The Management Recruitment Group’s James Gregory and Hayley Mintern sat down with the Operations Director at Essential Living, Lavinia Clarke, to talk through her first few years in the Build to Rent sector.
How have you found the transition from Purpose Built Student Accommodation (PBSA) to Build to Rent (BTR)?
I have found the transition really smooth. One of the great things about the BTR sector is the sharing of information amongst industry leaders and bodies.
One key difference is my involvement in other areas of the business and different departments internally. My relationship with our Head of Lettings, Director of Special Projects and our HR Lead has been integral to the success of our business over the last 2 years. Our CEO is very active in the business and knows every team member by name. He has a clear vision as to how he wants Essential Living to be and this resonates throughout our whole business.
The legislation is different, which has required some education for myself and others that we bring into the industry, but I feel the transition has generally been successful. Additionally, the key relationships in BTR are with the local council, rather than with the university, which means the way we deal with our resident issues is very different to PBSA.
What are the key differences in terms of customer journey in Build to Rent vs PBSA?
Even if the user group is different, customer service needs to be at the forefront of what the company does in order to be successful. The BTR sector is not as mature than the PBSA sector and so many learns can be made from it in terms of underwriting, technology and Health and Safety. Although customer experience is important in both sectors, the expectations and relationships with the residents are very different. Ultimately, in BTR, you are dealing with residents in their chosen home, often on a long-term agreement so residents will be with you for a longer time, so the relationship continues to grow with them and the onsite team. I think it is a less transient relationship with student accommodation residents as you are providing someone with a home and community to live in. The property communities is at the heart of everything that Essential Living does and shapes a lot of the decisions we make. From the furniture we supply to the events we host.
There are a lot of suppliers from the PBSA sector now moving across to BTR because of the similarities in building and product. It is important that they adapt their products, so it isn’t a ‘one size fits all model’ as the customer demographic and their expectations are different. Its been great to continue relationships with the suppliers old and new, Working together on some exciting projects and them understand our peak operating times of the year.
Student Accommodation tends to be more a “one size fits all” product, where as in build to rent, you can have your flat furnished or unfurnished. All of our apartments our made with a slightly different feel and design in order to give people a choice. All our amenity spaces for example are designed with a different theme that fit around the latest trends mixed with the local area.
Which sectors have proven to be the most effective for Essential Living to recruit operational roles from?
Some of the staff that have been employed from the Student Accommodation Sector into BTR have found the customer journey very different and similar at the same time. Understanding the customer journey is key for a smooth transition as well as a structed and well thought out induction programme.
We have had a lot of success recruiting from the Leisure and Hotel sector as the similarities in understanding the needs of a demanding exceptional customer service is very apparent. This is particularly true of hotels as you are dealing with guests in a room focused environment with high expectations of service standards. In terms of the Leisure sector, and more specifically gyms, you are dealing with a customer that you plan to build a long-term relationship with, which shares obvious similarities to the BTR resident journey.
Essential Living takes all of our hires through an induction and training programme where we look at the customer journey and service standards. We are keen to train and develop our own staff. I am a strong advocate of this and have witnessed first-hand the positive impact it can have on your ability to progress internally.
What are the key trends that Essential Living focuses on with regards to amenities?
Essential Living has some industry leading amenities spaces ranging from state-of-the-art gyms to rooftop terraces and communal dining areas. Having somewhere to exercise on site is great for a lot of our residents who are working from home at the moment as it helps them with their mental health and wellbeing.
We have taken advantage of the lockdown period to invest in some of our spaces and in doing so have ensured more guests can use bookable spaces for events or home working. Our dining spaces are now almost fully booked up until November and are proving very popular with our residents.
In terms of focusing on the future, flexible working means we will have to provide sufficient space for our communities to work from home. We want this to feel informal with good flexibility whilst still possessing a homely feel.
Talk to us about some of the events that Essential Living put on for their residents. They seem to be high on the agenda?
We are renowned for the wide range of events that we offer our residents and this is something that I am personally very passionate about in order to have the opportunity to meet as many of our residents as we can. Past events have included cocktail masterclasses, cooking classes, Yoga classes and much. We think these events play an integral part of shaping our residential community and are a contributing factor as to why our residents stay with us for a longer period of time than the industry average.
We felt it was important that our guests didn’t feel isolated during the lockdown so we put on virtual events to make sure that people were still interacting. These ranged from virtual sushi making classes, to a DJ entertainment night and various other covid safe social events. We also encouraged residents to get together for socially distanced running clubs and exercise classes after the ease of restrictions.
Our residents are very active on our social media groups and this has helped to ensure isolated people feel like they have a good support network around them if needed.
We and our residents are looking forward to restrictions easing so we can get back to our fully fledged events programme. We have some great stuff planned!
Want to read more? Have a read of some of the other interviews from this series:
- John Blanshard (Director of Operations at Grainger) on the transition from Student Accommodation to Build to Rent.
- Jeremy Fletcher (Chief Executive Officer at Fresh Property Group) talking about how the student experience has changed in recent years.