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"At GWLRA, we're really a values-driven organization. We really hold dear to those values, and they are creativity, ambition, integrity, and empathy. I would say that it is well-known that most employees can speak to that." – Todd Nishimura
In today's conversation we have Todd Nishimura, Senior Director of Marketing, Leasing, and Communications at GWL Realty Advisors Residential. Tune in to hear how he came to work in marketing at the Campbell Soup Company and the Four Seasons, and how the values he learned there contributed to his success at GWLRA.
We talk about changes sparked by the pandemic and which values GWLRA is driven by, before talking about why you must make a decision on what your lease up efforts are supposed to yield and assessing the success of out-of-home engagements and social media during the pandemic. Next, we explore the world of amenities and talk about how they can set you apart if you choose to place them front and centre of what you offer.
Finally, we touch on the aspirational brand being created at The Livmore and Todd shares how he learned that providing a premium experience means being able to ask for a higher price point. Join us today to hear all this and more!
Key points from this episode:
"TN: We reached out to 20,000 people over the course of the pandemic, called them directly, just with a simple question of how are you doing? Creating that empathy, understanding how are you doing and then how are we doing and what can we do better."
[00:00:36] NS: Welcome back to Sync or Swim. I'm your host, Nicolina Savelli. On this podcast, I take a tactical approach to helping those in multifamily reach more renters and maximize their rental income. Today, I have Todd Nishimura, Senior Director of Marketing, Leasing, and Communications at GWL Realty Advisors Residential. Now, that's quite a mouthful, I must say. It's probably the longest title I've ever had to say on this podcast, but thank you so much for joining me today, Todd.
[00:01:06] TN: Well, thank you very much for having me, Nicolina. It is long and lots of words. I think we can refer to GWLRA as we're more commonly known, but it's a pleasure to be here, and I look forward to having a spirited discussion about all things multi-residential.
[00:01:18] NS: Perfect. Thank you so much. Now, we recently asked Todd to join a panel that Rentsync was moderating about lease-ups, operations, and property management, basically all the things your title talks about. I had the pleasure of listening to you speak about some of the lessons you've learned throughout your career and in the multifamily industry. I think, honestly, you could have probably done a panel all on your own about all the things that you touched on there. That's why I wanted to get you on this show and get you to dig a little bit deeper into the things that you kind of grazed over during that event. We're going to actually drop that panel discussion in an episode of this podcast following that, so everyone will kind of get that audio as well. So that's great.
But, first, before we really get into it, can you please talk to me a little bit about your background, the work you've done in your career, and how you went from being a product manager at Campbell Soup Company to Marketing Manager at Four Seasons, and now Senior Director of Marketing and Leasing and Communications at GWLRA?
[00:02:19] TN: Gladly, yeah. It's always nice to reflect on one's career. So prior to the call starting, Nicolina, we both learned that we're a proud alumni of what was then the University of Western Ontario, which is now Western University. So I did an undergrad business degree there. I always knew that that's what I wanted to do and always had an interest in marketing and I think the things I like about marketing really about brand. I really love brands, the power of brands, the importance of them, how people interact with them, how they aspire to them.
Then coming out of school, I was fortunate to join a company with, I would say, a blue chip, tier one food brand in the Campbell Soup Company and was there for close to eight years. Then from there, I had an opportunity. I didn't even know at the time that they were based in Toronto but Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, a global brand, a luxury hotel brand as well. From that, I was on the residential side of the business. So most people are familiar with the hotels and resorts, but at the time, and still continues to this day, Four Seasons sells a lot of wholly-owned real estate. For instance, closer to home, Four Seasons Toronto has a private residences. That was one of the first projects I worked on.
Then there are also Four Seasons villas, other Four Seasons apartments in New York City, around the world in exotic locations. So I was responsible for the marketing of those products and then found an opportunity at GWLRA where I could take my interest and level of marketing and what I'd learned about real estate and apply it to the multi-residential industry in Canada, which is one that, in my coming up on nine years at GWLRA, has really grown and evolved and really caught up with the times because I think it was one that historically was a little behind the times. I know we're going to talk about technology. It was sort of devoid of any technological advances, and I know we'll talk about it later. I think that there has been apartment renaissance going on in Canada of how it's been perceived. In a few short minutes, that's what brought me from school to here and talking to you about our industry.
[00:04:10] NS: Right. Now, that makes sense. The Four Seasons adds up now that there's the residential component there. So that fills in some information for me to understand that natural progression to GWLRA. So let's talk about GWLRA a little bit. With over 32 communities, 10,000 residential units, it seems like your business has overcome a lot of challenges many have faced over the course of the pandemic. Can you kind of walk me through what has made GWLRA successful, especially through this past year and a half?
[00:04:41] TN: Absolutely. I would think, first and foremost, it's really the culture that we've created in the organization. Like I said, with my resume of Campbell's and Four Seasons, there was a vision statement and mission statements. Four Seasons is very popular and very well-known of the golden rule in treating others in the manner you expect to be treated. I think from my time at Four Seasons, we really took that to heart. Everyone understood it, and it really shaped decisions that we made. Many times with senior management, I would sit in rooms, and we would kind of be forced to make a decision, and we would ask ourselves, "How would we like to be treated in this situation?" I think that contributed to a lot of what was great about Four Seasons.
Similarly at GWLRA, we're really a values-driven organization. We really hold dear to those values, and they are creativity, ambition, integrity, and empathy. I would say that it is well-known that most employees can speak to that. But definitely on the residential side, this is something that we drill in, speak about a lot. I would say that our teams understand the importance of those values and can name those values.
So how does that bring us to the pandemic and I guess your question of were we successful? To steal a line from my boss, who probably stole it from somewhere else, you can't create a culture in a crisis. I think because we were instilling the importance of values, hiring for those values, we had and had been going at it about a good year and a half, two years before the pandemic hit. While I can't measure it and tell you specifically this, Nicolina, is how it looked. But I think it put us further ahead because our employees knew the importance of empathy and integrity and doing right by people during this pandemic. I think it helped guide us through because if everyone wasn't on the same page, it would have made it a whole lot more difficult.
In the value of empathy, two of the things that we did during the pandemic that we were especially proud of, one, within days of the pandemic starting in March, we created a resident-facing website. So we have our corporate website that acts as a marketing hub to rent apartments, but we created a separate website specific to our residents. That gave them updates because if you remember back at the start of this madness, we kind of didn't know what was going on. Not to say that we knew more than others but we would help bring in the information in the communities that we operated, so in Alberta, Ontario, Atlantic Canada, and Quebec. Provided information, ran recipe contests, kept it light but gave really important information of how can you use the amenities, how can you pay us, and then more importantly too if you are suffering because this was a difficult time for many people with job loss or layoffs. Also providing a program where we had a resident assistance program to help those that had challenges during that time.
Then lastly, I think that especially proud of, we created something called the resident touch base program. As you said, we had about 10,000 units across the country. There's probably on average two – So we reached out to 20,000 people over the course of the pandemic, called them directly really just with a simple question of how are you doing. Creating that empathy, understanding how are you doing and then how are we doing and what can we do better. It went a long way and it was really important to kind of understand where our residents, where their minds are at, and for us to demonstrate our values to our communities to say that we do express empathy. We really mean it, and that was something that really helped us through the pandemic.
I think my last comment to it is and it's not just us. But I think the industry, it forced us to pivot to technology. Prior to this, we had just, as an organization, got on Microsoft Teams. In March 2020, I really hadn't used it too often because that yet was in our culture. I'll tell you in very short order, I got to be an expert at Teams, as did we all. But I think Teams and online applications and online banking payments, it really accelerated that for us out of necessity. We almost had to do that in order to operate and rent apartments during the pandemic.
[00:08:26] NS: Yeah. I mean, I'm going off script here. But what you're telling me and what you had to do in a very short period of time sounds like it requires a lot of resources. How were you able to change or shift gears and acquire the resources necessary in order to achieve those things? Was it internal? Was it outsourced? How did you do that?
[00:08:47] TN: Yeah. It was, again, with the values of creativity. You might think you know GWLRA, owned by a very large insurance company [inaudible 00:08:54], we don't have unlimited resources. It is a pretty lean and mean team, so we did not have a luxury of hiring more people to get this work done. I think like many things during the pandemic, there was compromise, and some projects that were ongoing had to be shelved and put on the back burner. Some of them too because of the pandemic and everything that was going on, they weren't appropriate to do. It was more nice to have things, and I think we shifted very quickly to say these are the priorities, so creating that residential website and creating the touch-based programs. We needed to get creative.
At the same time, to be honest, in those first few months or if we look back to the summer of 2020, there wasn't a whole lot of leasing activity going on because people were scared or uncertain. Some projects – I had a construction project that was put on hold, so it did free up some time. But we had to be creative and we had to figure out new ways of doing it with the existing resources that we had. We did find some money to create some of these things. But in terms of the people to actually execute, we had to be very resourceful. But I'm very proud of my team and what they were able to put together in a short period of time.
[00:09:56] NS: Yeah, that's perfect, and it actually leads directly into my next question. What were these changes you made to how you approached marketing and leasing over that time, and how do you feel that strengthened your ability to bring properties to market and fill units faster than maybe before if that happened?
[00:10:14] TN: I guess I would start by saying, Nicolina, that I don't think we changed our approach. What did change is our strategy that in our industry, and I'm sure many of the listeners will know and I think I even mentioned on the panel that you either make a decision on what your lease up efforts are supposed to yield. Is it to increase the value of your property? So in which case, you hold faster rate and you want to increase your rate. Or is it about cash flow and occupancy? You need cash flow for whatever reason you need cash flow for, so you then sacrifice rate. Or you have a lower rate or you incentivize in order to fill the building.
Typically, we at GWLRA, it's about value of bringing value to our owners and institutions that we represent. But I think we shifted very quickly to say sort of seeing what was ahead and all the challenges, and it's like we have to move to cash flow. We don't have the luxury to continue to push race and we have to look at cash flow. We got to fill the building. So I think in understanding a change in strategy, the marketing follows. What I guess the changes were we did a lot more awareness than we typically did.
Prior to the pandemic, I didn't do social media advertising. I think, especially in Toronto or in Ontario, we were spoiled in that there wasn't a shortage of people. You would just run your ads through Rentsync on the [inaudible 00:11:25], and that would generate the awareness and leads. With higher vacancies, you need to market. You need to create awareness amongst those that are happily renting but maybe aren't considering a change in their environment. We need to get at those people. So that meant doing out-of-home advertising, in bus shelters, on buses, outdoor signage, and then doing social media advertising and getting at those consumers that maybe wouldn't have seen our ads because they're not out looking for us.
So I think that was the major change, and not all of them were successful. I don't think our out-of-home engagements were as successful as what we would have liked, but our social media campaigns worked very well. I think part of me is I don't want to go back to doing them because if I do it, it means there's higher vacancies. But if we run into that again, I wouldn't hesitate in doing it. It's, as you know, I think very, very targeted, and you can hone and refine it on the fly. You can dial up your spend. You can dial it down literally in a phone call. I really like that flexibility. As opposed to traditional print advertising, you book that ad in the publication a month out, two months out. Once it's there, it's there. You can't pull it back if you don't need it anymore.
[00:12:30] NS: Yeah. You want to pivot the direction you're taking with your ads. You swap out the photos you're using, whatever. You can't do that. But with social media, you do have that option. Yeah, that basically kind of answers you can now turn that on when you need to and fill units when there's vacancy at a faster rate now by knowing that that worked for you during that time. You probably won't repurpose the things that didn't work for you during that time.
[00:12:55] TN: It was really a lot of learning too because this was uncharted territory for all of us.
[00:12:59] NS: Everyone, yeah.
[00:13:00] TN: We like to pride ourselves at being first and being innovative. But I know from the very beginning of being on Instagram and as each month passed and as I said, "Okay, we need to do this," more and more and more of our competitors were doing it. So I think the positive of that is everyone's waking up to the same technology and the same need to be there. I like to see a rising tide lifts all boats. So if more people are doing that and doing it well, which I think they are, by and large, I think it speaks well of our industry that these are professional, creative, good-looking pieces of creative and communication, which speaks well. Because if we go back to the dark ages, what is social media? Like that never would have happened. Or the creative that was there was kind of basic or, at worst, unprofessional and shabby.
[00:13:42] NS: It's funny you say that too because I started at Rentsync three weeks before the pandemic hit, and our instagram strategy – Well, there really wasn't an Instagram strategy prior to that because we didn't need one, because property managers, leasing agents, marketers really weren't using Instagram as a primary channel. They weren't there, so we weren't targeting people through that. But now, I want to say it's probably our second most engaged channel for this industry. So that makes a lot of sense why that happened.
Now, I do want to move past this a little bit and talk about amenities. I know you mentioned that at the beginning. Have you changed your mind at all when it comes to what you amplify in your marketing at GWLRA Residential when it comes to amenities?
[00:14:33] TN: So amenities are a really big focus for us, especially as it relates for new developments. I think in Canada in 2021, if you want to be an A-list building or appeal to the higher end of the market, you need to have a very robust set of amenities. Five years ago, we took our first trip out to US, and we feel, and I don't think many of my colleagues in Canada would disagree, that the Americans – At that time in 2016, I would have said that the American multi-res developments are five to six years in advance of us. I think the gaps closed to about three years, but we saw a lot of things. We've been to Seattle, Washington DC, Manhattan, Southern California to see a lot of these projects and to, what I call, steel with pride, to take some of these ideas, see what they're doing, and apply them.
What we saw there was it was what I call an amenities arms race. Everyone was trying to keep up with someone else new innovative things. So from that initial trip, we brought back the idea of the dog run, of having a place for your dogs to recreate or to do what dogs need to do multiple times a day. Especially in Canada if it's cold out, to provide an atmosphere that's still outdoors that you can do but you don't have to really leave the building. That created a lot of appeal, and then really embracing ideas of sky lounges or rooftop amenities. One of our new projects that we launched with great views and capitalizing on that. Then another thing we stole from that Seattle trip was this idea of a secret room, where we were [inaudible 00:15:57] building and what was a door that said janitor's closet opened up to like a speakeasy type of bar. It was a rentable amenity space. That was five years ago. In our new Livmore project in Montreal that's going to launch next year, we're going to do a secret room.
[00:16:13] NS: That's awesome. That's very cool.
[00:16:14] TN: So amenities really being the focus and a way to differentiate yourself from your competition. Really that amenity space, especially now that interior space is shrinking, positioning that amenity space as your living room, as your recreation area, as your fitness, and it's really more important. With our new developments over the past three years, we've been pretty consistent of putting the amenities almost front and center. I think it's only secondary to location. You want to live here because of where it's located next to where you work or live or play. But then in a close second, it would be those amenities.
[00:16:47] NS: How have you handled amenities during the pandemic and opening, closing those types of facilities? Obviously, if you have outdoor spaces, those are probably the best for this time. But how have you handled it and how residents kind of adapted to it as well?
[00:17:02] TN: I think it's a pretty easy and straightforward question, Nicolina, too that we followed government mandate or government rules. So our newest development or at the time last summer of The Livmore High Park in Toronto, wonderful amenities, indoor pool, whirlpool, state-of-the-art fitness. We had a games room and all that, but we couldn't open them. We still did well in terms of renting but we weren't able to open those. So really managing it was pretty straightforward. I think residents 95% of the time are very understanding of it. I think from us as a property manager, you can kind of throw up your hands and sort of say like, "This isn't our decision. It's City of Toronto or Province of Ontario or whatever the case may be." That wasn't as challenging. Now, here we are. I think across the country and our property all the amenities are open, which is good.
[00:17:45] NS: That's good. Yeah, I'm just wondering. Where any concessions given during that time for renters?
[00:17:50] TN: No, not that I'm aware of. I think if it wasn't a global pandemic, it might have been a different story. But I think, again, by and large, residents were understanding and sort of say this is beyond our control. Yeah, I think most people too is, "I don't know if I want to swim in a pool with other people with this thing raging or using fitness equipment." So, yeah, there weren't any concessions given.
[00:18:12] NS: It's not like left and gone somewhere else and received those amenities. Everyone was under the same –
[00:18:17] TN: Exactly, exactly. It's not like I could have marketed and said, "Well, come live here at a GWLRA property, and we'll let you use the amenities." It was a level playing field I think for all, so I think it worked out well for everybody.
[00:19:10] NS: I know that at GWLRA, your residential portfolio spans across Canada. Have you noticed any major shifts in some of the cities you're leasing in, any major swings in vacancy rates, whether up or down?
[00:19:23] TN: I think to look at it in totality, the vacancy rate swings of increased vacancy were solely due to the pandemic. If not for that pandemic, we were cruising along pretty good. I think with the question being were there shifts in it, I would say no. That I think the markets where there were economic challenges before the pandemic, it just continued through. Like for instance, we have a pretty robust portfolio in Edmonton and in Calgary, more in Edmonton than Calgary. But there were problems with the price of oil and increase unemployment in the Province of Alberta. So they were already at elevated vacancy rates pre-pandemic. Then when this hit, it just sort of exacerbated it as well.
I did not see any kind of shifts in any major cities that weren't pandemic-related. If you had problems before the pandemic, you will have problems during the pandemic. If you were a pretty low-vacancy high-sought-after area, you did okay during the pandemic.
[00:20:17] NS: That said, Toronto, obviously during the pandemic, there seemed to be a mass exodus at one point. I live in Hamilton, so I saw that mass exodus because they all came here. I'm just curious. Have you seen a lift back, and now everyone's saying rent rates are going up again, everyone's going back to urban centers? Are you seeing that? Is that the –
[00:20:38] TN: Absolutely. I think we'll speak to GTA for now if we can. Our properties in Burlington and Oakville and also in Brampton were pretty solid. We did not have to offer concessions of one month free. We were able to maintain our rates because I think not quite suburbia. You are further outside of the city, and we did see an exodus of people moving out of the city. Why do people live in cities? The amenities there. But when there aren't any Leaf Games or Raptor Games or bars or restaurants open, a lot of people, and I know those people that sold their places in Toronto and moved out to Hamilton. But we're seeing that shift back. I've maintained and I'm not saying anything profound.
Cities are going to continue to be attractive places to live, that while no one could predict when the pandemic would end, I felt very strongly that it will end one day. When it does, cities will continue to be attractive. There was a recent, I think, Toronto Life article where it sort of expressed that someone sold their home and moved out to the country and are now having some regret that. See what they're missing in terms of conveniences or getting really good Thai food or things of that nature. But it is coming back, especially in Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver. These are our world cities that people want to live in, and it's coming back. The Leafs are back and the days are back and all of that. So I never thought it was going to go away but I did understand why people were leaving. It's coming back. It has come back.
[00:21:57] NS: That community is back to regular scheduled programming or to a degree of that. I think something that I kind of noticed because I did have family who moved from Toronto to Beamsville. But I feel like those that did that were kind of the people who were planning to do those moves, and all it did was propel them to do it sooner. So if you did those moves or major moves, it was probably something you were kind of thinking about. If you made kind of a panic decision, then, yes, you may be regretting that switch right now.
[00:22:29] TN: I think, Nicolina, sort of the interesting thing, the demographic thing that I wanted to add is that pre-pandemic, don't fully quote me on these numbers, but I think that the number of new Canadians and new immigrants into the GTA was in and around 100,000 to 120, 000 people a year. About 30,000 to 40,000, about a third of those people were moving to Toronto proper. Because of the pandemic, it really curbed a lot of immigration.
When this machine all starts up again, we're still faced with it. Especially in GTA, there is still a housing crisis. There is – Once new immigrants come back, demand will exceed supply, and that hasn't gone away. It's kind of easy to kind of think, "Oh, there's no one in the cities, and people have moved out. What are we going to do once –" It's slowly starting. Once it starts back up again, there will be less challenge. I'm not going to say it's easy, but there's going to be less challenges in filling our buildings because that source of demand is returning.
[00:23:19] NS: Absolutely, yeah. We actually – I had a podcast episode a few episodes ago about this and actually trying to mitigate that overwhelming amount of demand coming into places like the GTA because they do tend to go towards gateway cities like that, and trying to get them into the more suburban areas, and marketing those areas a little bit more so that they see those as attractive spots to go. So they're not struggling with finding a place in urban centers, but it all depends on what your lifestyle is, your career choices are. It's all going to affect that, so you can only do so much.
[00:23:54] TN: To your comment about demand and it returning, there was, at least in our experiences, a huge amount of pent-up demand that let's just talk 2021. Winter is winter, and people don't move, but if it's hard to believe. When we think back to the spring, we were still under a lockdown. I believe City of Toronto had most the longest lockdown in North America, if not the world. So there was a lot of pent-up demand. Starting May but June, July, August, by last four months, we've done the more leased transactions than any other time in our history. It's because things were opening up. People felt more comfortable to move around. They were holding off on making these decisions. We were seeing, I think, in our highest month, which I think was August, 30% more lease applications than we'd ever seen before, so it's a good sign.
[00:24:41] NS: We do a demand report, and I do that demand report and see those numbers every month. The year-over-year swings from 2020 to 2021 was like 300% more leads in the summer months versus last year. So that rings true for even our data as well.
Now, let's switch gears a little bit again and chat about some of the projects you've worked on at GWLRA. You sent over some assets that some didn't get covered in the live panel, and I wanted to give you a chance to talk about them, such as the branding and positioning around The Livmore at High Park. What were your key objectives with that project, and how do you think they were achieved?
[00:25:22] TN: The Livmore High Park launched just at the start of the pandemic. So February 2020, we got a few leases under our belt before everything hit the fan, so to speak. But that was our second Livmore project. So back in 2018, we launched the first Livmore at Bay & Gerrard, downtown Toronto, 595 units, 43 stories, highly-amenitized dog run, 28-story sky lounge, party rooms, screening rooms, meeting space, outdoor barbecues, etc., etc. We really did position that, and it continues to be our flagship property.
But the key objectives of really wanting to create an aspirational brand that people can relate to and really hitting rental against home purchase, and that's become less important today because home ownership gets further outside people's abilities. But really through the name Livmore, whatever it is you like to do, if it's cooking, is it playing hockey, whatever the case may be, living in a community like The Livmore, renting provides you with that ability to do more in your life. You don't have to pay maintenance fees, legal fees, land transfer taxes, things like that. You basically pay one price. Pay for your utilities, but it's covered and gives you that mobility and that freedom that if your job changes or you want to do something else, you have a greater ability to move out of that. Really by having all these amenities in a location, that you can do more with your life.
That's what we've continued to do. We had great success with Livmore Bay& Gerrard, so much so that we decided to call our next one The Livmore High Park. Everything I told you remains the same. We just are adapting our marketing to reflect where you are. That's if you look at the marketing for Livmore High Park, it's really green and reflective of the fact that, hey, one of the best parks, probably the best known park in the city is at your doorstep. Our next Livmore will launch next year, next summer in Montreal. We're calling it Livmore Ville Marie because the area it is in is called Ville Marie, which is Rene Levesque and Bleury downtown, and wanting to reflect a more sophisticated cosmopolitan because of its close proximity to great restaurants in Old Montreal and business and right in the central business district.
That's what we've been trying to do. It doesn't mean that all of our new projects will be Livmores. We're having one we just launched in Vancouver called Chronicle. But as I talk about the panel too of really wanting to create a brand with a narrative, with a story behind it that means something. With all due respect to some other projects, sometimes they just throw a name out there, and I've even asked some of them. It's like, "Well, what does it mean?" It's like, "It sounded good." I guess there's nothing really wrong with that. But I think from my background and experiences –
Listen, there's going to be a group of people who just don't appreciate it or don't care. I like the name it sounded cool. But I think there are people, many people, that want to understand what's in behind it. When you try to command top dollar, it's a brand as a fashion accessory. Wanting to be able to say, "I live in a Livmore," and then you want people to know, "Oh, yeah. That's a pretty cool building. That's a sophisticated building." It's a reflection of who you are, and that only can be achieved if you have a story to tell behind the brand. Because if you have a brand that's just brand x, and it's just a name, what does that say about me? It doesn't have to but it does mean that you're not really talking about the brand because you don't know what it's telling you.
We believe and we've seen. We hope that people talk about The Livmore. That's if you hop in an Uber or in a cab and say, "I want to go to The Livmore," I think people know where to go, and that's one of the things we're creating that we were looking to achieve.
[00:28:37] NS: There's depth there. It adds a layer of depth to where you live and your perception of where you live, I think. That's a key point. Now, I think you've kind of covered this but I just wanted to kind of highlight it, if you wanted to go in into some of the details of it. Your time at the Four Seasons, how if at all has that contributed to the way you market and lease properties at GWLRA?
[00:28:58] TN: Yeah. No, that's a great question, Nicolina. I think it goes back to what I was just saying about brand. I think my time at Four Seasons and Campbell's like really demonstrated that brands are very important. People care about them. People will go out of their way. I'm sure, Nicolina, in your own life, there are certain beverages, clothing brands, things that you like and prefer. If you stop to ask yourself why, you probably have a very good answer as to why you prefer Starbucks over Tim Hortons, if that may be the case, and understanding that that brand really matters and convenience matters.
What I learned, especially in Four Seasons, that if you can afford it, people are willing to pay for those conveniences. People are willing to pay. I think at the time it was $1,000. It might be $1,500 to spend a night at Four Seasons New York. When I [inaudible 00:29:41] why. But because you know the brand and you know what it represents, that if you stayed at highly amenitized, highly service-oriented. That's what we're trying to do here. That's what I in my time have really pushed because I had those experiences at Four Seasons. Knowing that if you can treat people a certain way and make good on the promises you make to them and have an aspirational brand, it can command a premium in the marketplace because that's the language everyone understands.
It is a business. But if you're going to do all of these things, what does it mean? Well, it means that you can command a higher price for your product or service. I think that's what that's taught me. I think of anything and what I've brought to GWLRA.
[00:30:20] NS: Totally. Makes sense. Now, I do want to ask you this and I'm really excited to hear what your response is. But can you tell me about your biggest failure or challenge as a marketer, whether it be at GWLRA, Four Seasons, or Campbell's, and ultimately what you feel you've learned from it?
[00:30:37] TN: Yeah. The biggest challenge has been in the current role at GWLRA and having to sell a product, an apartment that's so linked and tied to economic trends. When I kind of thought about this question and the answer to the question, working at Campbell Soup Company. Campbell Soup appeal to everyone because everyone can afford it. On the other side of the spectrum at Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, it was very exclusive for an exclusive clientele that not everyone can afford. So even through and I lived through recessions at both companies and that, by and large, your client base, your target market remains intact and remains the same.
Take that to GWLRA and apartments. Shelter is a basic need. It's typically the single largest monthly expenditure. When the market turns, it affects people. So what's been challenging for me of really having some communities right now that we do have high vacancy, and kind of like on one hand, it's like this isn't going to change until immigration is lifted because that's really been a large part of our demand. So on one hand, you stare at it, and you look at the numbers and say, "Historically, I'm making up numbers, but 50% of this building has been rented by new Canadian." When they're not coming, it's kind of like, "Okay. Well, this is what it's been. Where do we find?"
That's been challenging that it's so tied to economics, and we've been creative, and we've done a lot of things to create awareness in some of these communities. It's not enough, or we're just priced too high based on the competition. Again, with the pandemic and economic trends, people can't afford to pay what it was before. We might not be willing to drop our price to that level because I'm fond of saying it's pretty easy to fill up a building. You just drop it to a price that people are willing to pay. If you get it to a price that's low enough, you could lease up the building in days. But then that has a number of unintended consequences. How long will those people stay? What does that do to the demographic of the building? How will that impact the people that are currently living there? So there are a lot of questions of doing that.
But that's I think, for me, been the most challenging thing of as the economy goes, so goes the rental industry. As a marketer, you like to think that you have great influence, and you do have influence. But if, again, with my example, you're very reliant on immigration and that goes away, come up with something else to fill that gap. Sometimes, depending on where that property is located, there might not be enough to fill the gap, and then you have to decide. Am I going to drop my prices to bring in people that might not have been able to afford it? But it is a good effort. It's a decision made by the ownership group and our asset management teams. We do the best we can, but that would be my biggest challenge I would say.
[00:33:03] NS: Yeah, that's fair. Being at the mercy of the economy is definitely a challenge, I would say, as a marketer to have. Now, finally, I'd like to give you the opportunity to talk about any new projects on the go or in the works that you're excited about and that you can share with listeners.
[00:33:18] TN: I subtly referenced two of them. To the one that we just launched, we're in week three of our lease up. It is called Chronicle. So for GWLRA residential, it is our first multi-res community in Vancouver in British Columbia as a whole, and we're very excited about that because Vancouver is a great city, beautiful city. We're planning other multi-res developments there in the coming years. But Chronicle is on the corner of Robson. Nicola, if you're familiar with Vancouver, the location's fantastic. You are 10-minute walk away from the entrance to Stanley Park, Coal Harbour, English Bay, and then downtown the Vancouver Art Gallery. So extremely well located, 128 units, 21 stories, highly amenitized, top-of-the-line top class in terms of design and fit and finish. Initial response has been really, really good. Demand exceeds supply in Vancouver as well.
So I think going back to the other question too is that when demand exceeds supply, one could say, "Well, marketing is important because the marketplace just wants it," but going back to the whims of the economy and the market. But we're really excited about Chronicle. The development teams and construction have done a fantastic job, and it's a product worthy of the high rents that we're looking to achieve. Then the second project that slated sprockets to see next summer is Livmore in Montreal.
What's exciting for me especially is we have a very robust pipeline of new developments Mississauga, Brampton, more in Toronto, more in Vancouver, project sites that we're looking at in Edmonton and Calgary and in North Vancouver so. My team will be kept very busy. There's lots of going on.
[00:34:50] NS: North Vancouver is just skyrocketing right now, I see.
[00:34:54] TN: Oh, it's crazy. It's good. I think it bodes well, and it's really working to change the narrative behind rental that this is not your father's rental apartment. This is a contemporary. Like I was saying before, I think that there's this renaissance going on where renting I think was stigmatized in a sense that before, that maybe five years ago like, "Oh, you're renting." That's because you can't afford to buy something. While that may be true for some, I think if you look at American cities, that's not the case. People are cheating. They could afford to buy but are choosing to rent because of the lifestyle it allows them, the mobility that it gives them, the access to amenities that they can do. It's a very understood and practiced behavior, which I think is growing in acceptance in Canada. I think it's largely because we are creating products that is equal to, if not greater than condos. So people go, "Hmm, maybe I don't need to buy something. Maybe I can rent from here." I think more and more people are doing that.
Like we mentioned before with the lack of affordability of detached homes in markets across the country, we as rental housing providers are really filling a need in the gap that's in the marketplace, so we would expect demand to continue, especially if we can create product that people are interested in and looking for and creating marketing campaigns and brands that resonate with people and make them interested in our product. Lots to be excited about.
[00:36:09] NS: Yeah, absolutely. Well, Todd, it's been an absolute pleasure chatting with you today. Before you go, can you please let listeners know where they can connect with you or with GWLRA online, social, wherever you'd like.
[00:36:22] TN: I'm on LinkedIn. Otherwise you can send me a direct email to todd.nishimura@GWLRA.com. I would love to hear from you. Any questions or thoughts or anything you'd love to share. So, yeah, either one is great. I will respond to you promptly if you ask me a question.
[00:36:36] NS: Thank you so much. Well, Todd, thank you again for taking the time to join me on this episode of Sync or Swim and until next time. Keep swimming.
E54: Leveraging AI to Improve the Multifamily Leasing Experience
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