Take a stroll near the universities of the major cities of the UK, and you cannot help but notice a change in the landscape. Gone are the shabby terrace houses with Bob Marley adorned flags as curtains, or the university halls of residence that, try as they might, always looked like they were meant for East Berlin in the days of the wall. The last decade has seen the PBSA (purpose-built student accommodation) market boom, a boom revealed by chic and up-to-date apartment blocks and the trappings of young professionals - coffee shops, barbers and pavements lined with parked bicycles. The PBSA boom is about more than new buildings though; the sector has brought with it a new approach to managing buildings and serving those that live within it, which of course means a primary role for technology.
Technology Director of Vita Student Accommodation Jonathan Tizard describes the business as:
A vertically integrated developer and operator of accommodation.
Launched in 2014 the Manchester headquartered business provides a living experience that looks similar to that of a modern hotel combined with a WeWork office. As a business, Vita is responsible for the entire process of site acquisition, design, build and then operating of the accommodation, and when Tizard and I catch up in late 2020, the business has 21 buildings in the UK, providing 7000 beds and plans for a further 5000 beds to join the class, along with expansion into London and Barcelona as it builds its European ambitions.
We have a really good rebooking rate, and a key driver for us is that if we know that, on average, one-third of our residents will stay with us, then that makes the sales and marketing that bit easier.
Technology has been built into the fabric of the Vita organisation, which Tizard says feeds back into the understanding of the resident, the property and the design process. He says:
Here it is not just about the asset (the building); we drive the value of our buildings by having everyone engaged.
We always seek to utilise innovative technology, for example presence sensors for the buildings, but ultimately unless that is driving the bottom line, then it is just for show.
Tizard has built the technology foundations of Vita on a set of three core technologies, AWS serverless, Padoq apps and Salesforce. He adds:
Our role is to link the scalable technologies together, so we are technology agnostic.
A partnership with App platform provider Padoq has been developed to make the community a primary focus of the business. Students want to self-service, and the app is the main tool for the student to make maximum use of the building they reside in, Tizard explains:
Having a digital community means we can organise groups of students and offer cooking classes, gym, yoga and DJ sessions.
The technology director moved Vita from a virtual private cloud service to the Amazon serverless environment to make significant savings in the cost of technology operations. Tizard adds that serverless enables him to keep the IT team lean, and without any fears that he cannot scale up the technology services if required:
We are here to drive value, and to do that we want to really understand the business. Technology innovation comes from a team that understands the challenges of the business.
Keeping the demands for technology staff low has real benefits for a Manchester headquartered business too, the city has been running hot on recruitment for a number of years. Tizard says:
There will always be a small pool, so build your business around that and don't build a big system that has to be managed.
We are blessed that we have a lot of top quality SaaS solutions, and with serverless, you can cut the costs in half, which scares some.
The technology director believes too many organisations are "castle building" when there are existing technologies available that can carry out the same tasks. He adds:
Everyone tries to choose an agnostic platform. A lot of the SaaS platforms that we use are in the raw, basic AWS versions.
To describe the technology strategy of Vita Student, they are using the readily available bricks that are easily accessible and not looking to distinguish the business by the bricks they use, but in the building that comes about from the standard bricks. Technology does play a role in distinguishing the service, and this is where Tizard sees Salesforce playing a strong role.
We are going full into Salesforce, using it for the booking rental and building management.
Tizard's strategy will delight the ears of Salesforce, who are keen to see their application be used as a business platform and not just a sales management tool.
The technology drives new services, and as a result impacts the bottom line of the business.
We believe that with technology we are really focused on customer service, and we do a lot of face-to-face with the students, and we make sure that they are really engaged with the buildings.
Technology, therefore, acts as a girder, connecting the product and service to the customer.
Technology augments everything, as we use technology to make the facility as self-service as possible. For example, residents can check live washing machine availability via our app.
Lessons from lads
He adds that the same approach to technology also ensures they know that their residents are connected with one another, something that has been vital for the generation of students taking their first steps away from the parental home during a global pandemic. Tizard says:
Using the app development platform we rolled out an emergency service for our residents, connected to the customer relationship management system, which enabled us to provide food and shopping deliveries within a few weeks of the Coronavirus pandemic hitting the UK.
I came into this business from the social media and publishing sector and the Padoq platform is social first, and that meant we could manage our own community from one single place, which means Vita can manage and create a community from a single place rather.
Tizard led technology at LADbible Group, a social media disruptor, also from Manchester. Founded in 2012 the organisation has quickly grown to operations in three countries and an audience of 584 million a month.
His two years at LADbible gave Tizard a taste for using cutting edge technologies like serverless and community-focused tools to rapidly deploy products that win rapid customer adoption. At Vita he reports directly to the CEO and has a dotted line reporting line to the managing directors of the other business lines of the group that use the technology his team provides.