2020 was a year that was anything but ordinary. Apartment community managers and commercial real estate leasing agents found themselves coming up with new and inventive ways to show their empty apartment homes and available spaces in order to stay in business.
Tina Hurd is a long-time apartment community manager with Camden, which owns and manages three apartment communities in Westchase District. When the pandemic struck closing apartment community offices to prospective residents, Hurd says she and her team were “open to whatever we could do to show an apartment to a prospective resident” including Facetime tours, online 360 tours and pre-recorded video tours.
“Virtual tours are not new to Camden,” said Hurd. Throughout the summer and early fall, the leasing office was open by appointment only, offering virtual, self-guided and in-person tours. “We want to show the community to a prospective resident however they are comfortable,” said Hurd.
The use of self-guided tours grew as the leasing team looked for new ways to show their property. “The key was to get as much information from the customer about what they are looking for,” said Hurd. “We’d email them brochures and property information. When they came to the property, we’d view their ID through the door and give them a map of the community and a code that would open a lockbox at a vacant unit. They could go view the model unit by themselves. That’s incredibly awkward when you’re in the sales business,” said Hurd, lamenting that they could not “sell” the apartment or the community with the kind of one-on-one engagement for which they’re trained.
Changes become permanent
Ruha Vohra, manager of the 456-unit Westchase Creek Apartments, says her leasing office staff relied on social media to help promote their community during the worst of the pandemic. “We adapted quickly. We posted more frequently on Facebook and Instagram and even filmed some 10-15 second TikTok videos.” said Vohra.
Vohra says they’ve posted many online videos and hosted Zoom calls with prospective tenants. “With an iPad or phone, we could walk through an apartment home and offer a virtual tour to the prospective resident,” said Vohra. All applications and proof of income are submitted online.
Vohra says the Zoom calls and video tours are probably here to stay. “We have a lot of out-of-state prospects. We can do everything online, so the only thing they have to do is come pick up their key. It’s leasing with no face to face contact.”
Office leasing picks up at year end
Leasing activity in Houston has picked up recently, according to Granite’s Steve West, senior director of leasing. “For the first two or three months of the pandemic, we led about one tour a week. Now we’re doing several tours a week,” said West.
Granite has also leaned into technology to help them lease office space. “We had been working on developing virtual walk-thrus for our office spaces,” said West. “COVID really forced us to speed up that process. We’re also using DocuSign to execute leases and amendments. That speeds up the process and really helps when everyone is working from home.”
West anticipates that by the end of the year, they’ll have completed about 40 transactions. “Houston is outperforming other markets where we own property. That’s counter-intuitive to what you’d expect, given the status of the oil industry,” said West.
West says that number includes renewals and short-term deals. “Some companies are still trying to figure out what’s happening with the economy. Bigger companies, in particular, are delaying decisions as long as possible,” said West.
West noted that the residential real estate market has always had beautiful photography and online walk-thrus, but commercial real estate is catching up. “We’ve budgeted to create virtual walk-thrus for all our spaces. It allows us to show off a project and walk room to room, offering a 360 degree view of the space. We’re embracing the technology for the long-term.”