Skip to main content

Our top takeaways from NAA Apartmentalize 2021

Missed out on NAA Apartmentalize or just want to relive it? Here’s our recap.

A lot has changed since Apartmentalize 2019. And after a pandemic-induced hiatus in 2020, we couldn’t wait to attend NAA Apartmentalize 2021 in Chicago last week.

We weren’t alone.

For many multifamily operators, this was their first large in-person event since COVID hit. Even the city of Chicago was eagerly anticipating the arrival of Apartmentalize. During a keynote session, Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot said that Apartmentalize was the first big tradeshow held in the city since the pandemic began!

With all the events that unfolded over the past two years, there was a lot of ground to cover about what’s changed in our industry. So once we arrived in Chicago, we were ready to mingle, attend some sessions, and catch up on lost time.

Between sessions and our conversations with apartment operators, several themes became apparent. So, if you weren’t able to make it to the show, here are our biggest takeaways from Apartmentalize.

Everyone’s trying to figure out Gen Z

Just when it felt like we were starting to understand Millennials, there’s now a new generation overtaking the rental market.

Enter Gen Z. In 2020, this cohort made up the fast-growing renter demographic in the country. And in two years, it will make up 30% of the workforce.

Gen Z are digital natives. That means they were born in the age of the internet. They’ve never lived in a world that didn’t have social media, smart phones, or a heavy reliance on online shopping. While that might make many of us feel old, it’s also got the industry buzzing about what Gen Z’ers want.

So what, exactly, is that? In the session, “Meet Gen Z: Understanding the Next Generation of Renters”, speakers shared the results of a survey of this cohort. Tech-enabled communities that have property-wide WiFi and smart technology top their priority list. Additionally, here are some other key findings:

Multifamily operators are more comfortable than ever with technology and quick pivots.

“We had to quickly pivot.”

If you attended any of the sessions, you certainly heard this line. That’s because much of NAA Apartmentalize 2021 focused on how the pandemic changed day-to-day business for apartment operators.

Until COVID hit, our industry relied heavily on face-to-face interactions to conduct business. In socially-distanced times, this wasn’t an option. So many of us had to upgrade our technology platforms. Fast.

If you found yourself in this position, it was certainly anxiety-provoking. Our industry has  always been cautious about embracing new technologies. More than likely, any technology rollout you were involved with pre-COVID was meticulously planned. But as the pandemic played out, companies were suddenly going full speed ahead on new technology platforms. It pushed many people out of their comfort zones.

And as it turns out, NAA Apartmentalize 2021 attendees overwhelmingly said these changes served on-site teams and residents well. What were the winners? Self-guided tours, access control systems, community messaging apps, and workplace collaboration platforms kept businesses running exceptionally well during COVID.

Even technologies that had been around for some time – like digital rent payments – saw a dramatic uptick in utilization. And judging from the positive comments from NAA Apartmentalize attendees, these technologies are here to stay.

“Building the bridge while we cross it”

While the upgraded technology has been great, there’s another positive that came out of the COVID pivots. Moving quickly with technology served as a confidence builder for many apartment operators.

Implementing new technologies across a portfolio has always been a scary thing. Being forced to move ahead at a rapid pace – and seeing success – has made many more open-minded about future rollouts.

Panelists at “Jack Be Nimble: The Art of the Pivot” echoed their newfound roll-with-the-punches approach. That’s not to say there’s not a tremendous amount of planning and KPI’s that are expected when a technology goes into place.

It just means that many apartment operators are more comfortable with making tweaks along the way. As one panelist said, “We are building the bridge while we cross it. If it’s not 100% perfect, we’ll just keep pivoting.”

AI isn’t so scary anymore.

Picture it: Apartmentalize 2019. We started learning the basics of a new technology called artificial intelligence (AI). At the time, it seemed very futuristic for multifamily. And, a little threatening too. Would robots start to replace leasing agents? Wouldn’t the resident experience suffer if everyone started using AI?

That wasn’t something we worried would happen anytime soon. Because in 2019, apartment operators didn’t think AI would be a trend for at least another decade. But here we are in 2021 and AI is a heavily-emphasized topic at Apartmentalize. Many companies began using AI after COVID hit, and many more are on the verge of implementing it at their properties.

The most common use case is to aid the leasing process. Panelists at “Is Artificial Intelligence Changing Rental Housing Management?” all agreed that many leads come in after 5 pm. That’s when leasing agents are usually off the clock. And since many people want a response right away (we’re looking at you, Gen Z!), chatbots can give them the information or schedule an appointment for them at that moment.

Chatbots bring apartment operators impressive results.

So did all the Doomsday worries about AI come true? Definitely not.

In fact, companies who were talking about their experience with AI saw extremely positive results. The most resounding response about AI was that it simply removed many mundane tasks for their human team members.

Kristin Hupfer at Equity Residential said that their chatbot named Ella sent 750 responses in the first month. And, they estimated that it saved their on-site team members 2 hours per day!

When asked how their on-site teams felt about Ella, Hupfer responded, “They love her…now.” She admits it was scary for her associates in the beginning. But now, they are happy to have her as part of the team. Now her associates can better focus on residents and in-person leads.

On-site teams are extremely valued.

AI might be infiltrating management companies, but one thing’s for certain. There’s a lot of love towards on-site team members. And there’s little chance they will be replaced with technology.

While some companies have implemented AI, it’s shown them that a personal touch is still needed – and even essential. When someone goes on a self-guided tour, or books an appointment with a chatbot, a follow-up from a team member is still the best way to sign a lease.

Not just that, but during COVID, it became overwhelmingly clear how much residents depend on their community managers and maintenance teams. And, how hard they work. Executives verbalized how their teams went above and beyond for residents throughout COVID. Furthermore, it’s apparent that on-site teams play an important role in a positive resident experience.

Executives sang the praises of their on-site team members throughout many of the sessions. At Zego, nominations for our Property Management Hero award have been pouring in since its inception. But to hear the constant stream gratitude expressed for on-site teams was a top highlight of Apartmentalize 2021.

See you next year, Apartmentalize 2022!

All in all, we’d say Apartmentalize 2021 was a huge success. If you weren’t able to book your appointment with us at Apartmentalize for a 15-minute Resident Experience health check, book a meeting here! We’re happy to give you some customized advice about creating an optimal living experience.

Until then, we’ll see everyone at next year’s Apartmentalize in our home city of San Diego!

Related Content