A guest blog by Urban Creation
The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted everyone’s lives from those at school to those at work and now those heading off to University for the first time.
With a new term beginning, Universities are facing new challenges and are having to implement different ways of working to keep everyone safe and secure in their learning environment. It is not however just the Universities that are having to adapt, Student Accommodation is also facing its own set of challenges.
Before COVID-19 hit, the number of bookings for Student Accommodation in September 2020 was thriving but the second lockdown hit, this all changed. All Student Accommodation businesses saw themselves receiving an unprecedented number of cancellations in a very short space of time due to the uncertainty of the situation.
This number of cancellations was not limited to Student Accommodation, Serviced Apartments for business and leisure also began to diminish. Business bookings came to a standstill with the majority of people working from home and those wanting a weekend getaway with family and friends dwindled as individuals become overly cautious staying away from home.
With the restrictions slowly lifting, individuals are looking for ways to escape from everyday life and go back to some sort of normality. As a result, the desire to spend a weekend away or have a staycation is increasing and with it, so are Serviced Apartment bookings. This does however bring a whole host of challenges and adaptations that need to be implemented not only to ensure guests stay safe but also that all the relevant Government guidelines are adhered to.
As Student Accommodation and Serviced Apartment specialists, Jonathan and his team at Urban Creation have experienced all the ups and downs of the pandemic and have kindly agreed to share their experience and advice to aid others. This blog showcases the impact the virus has had on Student Accommodation and Serviced Apartments, but also looks at Urban Creation’s plans to move forward and provides guidance for others in a similar situation.
1. What short-term impact has COVID-19 had on your industry as a whole?
The impact of Covid-19 left many accommodation providers closed and unsure of when they were able to re-open. Leisure stays across the country began to diminish and with the majority of people working from home and thus limiting travel, business bookings also came to a standstill.
However, changing attitudes after being in lockdown for three months saw an increase in demand for staycations across the country and therefore the demand for serviced apartments has slowly increased in the last month or so.
2. What short-term impact as COVID-19 had on your business?
When lockdown hit in March, we saw an unprecedented number of cancellations from all of our imminent guests within a very short space of time. All new bookings ceased, and any future bookings were cancelled.
The spring and summer months are also our busiest time for student lets with students who are due to start studying in Bristol, booking accommodation ready for September. As a vast majority of our tenants are also from overseas, we saw a decrease in interest due to the uncertainty of whether or not the next academic year would begin in September.
3. What do you believe the long-term impacts of COVID-19 will be on your business and the industry?
With a new focus on blended learning from the Universities themselves; it is predicted that we will see an increase in UK domiciled students applying to University. The number of 18-year olds in the UK applying is set to increase from 2021 onwards, following many years of declines. Therefore, this is expected that we will see growth in student numbers. This means that where previously our main target market has been overseas students, we may see a turn to more UK based students.
This may mean a decline in a need for student accommodation with many UK domiciled students opting for universities close to home, or it could see an increase in UK students choosing to study elsewhere away from home.
Having said that, the International Education Strategy, released by the government in 2019, aims to increase international student numbers in the UK by more than 30% to 700,000 by 2030. Due to the pandemic, the government is now considering how the International Education Strategy can be updated to respond to the impact of the coronavirus outbreak and will also be launching the new graduate visa route by summer 2021 (Knightfrank.co.uk 2020).
4. What challenges have you faced in light of COVID-19?
Firstly, we had to work out if we were able to keep our apartments open under Government guidelines. This meant careful monitoring of the advice given and a complete overhaul in risk assessments and health and safety procedures to react to the ongoing pandemic.
Where all leisure guests ceased, we had to ensure that we were visible to those working on the frontline, NHS staff and construction workers and that these people were aware that we were open and that they could stay in our apartments.
We have also seen, naturally, that people are a lot more cautious of staying away from home. This has meant that we have had to completely re-evaluate our processes and procedures to ensure that guests feel as comfortable as possible whilst staying with us.
With social distancing measures in place, it has been impossible to provide tours for students looking at prospective accommodation. This has meant increased admin and communication time to help assist these people in helping them understand what we can offer.
5. Have you taken advantage of any of the Government grants and schemes that have been put in place as a result of COVID-19?
We received a £25,000 grant for Beech House, and we took advantage of the furlough scheme to help us in the short term.
6. What have you done to overcome the impact of COVID-19?
We have carefully watched patterns and changes in customer attitude and reacted to this by re positioning ourselves. For instance, we have seen a demand in long term stays and therefore have increased our AST capacity. We have also begun seeing a surge of interest in those using our apartments as remote working spaces or for work retreats; therefore, we have transformed some of our apartments into remote working spaces to cater for this. Because of this, all price pointing was looked at and we re-evaluated all platforms that we advertised/ marketed on.
With more staycations on the horizon we have also focused heavily on our localised marketing efforts. We have seen just how important communication has been through all of this and that being transparent to your audience is key. A new focus on letting customers know exactly what we have been doing has begun to emerge.
We have increased safety around all of our properties with the introduction of hand sanitisers at the front of every building, increased housekeeping measures and we have also purchased an electric sanitiser spray so that we can properly disinfect all rooms after a guest has left.
The introduction of virtual tours for our student lets was also introduced. Social distancing made it impossible for us to be able to show anyone around our apartments, therefore we began virtual tours whereby prospective tenants could watch a livestream of one of our team walking through an apartment finishing with a Q&A section at the end.
In July, we also took the decision to venture slightly away from our ‘normal’ with an office purchase in Bath. This unconditional purchase opened a new avenue for the business due to its flexibility to respond to the differing sectors of the property market from office investments, retail, student accommodation, service apartments and open market residential.
7. How do you plan to move forward after COVID-19?
We plan to work together as a team and stay open to new avenues for the business. We have always taken pride in our innovative efforts and we look forward to exploring more efforts within the office space and gaining more knowledge within the different sectors of the property market.
8. Do you have any advice or guidance for others in your industry?
Stay proactive. Things are changing all the time and it is important to understand that actions you may have recently put in place may need to change once more. Staying flexible and organised is key.
Also try to look at customer trends and needs. Have you seen a demand in a certain aspect of your business, and can you develop on this to react to what the customer wants?
If you need any advice or support from Jonathan on any of the above guidance, feel free to contact his or a member of his team by visiting https://urban-creation.com/ or calling 0117 934 9508.