In TOUGH economic environments, multifamily operators need to do more with less. For a look at what top technology thinkers are doing today, Multifamily Executive queried four of the best tech heads in the business and asked them about the industry’s biggest trends and the role technology should play in responding to the economy. In the hot seat: NMHC’s vice president of technology and capital markets David Cardwell; Donald Davidoff, group vice president of strategic systems for Englewood, Colo.-based Archstone; Woody Stone, senior director of project management for Seattle-based Pinnacle, an American Management Services Co.; and apartment technology infrastructure consultant Richard Holtz, CEO of Daytona Beach, Fla.-based InfiniSys.
What was the most important multifamily technology development of 2008?
DAVIDOFF: I think 2008 was a time when companies finally started thinking “when” and not “if” in terms of implementing automated pricing and revenue management. STONE: The real gains of 2008 were in the maturing of the systems available. We also saw the big players extend their reach—like RealPage buying OpsTechnology—or deliver new capabilities.
HOLTZ: On the resident experience side, it was the recognition that residents want choice. They want to be able to buy technology services on their terms from whomever they want. If they can’t, they’ll move to where they can.
CARDWELL: A lot of companies improved their on-line services and communication to residents and deployed applications to continue to centralize operations.
What technology will have the biggest impact in 2009?
DAVIDOFF: In 2009, focus is on immediate ROI rather than longer term investments—anything that makes it easier for prospects to rent and renew or helps site staff do more with less. Look for continued adoption of automated pricing, resident portals, and expanded functionality in prospect-facing Web sites.
CARDWELL: With the economy as a key driver in the business of operating apartments, the ability to be more efficient and garner greater understanding of income and expenses will be key for many multifamily firms. You’ll see more focus on data mining and reporting capabilities.
HOLTZ: In infrastructure, green technology such as solar powered LED area lighting will start to emerge as ROI becomes meaningful, and the green factor will become more than a fad. Common areas and clubhouses will need to be re-thought as we see more tech toys become mainstream, such as Internet-enabled fitness equipment. What are your top priorities in 2009?
STONE: We are focused on infrastructure improvement and property NOI. In the back of the house, we are virtualizing our server environment. We will go from over 70 servers to a handful. For NOI, we are focused on vendor and expense management solutions like OpsTechnology. The industry has seen some good results from REITs on these systems. Now, fee management takes its turn.
HOLTZ: We’re focused on developing Web enabled access to the InfiniSys Design Wiki, which is a searchable tool for all of the infrastructure designs we’ve created to date. We—and eventually our customers—will be able to access all of our plans from any Web connection.
DAVIDOFF: Continuing the evolution of our prospect-facing Web site, we are leveraging our pricing system to make it to the other side of the recession with the best possible rent roll, and we’ll continue to develop our internal business intelligence systems.
What impact is the economy having on multifamily technology? Are there technologies to help firms navigate tough times?
HOLTZ: The impacts are significant. New builds have basically stopped. I think a lot of companies would like to invest less in technology right now. But with today’s tech-savvy residents, forgoing technology is not an option. Items such as HDTV and high-speed Internet are becoming like kitchens or bathrooms—people just expect them.
STONE: Undoubtedly, you will see a reduction in technology investment by many firms. For those firms willing to invest, though, the strength of available talent is excellent, both from a hiring and consulting perspective. We are fortunate to be bringing on talent which just was not readily available two years ago. DAVIDOFF: I think the smart companies, the ones in this for the long haul, are not reducing their technology investments. But we’re forced to focus on priorities: delivering measurable returns in 2009 while buying or building applications that are scalable so we can leverage them when additional resources become available in 2010 or 2011.
CARDWELL: Expect spending on hardware to be more limited and new application deployments to be deferred. I also think all areas of staffing will be evaluated [in] multifamily. Tech departments will be no exception.
Revenue management is one of the hottest technologies right now. Is it more or less significant in this economy?
STONE: It is as important as ever. Discipline in pricing is critical. The ability to consistently monitor the market and effectively predict supply and demand is crucial. You don’t want to be late to respond in this market. Greater scrutiny on all areas of property operations will likely force the issue.
DAVIDOFF: Having relied on RM technology for seven years now, it is fully embedded in the fabric of our culture. It’s much more than just a multifamily technology; it’s a strategy and process around how we run our business. To me, it’s a no-brainer. I just don’t see how anyone can get through volatile times like these without it.
CARDWELL: This market will be a good time to evaluate the automation and central control of pricing. Executives charged with oversight of revenue management will be tested as much as the software itself. What’s your best tech advice for 2009?
STONE: Execute. Our industry is scattered with great ideas, systems, and programs, but the ability to execute will separate the winners from losers.
HOLTZ: Do not rush in to deploy the latest technology. Make sure it works for your environment and that you can support it.
DAVIDOFF: Everybody take a deep breath, find your happy place, exhale—and then start putting your plan together. Seriously, take a sober look at what needs to be done versus what would be nice to be done. Have a laser focus on the former.
CARDWELL: Spend wisely, if at all.