Savills recently hosted an engaging seminar in conjunction with Women in Property. The all- female panel, each stars in their particular fields, had come together to discuss design in Build to Rent (BTR). The seminar touched on a number of key considerations when designing BTR schemes, but the most interesting to my mind was the focus on service and customer experience. Alex Notay, Chairman of the Panel and Strategist at the Places for People Group, noted at the outset that service is experience, not just amenity. Michela Hancock, Senior Development Director at Greystar described BTR as ‘a living, breathing thing’. Her view is that top service is all about the customer walk through, about how the customer experiences the building. Michela walks her design team through each development a number of times, each time wearing different ‘hats’ – first as the property manager, then as the maintenance person, and so on. Asked what the best BTR model is, Michela said there isn’t one, but that every time, service is key; simply adding a roof terrace to a development is not enough. It’s win-win all round – great service yields less customer turnover and better rental values. Polly Simpson from Savills Residential Capital Markets team agreed that there is empirical evidence that good service pays.

Kate Freer, Vice President of Realstar International was in complete agreement. Realstar has resident managers who monitor service and help to create a community in their BTR developments. It has recently launched UNCLE, ‘a landlord that’s got your back’, and makes a number of service delivery promises. These include the right for the customer to break the tenancy in the first two weeks if they are not happy, no hidden administration fees, no rent when there are routine disrepairs that are the landlord’s responsibility and which are not fixed within 48 hours, and free wifi.

Lucy Smith, Partner at HTA Graphic Design, emphasised how she aims to persuade her clients that it’s all about the user experience, and the importance of the public realm and common spaces. She also underlined the need to understand demographics – not everyone is a young professional! It’s not just about the design of the apartments but also of the building – it has to work for everyone.

Michela also spoke about the importance of getting staffing right. The US is way ahead of the UK on BTR where property management degrees are more common and property management and hospitality are seen as a vocation. But simply bringing US staff over here doesn’t work. Greystar runs a secondment programme with San Francisco where employees get to learn about US style service and can then apply those skills when they return to the UK.

When asked about the importance of the tech offering in BTR developments, Alex said that developers should be future proofing their technology. Michela agreed, adding that tech has a short life span so it’s important to get the basics right rather than focusing on gimmicks which will rapidly be out of date. But, she also said, you can add real value with technology. In the US, Greystar offer iPads in some buildings – which don’t work outside the building she added!

The panel comments accorded with the experience of our BTR developer clients. At Mishcon de Reya, our Real Estate team has acquired extensive expertise in PRS/build-to-rent development and management, having acted for Delancey at East Village on the setting up of the first major commitment of scale to the PRS sector for decades. We also act for leading BTR players such as Fizzy Living and Essential Living. We regularly attend events such as this in order to be at the forefront of the discussion around this fast-moving sector.

Overall, it was a fascinating discussion with useful insights which provided much food for thought.

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