highlight key points. By inserting clickable links within their videos, viewers are guided to additional resources or landing pages. Interaction and perspective keep users engaged.
Even without a pandemic, virtual tours still provide notable advantages, especially for larger properties. They add value by enabling repeat views, which allows multiple stakeholders to see the property without the limitations of distance and time. Increasing the efficiency of showings saves money and lessens down time. “Our downtime for properties has decreased because we are able to get these materials in a prospective tenant’s hands quicker and with more detail than we could previously,” says Panzirer.
Increasing efficiency and eliminating extra work, added costs, and room for error are top priorities for any company in commercial real estate regardless of the current climate. By using robots to film, VirtualAPT has found several other innovative applications for their technology. The robots also measure and map the spaces they film, which means they are capable of generating 2D CAD floor plans, automating appraisal processes, and monitoring progress on construction sites. Automation has been a key trend in the industry, according to Altus Group’s Innovation Report.
Virtual tours have the ability to transcend the meaning of physical and digital spaces and keep users engaged. Once COVID-19 subsides, people will have the option to engage with properties digitally and in-person, with good reasons for both. In the meantime, owners and sellers have more limited choices. The only option that will have a desirable outcome is to take advantage of the available technology. The commercial real estate market as a whole relies on human interaction in a built space, but thanks to technological advancements in virtual tours, it needn’t only be in-person.