The subtle art of curating amenity packages

by Neil Sharma on 09 Dec 2020

Amid headlines about low rental vacancy rates in Canada’s three largest cities prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was perhaps rightly presumed that amenity packages had little to do with where renters chose to live.

However, with rising vacancy rates, a well-curated amenity package could be the difference between filling a vacancy and having to carry a unit for at least another month. And in a buyer-empowered market, investors should begin looking at how purpose-built rental developers are building upon condominium developers’ earlier successes.

Todd Nishimura, senior director of marketing, leasing and communications at GWL Realty Advisors, which develops purpose-built rentals across Canada, says that curating superlative amenity packages in the purpose-built segment is imperative because, unlike in the condo market where developers exit upon occupancy, rental operators will always have to fill vacancies themselves.

“On the product offerings, from amenities to suite layouts to the finishes, we’re looking to match or exceed condos. It benefits us as owner-developers because purpose-built rental is a long-term play,” Nishimura told CREW. “It’s in our best interest to make the design as functional as possible because we keep having to sell it year after year after year.”

Every year, GWL Realty Advisors visits major U.S. markets, from Manhattan and Chicago to Seattle and Southern California, and receives private guided tours from property management companies that show their latest and greatest amenity packages in the multi-family residential sector.

“We chose those cities because they’re on the cutting edge of property management, design and technology,” said Nishimura. “We want to stay up to speed on what they’re doing because the U.S. is two to four years ahead of us, in terms of innovation and sophistication. It shapes our design and delivery service across Canada.”

Those trips set the stage for what GWL did at The Livmore at the corner of Bay and Gerrard Sts. in downtown Toronto, where it designed an outdoor dog run and spa on the fifth floor. Nishimura noted Canada’s elevated pet ownership rates and says amenities like these, where dogs can be taken a couple of times a day to do their business, are especially useful during the city’s long, bitter winters.

GWL Realty Advisors has a new project in downtown Montreal in which it’s incorporating secret rooms.

“We saw a project in Seattle that had party space and amenities that you could access by pushing against a wall and the room opens up like a speakeasy that’s set up with a bar and TV,” said Nishimura. “When you close the door behind you, it says ‘Janitor’s closet.’ They created this cool secret amenity and we imagined the cachet it would have. You could stage events there, or just watch TV and have a drink, etc.

“For our new project in downtown Montreal, set for occupancy in 2022, we’re building one ourselves. What we liked about it is that it's not just something you can decide on the fly to do, and what it helped us recognize with this company is they had the vision and foresight at the very beginning of planning to include that kind of amenity. You have to think they were on top of everything else and got it all right otherwise they wouldn’t have had the time to think of that kind of amenity.”

The Montreal project will also feature a wine cellar behind a giant window, like those in tony restaurants. The amenity, which Nishimura says was inspired by a visit to a development in Washington D.C., is for residents to store and enjoy their wines.

Just as purpose-built rental developers do extensive research, so do condo developers. In addition to figuring out who their buyer demographics will be, they put a lot of effort into determining which amenities they will enjoy. Plaza Corp. has projects launching soon in downtown and midtown Toronto, as well as the Bloor West and Yonge and Finch neighbourhoods, each of which will offer vastly different amenities.

“We know that a number of people downtown probably have gym memberships, but more than half the people who live in buildings don’t, so we make sure we have things you’d see a 30-something doing at the gym. We design the gyms for that demographic,” said Scott McLellan, Plaza’s senior vice president, who added that a 905-area gym will contain more workout apparatus. “The number of pet owners downtown is incredible, so we make our amenities pet-friendly and include things like doggy spas. Most downtown projects will have outdoor pools or plunge pools.

“When we previously went out to Jane and Bloor where we had 1,200-1,400 sq ft buyers, they actually used the pool 365 days a year. Another amenity that’s important to them is a dining area with enough room for a caterer and four other couples on a Saturday night. It will have a chef’s oven and place to store wine. Those are the subtle differences of an area like that.”

Mississauga-based In2ition Realty offers market research and consultancy for developers and has its proverbial finger on the pulse. According to Debbie Cosic, In2ition’s president and CEO, the pandemic has influenced amenity packages in a big way because people’s homes have become their offices.

“Condos are smaller and smaller, so co-work amenity spaces are important,” she said.

“Also, elaborate package delivery rooms because e-commerce is massive now,” Cosic added, noting that the pandemic has played an outsized role.

On multi-phase developments, In2ition administers exit surveys to occupants and asks for their suggestions about what kinds of amenities they’d like to see, and those suggestions are often incorporated into the project’s subsequent phases.

“We do a combination of pre-market research and exit surveys,” said Cosic. “Rooftop terraces with amenity spaces people can sit in are always popular, as are outdoor gardens, walking tracks, dog runs, and a lot of communal space because people don’t have space in their units to entertain. So we see party rooms divided into three or four smaller spaces where you can play cards or entertain 10, 12 people. It’s about helping residents expand their space.”

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