NMHC OPTECH 2020 - Making a Virtue of a Virtual Format
by Dom Beveridge | November 20, 2020
We recently wrapped the multifamily industry's traditional pre-Thanksgiving technology pow-wow, NMHC OPTECH. Of course, as COVID levels spike across the nation, this year's event came without the normal clamor, social gatherings and ad-hoc meetings between sessions. But the organizers did an excellent job of fostering lively conversation and once again delivered the most well-curated technology conference in our industry. Here are some things that stood out from a packed and engaging program.
(Note: the session title links below include links to OPTECH sessions that are only available to registered attendees.)
CHAT IS HOT!
Well, to be more precise, AI leasing assistants have grown in stature in our industry this year. From the opening pitches, it is clear that software vendors are excited about AI leasing agents. To add to the established vendors in the domain, both Yardi and RealPage chose to focus their "opening pitches" on their new chat products. Multiple marketing vendors took the same opportunity to showcase their chat products.
The rise of AI leasing is a trend that we predicted strongly in our 20 for '20 white paper in February of this year: even before COVID changed everything it seemed clear to us that many operators would start to adopt this technology in 2020. In The Fully Automated Leasing Experience, three operators discussed their experiences with AI leasing - two of whom began their journey this year.
While some operators are bullish about the potential headcount savings that AI leasing can offer, this had not been the focus of the two new adopters on the panel. They had seen benefits from cutting the amount of agent time spent on menial follow-up tasks and were generally more focused on how human agents should interact with their robotic counterparts.
From the marketers on the panel came two interesting insights. First, it is a mistake to view AI leasing agents as proactive lead generators: you still need to improve lead capture on your website and landing pages. Second, the AI agents are great at executing the transactional tasks to keep things moving. However, operators must still layer in storytelling and messaging that helps build the relationship and set your community apart in the customer's mind.
Self-Guided Tours Continue to Accelerate
The industry's speed in adapting to COVID (a subject that will get significant airtime in the next edition of 20 for '20) took center stage in the "New Options for Leasing Tours" panel. Camden Property Trust spoke of having closed its doors the first Friday of Lockdown, with self-guided tours up and running everywhere by Tuesday.
The Management Company and Pegasus reported having taken a training-centric approach that leveraged the resources available to leasing agents, leaning heavily on social channels, YouTube, etc.
What was striking in the examples that the companies shared was the creativity that agents had been able to show. Highly personalized videos were used to set expectations before the tour and to perform persuasive follow-up activities. As Wendy Dorchester of Pegasus Residential put it: "The changes we've made have turned us into a sales organization as well as a communication organization." As we have discussed in these pages, the changes that COVID forced upon us will generate benefits for years to come.
There is encouraging data of the impact of self-show on business, In the panel "Data Tells the Story of the Pandemic," Todd Katler of Anyone Home shared some interesting statistics. 70% of tours take place within two hours of booking, compared to 65% of agent-led tours taking place within 24 hours, for example.
It's tempting to view this data point as evidence that the self-tour element speeds up the sales process. However, prospects may be using the self-tour option when they are at a slightly different place in their tour process. For example, the apparently shorter cycle may come about because prospects are doing even more of their research online, and hence their minds are closer to being made up by the time they book the tour.
If I have one criticism of the extensive coverage at this show of the changing multifamily leasing process, it is the tendency of some speakers to over-interpret what the data is telling us. For example, higher web traffic volumes are not always a sign of great marketing, especially when quarantine was restricting foot traffic to properties. As always, we must remember that correlation is not causation!
Revenue Management is Hanging in There
Anyone attending this year's OPTECH for the first time may be excused for thinking that nothing went on in our industry this year except the automation of leasing! But as "Pricing Strategies and Revenue Management in Uncertain Times," a panel of experts led by our own Donald Davidoff demonstrated, pricing and revenue management has been working hard to steer performance this year.
It's easy to underplay the importance of revenue management during a downturn, so it is good to see the organizers giving the experts an opportunity to share their first-hand experiences. And expertise (rather than technology per se) has been the driver through this pandemic, as local market nuances have made the critical difference in guiding performance.
RealPage treated us to a talk about their forthcoming "AI revenue management". The discussion majored on a familiar theme: the role of pricing as a "uniter" of other functions within the organization (Marketing, screening, operations, for example). It will be interesting to see how the vision discussed during this session will translate into a new product.
Attitudes to Business Intelligence are Maturing
Finally, another trend that we noted in this year's 20 for '20 paper: there continue to be signs of changing attitudes towards business intelligence (BI). During the "Ask the Tech Pros" panel, it was interesting to note that two of the three participants have BI initiatives in their plans for 2021.
The subject got more detailed coverage in one of the best sessions at this year's event: "Lots of Data, But Not a Lot of Business Intelligence." In this session, three operators discussed their experiences in getting to a single source of truth in their organizations. Roscoe Properties shared that one of the first objectives in building their platform was deciding which systems the "truth" comes from and getting everyone to agree to it.
GID shared the importance of business buy-in, noting that every project that the BI team works on has a business champion. A big general theme of the session was the need to understand the why behind BI. GID put it well: "I see BI systems as lowering the bar to curiosity," i.e., making it easier for talented and creative people to access insights about their businesses.
As we noted earlier this year from our own research: BI adoption in multifamily is a story of evolution, not revolution. Based on this panel, it seems to be ongoing: everyone agreed that predictive analytics remains a huge upside opportunity and that AI will have a role to play in it. Everybody also agreed that the appetite for BI has grown post-COVID, as operations have virtualized and people need more, and more types of data.
There were, of course, many other valuable and engaging sessions at this year's show, and all-in-all it was great to see so many familiar faces, albeit through a monitor. We look forward to returning to NMHC OPTECH in-person in 2021, when the show will take place at the National Harbor, MD.