Now that sheltering-in-place restrictions are being eased and the weather is getting warmer, residents are looking to get outside and enjoy their properties’ amenities – like pools, barbecues, rooftops, etc. Listen as our Co-Founder, Cyrus Claffey along with Steve Ruff, Regional Manager at Waterton, advise on how to safely reopening amenities while adhering to social distancing guidelines in this webinar with Multi-Housing News. Find a transcription of the webinar below.
Below is a transcription of the webinar: how to safely reopen amenity spaces
Jessica: Welcome to today’s Snap Sessions. I’m Jessica Fiure, Managing Editor of Multi-Housing News. I’m talking with Steve Ruff, Regional manager at Waterton and Cyrus Claffey, founder of ButterflyMX. To discuss how to safely and effectively reopen amenities, such as pools and gyms, when it is safe to do so.
Thank you for joining us today Cyrus and Steve!
Steve: Thank you for having us!
Jessica: Sure! Before we begin, I’d love for everyone to meet you, Steve. Could you give a brief intro?
Steve: Yeah, absolutely. My name is Steve Ruff. I’m the Regional Manager at Waterton for our Chicago region. For those of you that don’t know, Waterton is a real estate investment and property management company. We, focus on multifamily, senior living, and hospitality properties. And my role as Regional Manager, I oversee all operations of our multi-family properties here in Chicago. Which range in size from 81 units at the smallest property to 2,346 units at our largest property.
Jessica: Wow – Awesome! And Cyrus, could you give a brief introduction?
Cyrus: Yeah, Absolutely. Thank you, Jessica. And Steve, great to be here with you on this call discussing amenity spaces. So, ButterflyMX is the creator of the smart video intercom. Hopefully, most of the folks on the call have heard of us or might be using us. And our platform consists of a touch screen at the front entrance of the building. It allows visitors to make a video call to our resident’s mobile app, to let the visitor in.
The mobile app also allows residents to let themselves into the building without using a key. Using wireless technology like Bluetooth and NFC. We also have a partnership with Amazon that provides an end to end package delivery solution. Of course, in these days that’s turned out to be quite a critical thing to have in place. I guess lastly, we’re one of the founders of the PropTech movement that’s emerged in the last five years. Today, we serve about 500,000 units coast to coast, and a few internationally as well.
Jessica: Great, so as some states are slowly reopening and multi-family communities are starting to get their amenities back in order. Especially the warm weather is coming and people are really antsy to get out of their apartments. Steve, what do you consider some of the key things to think about before reopening amenities?
Steve: This is obviously a hot topic. No pun intended with the weather changing.
Our only priority here when opening amenities is the health and well-being of our associates and our residents, and that’s our main focus. We’re closely, obviously, monitoring Federal, State, and Local Governments to ensure that we’re following all their guidelines, which include a reduction in capacity. We’re currently working on opening our outdoor amenities first, as permitted. And we’ll then refocus on opening the office to the residents and prospects.
Jessica: Oh, of course. Cyrus, would you like to add to that?
Cyrus: We’ve been thinking a ton about this because our customers have come to us asking if we can help. Because the residents want to get back into the amenity spaces and owners are trying to do it safely. I think for us, there are three considerations that we think can help reopen spaces successfully.
So the first is really the ability to set maximum occupancy levels. How do you monitor that? And I think then the next thing is, you need to be able to monitor density and trigger notifications to staff and residents with respect to whether there’s availability to get into the amenity space.
Then, what does that do? You have to have a way to restrict people from getting in when occupancy levels have been reached. And then that also helps drive your cleaning strategy. How intensely do you need to clean the space? It’s all going to depend on how many people were in there.
Then lastly, if you’re able to monitor that, and kind of track what’s going on. That’s going to help you with contract tracing.
Jessica: And you mentioned limiting the capacity. You could monitor it. Are there ways to enforce this? How would you tell people not to go in? Or deal with people who are maybe angry about that?
Cyrus: Yeah, from our prep call, I think it’s something you don’t want to anger people. You need to be very concerned about how you treat residents. I think the thing is that you use things like scheduling tools to basically let people know that a maximum capacity has been reached during a set period of time. That’s the strategy that we’re really working on implementing using ButterflyMX and a new product and partnership we have coming out in response to this demand. I think as Steve said again, I don’t think you want to send out a negative message. It’s more about capping the number of people getting in using scheduling tools.
Jessica: Steve, of course, you mentioned keeping residents safe. What are some new safety procedures property managers might start needing to consider?
Steve: The main thing to consider is supplies. All of us, even as a consumer, experienced this drought when several months ago with different forms of sanitization, or cleaning supplies, or just your normal household supplies. We will only reopen our spaces once we can be sure that we have enough supplies to maintain the amenities in a sanitary condition. We’re working closely with all of our supplier partners to meet our supply needs as quickly as possible. Also as stated, we’ll also be reducing capacity in these spaces. At Waterton, we’re focusing on 25% of the normal capacity to ensure that we’re operating within proper distancing and to comply with all the guidance.
Jessica: That seems like a great strategy. How will you both be letting residents know? What’s the best way to let residents know about these changes? How do you communicate?
Steve: Yeah, as most of the country moved to shelter in place over the last few months, we’ve closed our management offices and leasing offices for appointments and meetings. We remained fully staffed to answer questions via phone and email. But we’ve relied on technology to get out these updates and changes and I think most of the country and most markets are relying on technology to get this out.
This includes sending push notifications out to our property apps, posting messages on the screens in elevators, or sending out a mass communication email through our customer management email software. To fully operate within the guidelines of social distancing, electronic communication and technology is going to have to play a major role. I think you’ll see less paper being exchanged for notices and updates, exchanging from hand-to-hand, and more emails and posts to avoid that physical contact.
Cyrus: Everything is becoming electronic, because that facilitates social distancing, obviously. I think in today’s world there is a myriad of screens now in buildings, like ButterflyMX at the front entrance, where a lot of our customers have used our screens to communicate messages about hours of operations or other critical updates and messages that they want residents to see as they come and go into the building. Obviously, you also have things like package rooms screens or transit info screens that can also help communicate critical messages to people. So as they go about the building, they’re seeing all of this.
If you’ve invested in some sort of digital signage platform, this is an opportunity to really take advantage of it. Unlike posting paper in the elevator, a digital signage platform allows you to easily update it. Often from even a central corporate headquarters location so that you have the consistency of messaging across your platform. One of the great things is you don’t need to have your access control guy come on-site and do anything to make updates.
Jessica: That’s great! I like what you said about consistency. That’s so important to have the message be consistent across your properties and to all your residents. Are there any process changes, Steve, that you’re considering making, and to do think they’ll be long term or just now during toward the end of shelter in place?
Steve: There’s a lot of changes that we’re making here and during this phased reopening. Our amenities will be limited to use by residents only. Guests will be welcomed back at a future date. We’ll ask the residents to strictly follow the social distancing standards prescribed by the CDC. In some cases, we could implement a reservation policy. It’s just one way that we can control the occupancy and obviously maintain that proper distance.
As far as long term, it’s really hard to say how long these changes will take place. I wish I had that answer. We’ll continue to follow the government and the health guidelines as we move forward. I think it’s safe to say that over the last few months, all of us have experienced a very significant change in our daily lives and the term “new normal” is often used, and at this point, I don’t think any of us can really pinpoint what that new normal will be.
Jessica: Cyrus, do you have any thoughts on how – I know Steven mentioned the amenities will only be open to residents as opposed to guests – are there any technology aspects that could help property managers who might be implementing something similar?
Cyrus: This is really the moment for things like cloud-based access control and IP access control to shine because it really allows you to control your building from a centralized web dashboard. You can do it at the property management level, but the property manager can also do that remotely, from an offsite location. I know that a lot of properties were able to shut down their amenity spaces, lock their front entrances of the building, really instantaneously by using IP based access control systems, like ButterflyMX or Brivo. Because you can simply just log into a web-based dashboard and do that.
I think as we reopen, it’s going to be an evolving situation. So, that nimbleness of being able to kind of update the occupancy levels as things progress over time. Increase them, decrease them, just depending on the local situation, is going to be extremely valuable for properties in order to ensure and maintain safety. And again, it also helps you monitor the room occupancy levels as well, so you have real-time data coming back to you and If those levels get exceeded, you can act as a property.
Jessica: Is there any example of technology that would be good for now and later, further on, that people should consider?
Cyrus: IP access control platforms or cloud-based access control platforms are really something, some people have already started to invest in that. It gives them the ability to control different setup times when, for example, during normal times the amenity space is open from let’s say, 6:00 AM to 11:00 PM, and the doors always open. In COVID times, you’re now locking it down. And you’re doing this all from a centralized dashboard. Now as we reopen, you’re going to layer it in scheduling into that time when it’s open to create maximum occupancy levels and control that without having to have a staff member onsite, with one of those counters that you see people with at football stadiums counting people going in. Staff is only notified when certain levels get exceeded. That’s really the solution that we’ve been working at, at ButterflyMX.
Jessica: That’s great. And I like that it limits staff usage as well. I think it’s important to consider, of course always think about the residents, but we need to keep our employees healthy and safe as well. So, that’s great that there are technologies that consider both.
Steve, I was wondering, how are you hearing about resident buy-in? Are they looking for these changes? Are they angsty? What’s going on with the residents?
Steve: I think a lot of residents are definitely anxious to get the spaces open. However, they are wanting to do so in a manner that operates within the guidelines. So, I don’t think opening them with limiting the occupancy is going to be any issue. I know we looked at technology a lot during this social distancing time, but we also are going to be removing equipment for seating. That’s going to also help us maintain these occupancies. So, in a pool area that typically has 100 spots, we’re reducing down to 25. And then we rely on technology to use for reservations, possibly even for pool chairs, to help spread that out. I think everybody’s looking forward to getting these spaces open, however, everybody wants it to be done safely.
Jessica: Of course. And back to technology. Are there any new uses for the technologies we have that could help streamline the process or help with the opening of the amenities?
Steve: As I said, it’s just a simple reservation system. The system we use, we can do it all online. So from their resident portal app or from signing onto their app on their phone, or signing in online, we can offer reservations. Typically those may have only been for a party room or a suite rental, but now we can open that up and it could possibly be used for chair rentals out by the pool. We could set timelines. We could set restrictions on how many they can reserve in a week. There’s a lot of restrictions that we can use with the current technology that we have, just applying it to more broad categories.
Cyrus: Right, and that’s basically Jessica, where something like an IP based access control then comes into play. Because, we’re getting a data feed from the reservation system and once you’ve kind of maxed out on the number of available reservations, then you can no longer enter the space. One of the things we’re doing at ButterflyMX is incorporating that into the ability for the resident to open and close various doors for themselves in the property. And if they want to make a reservation and get into the gym, they’ll be notified – sorry, max level of occupancy already exceeded, please select another time. It’s kind of an interesting new approach in terms of how to use existing access control technology to achieve the social distancing that we need to have in order to reopen all of these spaces.
Jessica: Sure. Well, that’s all very interesting. I hate to cut off the conversation, but I would like to allow some time for questions from the audience. So let me get to the first one.
This is a question for Steve. How do you ensure reservation or any other precautionary policy’s adhered to without constant physical monitoring during open hours, where controlled access technology is limited or not possible?
Steve: I think the second part of that question is where it gets difficult. I had a conversation with Cyrus a little bit yesterday. To control an area without a limited access or controlled access device, it does get a little tricky, especially after hours. Most of those amenities may have to be closed down when there’s nobody to monitor the usage of them. We will be looking to technology, as Cyrus has mentioned in several of his comments, to help develop this. Right now, a simple access control of having a key fob or not wouldn’t really limit the number of people coming in.
As mentioned, there’s going to be ways in the future that you can set the number of key fobs to be used when entering the space and it’ll maintain that occupancy for you. Now, even those systems aren’t 100%. If the door is left open or such. But there is a challenge when there isn’t the technology available and unfortunately if the technologies not available to restrict it, our main focus is the well-being of everybody. We wouldn’t want somebody to be overly crowded. So, those areas that we can’t restrict, or off-hours, would have a slightly different schedule of reopening.
Cyrus: Hey Jessica, just to add to that. The takeaway from Steve’s comment is, if you don’t use technology, then it becomes very much black and white. In other words, I need to have onsite staff, when the onsite staff is not there, I just have to keep the space closed. So, again, I think that kind of underscores the need to implement some of these platforms. I think the other thing that’s very interesting is that the systems that people look at, this is just kind of a word of advice again to all the listeners, you see kind of a whole new breed of access control platforms coming into the residential real estate space.
One of the things about those that distinguish some from the others is, some are very easy and intuitive to use, and very much focused on ease of use from a property manager’s perspective. And others are not. So, as you assess different systems, you really have to look at how intuitive is this for my onsite staff to use? Can it be used remotely? That would typically mean that it’s cloud-based. So, I don’t even need to be onsite in order to effect these changes and get notifications. Because everybody knows property managers are constantly being given new software tools. Some of them are not intuitive, and that means they just don’t get used and it’s not effective in achieving the ends that the people making that investment at the corporate level had hoped for.
Jessica: Great! Next question, can you talk more about the tech and ease of implementation?
Cyrus: Yeah. I think that that’s another important point. Which is, you have to assess whether the technology you’re bringing into a property can kind of sit on the existing infrastructure that you have in place. For example, we have a new smart keypad that’s coming out. It’s designed to really replace a traditional key fob reader. But you don’t need to rewire anything in order to use it. So, I think as you look at implementing new technology you should see how much infrastructure requirements do you have to have or how many infrastructure upgrades do you need to make in order to implement this.
Is it wireless based? Do you have a WiFi network in your amenities space where you can bring in sensors that basically can communicate with the WiFi network? Or, do you need to run new wires in order for these sensors to work? So, it’s these types of considerations that will really drive how much investment is necessary. How quickly you can implement these things in order to start getting the benefits from it. Again, the ease of implementation should be a key consideration in terms of how people assess new technologies that can help with monitoring occupancy and helping effect social distancing in their amenity spaces. And really throughout the building.
Jessica: Sure. How do you feel about imposing fees if occupancy regulations are not adhered to?
Steve: So, are you referencing fees to use the space? Or are you referencing a penalty fee if somebody is using the space over occupancy?
Jessica: My feeling for this question is penalties, but please correct me if I’m wrong.
Steve: At this point, we’re hoping that there’s no penalties. Obviously, things are changing and the National Apartment Association could change their guidelines on their lease documents. Which are a lot of what a lot of companies use that could implement occupancy rules. Leases don’t necessarily contain the language right now, but they do contain language regarding around the amenity space and the rules and regulations.
I don’t anticipate that fees will be issued to residents not following the guidelines. We hope that we’re able to open the spaces and still operate within those guidelines. And hopefully, we’re starting at a 25%, but we’re unsure on what the future holds on the occupancy levels.
Cyrus: I would just add that you want to avoid to asking people to leave an amenity space. The way you do that is by elegantly restricting access getting in. So then you avoid that whole issue on the back end. And you can use technology to say – Hey look! You’ve maxed out on the amenity space. Pick a different time to reserve going into the room. That way people have the opportunity to use it later.
Jessica: That makes sense. I believe we have time for one more question. Steve, this one’s for you. Will you be able to do the same thing for the smaller properties as the larger?
Steve: The message will obviously be tailored to what amenities are available for the property. Our message to our properties from a company as Waterton is one message though. We’re tailoring our rollout based off the State and Local Government restrictions. Now, it’s still going to be an occupancy-based and space driven rollout and our focus on all properties are still focusing on the outdoor properties.
Obviously, the more people that you have in a property, you’re going to reach your limits a lot sooner. But, won’t be a difference between how we’re rolling this out between any of our properties, big or small. The main thing is, what amenities are there and what are the Local and State restrictions? We operate across the country, and I’m based here in Chicago. So my restrictions are going to be slightly differently than those properties out west in the California region.
Jessica: Okay, well that definitely makes sense. Unfortunately, we’re out of time right now. Steve and Cyrus, thank you so much for your time today. This was a really interesting conversation.
Cyrus: Thank you, Jessica!
Steve: Thank you for having us, this was great!
Jessica: Great, of course! Take care everyone and stay safe. Thanks – Bye.