LONG READ: Commercial and residential experts from across the property landscape reflect on how the events of 2020 have shaped customer needs – and look ahead to what the sector’s New Normal might be.
At 8.30pm on Monday 23 March 2020, Prime Minister Boris Johnson made an unprecedented address. “You should not be meeting friends. You should not be meeting family members who do not live in your home. You should not be going shopping except for essentials like food and medicine. If you don’t follow the rules the police will have the powers to enforce them.”
These words, surreal at the time, carried with them an unknown significance. Far from being, as some had hoped, just an announcement that people should stay at home while everything blows over, it seems in hindsight that Johnson’s words ushered in a new way of life.
Only now are we coming to terms with social distancing, on-off local lockdowns and mask-wearing being part of our everyday lives. We’re in The New Normal. Also, after being faced with apparently endless periods of wall-staring reflection, many of us have come to reassess our priorities in life – starting with a long, hard look at what we really want in a home and a workplace.
One of the sectors most affected by the events of 2020 has been property: after all, it is the very definition of a ‘bricks and mortar’ product. In both commercial and residential settings, property marketing has always been a physical thing, with human interactions like in-person viewings and sales appointments sitting at the heart of success.
With people staying at home, and significant chunks of the market such as estate agents actually prohibited from operating during lockdown, all of that came to a crashing halt. And with the demand that people should work from home as much as possible, huge amounts of commercial office floorspace lay empty.
- Forty-three per cent of people would rather speak to a chatbot than your sales agent. Have you got one?
- Seven tips that will make your virtual viewing experience amazing for customers and your team
From all corners of the market, heads were spinning with questions, some of which were answered quickly and effectively by technology-based solutions, such as virtual viewings and the arrival of chatbot sales agents.
But now that the country is opening back up – and it is becoming apparent that Covid-19 has changed things for the foreseeable future – a whole new set of concerns and challenges are emerging.
- How will property marketing be different after Covid-19?
- What did the coronavirus lockdown tell us about what people want from their homes?
- How can we market new properties if people can’t visit them?
- What is the post-pandemic future of large, long-lease office space?
- How should we adapt our messaging to speak to people’s new priorities?
- When is the right time to bring in technology to solve pandemic-prompted problems?
- Why would tenants such as students take a fixed/short-let on a property if there is a risk of further lockdown and them being unable to work or study?
So, what is ‘The New Normal’ for property?
“The ability to pitch space virtually is growing and will continue to grow in importance,” says industry expert Chris Reay, adding that “video presentations, apps to discover a place, virtual tours of an estate or building” will all become recognised and valuable parts of the marketing mix moving forward.
Chris is the Property Director for MediaCityUK, the sprawling 200-acre mixed-use development based around opposing sides of the Manchester Ship Canal in Salford and Trafford.
The destination is home to the likes of the BBC, ITV, the University of Salford, Ericsson and Kellog’s, plus more than 250 smaller media and digital businesses across its sizeable floor space.
It also houses a selection of bars, coffee shops and eateries, as well as a growing number of residential units.
Destinations such as MediaCityUK, where retail, commercial and residential property converge, were particularly hit by the pandemic, notably quietened by the absence of office workers, croissant-buyers, store-browsers and day-trippers during the lockdown.
“Landlords will [offer] a faster-moving, more consumer-based model of workspace, whereby the building is sold and valued on desks sales and income from food and events etc, as opposed to traditional longer term leases from a handful of businesses.”Chris Reay
Property Director for MediaCityUK
The community at MediaCityUK worked together over the course of the lockdown and subsequent easing of restrictions, with the landlord gaining new insights into the shifting needs of tenants and how these might impact marketing in future.
“Tenants are going to want even more flexibility in their leases,” says Chris, “with them having real nervousness about long-term leases and another pandemic happening.
Landlords will move more and more to becoming operators and offering a faster-moving, more consumer-based model of workspace, whereby the building is sold and valued on desks sales and income from food and events etc, as opposed to traditional longer term leases from a handful of businesses.
“It was moving this way anyway, but CV-19 will accelerate the movement. Landlords will, therefore, need to adapt to marketing a more fluid product that is far more consumer-based, rather than B2B, than ever before, and people will be drawn towards reasons to be in a recognised destination like ours, or an area of a city famous for something, eg [Manchester’s] Northern Quarter and the creative industries, as opposed to buildings without identity.”
Another landlord keenly aware of the ramped-up demand for flexibility and support is Bruntwood, the family owned company behind over 100 buildings across the north of England and Birmingham.
With usage ranging from commercial office space to retail and leisure units in some of the highest footfall locations in northern cities, they too felt the shock of lockdown but also used the time to think about how marketing might need to change in the wake of the pandemic, and how shifting customer needs might inform product development and sales.
“We’ve been able to offer more flexibility than most landlords, but we’ve had to take this feedback around changing needs seriously to come up with new, relevant, post-pandemic products.”Heather Gray
Business development manager, Bruntwood Works
“Every company is going to have a different set of needs, and it’s important for office providers to have a suite of products that suit how wide-ranging those requirements are going to be, as we all try to navigate the new normal,” says Heather Gray, business development manager for Bruntwood Works, the community-centric offering that provides businesses with flexible workplaces powered by innovation and access to a range of retail, leisure and wellness facilities.
Bruntwood Works’ response has been the launch of the Office Share initiative, which is aimed at providing a flexible and cost-effective way for businesses to ‘buddy up’ and share office space, as they explore the new normal post-pandemic. Office Share promises to let businesses spend two or three days in the office, allowing staff to work flexibly, a model which has worked well for many firms over the past couple of months. Their ‘buddy business’ will use the office space on the other days of the week.
Announcing the launch of the initiative on their website, Bruntwood Works CEO Ciara Keeling said: “Hopefully this new trailblazing service will be a match made in heaven for so many. It’s normally not possible for businesses to share space, but as we own and manage all of our own spaces, Bruntwood Works is in a really unique position to offer this. Businesses of all sizes have been severely affected by the pandemic with many forced to change their ways of working. Finances and expenditure will be tightened for many, but we know that the right workspace is a place that’s vital for staff wellbeing and is a place where great ideas and people come together.”
“Businesses of all sizes have been severely affected by the pandemic… Finances and expenditure will be tightened for many, but we know that the right workspace is a place that’s vital.”Ciara Keeling
CEO Bruntwood Works
Virtual marketing: now even more important
Just a bit further down the canal from MediaCityUK lies Latimer Homes’ new Amplify Apartments development, whose full sales and marketing launch coincided almost exactly with the introduction of lockdown measures.
Best laid plans for the opening of the marketing suite and the accompanying digital and outdoor media campaigns had to be reconfigured. With show homes shuttered and residential sales put on hold by the government, Latimer had to find a way to continue to market effectively. Like elsewhere, the team noted an acceleration of the already growing importance of being able to market space virtually.
“[There has been an increased] emphasis on the use of digital technology to promote our homes, such as virtual appointments with our sales team on Zoom or Microsoft Teams, interactive 360-degree virtual tours and also video tours,” says Oliver Walker, marketing manager for the north and central England at Latimer Homes.
And, far from being a temporary solution to the pandemic problem, it looks as though these tactics are here to stay: “I expect even more of a digital-first approach for customers beginning their home buying journey. Customer insight is at the forefront of our considerations in developing our marketing strategies on any new development. We also listen to our trusted partners to adapt to market trends and implement change with our ‘customer-first’ approach. With a consideration for customers who don’t feel like they want to visit us in person, we’ve implemented much change already to enable us to continue selling our homes, which we’ll likely continue in future.
“We want to provide as many tools as possible to enable our customers to make encouraged decisions without having to leave their home.”Oliver Walker
Regional Marketing Manager, Latimer
Which is not to say the world of property marketing is going fully virtual, at least not for Latimer Homes. There is still demand for offline sales and marketing channels, just as there is for online ones.
The trick for developers will be finding the right balance between the two. “Virtual and in-person viewings have a place in our future,” confirms Julian Cotton, regional sales director at Clarion Housing Group, the socially conscious developer behind the Latimer brand.
“ Customers want to feel as immersed in the properties as they would if they were physically looking at them. It’s important that we also offer the opportunity to discuss the properties and different ways to purchase with our sales team. Some customers may prefer to view online prior to coming into our marketing suites.”
“We have opened the doors to our marketing suites by appointment, which is proving as popular as ever, but we are now able to reach out to those people who, for whatever reason, are unable to attend our marketing suites in person.”Julian Cotton
Sales Director, Clarion Housing Group
As well as offering virtual means of viewing and reserving homes, the events of 2020 have forced property developers and agents to look closely at their messaging.
After being shut indoors for 22 hours a day, surely people have reexamined what they want from a home? Should we as marketers also examine what we choose to highlight about properties, and how we communicate the benefits? Might people’s attitudes towards the places they live during lockdown also inform the way residential property is designed, in the same way, that commercial property is being reconfigured to be more flexible?
For George Saunders, a member of the marketing team at GSA, a founding force in the creation of the student accommodation sector which today has properties all around the world, the answer is yes. “People will likely expect more out of their homes. We have all spent a lot more time there, focusing on what features we do and don’t have, and how we entertain ourselves without outside attractions. Customers being stuck inside will have become hypercritical of their homes and the spaces they live in.
“We all now cherish the things that have helped us through lockdown. If that includes the size, shape, architecture, design, layout of your house then that could well inform the marketing of property.”George Saunders
Marketing Executive, GSA
“What now, is their expectation of a new place? Property must now be highly functional. Can it support a community safely; does it provide not only the space to live but the space we individually need for our wellbeing? Thinking on all this, how do we market it? In a lot of ways it’s gone back to traditional USPs being a seller: room size and space, cleaners, safety. In another sense, it’s brought about new ways of selling property… not using these exact words, but trying to convey that “you could be isolated here for four months and still love it!” Nothing we would ever have had to promote before! But, we all now cherish the things that have helped us through lockdown. If that includes the size, shape, architecture, design, layout of your house then that could well inform the marketing of property.”
Such concerns seem even more relevant when viewed through the prism of the results produced by the RICS UK Residential Market Survey this year.
In a question added on to the May edition of the survey, contributors were asked to share their opinions on how certain features of residential properties might shift in terms of desirability over the next 24 months, following the events of the lockdown.
Of those asked, 81% said there will be an increase in desire for properties with gardens or balconies, while 74% felt there will be a shift in demand towards homes located near green spaces. Conversely, 78% of respondents said they expected a decline in the appeal of high-rise blocks, with 58% saying that developments situated in highly urban areas will be less enticing in the future.
Might there, then, be a knock-on effect for land development, planning and architecture down the line, as buyers of new homes seek different things? The smart money says that developments offering small unit sizes, without access to built-in or nearby green space, surrounded on all sides by concrete and glass, will become a thing of the past.
“A survey by RICS found 74% of participants expect homes and developments situated close to green spaces will increase in popularity.”RICS UK Residential Market Survey, May 2020
It isn’t just at home where people’s attitudes and behaviours are changing. Now that we are being encouraged to – responsibly – return to in-person working, new takes on what makes a good place to work are forming, influenced by people’s reflection during lockdown.
A recent survey by Overbury, the UK’s leading office fit out and refurbishment provider, found that, while most people missed the social contact that comes with being in the office, large numbers also wanted changes to be made before any return.
Tellingly, more than a third (36%) said they would prefer to work from home one or two days a week, with half that figure again saying they would prefer three or four days at home. Almost a third (30%) said they would like desk density to be cut. Meanwhile, a combined 25% said they would like their office to be repurposed either wholly or fully to include more spaces and opportunities for collaborative working.
“The trend towards flexible and agile working policies has been accelerated by necessity to a point which would have taken years without a pandemic… We won’t be returning to the same ways of working we left behind”Heather Gray
Business Development Manager, Bruntwood Works
“To say the office market has changed significantly over the past few months would be a colossal understatement,” says Heather Gray. “Due to Covid-19, the trend towards flexible and agile working policies has been accelerated by necessity to a point which would have taken years without a pandemic. It has been the ultimate test of whether or not remote working can be effective, and even companies who had previously shied away from home working had their hand forced by lockdown.
“We’ve seen a lot of people desperate to return to a routine… home working can make it more difficult to separate work and home life, creating a “never ending work day”.
“Some organisations are keen to bring staff in for just a few days a week, rather than full traditional office hours, to get the best of both worlds. There have, undisputedly, been benefits to blended working. And so now lockdown measures are easing, and we’re being encouraged back to the office, we won’t be returning to the same ways of working we left behind. This will inevitably impact office space – how much of it a company needs, how they use it, and how often they use it.”
Chris Reay agrees: “People’s inner need to socialise will prevail and they will return to the workplace for a more creative and socially enriched environment. But – the way we use the workspace will change as our relationship with digital devices has changed: fewer fixed desks, more meeting rooms and collaboration spaces. [Teams will be spending] fewer days in the workspace, but getting more out of the time they spend there.
“Additionally, there will be more investment in technology, like all people being given tablets as well as laptops, all meeting rooms set up for Zoom/Teams calls on big screens and so on.” And, as the sudden return of lockdown measures across large parts of the country has shown, businesses everywhere will need to be prepared to take social distancing seriously, or else risk further outbreaks among their people or wider communities. “Space will need to be designed to enable working with distancing,” adds Chris. “Businesses will need to have ideas such as one-way systems in the office in mind.”
The future of property marketing
While the pandemic has caused great upheaval – and inspired quick-thinking among the savvy – it is likely that we will see more of an ‘accelerated evolution’ than a full-blown revolution of the way property is designed and marketed as we learn to live with Covid.
Trends that had already been foreseen, such as the growing importance of flexibility for buyers and tenants or the desire to view properties in a quick and convenient way, will be fast-tracked, while new considerations such as property configuration and proximity to green space will be assimilated into the mix.
The adoption of technology has picked up pace among leading-edge property developers and estate owners. Ideas such as virtual viewings and chatbots, once seen as a luxury, then as a mid-pandemic necessity, turned out to be just what some buyers and tenants wanted all along, and have fit nicely into digital marketing plans. Those who are quick to adapt, open to new ways of marketing, and who work to create their own new normal – rather than vainly trying to revive the dead tactics of the past – stand to benefit the most.
Your next Property marketing strategy has to be better
Navigating ‘The New Normal’ will be complicated and challenging. At theEword we’ve spent considerable time exploring the frontier, so we can show you the way.
To ask questions about what we’ve found or to discuss your specific challenges in more detail, speak to our team by calling 0800 0149 884 or by messaging us