Apartment marketing

Don’t Mess With Texas, or The Power of Stories…

I had five meetings today. That’s a lot for me in my current position as I don’t typically have five in a week. I’d heard a maxim “The only people who enjoy meetings are the ones doing the talking” and it’s served me well. These meetings were different though – I had stories to tell.

More on that in a minute…

You’re no doubt familiar with the slogan “Don’t mess with Texas“, especially if you’ve ever been to the state. What you probably don’t know is that it was/is an advertising campaign to curb littering. Yeah, littering.

I wouldn’t mess with it if I were you.

It was a huge deal for the state that cost around $20 million per year in highway clean up. The problem was massive and so were the proposed solutions: stiff fines, stronger enforcement, pleading messages to “keep Texas beautiful” printed on everything in sight – nothing worked.

The solution came from a pair of creatives at an advertising agency which tapped into the power of stories. They looked at their target market (18-35 year old males – the ones most likely to litter) and found a story that spoke to them. Texas, having been its own country for a time, has a strong independence streak, and possibly more pride than any other state. To be a Texan is a badge of honor and a huge part of one’s identity. It even applies to transplants to the state – it doesn’t take long for converts to adopt the “Don’t mess with Texas” attitude. It’s really quite something to see.

The campaign consisted of State heroes in print and video, conveying that Texas wasn’t to be screwed with, and that if it were, well… not good things would happen. Check out this classic commercial for an example.

The beauty of the campaign is how well it stuck with people. Dan and Chip Heath relay the whole process in their book “Made to Stick” which I can’t recommend enough. By telling these guys a story: “Texans are proud of their state. It’s the best state there is! All other states suck by comparison! You’re a Texan and all Texans (REAL TEXANS, anyway) don’t litter! They don’t degrade the proudest state in the Union. They defend it in with their dying breath. People in Arizona or California may litter, but not us by god.”

That’s a powerful story. It’ s simple and yet still manages to have a massive impact on behavior. I relay this story as I’m trying to do the same thing. In fact, I think the test of a leader is how much they can affect the culture of their team for the better. What kinds of stories do they tell? What effect do those stories have? How did we get better? This is the most significant part of  my job.

texting

“Oh, yeah… what? Water is included. I think…”

So today was about telling stories to my team and what separates us from the rest:  “Other Agents text their BFFs on tours and ignore prospects, we stand and greet people with a warm smile and an eager handshake.

We ask lots of questions because we want to get things just right for our clients, even if that means referring them to the place down the street if it’s a better fit. That’s what we do. We’re great at our jobs and we make a difference in people’s lives. We seek to constantly get better. This is who we are. Other people, they’re not as good, and who cares – we’re not them. We’re us, and we’re elite!”

Motivating, right? The truth is, I LOVE these meetings. I get animated and excited and start wildly gesticulating all over the place. I can’t help it. I swear, I get as much out of these meetings as I give, I think. And that’s why five meetings wasn’t so hard. It was important and it was empowering and thoroughly necessary.

At it’s core, telling stories (the right ones) is what leadership is all about. Fortunately, I really like telling stories.

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Yo Universe, I’m real happy for ya, and I’m a let ya finish…

Yo Universe, I'm real happy for ya, and I'm a let ya finish...

Am I telling Einstein to shut up?

Am I listening today? Really listening? To my team? To my managers? To my clients? To the data? To the market?

Am I so eager to make the world fit in to nice neat little boxes that I’m not actually letting it finish its sentence? Am I telling the universe “Immaletyafinish but Rob had one of the greatest ideas about sales ever”…?

I’m pretty sharp, right? I’m rarely surprised and thus I think I’m already “in the know” about most things in my comfort zone. Do I really need to wait to the end of the story before making up my mind or formulating a response?

A thousand times: YES.

What am I missing out on today because I’m not attuned to what’s happening right in front of my face? Is my swag getting so big it’s threatening to block my view of reality?

Are you listening today? Or are you hurrying to tell today what you know?

If You Build It: Leasing Through Better Meals?

One of the most interesting things about CVI-Orlando (Collegiate Village Inn) is that we have a dining hall and meal plans. NO ONE in off-campus student housing markets have these things – and for good reason. The cost to build a commercial kitchen and dining hall are staggering and the space they consume could be used for rentable units. Nowadays if you want a meal plan you outsource the operation to a 3rd party meal plan company of which there are many.

modern on-campus dining options

Our chief competition - on-campus dining halls of the 21st century

Fortunately for us, CVI was built 20 years ago when UCF had virtually no on-campus housing and the surrounding area in general was sparsely populated/built up. Originally, CVI housed mainly football players and other athletes and with food costs being what they were, it obviously made financial sense to serve meals in-house. Does it still make sense? What are the margins? Can a café’/meal plan serving 400+ students daily be profitable?

Apologies, but you’ll need some rough numbers to get this next part of the challenge. I know, stats are a killer for these blogs but they’re absolutely required. I promise to be gentle.

Plans are included with the monthly rental rates. Here are the meals per week we serve with the corresponding percentage of the community that has selected that option. Differences in price between the plans is about $30 per month. Again, these numbers are only an example:

Any 7   MPW                17% of Students

Any 14  MPW                23% of Students

Any 21 MPW                60% of Students

Any idea what the redemption rate is on meals? That’s the number of meals we actually serve each week compared with how many we’re responsible to provide under these terms. Go ahead and guess a percentage. I’ll tell you a little later.

The largest initial challenge regarding the café’ was figuring out what being successful there meant. I mean, serve great food and have an amazing experience and more meals get eaten. More meals consumed means greater cost, means less profit. Also, the number one factor in people choosing us is the meal plan so if you skimp on quality and cut costs you kill your number one area for adding value. You can see the dichotomy rearing it’s 9 hydra-like heads with its hankering for filet mignon and strawberry blintzes, can’t you?

Before we could do much of anything we had to establish how many meals we were responsible for and how many were being consumed. What were our costs per meal? Believe it or not we had only estimates. Sure, people “signed in” to redeem their meals but the numbers were never compiled as there were around 3000 meals served weekly and who had time to count up all those hash marks?

We made a new excel spreadsheet which pulled directly from our day-to-day occupancy report which also reflected the current meal plan option. This gets updated weekly and the host stand uses this to verify the number of meals consumed for each Student. At the end of the week we click the hash marks into the electronic version and it auto tabulates the meals consumed by day/meal/plan type, and gives us our redemption rate. After two months of solid data it turns out it’s about 45%. So if we’re on the hook for, say 5000 meals in a week, we’ll likely only serve 2250. That’s about 321 per day, or closer to 370 M-F and 200 on Sat/Sundays.

It’s my belief that the best way to succeed at anything is to start with a picture of what the best possible way to succeed would look like. If Donald Trump and Bobby Flay teamed up to do a venture that looked like this place, what would they do? What would the food look like? What does the right mix of; delicious, cost effective, fast, nutritious, visually appealing, and convenient dining, look like? How do you brand an in-house cafeteria and make it more than a school lunchroom without dropping a quarter million in the process?

Bobby Flay really likes that chicken, yo!

Would Bobby Flay have the same thoughts about our chicken?

We knew that listening to Resident feedback was a huge part of this endeavor. People (especially our female students) wanted healthier options, and more accurately – more visual appeal from our healthy options. We had to focus on being less utilitarian and more customer-centric. We could do this. We could also do it for less money if we were smart.

Fewer burgers and more to-go mandarin orange-sesame salads. Out with “café” as the generic name – we were now “Bistro 106.” Complete with a new logo. BTW, the “106” comes from CVI being 106 in roman numerals – clever, right? I wish I could take credit but alas I cannot.

We eliminated deserts as we couldn’t do them well and they were going uneaten. In their place was a ton more fresh fruit – strawberries, melons, pineapple. We began Mongolian Grill nights on Wednesdays with presentation tables while we show classic Kung-Fu movies on a big screen. These became a huge hit. We closely paid attention to waste and reduced it through observing eating trends and predicting with great accuracy how many meals we’d go through on a given day.

Not all decisions were popular and we’re always working out the kinks. People miss their deserts so we do them a couple of nights a week now and in exchange for checking in on Foursquare to help promote the “Bistro 106” brand. It may not be every night, but it is of a much higher quality and we’re proud of that fact. One of our team members lamented the loss of pepper-jack cheese. Many still wish we had more vegetarian/vegan options. We’re still figuring out exactly what we are in terms of a fast-casual dining experience and we’re hoping our latest innovation will help.

Eat & Tweet

We want your feedback so badly we'll even embrace Twitter!

Starting this week we’re rolling out “Eat & Tweet” where through table-tents we’re encouraging Residents to give us real-time feedback on the food/experience through sending a message to @bistro106 or #bistro106. Those that do will automatically be entered to win a weekly prize valued at around $25. We’re fanatical about feedback and want to know the whole story so we can be our best.

In future posts I’ll fill you in on some of the specific changes we’re making to food/purchasing/processing, etc… and what mix and metrics we settle on as our ideal benchmarks. If you’re in the neighborhood (University and Alafaya in Orlando) come see us and have a meal at Bistro 106 on me!

Location matters… but not as much as you might think

This is a fairly entertaining version of the old “location, location, location” angle that marketers love to highlight, especially if they’re situated right across from campus. This one was for a student community in College Station, TX (Go Aggies!) but it could just have easily been shot for any one of a thousand other college communities around the nation.

Here in Gainesville, FL (Go Gators!) there are a number of niches to the student housing market; across the street from campus, large all-inclusive sites which ferry students to campus by bus, and assorted intermittent communities and houses from which students either drive/bike/walk/take the bus. There was a time when location really did mean what these ads try to evoke – you either walked to class five minutes prior, or you had to set out on an epic quest to reach your lab the night before in order to arrive on time. No longer…

Gainesville’s RTS (Regional Transit System) transported over 1.8 Million riders on just their campus routes in 2010. What many of these students know and enjoy is that the bus can be a great respite from the often bumper-to-bumper traffic, and otherwise daring games of turkey, in that great cosmic joke that is parking on campus. Need a little time to read your lecture notes again before a test? Want to just drink your Rock Star energy drink and play Angry Birds while listening to Lil’ Wayne? Yes please.

Just as in time immemorial when it comes to real estate – location matters. But how it matters all depends on you. Are you a 5th year Senior wrapping up some electives while avoiding the real world? Might I recommend Midtown’s awesome bar scene? You won’t have to worry about getting home and honestly, that’s about all you really want to worry about right now. Foreign exchange student? You’d love an all-inclusive roommate matching community that’s across the street from shopping! No car = no worries and the bus affords you plenty of time to read!

The best advice I can give you, the eager and excited college student, is to find out what you want to spend your time on and what your lifestyle will look like day to day. Where will you spend most of your time? Job? Where do your friends live? Keep it all in mind and the correct choice when it comes to location should take care of itself.