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Property Managers Used to Serve Properties. Now They Serve Tenants, Landlords and Consumers

August 30, 2022

“Property managers have always been considered the jack of all trades,” said Karen Whitt, Colliers president of Real Estate Management Services for the U.S., but things have gone to the extreme. “In the last two years they have become experts in health and safety and ESG and in technology,” she said. “They have also had to learn how to help retailers with their unique challenges during the pandemic, whether it be labor shortages or paying rent or how to create outdoor seating at restaurants or shopping areas outside.”

And to serve landlords, property managers have to be so much more sophisticated and more knowledgeable than they once did, especially in understanding financial reporting, according to Rappaport founder and CEO Gary Rappaport, a former ICSC chair. “You have to have a love of the numbers — both in preparing very detailed budgets and then explaining, also in great detail, the variances between actual revenues and actual expenses versus these budgets — or you can’t be in property management.”

Tenant Concierges

“Property management is focused, more than ever, on the retailer tenant experience,” said Molly Westbrook, who manages 30 enclosed malls across Canada as executive managing director of asset services at Cushman & Wakefield. That means providing tenants both hospitality and technology, such as centralized, property-level platforms for e-commerce, returns desks, loyalty programs and the like. Erika Bennett, who manages St. Louis Park, Minnesota’s Shops at West End as senior regional property manager with Hiffman National, agreed, saying property managers now act as concierges for tenants.

It’s about building relationships with tenants, Rappaport said: “It is not just taking care of the physical plant and answering the phone calls if the tenant needs something. It is going out and building a personal relationship with every one of your tenants, figure out what their needs are, to make sure that you know if they have problems, they have someone that cares about them.”

Community Outreach

Additionally, customers and thus tenants developed new needs during the pandemic. “We implemented retail-to-go programs and created spots in the parking lot for Uber Eats to have pickups from our food court tenants,” said Bennett. She and her colleagues also devoted parking areas to curbside pickup. Both tenants and landlords demanded innovative thinking from property managers, she said. With The Shops at West End’s holiday pop-ups, for example, “we were activating the shopping center and bringing in the traffic like the tenants expected and wanted and then also creating a little bit of extra revenue for the ownership.”

ALSO IN C+CT: How The Shops at West End’s Holiday Pop-Ups Enhanced Leasing Efforts

“All retail centers are hoping to be a place where they can serve the community, to be somewhere that people can come get groceries to feed their families and to get close,’ said Bennett. Plus, community outreach can be a way to use underutilized areas. During the pandemic, Westbrook created drive-in theaters and experiences in mall parking lots. After canvassing the community for what would be in demand, her team also marketed unused spaces for special events and private functions. That’s paid off long-term. “It really added a layer to the community where we are getting a lot of different people coming in,” she said.

Even Managing the Physical Properties Has Changed

Supply chain issues have removed the “routine” from routine maintenance. “When we were replacing rooftop [HVAC] units, we used to be able to call and they would get them installed the next week,” said Bennett. Now, the same order is delayed as long as 30 weeks. “That is across the U.S. We are signing roofing contracts and they can’t get to us until next year.”

ALSO IN C+CT: How Rising Construction Costs and Project Delays Are Playing Out

According to Continental Realty Corp. COO David Donato, the No. 1 new challenge facing property managers is a lack of response from contractors and vendors when it comes to replying to bids. “When we buy a property in a new market, trying to get a vendor to do a buildout or do a capital project [is] much, much, much harder. That is a labor problem. That is a materials problem. People are just experiencing that up and down the board.”

Rappaport said property managers have become more proactive in taking care of the physical properties: “When I started 38 years ago, if there was a roof leak and a tenant calls you, you called out the roofer. You didn’t inspect the roofs every year. You didn’t look at the physical plant the same way we now do. A property manager has become in a way like an asset manager. ‘How do we make this property better?’ not just, ‘How do we maintain it?’”

CRC property managers also are becoming more adept at understanding all aspects of the assets they manage, Donato said. “Top to bottom, these guys are all focused on the financial operational performance of the asset, the tenant performance, retaining the tenant, marketing, leasing, legal liability, just keeping the place safe. And more so than ever, they are focused on improving the overall experience inside the center and ensuring it is meeting the needs of tenants and shoppers both now and in the future,” said Donato.

How to Do a Job That Keeps Changing

“Even after 20 years in the business, every day I learn something new,” Whitt said. And that’s how it’s going to continue. Given the high demands on today’s property managers, ongoing training will become even more important. “The expectation is that they are experts at many things,” said Whitt. “Obviously most of our managers are specialists by product type, but there is a lot of demand on the managers regardless of asset class in terms of ESG and reporting.”

Technology has become much more ingrained in the property manager’s world, as well. “Technology plays a huge role in what we are doing, and that will be there to stay,” said Westbrook. Her team recently partnered with Adeptmind to create the “What’s in Store?” campaign, which allows online shoppers to preview and rate thousands of products from the malls she manages before picking them up in-store. “It really just improves the overall customer experience,” she said.

ALSO IN C+CT: Adeptmind’s Work on Centennial’s Property-Level E-Commerce Platform

“The bottom line is that the property manager has become much more important because they are the lead person that the tenant looks to and that is critical in the success of a property,” said Rappaport. “People have choice. No matter how much vacancy or non-vacancy you have in the market, those tenants choose where they want to expand and grow, and [property managers] are your eyes on the property.”

By Ben Johnson

Contributor, Commerce + Communities Today

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