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In conversation with: Karan Khanna, Chief Customer Officer

5 April 2023

Karan leads the operational and commercial functions for Unite, working with his team to enhance the student experience, deliver commercial performance and raise brand awareness. He joined the business in June 2021 from InterContinental Hotels Group, where he served as managing director for the UK and Ireland. Here, Karan explains some of the focus areas for the year.

Q: How has Unite delivered value for customers during the cost-of-living crisis?
A: Our costs are very competitive when compared to other forms of student accommodation. We offer a simple, fixed rent that includes utilities, Wi-Fi, maintenance, security, and insurance, so students have certainty on cost. Due to our scale, we purchase utilities on competitive terms, so we can also offer students significant savings on their bills.

Looking beyond costs, the value we offer to students is about the experience we create. We want to offer a home where they feel happy, secure, and able to be at their best. Our students – some of whom are away from home for the first time – may need support, so last year we moved to a 24/7 model – which means our trained team are there for students any time they need us.

Q: So, what investments have been made in supporting students’ wellbeing?
A: We recognise the pressures facing today’s students and have taken a number of actions to improve the wellbeing of students in our properties.

A new framework – Support to Stay – has been designed in partnership with universities to help students maximise their success despite any medical, physical or mental health difficulties they may be experiencing. Student wellbeing is also a core focus for our front-line team members. Alongside a dedicated student support team, we also have a Resident Ambassador programme so students can provide peer-to-peer support to one another.

Right now, we know that financial wellness is top of mind for students. That’s why we joined forces with financial planning experts, Blackbullion, to offer students practical tools to help them manage their money.

Q: Do you see student expectations evolving?
A: Definitely. Today’s students have high expectations of their accommodation experience – they want more than just a room to sleep in.

Gen Z expects a seamless digital journey, and we connect with them throughout their time with us through our MyUnite app. Recent enhancements to the app include customer notifications, digital check-out, and also a dedicated space for student welfare.

We continue to invest in making our buildings great spaces for students to thrive. Last year this included two new properties and three major refurbishments, with the buildings benefiting from social spaces, karaoke rooms, cinema rooms and gyms.

Sustainability sits at the heart of all developments to ensure they remain fit for the future. This year’s projects incorporated improved insulation, solar panels and air source heat pumps to reduce carbon emissions and improve their EPC ratings.

Q: Are you investing in your team and platform to create a better experience for students?
A: Yes, and this is a top priority for us. Last year saw the launch of The Academy, which delivers tailored learning experiences for all employees – especially focused on student safety and wellbeing. Customer data shows that social connections matter greatly, so alongside a Higher Education partner we are also trialling how we can use data and technology to place students in flats with the people they will most likely get along with best.

Looking ahead, we are teaming up with an award-winning design agency to create the next generation accommodation experience which we will be rolling out shortly.

Q: Finally, what actions have you taken to keep buildings fire safe for students?
A: We were one of the first companies to take action to remove Aluminium Composite Material (ACM) cladding from our buildings and continue to survey our estate and undertake any necessary remedial work, putting the safety of our students at the heart of what we do.

We have a dedicated fire safety team of four people with extensive experience in risk management. But we recognise that educating students on fire safety also plays a part. That’s why
we hold an annual fire safety education week – which last year included live events hosted by the fire service.