As the choice of student accommodation broadens, students will look to trusted brand groups such as Collegiate to ensure that they each get their ideal living environment, says its CEO Heriberto Cuanalo
Students seeking purpose-built accommodation now have more choice than ever before. Whether they are looking for a prime city-centre location, stylish fixtures and fittings or top-notch fitness facilities, chances are there is a scheme out there saying it will offer just that.
But with so many different options available to them, how can they be confident that the one they choose is high-quality, safe and secure?
Heriberto Cuanalo, chief executive of student accommodation operator Collegiate AC believes the key is for property owners and managers to build a customer-facing brand students know and trust.
“As a global consumer brand, we have focused on the meaning of the product to the students and on the quality of the student experience we want to deliver,” he says.
Founded in 2011, Collegiate has been involved in the design and operation of around 20,000 student beds and manages 50 assets across the UK and Iberia. It also has plans to expand into new markets across Europe and the world.
So what does Collegiate’s brand stand for?
“Collegiate stands for the best student experience in the world. It is about quality without compromise,” says Cuanalo.
He believes that a successful student accommodation brand starts with the design of the properties – and to ensure its residences have a distinct look and feel, Collegiate is involved in the schemes it manages from the point of conception.
“What makes us different is that we have five in-house architects who design all the schemes to our exact specification,” Cuanalo says. “So we don’t just say that we offer the best student experience, we deliver it – from the front door to the bed in the bedroom.”
Another important aspect of Collegiate’s brand is community. Because its residences are predominantly comprised of studio flats, they also include a large amount of shared amenity space where students can work and socialise.
Examples include study spaces, gyms, swimming pools, libraries, dinner party rooms, cinemas, games rooms and terraces. “They have the best of all worlds – they have their own private space, but there is also a sense of community,” says Cuanalo.
Collegiate also puts on events such as book clubs and cinema nights as well as facilitating students to organise their own events such as dinner parties. “We are helping students to go through these rites of passage, but in a slightly less obscure way and a safer way,” Cuanalo says.
“Students now look at their university experience and the way they live as a consumer”
He believes that the unique brand that Collegiate has created through the design and amenities in its buildings is important to students for three reasons.
Firstly, Cuanalo says students have become more discerning because of the rise in tuition fees since 2012. “Students now look at their university experience and the way they live as a consumer,” he says.
“Before they would just put up with anything, but now it is a big investment for them and they want to have an appropriate environment in which they can engage with their studies.”
Overseas students pay even more to their universities – and Cuanalo points out that despite the huge financial commitment they are making, many are not able to visit their accommodation prior to paying their deposit and moving in. This is a second reason why a trusted brand is vital.
He illustrates this by talking about a group of students from Colombia who he met at Collegiate’s building in Lisbon, which had just opened at the time and which the students had signed up for before it was even completed.
“I asked them what swayed their decision to come to Collegiate,” he says. “They told me that they contacted their friends who were staying at a Collegiate residence in the UK and they told them ‘Whatever happens, Collegiate will look after you’. That is the most important thing about a brand – trust.”
Collegiate is now encouraging this cross-border brand recognition by putting its own branding and brand name on all of its new schemes, rather than giving the buildings individual names.
Thirdly, Cuanalo says that young people going to university today are more brand-conscious than any generation that has come before them – and that this is something the student accommodation sector has so far failed to capitalise on.
“Student accommodation is not regarded by most of the industry as a consumer product. However, if you look at young people today their whole experience is based around brands, from Apple to Selfridges to North Face to Superdry to Porsche. Because of the internet, students all across the world now have a very consistent set of aspirations and desires – and they like global brands.”
“Students across the world now have a very consistent set of aspirations – and they like global brands”
Students may have much more choice when it comes to where they live at university – but they have also become much more discerning customers.
It is clear that building strong, meaningful brands like Collegiate’s is becoming more important to the property industry as the sector tries to earn these students’ hard-won trust.