"While the world is changing and people are looking for apartments differently, your presence online needs to be just as polished and consistent, sending the right message to the renters you're looking to target." — Austin Joynes
2020 accelerated several trends in the purpose-built rental industry:
- Digital presence and virtual content swelled in importance.
- Virtual service moved to the front of the line.
- And consistency in content now matters more than ever.
Now, what will 2021 look like for purpose-built rentals?
That's our topic for this episode of Sync or Swim, featuring Austin Joynes, a 14-year veteran of the purpose-built rental industry in Canada, who started out as a leasing agent before moving into the property management side.
Here's what we talked about:
- What's a trend versus an actual change in the landscape?
- The importance of sticking to the fundamentals
- And the #1 thing that's really changing the way people live
[0:00:41.0] Mitch Fanning: Welcome back to a new season of Sync or Swim with me, Mitch Fanning. And to kick things off, joining me today is Austin Joynes, a 14-year veteran of the purpose-built rental industry in Canada with expertise in operations, marketing, leasing and design for both existing and new build communities. Austin, how are you doing today?
[0:00:52.9] Austin Joynes: Great, Mitch, how are you?
[0:01:06] Mitch Fanning: I'm fantastic, thank you. So what I wanna do is, I just wanna start by maybe expanding on that intro and maybe you... Telling us a little bit more about yourself and how you got started in the industry.
[0:01:18.5] Austin Joynes: Sure, I came up through the property management side of the industry, everybody who works in property management has a story about how they got into property management, and typically you didn't plan to get into it, you just kind of fell into it, and I took a summer job as a leasing agent while I was in university and said to myself, I couldn't do this for the rest of my life, how does anybody make a career out of this and very quickly got the bug for it, and 14 years later, here I am, it just seems to be something to gravitate back towards. I've had the great opportunity to work for a leading real estate developers, owners, managers who've been driven by this vision that there must be a better way to build and manage apartments, and a better way to provide a good value to residents, and that's something that's always... Always guided me to, in terms of my kind of career in Barometer.
[0:02:18.2] Mitch Fanning: So as a follow-up to that, again, I... Just based on some research I did, you mentioned you started, or maybe you mentioned you started in property management, but based on the research, you spent some time as a leasing agent or in operations. So my question is, how did that help you become a better apartment marketer?
[0:02:38.8] Austin Joynes: Yeah, I lump property management and leasing together because it's often as a leasing agent, wearing a bunch of different hats, and I think the one thing that's always stuck with me from the time that I was a leasing agent, was just that as much as apartments are a commercial real estate, and there are some real estate fundamentals that really helped to drive results, it is really the people side of the business that makes the biggest difference, I think, from a good manager or a good residential experience to a great one, and so it's always through that lens of people and the end users that I've tried to approach marketing, property management, operations, development, design of all those different verticals, and I've always come out on the other side of being successful...
[0:03:34.4] Mitch Fanning: No, thank you for sharing that. That's excellent. So let's look at 2021, and I'm gonna start out with maybe a pretty broad question, but we can kind of get into the details as we follow up on it, obviously we've come through a pretty interesting year in 2020, so the question is, what does leasing an apartment looked like in 2021 versus 2020, and really, in your mind, in your view, what's really changed...
[0:04:07.0] Austin Joynes: I don't know if anything has changed, particularly. 2020 has definitely accelerated I think the importance and the prevalence of digital presence and virtual content for a lot of property owners who might not have necessarily been on that bus already, not only virtual content, but also virtual service, something that we have always talked about on our teams that... In any organization that I've got the opportunity to work on is digital curb appeal and this idea that parallel to your buildings' curb appeal, when somebody drives by that the exterior looks nice, that the building looks appealing, at least relative to your next door neighbor that... While the world is changing and people looking for apartments differently, your presence online needs to be just as polished, just as consistent and sending the right message to the renters that you're looking to target. And so these conversations about digital curb appeal have been happening more and more and more amongst the different properties that have been working on, and you can see the property owners that buy into a consistent message and brand targeted at a renter versus something that might be a little bit more piecemeal or not have the same kind of cohesion, have been more resilient in performing better, I think, than those that don't...
[0:05:40.9] Mitch Fanning: Yeah, it's one of the things I've always said is, last year was really the things that people should have been doing all along, they started... They started to do so, it's interesting is that COVID... All that's really done is accelerated the fact that you should have been... You should have had a digital footprint, you should have been doing these things, you should have had a digital curb appeal prior to that, but it's really just accelerated and there's a follow-up to that when it comes to just looking at the product or marketing strategy in 2021, how should apartment marketers or just property managers approach the design stage or even concepts like programmatic living or even amenities, and I guess in other words, in a tongue-in cheek, should everybody be promoting the fact that you can have a home office in your space or... They should be doing virtual events versus physical events to get residents together as far as engagement, like... What's your sense there as far as how people are approaching these things versus... Say pre-covid?
[0:06:53:0] Austin Joynes: I think the last year has been no different than any other instance where people's lives have changed, our lifestyles have changed, and a lot of developers that I talk to are going through is trying to weed through what is a trend and what is gonna be what constitutes an actual change to the landscape, were changed out people live for me, counselling or providing recommendations to develop or...
[0:07:24.4] Austin Joynes: The objective is always to vary product people and positioning, and right now, people are experiencing working from home, they're experiencing all of these different elements that they would typically have it in their office that they're needing to bring into home, that they wouldn't have to deal with before. Compared, on top of that, amenities are closed and so they can't go and use the common spaces that are typically created for co-working.
[0:07:51.9] Austin Joynes: I think right now marketing to apartment units that have space or can't be designed in a container, a home office are definitely more appealing than the ones that don't... But are there changes that are gonna be happening in design trends? I don't know. I don't think so. I think what we'll see when the pandemic comes out is more of a hunger for closeness in community and being around people for the people who've been starved for that for the last year, and I don't know that people are gonna wanna continue to self-isolate, so... I think there's been a lot of commentary about the death of the office, do I think that that's actually going to come to bear given how people are feeling and how socially isolated folks are feeling. I think working from home is probably going to be more common than not, but I don't know that it's necessarily going to be this huge life change, and it's been for the last year that's driving changes to the way that we're laying out apartments or thinking about people's living spaces, I'm not convinced it as of yet, but I'm willing to be convinced.
[0:08:59.0] Mitch Fanning: Yeah, I can speak for myself. I think there's definitely gonna be a hybrid moving forward, and we're kinda going off script, but there's definitely gonna be a hybrid when it comes to remote work, but I can say for myself or for my team, the whole appetite for remote isn't as much as it was a pre... In other words, a lot of people wanted to have that. Now people are starting to over-index on wanting to be together, even just for the sake of just having an informal, casual conversation or just being in that space. So I think there's definitely gonna be a hybrid, but definitely everything's kind of out of the box now and it's gonna definitely be interesting, and I don't think it's gonna go right back to the way it was, but I think there'll definitely be a bit of a mix in between, and I also think too, what I hear you say over and over again, what I've heard my previous guests say is, It's really sticking to the fundamentals, right, it's all that really is as far as leasing up apartments is just sticking to the fundamentals and doing the things that you should have always been doing, so it's kind of interesting that you also keep reverting back to that in terms of looking at people, product and positioning.
[0:10:14.6] Mitch Fanning: So switching gears, let's talk about the industry as a whole, or even the profession of property management, and so I'm obviously not from the industry, so what I've seen as kind of fascinating is over the last five to 10 years, the multi-family real estate industry, and I would say even North America, not just in Canada, has obviously been disrupted by technology, and I think obviously there has been a lot of other industries that have been disrupted. I just think this one has been a bit of a laggard, but over the last five to 10, and specifically probably the last three to five, that's accelerated. So I guess my question is, do you think this continued... This trend is going to continue, and if so, how do you see it kind of out...
[0:11:03.0] Austin Joynes: I definitely think it's going to continue, in apartments, we respond to changes in the way people live, and technology has fundamentally changed the way that people live, technologies like Alexa, Google Home, for example, were introduced probably in their rawest form, probably about five years ago, and it's taken us this long to start incorporating these type of technologies into our indoor design, an indoor design thinking, because I think that we... Thinking about the apartment development industry, respond to these things once they hit a critical mass, and once again, we realize that they're not a trend, but they're an actual change in the way that people are living, and this adoption of a voice technology, I think is really starting to drive selection of different thermostats, the ability to incorporate different smartphone technologies into one's home on the design side, and single-family homes, you saw in custom homes, people were building in speaker systems and volume controls into the walls and stuff like that, and everybody in intercom systems as far back, 'cause the 80s and now, there's no need to incorporate any that infrastructure and new actual design, everything is modular, everything is plugging play, and I think that's what we're gonna start to see evolve in the way that technology disrupts the multi-family industry specific from a design perspective, is that developers who can respond to and future-proof their apartments for those future innovations are thinking about the direction that these things are going to, will be the ones who really see the return on their investment at the end of the day.
[0:12:50.7] Austin Joynes: From a customer experience perspective, again, I think the adoption of technologies in terms of the way that we provide service to residents is very much demand-driven from residents, but is also key and crucial on the ability for your site teams or the people who are actually responsible for executing service at the property level to be able to adopt and as the apartment industry has changed to see a larger site teams on-site and property management companies, apartment operators have been able to really bring to bear the investment thesis that everyone's had all along, great service or differentiated service programmatic living all of these service elements that go beyond just the bricks and mortar value proposition of an apartment, I can really add value to a residence life and that they'd be willing to pay more for it. And so as site teams get bigger and capacity gets bigger and the level of sophistication of the teams who are actually running these properties move beyond just your individual superintendent and go to a more professional property management model, professional apartment operations model, we're gonna see technology systems, the tech stack at the property level, increase and accelerate for sure.
[0:14:05.5] Mitch Fanning: So not to put you on the spot, but if I'm a developer, I'm looking at purpose-built, I'm looking at getting started on a new project, what are the... From a smart technology point of view or when you're at the design phase, what are the must-haves at this point, what are the low-hanging fruit? These are the things that if you're not thinking about, if you're kind of old school and you're not thinking about it, you're not... You're not future-proofing as you use that term, you're not future-proofing your project...
[0:14:41.3] Austin Joynes: I think that there are two things. I'm gonna preface that with saying that every renter is gonna want something different, and in trying to be able to think about all people and over-engineering your product, you're limiting your ability to be successful, and I think starting out with understanding who you anticipate your renter base to be, trying to look three to five years out in terms of what it is that you think that they're going to want. And nobody's got a crystal ball, but there are ways that we can predict and project these things and programming your property or on incorporating those features that are really going to be valued to that specific segment of renters, is key to anyone's success. Broadly speaking, I think that the major trends that we're seeing throughout the industry are smart thermostats, and it's a win-win, it's a great feature for residents and for property owners, it helps with everybody's efforts towards sustainability in terms of being able to control temperature from outside the house, and to be able to monitor and understand overall utility consumption at the properties, the other interesting conversation that I'm constantly having with property owners right now is around parking and around whether or not to build in conduit in your parking space is in anticipation of electric vehicles. There's obviously not a critical mass of individuals who are driving electric cars right now because they're so expensive, but these assets that we're building today are gonna be around ostensibly for the next 40, 50, 60, hopefully longer years. And in trying to anticipate and again, future-proof property for the future, talking about whether or not you don't necessarily wire it today, but incorporating conduit so that you can have plugs at every parking spot is a conversation that I've been having more often than not.
[0:16:42.5] Mitch Fanning: That's interesting. Yeah, I definitely think that the Tesla is getting cheaper apparently, so we'll see what happens. Right, so let's switch gears and let's talk internally now, as a follow-up to this, one thing that we're seeing as well, internally, when you look at property management teams or owner operators who have marketing leasing teams internally, is the evolution of the marketing and leasing tech stack itself. So the question I have is, in your experience working with different organizations, on average, how many different marketing and leasing technologies does the typical property management or large apartment owner operator use these days?
[0:17:34.2] Austin Joynes: I'm gonna say too many or not enough, and a bit of a cop out there, I think they got one side of the coin where... You got one side of the coin where everything is still paper-based, you're filling a paper application, signing a paper, at least submitting paperwork orders, and maybe using a couple of different internet listing services to advertise their apartments, I think if that's pretty common these days, and then you've got the other side of the equation where there are just so many different programs your accounting program your leasing CRM or in the mechanism through which you can manage all of your leads and listings, or even having to go to eventually websites and manage your leads and listings, your Google Analytics, your work order system, your apartment app, they all exist in different infrastructures are in different ecosystems, and I think where that poses the challenge, especially for as an operator, for site staff, is all of a sudden they're needing to operate in these different systems that just don't talk to each other and frankly become less efficient than doing it the old paper, and so you see a bunch of companies adopting these new technologies and abandoning them quickly because they're not being operationalized effectively, or they're not able to talk to each other or I think where we've seen companies coming to market with open APIs and the approach that more these different systems or technologies can interact with each other, the higher or better the adoption rate is gonna be...I think that's been a real game changer in terms of adoption of technologies, and I think... No company is gonna be able to be all things to all people. I think having a diverse tech stack is important, but ensuring that they... All of these different systems that you've got speak to one another, and that the data that they're producing, you have the ability to roll up into one specific format or one specific area where you can connect and parse all of those different touch points or service points that you're recording from your residents together will become very important over the next couple of years as we start to see people really be able to leverage the value of these technologies that they're incorporating in their operations.
[0:20:14.3] Mitch Fanning: And again, it's no different from outside the industry when the tech stack starts to grow, they start with these point solutions that solve a particular problem, but as they grow and go and grow, a lot of these things have to talk to each other and they can't, so integrations is definitely something that I'm sure we'll get better as we move forward... So when we're talking about the profession itself, the apartment professional or the property management professional, the profession itself on a podcast, and this was interesting, and when I listen to this, this is one of the things... This is really the catalyst of why I wanted to talk to you on the show, you mentioned that property managers or marketers who focus on key metrics that owners care about, being NOI, accounts receivable, vacancy rates are going to be an emerging class. So my question to you is, what's driving this change in terms of the evolution of this profession, and why do you think it took a long...
[0:21:27.2] Austin Joynes: Sure. I'll clarify a little bit. I think that there are a critical mass of people out there, good property managers and property makers who are really focusing on those metrics, and that's really what's helping them to be successful, I think where property managers or marketers are able to pull in new innovative concepts, things like incorporating technology, increasing your tech stack, diversifying the way that we're marketing apartments and frame those innovations and those changes in the context of NOI, vacancy, again, of those key performance indicators that are traditionally attributed to successful apartment communities. The more that they can build these business cases and really demonstrate how these new innovations can have an impact on those areas, are gonna set those individuals apart from the people who are still stuck in what I would call property management 1.0. One of the things I talked about was the differentiation between the property manager, again, who is clearly just focused on these metrics and the operator who is looking at not just the metrics, but taking a more full look at the business and how... Not just the property management element of the real estate element of the business is driving success or value, but how all these other components you know the programmatic living, the loyalty program, the marketing program, above and beyond what we have for a simple commodity apartment building, how...
[0:23:11.8] Austin Joynes: Those are adding value to my accounts receivable and vacancy, and I think the more that we can relate to those human elements back to the... Those key metrics, we will see the competitive edge of those property owners or property managers who are doing that really well, increase relative to the folks who are lagging behind. And I think that's really what has been the catalyst... What's driving the change and what's driving this kind of evolution in property management and apartment operations over the last several years, is that people have started to see the value in that and are devoting more resources and more time to not just managing their buildings and the way that they've always been managed, but really seeing apartments as an industry as more of a sophisticated operation then you're more simplified property management model.
[0:24:07.7] Mitch Fanning: Excellent, thank you for that. Now, obviously, with these new changes comes new problems to solve, in your opinion right now, like, what's the number one problem that hasn't been solved yet when it comes to marketing in multi-family. Or what's one that you're struggling with right now in your day-to-day?
[0:24:35.5] Austin Joynes: I think aligning as your teams are getting bigger, as there are more and more people working at your properties, ensuring that everybody is aligned to a consistent... I call it a purpose and promise, your purpose in terms of why why you as a team or you as a property management unit exist and why you're all there and why you're working together, what's that common goal and aligning that with the promise that you're making to your client, whether it's your residents in terms of offering a differentiated level of service or offering a very simple, straightforward apartment product, which there's a market for both, and I don't think one is particularly better than the other, or your property owner. If you're thinking about it from the same perspective, what are the results or what are the objectives of that property owner and how are you... How is the unique way that you're providing service or that you're managing property, helping them to fulfill that goal? So it's really aligning your team members and defining "purpose and promise," that continues to be that I continue to get challenged with, and that's simply because some people... A lot of folks aren't thinking about the business that way, it's always, again, typically been NOI, accounts receivable and vacancy, and as we start to think about apartments, not necessarily just as a commoditized product, but as a differentiated consumer good with a unique value proposition beyond just the four walls that we're building, these people issues, these human resource issues and these communicating a vision for a unique approach is very much gonna be necessary for those property owners who are truly wanting to be successful in the future...
[0:26:31.1] Mitch Fanning: Yeah, sometimes as marketers or even people who are property managers, sometimes we have to remember that we're dealing with humans, it's not just about data or programs or things we're executing on, so... Interesting, I love it. There's a couple as we... Before we move into, what I would say is my favorite part of the conversation, which is the quick fire, I'm gonna throw out two, I guess, wild card questions, but first is being... You strike me as someone is a busy professional in the industry, my question is, how do you learn or stay up-to-date with the latest trends that are going on?
[0:27:17.0] Austin Joynes: In normal circumstances, I would say. Conferences and networking. Exactly, yeah. But in today's, in today's situation, it's not as easy. I think that there have been some really fantastic virtual conferences or virtual events that have been put on by a number of different organizations that have really helped bring really good content, really innovative content to the industry and help to continue the conversations that we're having about the evolution of the industry and innovation in a time where we're all very much isolated, I think this year, people are just really dug deep and really had to dig deep and get a real sense of what their business needs, and focus very much internally on adapting their business to these new, hopefully temporary conditions. But I think in terms of trying to drive innovation and staying up-to-date with latest trends, I rely on the teams I work with to bring forward great ideas, and I try to work with those folks who've got the seed for something that could be really fantastic or something that a resident could see value and help them build a business case for that and really try to frame that in the context of who the target renter is and how they live and what they see value in, and help them bring that to bear and rather than trying to stay up to-date with the latest trends, we're becoming trend-setters and trying new things and not being afraid to...By not being afraid to potentially have to adjust midstream and being adaptable to how renters are taking up or adopting these different initiatives or design elements to a building and being adaptable with some of those things. So I think it's a combination of trying to drive trend and then just devouring content from a bunch of different sources and trying to interpret through the lens of that target renter, what makes sense for one specific business and what may make sense for another.
[0:29:35.2] Mitch Fanning: Yeah, I think in this environment, experimentation is required to innovate and to kind of accelerate and move forward, so... I appreciate that answer. Now, I know you're a big advocate of segmentation when it comes to understanding who your renter is for a particular project or development, so kind of a fun question would be, if you were a developer right now, where is that narrow opportunity in purpose-built rentals in other words like, What market segment do you think is currently underserved?
[0:30:11.6] Austin Joynes: We've been talking about millennials for the past 10 years and the term starting to lose meaning, but I think we need to be ready for Gen-Z, the next generation of renters who are coming up, who have grown up in a world where they've always had social media, where they've always had the internet, where they've always had these conveniences and really understand how they live and how they wanna be served, and again, the property owners, property managers, property developers who are able to really zero in on those key, and align their product positioning and how they provide service to that renter, I think we're gonna start to see some huge uptake, especially once quarantine is out and people are really getting sick of living with their parents.
[0:31:03] Mitch Fanning: Yeah, that's... I definitely agree with you on that one. Okay, so before we close off, we're gonna get into the quick-fire round, so I'll say a statement and you'll have about 60 seconds or less to respond, so... Austin, are you ready?
[0:31:21] Austin Joynes: I'm ready. Let's do this.
[0:31:26] Mitch Fanning: So number one, who should I have on this podcast?
[0:31:30.1] Austin Joynes: You've had some great guests so far, I can't think of any specific person, but there are two suggestions. I have one, the purpose, Forrestal industry in the United Kingdom right now. So they call it build to rent is really taking off and they're doing some really interesting stuff over there that I think everyone in North America can learn from, and it's not just the UK, it's Europe in general, that seeing this kind of emergence of a built-around purposeful rental, multi-family apartment living, so it would be really cool to see and understand more about... more about some of the trends that they're seeing over there, and anything that we could learn there... The other development that I had the opportunity to tour prior to the lockdown happening last February, was Hudson Yards in Manhattan, and the way that they've married the office, retail, residential, and not just residential, but the residential for sale and the residential for rent from a marketing perspective, has been really compelling, I don't know who's behind all that, but it is a really stand-up development, and I'd be very interested to hear more about how they brought that to life.
[0:32:49.8] Austin Joynes: I appreciate that. It's funny, we also see the interesting things that are going on in the UK and Europe in general, as far as purpose-built, we've been having discussions, so that's interesting. So I appreciate that feedback.
[0:33:03.0] Mitch Fanning: So number two, what do you believe that others might disbelieve?
[0:33:08.9] Austin Joynes: Aside from Santa Claus? I think the commercial real estate industry is very much based in financials, any business is based in its financials, but the people element of the apartment industry brings to bear a human component to the decision-making process, and while most things can be measured there are just some things that metrics can't explain, people the way that people react to things is perfect, for example, so I think to be truly successful in the apartment... In the apartment industry, senior leaders, gotta have their finger on the pulse of those qualitative elements and need those to inform business cases just as much as the quantitative... Good data and good anecdotes together, I think make a really compelling business case in ignoring or simply basing decisions on... Metrics can only get you so far.
[0:34:06.5] Mitch Fanning: I couldn't agree more. Number three what have you changed your mind about lately...
[0:34:12.5] Austin Joynes: You know what, the Alberta market... I saw the Alberta market as being one that was not destined for any kind of a resurgence in the next little while, but I'm starting to see signs of optimism in to the fact that especially in the city like cities like Calgary, and Edmonton, there's so much building of a purpose-built rentals, the quality of product that's coming to market in those markets, and I think that the renewed optimism that we're starting to see in those areas from an economic perspective is really good, is really gonna start to put some focus back on Alberta over the next couple of years, and I think I counted it out as a spot where there wasn't a lot of opportunity, but I think that there's still gonna be a tremendous amount of opportunity out there in the next couple of years.
[0:35:08.4] Mitch Fanning: Yeah, it's exciting to see for sure. Alright, so number four, what is the most misunderstood thing about you?
[0:35:17.2] Austin Joynes: That... I'm just a marketer. I think when you're in it, when you're in a specific marketing position, it's very easy to be pigeon-holed into one area of the business, but I think my background in operations and property management has kind of put me in a unique multi-faceted... Give me a unique multi-fastened view of the industry, and so when I go into a meeting and having a marketing discussion, all of a sudden able to speak intelligently about the way a property operates or the way or dig into property owner desired outcomes or investment objectives, that I get a bit of a double take like, "Oh, you kinda know what you're talking about," so I would say not just for me, but for marketers in general, I think there's a lot of really great marketing talent in our industry who've come up through property management, asset management, who come in from different areas and really bring not just a marketing focus, but a whole holistic business focus, and underestimating your marketer, I think, is that a property owners parole...
[0:36:26.0] Mitch Fanning: The one thing I always say to my team is, or anyone who asked me how to be a better marketer is to improve your business acumen or operational knowledge, whatever industry you're in, so... I can't agree more. Alright, so really the last question is, where can people find you, find more about you as in on the web?
[0:36:47.9] Austin Joynes: LinkedIn search. I'm probably one of the only Austin Joynes on LinkedIn. I think there might be a couple of us, but now, I found LinkedIn a really great way to connect with folks over... Especially over the pandemic, it's really nice to chat people and to get a lot of good content, share a lot of interesting perspectives, and really just try to stay connected to people in a way that's... Not in person right now.
[0:37:18.6] Mitch Fanning: Yeah, we'll put that definitely in the show notes, so... That's it. That's another episode. Austin, thanks so much for doing this. I know we had some mishaps yesterday with the Wi-Fi, but I'm glad we were able to reconnect and put this episode in the can.
[0:37:35] Austin Joynes: Thanks, Mitch. It was great.
[0:37:37] Mitch Fanning: Alright. Okay. Well, until next time, keep swimming!