On a business trip to Indianapolis in February 2001, Mark Gorman stayed in one of his company's model apartments. Each night, as he finished up work or answered e-mails in the adjacent leasing office, he noticed prospects strolling up to the doors and checking to see if the office was still open.

"This would be at 7 or 8 o'clock at night, and of course, we were closed by then," says Gorman, vice president of development and operations at Menomonee Falls, Wis.-based Continental Properties Co., which develops and manages multifamily, retail, and hospitality properties across 14 states in its $536 million portfolio. "It struck me that we were missing a lot of traffic that was already coming to our door."

Dave Cutler
Dave Cutler

Not satisfied with simply leaving printed flyers outside in a plastic box, Gorman started exploring ways to deliver fast, relevant information to prospects–while collecting leads–no matter what the time of day. Visit any of Continental's four most recently completed Springs apartment communities today, and you'll find the fruits of his labor: a fully automated 24-hour leasing center. The ATM-style electronic kiosks, which are mounted in the outside wall of leasing offices, present prospects with floor plans while taking them on a virtual tour of the property. The touch-screen machines serve up resident testimonials, give close-ups of the pool and gym, and even display optional décor packages for different units at the Springs. Perhaps most important, prospects can leave their contact information or even apply on site, ensuring that the lead won't disappear into the darkness.

The results? A 5 percent increase in leads at Continental–and improved closing rates. Combined with the company's Web site, the machines are producing better-informed and better-qualified prospects.

"Not only are we capturing that nighttime prospect, but they come in a lot more prepared. I equate it with somebody coming in on a job interview: They already know the basics," says Gorman. At $7,000 to $10,000 per machine, those leads don't come cheap. But Gorman says his firm's investment has been worth it, and Continental plans to put its 24-hour leasing centers at all its newly constructed properties. "It's been a phenomenal marketing tool for us," says Gorman.

While still an emerging presence in the apartment industry, electronic kiosks and flat, touch-screen panels are popping up at leasing offices nationally, as multifamily firms tap their potential to service prospects after hours, act as collaborative ice-breakers, or serve as interactive "waiting rooms" during peak periods. Prospective residents can use them to gather info, check availability, even shuffle the virtual furniture, while leasing agents finish up with other prospects. Paired with firms' always-available Web sites, they're increasingly being used as a high-tech selling tool in the leasing office.

David Cardwell, vice president of capital markets and technology at the National Multi Housing Council in Washington, D.C., notes that the kiosks have been around since at least 2000, but today's machines offer a more compelling experience for prospects. "The use of kiosks in the leasing office is not new, but before, it wasn't really interactive," he says. "Now, having automated terminals–whether it's a kiosk or just a machine at a desk in the leasing office–is more commonplace among the large institutional managers and owners."

Take the example of Riverstone Residential Group, formerly Trammell Crow Residential Services, which has deployed more than 20 interactive flat-screen touch panels at various properties. While not equipped with Internet connectivity yet, the machines let leasing agents interact with prospects to give them all the info necessary to make a sale, before they even set foot on a tour.

"In a lot of ways, it's not as much about giving information as it is an avenue to build excitement," says Mark Richards, director of marketing at Riverstone, which manages 62,000 units nationwide. "It gives you a first-impression tool, as well as a qualifying tool. After that, the leasing consultants can just step in and do their job."

The ability to let leasing consultants do that job more efficiently is something executives stress time and again when talking about kiosks, and few see them as a threat to leasing consultants' jobs. Indeed, with "customer service" becoming the new battle cry in an increasingly competitive leasing environment, owners and managers say living, breathing leasing agents are more important than ever.

"I don't think the kiosk is going to take the rental manager's job any time soon," says Steven Small, chief information officer at Chicago-based AMLI Residential, which has launched a kiosk pilot program at select properties in its 28,000-apartment portfolio. "Leasing an apartment isn't a commodity like buying an airline ticket. People still want to talk to people when they're picking a place to live."

For example, when a prospect walks into one of Archstone-Smith's leasing offices in the California or Washington, D.C., metro markets, they're greeted by a leasing agent, who then steers them to a digital workstation. Sitting together at an electronic table, the agent and prospect can click through different floor plans, look over amenities and local area attractions, or walk through Archstone-Smith's online leasing capabilities.

"We call them 'selling stations,'" says Dan Amedro, chief information officer at the Englewood, Colo.-based firm, which has ownership in 257 communities with nearly 87,000 apartments nationwide. "For us, they're a collaborative leasing tool that enhances the selling process with an agent, rather than replacing it."

Mark Sutton, director of business development and Web strategy at Rockville, Md.-based Hirshorn Zuckerman Design Group, has helped several apartment firms develop their kiosks over the last five years. The firm charges about $15,000 to create a template that can be deployed at multiple properties. While Sutton highlights the value of kiosks as a selling tool, he doesn't downplay the role of people in the process.

"Leasing out an apartment is still a little bit more complicated than ordering a sub," Sutton says. "You still have to close the deal. And the only way to do that is through human interaction."

–Joe Bousquin is a freelance writer in Newcastle, Calif.

Action Items

How To Make 24-hour Leasing Kiosks Work For You

1 Look to technology to enhance the selling process, not replace it.

2 Don't give out too much information. Overload can get confusing, so many firms keep pricing info off kiosks and have a leasing professional present it instead.

3 Make information capture optional. Don't force prospects to give you their contact information just to advance through a presentation. If they're truly ready to make a move, they'll leave a way to get in touch.