What COVID-19 College Closures Mean for Property Marketing

Coronavirus has disrupted the college housing industry. Find out how property marketing can help navigate the uncertainty as students return to campus.

The coronavirus outbreak has impacted just about every part of the economy. Colleges and college housing have not enjoyed any sort of exemption. Some schools still aren’t sure they’ll reopen for physical classes in the fall. Even if universities open, many families have concerns about their ability to help students pay for it. Because of this, college housing property managers and owners face an uncertain future and a more competitive market. Learn more about marketing to college students during the COVID-19 crisis and its aftermath.

Marketing to college students for property management impacted by COVID-19

Before a college marketing agency can predict the outlook for housing, it’s important to consider the forecasted state of college enrollment. Even if universities and colleges will open their doors for the fall semester, enrollment may diminish.

A college consulting firm, Simpson Scarborough, conducted a study of prospective freshmen and reported some grim news:

  • One in five of these students said they would have to delay college plans because of changes to their family finances. An additional 11 percent said that they were not yet certain if they would have to delay their freshman year or not.
  • Over half of respondents reported negative changes to family finances, even if they could still attend school.
  • For students who had already attended college but hadn’t yet graduated, over forty percent said their family had suffered financial setbacks because of the pandemic.
  • One of the firm’s founders, Elizabeth Scarborough Johnson, said they conducted the study at the end of March. Sadly, she expected that the number of students delaying college would continue to rise.

Out of all the current college students surveyed, 97 percent said that their own college offered online classes to replace the canceled on-campus schedule. At the same time, most of the students found online learning less satisfying than in-person classes. In fact, only five percent said that they they liked learning online better. To be fair, these students had initially signed up for a college campus experience, and the professors in charge of the classes may have had little experience teaching online before they urgently needed to adjust.

In any case, Ms. Johnson said she believed this common attitude among students meant that students were eager to return to campus life as soon as they could. While the coronavirus has disrupted colleges right now, she believed things would return to normal once the crisis had passed.

How can college marketing for student housing deal with coronavirus uncertainty?

Nobody blames college housing for the coronavirus. At the same time, property managers need to focus upon a few aspects of their brand reputation. Even if it’s not their fault, some people will judge them on the way they handled the unexpected crisis.

StudentHousingBusiness.com, an industry journal, spoke with private owners of student housing. Besides having concerns about the future, the property owners said that they urgently struggled with the problems of lease cancellations and maintaining healthy buildings.

Lease terminations

Right now, many private property managers haven’t appeared to demonstrate much flexibility when it comes to leases. For example, the news in Austin, Texas ran a story about parents that had to pay Landmark Properties $12,000 to terminate their daughter’s lease when pandemic-impacted finances made it impossible for her to attend college at Texas A&M in the fall. That sum amounted to rent for six months out of the twelve-month lease.

As specified in the lease, the property management company gave the family an option to find somebody to sublet the lease. With the state of college enrollment, the parents failed to find anybody to sublet online. While Landmark was within its legal rights to stick to the terms of the lease, it certainly did not do its brand much good to get publicity from this sort of news story.

While some property companies haven’t yet shown much flexibility with lease terminations, Student Housing Business found that many properties have tried to work with residents in other ways. For instance, some companies have waived late fees and deferred evictions and collections.

Maintaining safety

Meanwhile, property managers with current tenants should follow the best practices from the CDC guidelines. These may include closing down common areas and shared amenities, deferring nonessential maintenance, limiting office visits, and sanitizing all accessible areas multiple times a day.  Both students and staff may need some additional guidelines to help maintain sanitary conditions.

Communicating with all stakeholders

Christian O’Lone serves as the regional property manager for DMG investments, a private student housing company.  He said that his company has not been financially impacted yet because they attracted displaced students from on-campus housing to replace students who had left.

In addition to taking safety measures, he says that it’s very important to communicate and educate staff and current or future tenants. Because of this, he believes that one of the largest impacts of the outbreak to property management will be increased activity on advertising platforms and social media to compete for residents and keep stakeholders in the loop. As an example, Peak Housing has been producing videos to instruct student resident in the right way to perform simple maintenance tasks, such as changing light bulbs and air filters.

Tips for marketing to college students during and after coronavirus

Even though college housing usually doesn’t house families, it’s considered part of the multifamily housing market. Andrew Bowen has worked in property management for this kind of housing for almost 30 years. Incidentally, he got his start when he applied to serve as a resident assistant in his residence hall at the University of Santa Barbara.

He told RealPage that he felt particularly qualified to speak on the topic because his oldest child had to return home from the University of North Texas to finish his classes online. He also mentioned that he tried and failed to scour the lease to see if there was some sort of clause he could use to get out of making more payments.

In other words, Mr. Bowen could understand property management marketing concerns both from the perspective of the property and the student’s families. Based upon his experiences with college housing and many years operating multifamily housing, he has some suggestions that can help with marketing to college students and their families.

Remain aware of optics

Property management needs to understand the impact of the coronavirus on family finances, both because of shrinking investments and job losses. Renters will look for value, so properties may need to explore some very competitive incentives that will help reduce rental costs, even if that means sacrificing some popular amenities.

In some cases, it may be time to take a page from the hospitality industry and introduce some more flexible lease cancellation options. These can certainly encourage families to choose one apartment over another in these uncertain times.

Keep up with the situation

It’s important for properties to work with their associated colleges and universities to learn if colleges will open up for on-campus learning next semester. On that note, parents and students will wonder about the same thing, so it’s possible that the demand won’t increase until these announcements get made. Property managers might need to expect delays in demand.

Get ready to react fast

Since the current situation may shorten the typical leasing cycle to a few weeks and not several months, marketers may have to also compress their normal marketing funnels. They should get their marketing plan in place and make certain that they can set in motion as soon as they have enough information to act.

Keep communicating with prospects and current lease holders

Mr. Bowen noted that he stopped receiving renewal emails from his child’s apartment complex. He also stopped getting promotions from the other apartment complexes they had visited before deciding on the current one. He says that instead of communicating less, property managers should communicate more.

Actually, this shortage of emails and messages from many college housing companies can prevent a good opportunity for the properties that do continue to stay in contact. Even if the property doesn’t have new information, it’s a good idea to let people know they’re waiting for official announcements and working hard to preserve a safe, healthy environment.

Properties should make lists of prospects from the past few years and send emails to acknowledge that both they and the students struggle with uncertainty and how they’re working to plan for it. They can also send out the same sorts of messages through ads and social media.

The future of marketing college housing to college students and families

Eventually, students will return to campuses. When universities first open, they may suffer from decreased enrollments, particularly for the first few semesters. For properties to compete, they need to strive to keep their properties healthy and consider more aggressive promotions and flexible terms. Most of all, they should stay in communication with their current residents and prospects to let them know they understand the uncertainty but are still making good plans.

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