Marc Carter: Raising the bar in student accommodation

Despite the size of the market, and a target audience that is both brand conscious and brand loyal, there are no recognisable names which command genuine brand loyalty in the student accommodation sector.

Students have high expectations when it comes to their housing, says Marc Carter. Picture: John Devlin
Students have high expectations when it comes to their housing, says Marc Carter. Picture: John Devlin

This is a massive own-goal for an industry which has such commercial opportunity. Knight Frank recently reported that purpose built student accommodation (PBSA) has seen record rises for rental income, with Edinburgh and Glasgow performing near the top of the market with 2.9 per cent and 7.1 per cent growth respectively in 2015.

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Yet, unlike the hotel market, where names like Hilton and Malmaison conjure up specific brand expectations, student accommodation is mainly faceless, functional, and unfettered in terms of its quality standards. There is no star rating system of student accommodation, making it difficult for tenants to decipher what value they are getting for their rental fees.

This is surprising, considering the target audience are mainly millennials. Demanding in all aspects of their lives, the current student population has high expectations when it comes to accommodation.

And so it should. We’re talking about anything from a £120 to £220-a-week investment. In response, PBSA providers have improved the typical student block. The trend in the industry is unequivocally upward, with quality and specification increasing.

But we are still faced with distinctly vanilla student living experiences. While you’ll almost certainly know which brands your student son or daughter are wearing and buying, you’re unlikely to overhear them wax lyrical about their “amazing digs” and even less likely to see the provider’s brand name as a huge draw in selecting student accommodation for them.

Although the “hardware” of building design within PBSA is becoming hard to differentiate between, the “software”, or unique experience delivered to the student, is where there is an opportunity to make all the difference. true Student is responding by designing accommodation and common areas that meet the demands of today’s student audience, like having quality en-suite rooms with high-speed broadband.

Little details, like including contents insurance in the rent, and having a welcome pack with things like bedding and kitchen utensils, are the sort of home-from-home conveniences that can help students settle in.

Because we want students to have the best experience possible, a focus of our complexes is the communal aspect. We think it’s important that PBSA providers also need to offer social facilities such as cafes, cinemas and libraries. At our complexes we also help bring our communities together by putting on a curated calendar of social events.

But it’s not just about the stereotypical student parties – because pastoral support and psychological wellbeing are also central to our philosophy, there are also cookery classes focused around eating healthily on a budget, and fitness suites with organised classes and qualified instructors.

For overseas students, we offer airport-to- accommodation transport, as well as assistance with setting up UK bank accounts. While true is not the cheapest option in the market, it is not the most expensive either. But it is unique in the carefully managed experience and innovative accommodation design it offers. We’re creating a great community, intended to be a significant and positive aspect of our student guests’ residential life, which in turn is building commercial worth for the company.

It’s time for the PBSA sector to focus on the customer and offer student living experiences that will enhance both the life and studies of those who choose them. By creating experiences that students really value, PBSA providers can connect with a target audience ripe for meaningful brand engagement, ongoing loyalty and the commercial opportunities this offers.

• Marc Carter is managing director of true Student