Vacations can lead to the most unexpected business decisions.
Several years ago, while researching Hawaiian vacations online, Scott Taylor found a site with a feature that the others didn't have: an interactive map. This map not only showed where each cabana was located, but it also detailed availability and nearby amenities in a convenient, at-a-glance package. Taylor, a founder of Mark-Taylor Residential in Scottsdale, Ariz., booked his tropical getaway confident that, before his plane even touched down, he had a clear picture of what he would get for his vacation dollar.
Soon after, in 2003, Mark-Taylor became one of the first multifamily firms to integrate interactive maps into its Web sites. The site includes photos of layouts of each Mark-Taylor property, and, as of earlier this year, satellite photos from Neighborhood Aerial View, a new feature from VaultWare that details the two-mile radius surrounding a property. Today, would-be residents can use this tool to find potential apartments by specifying price, location, number of bedrooms, or date available. They can also pinpoint the unit they prefer and get a feel for the neighborhood, all from the comfort of their computer.
Such maps have become an important part of Mark-Taylor's Web presence, helping the site to win a multifamily "Pillars of the Industry" award from the National Association of Home Builders in 2005. But more importantly, feedback from residents who research and lease online with Mark-Taylor indicates that the convenience and confidence provided by the interactive maps was a deciding factor in their choice to live at a Mark-Taylor property.
"They can really become attached to a specific unit because they can see where it is," says Prima Walker, director of marketing and public relations at Mark-Taylor. "It gives them a little more ownership and interest in something they haven't physically seen yet."
Others agree. Interactive maps that are linked to up-to-date leasing information can be the driving factor that transforms an apartment hunter "from a searcher into someone who is seriously considering your community," says Mike Cornell, vice president of product and marketing for Realty DataTrust, makers of VaultWare. "Right now there is an opportunity to be at a competitive advantage [by offering interactive maps on your site] because the market penetration isn't there yet."
Necessary or Just Neat?
With interactive maps, just as with any emerging technology, executives must decide whether it's something that will add measurable value to your online offerings (and offline balance sheet), or if it's just a neat new feature.
"The virtual world's a great thing, but it also creates some added work and expense," says David Cardwell of the National Multi Housing Council. "With or without this feature, potential residents are more likely to want to know more before they visit. It's not like having this technology will make or break your business, but it is a nice tool to offer clients."
As the technology evolves and new options are unveiled–from maps that simply show a property's location to three-dimensional composite images linked to leasing information–there's also the question of which tool is right for the job.
"It's a matter of form and function," says Lisa Benson, founder of Ellipse Group, a Dallas-based firm that builds and manages Web sites for the multifamily housing market. "Number one, you have to know your market and what they want. How will they use your site and product? Number two is to do your homework and see if the investment in technology will yield the expected returns. Number three is to keep the thing updated so that it's actually functional, accurate, and up-to-date."
Walker, for example, conducted focus groups with Mark-Taylor residents, property managers, and leasing agents to see what features they would find most useful. Based on that information and other research, Mark-Taylor built custom maps for each community and linked those with apartment availability information, a feature not readily available at that time. As a result, the initial cost was substantial. But research supported making the financial investment in the site, and "we've already realized the return," says Dale Phillips, Mark-Taylor's president.
On the other end of spectrum is ApartmentRatings.com, which recently combined Google Maps technology with its listings database to create a "mashup" showing the location of listed properties relative to the surrounding community. Users can filter the results by number of reviews, ZIP code, or percentage of renters. For those who like this concept, Google Maps now allows anybody to create mashups using its source code. It even provides a Web site (www.google.com/apis/maps) to help with the process.
Lincoln Property Co. falls somewhere in the middle. It uses Yardi Systems to manage its diverse holdings, and Yardi currently doesn't offer an interactive mapping feature in its software, although it can link to a third-party map. (The company does plan to include an interactive mapping option in the next version of its software.) As a result, Lincoln Property decides on a case-by-case basis on whether an interactive map would be useful in marketing particular apartment community. "Properties that are on the higher end of the rent schedule, new communities, student housing–those are the prime candidates," says Brian Galla, director of technology for Lincoln Property. "The business must drive the technology, not the other way around."
Searching for Solutions
If you do want to feature interactive maps on your corporate or property Web sites, you'll need to find a source for the maps and keep them current. For the map-friendly, there are several popular options, with more on the way.
VaultWare, for example, offers its Neighborhood Aerial View as an optional feature to its current subscription price of $595 per property. Satellite photos and neighborhood demographic information can be added for a $25 setup fee and $90 annually per property.
Or, custom property maps can be created from scratch and linked to leasing information through third-party providers such as iLink Systems (www.ilink-systems.com), for varying costs. In the coming years, also look for property management software programs to offer their own versions of interactive maps.
Whichever online map you choose, commit to keeping the information fresh and accurate. "You have to have people there to manage the technology or else it's just a bunch of bells and whistles," says the Ellipse Group's Benson. "I've built people some beautiful cars and then seen them take the wheels right off the thing by not keeping it updated."
Looking forward, online mapping is expected to become even more detailed and timely as private companies race to be the defining presence in the market. Microsoft's Virtual Earth project, for example, is currently photographing cities from multiple overhead angles to provide interactive, three-dimensional views of buildings and neighborhoods, much like the 360-degree virtual indoor tours that are prevalent on many apartment, condo, and new-home sales sites today.
The key is to weigh these advancements in technology with the current needs of your company and your clients. "As an industry it's taken us five years to grow into our shoes," Benson says. "The technology has been there but, as more tech-savvy consumers are coming into the market, now we're starting to see the demand."
–Tom Wilmes is a freelance writer in Chicago.