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Student accommodation: Home or hotel?

13 October 2022

Accommodation Matters is back – and we’re kicking off this new series with a look at the intersection between student accommodation and the hospitality sector.

Two years since its launch, Unite Students’ Accommodation Matters podcast continues to bring together sector experts to discuss the leading issues, themes and questions within the Higher Education sector, through the lens of student accommodation.

For the first episode of Season 5, Jenny Shaw – Higher Education External Engagement Director at Unite Students – is exploring the overlap between the hotel sector and student accommodation. She’s joined by a very special panel of student accommodation practitioners with hotel experience. They’ll be sharing their insights and expertise as to how they’ve applied their experience in hotels to the world of student accommodation, whether students should be considered customers, and hotel trends that might emerge in PBSA.

This month’s expert panel is made up of:

  • Vikki Welch, Associate Director of Student Living at University of Nottingham
  • Karan Khanna, Chief Customer Officer at Unite Students
  • Paul Watson, Central Operations Director at Unite Students

Jenny is also joined by special guest contributor David Marr, Head of Operations for Scotland and the North at Unite Students. He shares his personal experience of leaving home at 18 to work in the hotel sector, and how that’s shaped his view on supporting students as they make the transition to university life.

You can subscribe and listen to the episode now on SpotifyGoogleAmazonApple Podcasts, or below through Podbean. If you enjoy the podcast, please don’t hesitate to leave a 5* review – we’d love to hear from you!


Conversation transcript: ‘Student accommodation: Home or hotel?’

Jenny Shaw: Hello, and welcome to Season Five of Accommodation Matters, your monthly look into the big issues in student accommodation. I’m Jenny Shaw and today I’m asking what can student accommodation learn from the hotel sector. Before we started, I caught up with David Marr, who is the head of operations for Scotland and the North for United students. I wanted to chat with him about his own experiences of leaving home for the first time, and how that informed his approach to the student experience when they first arrive at university.

David Marr: I left school at 16, I had done quite well at school, I had my Highers, as they were then, to go off to university to study and my intention, my plan was to go off to be an accountant. Two of my friends got jobs at a local hotel and they got me a job and I just fell in love with it. I just fell in love with working with people, working with the public service, the buzz overall, and I never went to university. What happened instead was that I guess then embarked upon a 20-year career in hotels.

I left home at 18, I think, and this was the first time that I had left home. I was going down to work in what was then the Holiday Inn, Newcastle City Centre, and it felt like a massive move, it just felt like it was so far away. It was quite a big deal – I remember breaking up with my girlfriend, actually, because that’s how career-focused I was. I was leaving her to go and pursue my career and yeah, it was a big move.

It’s only as I’ve come into student accommodation that it’s reminded me just how big a deal that is to leave home and the pressures and the stresses that students face and students, some of them feel lonely, some of them are under a lot of stress, anxiety. We are probably the only friendly face that they see on that on that first day. That warm welcome, that big smile, that genuine connection is really important.

If I think about hospitality and PBSA and the similarities and the differences, I guess, my reflection is that in a hotel, a guest will stay for a couple of nights on average but in student accommodation, they’re here for the majority of the year. It’s not just a bed for the night, after a couple of nights. It’s their home and it’s quite possibly their first ever time away from home or the home that they grew up in. They’re moving house, they might be moving to a new city, they’ve also got to try and do well at university because that’s why they’re there.

Anything we can do to help support with that help just soften the blow, as it were, we would like to do and we absolutely train our teams to do so.

Jenny: After a summer of turning rooms around, it’s hard to believe that hotels do this on a daily basis but then hotel guests are transient, whereas students are joining a residential community for a year or sometimes more. The hotel sector is also very data-driven. It’s highly focused on customer and employee satisfaction. Could student accommodation make better use of data and in the context of a wider higher education sector that’s understandably had reservations about students as customers, is satisfaction the right measure?

Here today with some of the answers to those questions, I’ve got three guests with me. They all work at senior level in student accommodation, and they all have substantial experience in the hotel sector. Please, can I ask you each to introduce yourself? Vikki, can I start with you?

Vikki Welch: Hello, Jenny. Yes, I’m Vikki Welch. I’m the Associate Director for Student Living at the University of Nottingham. I’ve been in student accommodation for almost seven years now but previous to that spent 18 years in hospitality, hotels, and restaurants.

Jenny: Fantastic. A great reservoir of experience to draw on there. Thanks, Vikki. Karan can I come to you next?

Karan Khanna: Hi, everyone. I’m Karan Khanna. I’m the Chief Customer Officer for United Students. I’ve been with the business for just about 18 months. Prior to that, I spent 10 years working for InterContinental Hotels in a range of roles from strategy to design and engineering, and operations as well. I come from a hotel family. My mother was a hotelier.

Jenny: That’s great. Thank you very much, Karan. In the same room with you is Paul. Paul, can you introduce yourself?

Paul Watson: Hi, good afternoon, Jenny. I’m Paul Watson. I’m Central Operations Director here at United Students. I’ve been with the business for almost one year now, actually, coming up in November. Prior to that, I’ve worked in hospitality hotels my entire life, both in independent hotels, also international hotel chains, really up to general manager for most of my career.

Jenny: That’s great. Thank you very much. Thank you to all three of you. At the start of the show, we heard from David Marr, Unite’s Head of Operations for Scotland and the North and he had some reflections on the two sectors. Vikki, can I come to you first, what have you taken from your hotel experience that you’ve applied in student accommodation?

Vikki: I think, for me Jenny, it’s a real focus around standards and quality. I think in the hotel sector, you’ve got a full range from value accommodation through to your five-star hotels. What I’ve bought over to student accommodation is that cultural awareness that students do have high expectations, and we do have an element of guest service to offer to them. Whilst they may be not transient guests, they’re with us for a longer time, but really ensuring that their rooms are high quality, their social spaces have that quality as well, to be able to enjoy building their home from home with us.

Jenny: Brilliant, thank you. I love that focus on standards and quality. I think we will be coming back to that in a minute. I want to come to you next, Karan. David had talked about the point of arrival in the context of entering that new life stage. That’s a real unique feature of what we do in student accommodation. The hotel checking experience is a bit more transactional. Do you think that there’s anything that we should learn from it?

Karan: Sure, Jenny. Fundamentally, I think it’s what you said at the beginning, I think there are absolute similarities in what we as student accommodation providers do and what hotels do but there are actually some big differences between the two sectors as well. I think it’s important to know where the similarities are and where the differences are. For example, I think, as you said earlier, we have residents with us stay for a year, and it’s their home versus hotels tend to be they are more guests who are staying for one to two days, and it’s their room.

Those two elements often drive quite a lot of differences. Fundamentally, both sectors are, as Vikki said, trying to deliver a fantastic experience, and create something memorable. When it comes to the check-in experience per se, a couple of things where I think hotels and hospitality, in general, do really well. The first is the real sense of arrival. Certainly, when I was in design and engineering, we spent a huge amount of time understanding how do we drive that initial sense of excitement and the curb appeal.

It’s something that we possibly don’t do as much of in the student sector, which I would love to change. Second is when you’re in that, something hotels are great at, which is your initial check-in, that welcome that you receive, and how casual and informal that it gets as you go through different hotel brands or different chain scales. I think that’s another area whereas as student accommodation providers, I think we need to start from moving reception areas from being receptions to more host stations and welcome areas for our community.

I think those are two areas where I would definitely see learning from the hospitality sector for ourselves.

Jenny: That’s great. Now that you use that term, curb appeal. I’m really interested in drilling a little bit more into that because I’m getting a slightly different view on this at the moment as I’m going around with my daughter going to open days. I know that she’s looking for certain things when she first rocks up to the accommodation, sometimes it’s about belonging, ‘will I feel at home here’ and so on. What do you think curb appeal means in that student accommodation setting?

Karan: On that point, I think that absolutely one of the things we need to fundamentally understand is what drives student choice. The thing that we’ve learnt with our research is different types of students and different segments of students are looking for possibly something else.

We’ve got to be very careful that we don’t generalize and assume that the same set of attributes are what every single student community is looking for. There will be some for whom the most important element or what they’re looking for in accommodation is the study spaces, or it’s their personal room, or it’s the flat, kitchen area where they can build a community.

For others, it will be the overall aesthetics, the design, the amenity space, whether it has a karaoke room or a foosball table. I think those elements need to be considered. I think the element of curb appeal is very much around the sense of pride that you have to stay in a particular location, and what it actually represents about you. Certain segments who are certainly more outwardly focused, for them, their accommodation is a reflection of their own attributes and for them, elements of curb appeal become relatively important, whereas others are more in tune with certain other aspects.

I think we really need to understand the different segments and their needs, and then dial up and dial down elements across our portfolio on that lens.

Jenny: Vikki, can I come to you on this one? What feedback do you get from students about first impressions of different accommodation? What do you think students are looking for?

Vikki: I personally believe that they are looking for that initial wow factor. As you said there Jenny, on those open days, making those first visits, or your website materials and your marketing materials really speak to what that individual is looking for. I think, as Karan has said, we have to offer a range and I think there’s a portfolio, as there is in hotels, as I said earlier, from budget to five-star.

I think we’re starting to see that now in the student accommodation sector and we’re seeing really diverse students have very different requirements in terms of what they’re looking for, so I personally have seen, what we are doing in Nottingham, is that more hosting station, is that more hotel style check-in and a more welcoming response to build relationships from their very first day because they are going to be with us for the next year rather than just a 24-hour short period.

Jenny: Thanks, Vikki. Paul, I want to come to you next because Vikki talked previously about standards. I know this is something that the hotel sector is very strong in and making use of data for a whole range of things. Revenue management satisfaction and standards itself. How important do you think data is for student accommodation?

Paul: Data is very important for us to use but obviously, we need to use that along with listening to obviously other partners that we have. I think there’s some fundamental differences between hotels and PBSA however, and I think the first is in hotels and maturity and scale of the hotel sector. What I mean by that is there’s thousands of years of history and learning from the hotel sector and hotels in every town, in every city across the world and many of those are part of international hotel chains where they, therefore, have access to huge amount of data, which has led to a generally accepted way of doing things probably in 90% of the hotels.

However, I think to Vikki’s point, more and more data has been used to push the boundaries on those differentiated service experiences, so fundamentally what we do in PBSA is similar. However, there are differentiated service experiences that we can deliver to our students. I think revenue is a really great example how we use similar data and the technology that we have created in hotels to collect that data.

Hotels didn’t invent revenue management. Actually, airlines adopted it first. Hotels adopted revenue management from the airlines. We’ve been able to use that data to really understand the markets the hotels sit in. We’re able to understand where the rate or occupancy within those markets is, the opportunity and we’re able to do that every night of the year, which takes me onto the second fundamental difference in terms of how we can collect data in hospitality versus PBSA.

In hospitality, we are able to cut that data every single day of every single year whereas in PBSA of course it’s quite cyclical. We only check guests or students in once, we’re only able to clean the room once and we’re only able to check them out once. Fundamentally, that creates challenges in the way that we can collect data or learn from our students. How do we engage with those customers and keep the customers engaged so they actually want to share the details about their stay when they’re staying with us all year?

What are the right channels to get to those customers? Then how do we actually get that information to be able to quickly respond to what they’re telling us when actually an annual cycle, we’re unable to use that data to make immediate changes to improve the student experience, unlike hotels where they obviously have 365 different opportunities every year. That then brings us onto the standards, Jenny. Currently, really in PBSA, I’m not sure how evolved we are mature, we are driving differentiated experiences other than from the property itself as a general rule.

In hotels, there are in multiple brands with multiple parent brands and very defined products and service standards honed on the delivery to target customer, the target customer in PBSA. Do we have that right segmentation? Are we using that data correctly to understand our customers and to build to Karan’s point the student experience delivered to what their expectations are, so how important is that data? It’s extremely important but we need to build history.

We need to analyse trends. We need to better predict when understanding our students actually want from student accommodation because we don’t have that many opportunities to put it right for them and we need to take that into context with other factors, especially given the maturity industry such as society’s perception, the expectation of PBSA, how we sell to students, can we really revenue manage like the hotel industry and of course, then the importance of the partnership with the higher education institutions.

How do you understand where those gaps are between what we offer and the higher education institution and how do we fill those gaps within our service offering in each city?

Jenny: There’s such a lot in what you said there, Paul. I’m going to just break it down a little, so I think there’s something towards the end of what you were saying there about recognizing the social purpose and the social value and place of student accommodation which is maybe quite different from the hotel sector, which has different expectations on it.

Definitely, something there about taking a longer-term look and having to hold that data and be determined to see it through and apply it in the next year if you want to make improvements but also how much is hanging actually on each of those transactions as you go through the year.

It’s a one-off with that cohort of students, you’ve got to get it right because that’s your customer base for the whole year. There’s quite a lot there.

Paul: There is, Jenny. Sorry, I probably gave a lot of information but I think also the really interesting thing between obviously hotel and PBSA that I have now learned is the number of interactions we have with those students and our team and how do we create a community and how do we create our opportunities to engage with the students to really, again, understand the students on their journey and support them and get to know them and develop our offer to meet their expectations.

Jenny: Yes, which is quite rare in the hotel sector. Not completely, I think I know there are some hotel offerings where there is that idea of creating a community however short-term but much, much rarer. You used the word customer a few times, Paul, and I wanted to ask you, Karan, because you are a chief customer officer, it’s been a while since I’ve worked in higher education but at the time, the sector was really throwing its hands in the air about the use of the word customer but do you think there are benefits in approaching students as customers?

Karan: I absolutely do. For me, that’s fundamental because of two reasons. One is the importance of what we are providing and secondly the options that students and parents and higher education providers have. Number one, when you think about the role of accommodation in the success of failure of university life, it is actually quite fundamental. I look back to my time when I was a student and the two flatmates I had are still my best friends 10 years after I finished my masters.

I look at the sector and I think of the opportunity it has to create lifelong friendships and create an amazing experience in university so, for me, it is hugely critical that we in accommodation are providing the best possible experience. You add that, the purchase price of what we’re offering, so if you’re staying in accommodation, you are spending anywhere between £5,000 to £15,000 depending on the location and the type of room that you are in, that is a massive investment for a parent or for a student to make.

When you think of what’s happening with cost of living and even before that as well, you’ve got to think really, really hard and you’ve got to make sure that you’re delivering true value for money. For me, on the important scale, this is hugely important to what we do but at the same level, students and parents have a huge amount of choice right now and so do universities in terms of who they work with as their partners.

If we are not able to give a phenomenal experience that is based on how students want to live and what they’re expecting, students will just go somewhere else. They will vote with their feet. For me, if you don’t think of them as customers, we’ll drive the wrong innovation, we’ll drive the wrong student services. For me, it is absolutely fundamental that we look at them as customers and customers here is a good word, not a bad word.

That’s the way I think about it and what actually for me is the reason I moved over from hospitality into PBSA was the ability to start to create that journey and create that legacy.

Jenny: Customer to you is about value and someone having made that choice to come to you, is that what it means?

Karan: Absolutely. It’s also for us as a company, it should be our north star. It should be the basis of how we make decisions to drive a greater student experience, a greater student satisfaction, those are all the things that should be fundamental to how we measure our success as a business.

Jenny: That’s brilliant, thank you. Vikki, I want to come back to you because how does that sit with you? You’re in the higher education sector now, which maybe has some different words and different terms for some of these things, how does that sit with you?

Vikki: I think for me there’s a real balance between seeing students as customers, students as students, and students as guests. Fundamentally, what we are doing in our halls of residents and all of our student accommodation partners is enabling young people to grow and thrive through their academic journey and become well-rounded adults for the future. I think there are a lot of elements in that customer journey that all go to play a significant part to helping these young people on that journey from the support staff, to the look and feel of the bedroom, to the ResLife programmes that we offer.

I think we have seen a huge shift in the student and as Karan said there, the parent mindset of seeing themselves as customer due to the value which the student accommodation price tag brings with them. I think we said there between £5,000 and £15,000, that’s a significant cost for students and parents to take and I really believe that has changed their behavior and their expectations.

For me, in a higher institution, we have to apply elements of a customer expectation but also with that nurturing and delivering great, affordable accommodation as well. We will see that transactional processes as we’ve seen there as customers and through complaints and value for money as Karan has said, but I think it’s all of our responsibility to ensure that we are delivering great value for money, great student service, and great satisfaction to enable them to thrive in their academic endeavors.

Jenny: It sounds like quite a blend of the old and the new, doesn’t it? Where we are at the moment within the sector. That attention to detail, that use of data, that idea of students as perhaps almost consumers in terms of how much they’re paying, but also that experience and that nurturing. It is more of a long-term thing. Paul, Karan, I don’t know if either of you want to come back on that.

Karan: I think it’s part of the maturity of our sector, but I think it’s really important that we don’t lose sight of the wider elements that a student is going through. The point about academic excellence, the academic support, I think it is a much more complex ecosystem that we have to get right for students to have the best possible experience.

That’s something I was quite surprised by when I moved from hospitality to student accommodation – things like the role of student welfare, this role of student support, the mental health challenges that students have, general societal problems that get amplified in our world where students are leaving home for the first time as well.

It’s something that I never had to experience really in hospitality because yes you might see repeat guests but you’re seeing them for one or two days a week every other month, every other week. It’s very different to living with somebody and seeing all of their joys and aspirations, coupled with all of their challenges and insecurities come out. For me, that’s been the one sort of thing that I’ve always kept in mind, the role of student welfare, the role of student support, which is way more important in our sector than anywhere else.

Paul: That is echoed for me, Jenny, really, and something that I was saying before, but when I look at our offer versus our university partners’ offerings, there are differences in what universities do offer in terms of the ResLife. However, we have our resident ambassador programmes that we are trying to then bring into that student journey to be able to support those students regardless of which university they’re going to, that we can enhance and support their university experience.

The second point for me really is about treating our students as customers. In my view from a PBSA point of view is really important because our students do have choice and we would like those students to choose us.

One of the key learnings that I have, really coming over again from the hotel sector, is the importance we place on third-party feedback and customers being able to offer feedback on their experiences is available for everybody to see that is not managed by hospitality. Similarly, now we’re seeing that come through from a student point of view where students are leaving their feedback about their experiences, whether that’s on their course or actually whether it’s through their accommodation.

That peer-to-peer reviews are becoming increasingly important in the decision-making of our students. Then therefore actually they see themselves as customers and therefore we must see them too because they are the ones that are choosing where they’re going to be staying.

Jenny: That’s a great point, isn’t it? There’s just nowhere to hid, is there? Which is great for students. You’re going to get that proper full and frank review so everyone’s got to up their game. Vikki, you’re going to come in on that.

Vikki: Yes. I think it’s that recommendation, isn’t it? I think we see TripAdvisors for our hotel sector and we are seeing more and more emphasis put on that peer-to-peer review and that word of mouth about that experience passing down to the next incumbent of students coming in. I think we’ll start to see more and more student accommodation review sites because this is how this young population will start to navigate through glossy, shiny marketing materials.

What’s the real lived experience if I choose to stay at one property versus another? I think that’s really important how we ensure that the student experience within all of our properties is able to be shared more widely and really focus on that service element, that satisfaction, and those standards in order to continue to have students choosing our properties moving forward for the next years to come.

Jenny: It’s great feedback, really valuable feedback and it’s great for students as well. We always say that student accommodation is full of surprises. I know that every single year that I’ve been in student accommodations, something has come along, which I’ve never seen before and is very surprising. I’d like to ask each of you, were there any situations, any incidents that surprised you in the first few months when you moved into student accommodation? Vikki, do you want to kick off with that one?

Vikki: I will never forget my first week, Jenny, when I asked a simple question that said, “How many rooms do we have to sell?” I think it took a team half a day to pull together different spreadsheets and cross-reference it to tell me that we were currently sitting at approximately 98% occupancy but there were a bit unsure. Moving from a slick hotel system where the click of one button you could have an availability report, it was really surprising in that first week.

Needless to say, seven years later I’ve made some significant improvements in terms of our data reporting and how I can view that information. It really did surprise me that some of the commercial elements and I said, we are a student focus, but there is a commercial role that we have to play in our large portfolios. Understanding how many rooms we had available in that first week was really shocking to me.

Then how we use that data, and Karan mentioned it earlier to help make informed decisions around our commercial spending for example, or how we respond to student voice feedback. We’ve come a long way in seven years, but I will never forget those first few days.

Jenny: Must have been quite a shock.

Vikki: It was indeed, yes.

Jenny: Karan, how about you?

Karan: I think for me I took the opportunity in my first few months to really drive around the country really seeing all the different properties, about 25,000 miles in my car in the first sort of six months. The thing that really struck me was the scale of our operations. In a hotel, well, 150, 200 rooms, that’s probably the standard size, a big hotel’s 400 rooms a resort might be 500. We’ve got properties that have got 1,000 bedrooms, 1,200 bedrooms.

It’s just insane when you look at the scale of some of these things and the number of people who are staying with us. For me that was a bit of a, wow, this is big, this is massive.

Jenny: That’s actually quite a draw for students, isn’t it, or some students that you’ve got so many people of the same age all in one place?

Karan: It’s like vertical cities. That’s what we have.

Jenny: Amazing. Paul, what about you?

Paul: The parallels actually that I came across as people were talking to me around students’ behavior, they’re very similar to hotels really in many ways. Hotels are a place of celebration. We have a real transient nature of people coming in and out of properties. You have fire alarms going off in the middle of the night. Sadly, rooms being damaged by hotel guests etc.

Therefore all of that didn’t come as surprise, but what really came as a surprise to me was how many young people come to university with or experiences something that causes them to develop health issues. It’s something that I just had not considered prior to joining PBSA and it really has taken me by surprise. Obviously, we’re incredibly lucky here in Unite Students because we have a student support team, they’re able to help students where we know about initiatives, signpost them to relevant support.

It has really stood out to me since joining and it really has lit a passion in me that I did not know existed wanting to help these young people in their careers and help them to be successful when they’re staying with us.

Jenny: You think in particular student mental health?

Paul: Yes, in particular student mental health, Jenny. It is very unusual I think in hospitality that you get to know guests on any level beyond that transient nature where obviously within PBSA, we are getting to know and understand our students and we are able to see patterns of behaviour that perhaps you wouldn’t see in a hotel. Therefore almost have or feel to have a duty to be able to support those individuals and signpost them to the right help and relevant support before it impacts both their own ability to stay with us but also obviously the impact that might have on other students that they’re sharing thoughts or otherwise with.

Jenny: Was that a surprise to you as well, Vikki?

Vikki: It really was. I think what’s developed in me over the last seven years is perhaps less commercial focus and more around the well-being and education of our young people, as I said earlier, to set them off into well-rounded adults of the future and a real passion and desire to enable them to adjust in those first few weeks to make new friends, break friendships, learn about themselves and also those skills that they need to function independently within their accommodation and then as they go off into the future as post-graduates and then into co-living with other people.

It was a huge area that I hadn’t really considered as Paul said there from knowing a few business guests in the week and very top-line relationships, shall we say, with our customer services teams. A real in-depth insight into the minds and workings of young people and how impressionable they are and the responsibility our support teams have in terms of nurturing them moving forward, but allowing them that space to grow and learn as well. It’s not about handholding all the time, it’s about enabling them to grow.

Jenny: Yes, because the first years, in particular, they’re absolutely on that cusp of legally adults but very, very new at it.

Vikki: Absolutely.

Jenny: I was wondering if there were any trends in the hotel sector itself that you could see coming into student accommodation over the next few years. I’m not quite sure what answers I’m going to get here, but I’m going to put that question out there because it’s very interesting to me. Paul, what are your thoughts on that?

Paul: I will go back really to that customer focus really in terms of better understanding the customer, building the data and insights into the customer, and then really creating differentiated service experience around it. It’s not just about the product. It’s about the holistic experience of the student when they’re staying with us. I think that learning, as I said earlier, will really come through listening to those students and being able to gather data through their own voice, which is on our third-party data.

Again, going back to that TripAdvisor point, hotels cottoned on to this long time ago to use that data and then manage that feedback and respond to that feedback. Then make sure they take positive action on that feedback. I think that we need to learn from that and learn from that product quickly and be able to accelerate those changes across PBSA to offer real value for money and affordable accommodations for those that want it but also luxury experiences for those students that require that also.

Jenny: Yes, it’s great to have those sites, isn’t it? Otherwise, there will be that peer-to-peer recommendation but we just wouldn’t see it. It’s great that we have access to that. Karan, what were your thoughts on that?

Karan: I think for me, the big trend or the big thing that we need to develop is the role of product innovation. Things that the hospitality sector and I include restaurants and bars and this is much as hotels. Over the last decade and a half, they’ve gone through a massive physical transformation and really up their game when it comes to how they think about design from all the physical attributes and how that adds up to the overall student experience. You’ve seen a fragmentation of lots of different product types in the back of being more bespoke and be more targeted for certain segments.

I think for our sector and you’ve already started to see this with some of the new opportunities that we see in the market as well, I think product innovation is something that will actually be a key focus for our sector going forward and how we potentially move from one size fits all similar design, from that point of view, to something that is maybe more bespoke for certain universities, more bespoke for certain types of segments. I’m a big believer in nailing our product because you’re staying in it for a year, it’s your residence, it’s your home, it’s got to be great.

Jenny: It’s absolutely right for innovation, isn’t it? We’ve had the same model for so long.

Karan: Absolutely. We’ve been having a lot of fun with that at United Students. I know over the next few months and years, you’ll see some of that come through in our new properties and some big renovations that we’ve got happening in the background.

Jenny: Brilliant. Thank you. Vikki, what about you?

Vikki: Well, I was going to say product design but Karan stole that one from me. I think one of the shifts I’ve seen is when I came in seven years ago, it was quite large rooms that were required for lots of luggage and lots of belongings. We’ve started to see this move to smaller rooms but more social space so they can interact with each other. I do think that the hotel sector was quite leading in terms of moving forward in terms of more slicker design. I think we’re about to catch up with hotels and hopefully, keep modernizing for the future.

I think another area will be technology and how the hotels use technology not only just from a transactional point of view but in terms of communication and interacting with their guests and how we can take that forward to perhaps remove some of the transactional paperwork and inefficiencies that we have in student accommodation to allow our support teams to be more front-facing and have conversations. I think there’s something around technology that we can really look to the hotel sector to help us influence with the new product design as well.

Jenny: Brilliant. All sounds really exciting. I was going to ask each of you. Having come to student accommodation from a completely different sector, when you were at that point of thinking about going into student accommodation. What did you think it was going to be like? I’ve been in student accommodation for quite a while. I’m really interested in what it looks like to an outsider. Karan, do you want to kick off with this?

Karan: That’s a good one. I have to say I cheated here because about four years ago, I had no clue the sector existed, I’ll be honest with you but I was quite lucky. My nephew actually works in the sector. He came out of university, he stayed in some halls of residence and then he joined a business that actually owned some PBSA assets.

He helped me understand the emergence of the sector, how different it was to what was being offered by universities versus other providers, and also the emergence of the sense of build a community, build a hospitality business. I was quite lucky that it helped me understand the sector. When Unite did come calling, I was actually really, really keen.

I loved hospitality. I think travel is fundamental for our lives and being in hotels. I look at the way I shop at hotels, it’s hugely important. This is a step on from that. This is about changing a young person’s life. If you help them to have a great university experience, it can make such a difference in their long-term economic prosperity and their well-being as well. The opportunity to be a part of that for me, I lept at that and I loved the opportunity to create something, be part of the change that Unite was going to go through. So I cheated a little bit there, I apologise.

Jenny: You had some inside knowledge? Vikki, what about you? What did you think it was going to be like?

Vikki: Well, apart from my own experience at university in halls of residence, which were very dorm-like style, I didn’t really have any other thoughts or influence to help me on that but I did think it would be a lot more technology-enhanced than perhaps what I found seven years ago, definitely in terms of the infrastructure in terms of reporting.

I probably approached it a bit blind thinking they were all just small hotels or big hotels, depending on the size of the portfolio, and quite quickly learned that actually, they’re not. We needed to change, I had no idea about the level of support and wellbeing that well in from our support staff at the time.

I did go into a bit blasé actually, Jenny.

Jenny: But learned a lot since.

Vikki: Hugely, yes.

Jenny: Paul, what about you?

Paul: Like Vikki, I see from my own experience, I stayed with Unite Students some 20 years ago during my student accommodation days, although–

Vikki: Oh, gosh. Please tell me you liked it.

Paul: Things definitely have moved on since I stayed, there is absolutely no doubt about that but I was also lucky enough that Karan preceded me into Unite Students and therefore was able to give me some insight into what student accommodation was like, what working for Unite Students was like.

What really stood out to me in terms of the opportunity of walking into here was that opportunity to focus on the customer experience and really lead the journey because I’m so passionate about that. I’m passionate about making sure that we are able to deliver great experiences to everyone every time and really do it on a consistent basis.

I think, Vikki, to your point, being able to develop technology, in line with our standards and processes, to be able to deliver that with learnings from hotels seemed like a brilliant opportunity. Certainly, walking in now you can see the size of the prize, I guess, in terms of that opportunity that sits in front of us. It’s not been disappointing.

The other thing that’s not been disappointing is being able to go to Hayloft Point and see the City of London out of some of our student accommodation windows or the fact that you go to Salisbury Court in Edinburgh and you see Arthur’s Seat out of their windows and you are thinking, wow, in the hotel world, if we had these, the premium we’d be driving is incredible.

It becomes part of the student experiences. We have brilliant scale buildings to current earlier point and amazing locations. I wasn’t expecting that but what a pleasant surprise.

Jenny: We’re coming towards the end, I did want to ask you though, just as a quickfire round, I suppose if you’ve got a top tip from the hotel industry that would be useful for those working in student accommodation, it could be a really tiny thing, it could be a big thing. Vikki, do you want to kick us off?

Vikki: I would focus on people, ensuring that people culture is focused on your guests or your students.

Paul: I’m really in the same boat there which is to focus on people. I think that the importance of the people in our properties is incredible. We don’t have a huge number of employees in each of our buildings and each of them has a job to do. Actually, that real service delivery is critical.

Jenny: Look after the people and the people will look after the students, Karan.

Karan: As for me, I absolutely would agree with people. I think within that I would say don’t underestimate the importance and the impact your student welfare for your student support programmes can have. It’s very difficult to measure them but it’s critical, especially in the age that we’re living right now and the general societal pressures. I would certainly want to make sure we protect and prioritise that.

Jenny: Thank you. We’ve come to the end of the show. Thank you so much to my guests today, Karan, Vikki, Paul, it’s been a great discussion, so lively. Learned such a lot from it. Thank you to you for listening. If you’re not already subscribed, do follow us on your favorite podcast app so that you’ll never miss an episode and if you like the show, consider recommending us to a colleague. We’re going to be back next month with another episode. It’s going to be a really good one. Do look out for that but until then, you take care.

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