MRG’s Hayley Mintern and James Gregory speak to John Blanshard, Director of Operations at Grainger on the transition from Student Accommodation to Build to Rent.
MRG: What were your motivations for moving to the Build to Rent Sector?
John: Unite had just completed the merger with Liberty Living, we had successfully tackled the first wave of the pandemic and after 10 years with the business I had decided to move on. Towards the end of last year, I was approached about the opportunity with Grainger. From the outset, I could see how some of my experience and lessons learnt in PBSA could be applied to the Build to Rent sector. The scale of the opportunity with Grainger excites me and it seems like there is a great opportunity with such a diverse residential portfolio.
MRG: Do you think the BTR sector will follow a similar journey to student accommodation?
John: Student accommodation has matured quickly over the last five years with a number of larger scale operators delivering robust operating platforms. BTR in the UK is still an emerging market and while there are some great examples in the US, it is about finding the right model for the UK. The challenge at the moment is that we are still developing a deeper understanding of what our customer really sees as important. It is going to be really interesting to see how the sector evolves over the coming months and years.
MRG: Are the customer expectations different in the BTR sector?
John: There are lots of similarities in the overarching themes from the customer perspective but differences in how these are delivered.
One of the key differences in student accommodation is that it is often a relative short stay (9 months) with a maximum of three years for a few students. BTR proposes much more of a longer term option with a distinct focus on providing a Home. Residents are looking for flexible spaces to live in and an environment that they can enjoy for socialising, relaxing and working.
The community element is something that naturally supports students feel comfortable with where they live - this is very much a pre-requisite - but in BTR it is more subtle with the majority of our residents professionals, but it is still really important to create a sense of belonging. This might not just be achieved through physical events but also via social media channels and other digital connections.
The other key difference is the student journey is a much more emotional journey with the poignancy of leaving home. The level of support required is very different to BTR where you need to provide a more professional and engaging experience with a seamless delivery.
MRG: How important do you think flexibility is in amenity spaces in BTR?
John: With ever changing resident expectations, it is good to offer spaces that are flexible for socialising and working. Grainger has historically supported our customers to develop a community where they live, including sponsored events in some of our buildings and creating links to the wider community. This has all been a great step in promoting community inclusion. However, national restrictions on travel and mixing have exacerbated this with a lot of young professionals in city centre locations needing to now work from home and so during this time we also shifted our focus towards supporting our customers, particularly around mental health and welfare.
MRG: Do you see technology playing a major part in how you operate buildings?
John: Technology is a key part of how we want to better provide services to our customers. However, it is really important to test products and gauge success and usability before rolling out on a national scale. Making small iterative improvements is often better than larger deployments that may not then be proven to deliver the intended outcomes. One key thing to note is the “availability to serve”. People want digital or human availability 24/7 whether it be lettings or maintenance related, and if that access isn’t there, companies will risk losing residents in a competitive market.