virtual tools

Houston real estate sector adapts new tech to stay competitive during coronavirus outbreak

Both commercial and residential real estate businesses have been greatly affected by social distancing mandate. These two Houston companies are using technology to help grow their business. Photo courtesy of Cameron Management

As the coronavirus impacts foot traffic throughout businesses in Houston, the real estate world is ushering in digital resources to adapt to a socially distanced city.

Mike Miller, vice president of Ashlar Development, saw the growing threat of COVID-19 in early March and knew he and his team had to find new ways to engage prospective home buyers safely. By the time Houston County Judge Lina Hidalgo announced the stay-at-home order, Ashlar Development had started the process of drafting a 360-degree interactive map for its northeast Houston community, The Groves, that would allow homebuyers to virtually tour the property.

"People were scared to come out of their homes, to touch model home door knobs, and walk-in and see a sales agent," says Miller, who noted the initial decline in foot traffic.

The interactive map debuted on The Groves' website on March 30, allowing users to experience the community through 35 different touchpoints. Website visitors can peruse nearby trails, the playground, pool, community amenities, and the local elementary school to immerse yourself in the community.

"One of our mantras at The Groves is to get outside. We encourage our residents to get outside and enjoy the community, enjoy the trails, and enjoy everything. What this [interactive map] does is it allows you to safely get outside from the safety of your home," he says.

Ashlar Development launched a virtual tour tool for its northeast Houston community. Image courtesy of Ashlar Development

Commercial real estate is also paving the way for innovation amid the pandemic. Houston-based real estate group, Cameron Management, unveiled its virtual 3D office tour on Monday. Partnering with Austin-based Swivel, a digital leasing platform for office space, the real estate group's latest venture will allow tenants and brokers the ability to take a 3-D virtual tour of suites.

The SaaS-based leasing application, AgileView, will feature 50,000 square feet comprised of 12 Cameron Management suites.

"We were looking to provide a tour to a broker, [or] to a broker's client, without anybody having to put themselves at any risk," says Jano Nixon Kelley, Cameron Management's director of marketing.

Kelley had built a strong relationship with the Swivel team prior to the coronavirus outbreak. When she learned of the capabilities of AgileView, "we jumped on it," she says.

"We were so pleased that they actually got the feeling for the building," Kelley says, "It doesn't look cookie cutter."

Another way both companies are getting creative is through digital marketing. Ashlar Development pivoted to digital advertising through paid media ads, email campaigns, and social media marketing. Rather than cutting its marketing budget, the community reallocated funds to building out the 360-degree interactive map and transitioning from print ads to digital display ads.

The response equated to what Miller deems an "incredible success." In the first week of launching the 360-degree interactive map, Ashlar Development saw a 3,000 percent increase in page views. The traffic resulted in a 1,200 percent increase in views to its "Meet the Builder" page, which features various home builders partnered with The Groves community. Since the tour launch, the company has seen a 220 percent increase in first-time visitors to its website.

Ashlar Development's significant web traffic isn't just a vanity number; Miller states that the Groves has seen a 116 percent increase in April sales as compared to last year. To date, the community is seeing approximately 30 percent in year-over-year sales since the stay-at-home order took effect.

Similar to Ashlar Development's approach, Kelley says Cameron Management utilized email marketing to launch her campaign. Cameron Management is also incentivizing brokers to use the application by hosting a two-week-long scavenger hunt for a chance to win an Amegy Bank debit card in an effort to support local business. "They can choose how to use their money, but hopefully they use it locally," says Kelley.

"Even if you're at home, [AgileView] gives you something visual to look at. Maybe you've got kids at home and can say, 'look, here's a game we can play together.' It's something to get people engaged," says Kelley.

"Office space needs for organizations of all sizes are modifying quickly, and likely will be changed for the long term. As the commercial real estate community adjusts to this new normal, there are still many unknowns," Kelley says. "At Cameron Management, we believe our differentiator is the ability to be nimble and pragmatic across all areas of our business—now and well beyond COVID-19," she continues.

For Ashlar Development, foot traffic has returned "almost back to normal," according to Miller, who attributes the rise to "pent up demand" once the stay-at-home order lifted.

"We're all kind of stuck in our houses, and our only outlet is to get outside and enjoy where you live," he says. "Our residents don't have to get in the car to enjoy a nearby county park, they can enjoy the community and the great outdoors right outside of their home," he says.

Miller himself recently bought a house from the comfort of his residence, electronically depositing his earnest money and signing for his future home.

"I think we're on the verge of a digital revolution in our industry," Miller says confidently. "Real estate has been slow to get into the digital realm, but I think this is going to force us to embrace technology."

Usually, Ashlar Development's selling point for The Groves is its access to "get outside." But, in a time of COVID-19, the company has optimized its technology to let home buying and touring stay inside for the time being. Photo courtesy of Ashlar Development

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Auburn University's SwiftSku took first place in this year's virtually held Rice Business Plan Competition, but it was the second place company that went home with over half a million in cash and investment prizes. Photo via rice.edu

In its 21st year, the Rice Business Plan Competition hosted 54 student-founded startups from all over the world — its largest batch of companies to date — and doled out over $1.4 million in cash and investment prizes at the week-long virtual competition.

RBPC, which is put on by the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, took place Tuesday, April 6, to Friday, April 9 this year. Just like 2020, RBPC was virtually held. The competition announced the 54 participating startups last month, and coordinated the annual elevator pitches, a semi-finals round, wildcard round and live final pitches. The contestants also received virtual networking and mentoring.

Earlier this week, Rice Alliance announced the seven student-led startups that then competed in the finals. From this pack, the judges awarded the top prizes. Here's how the finalists placed and what won:

  • SwiftSku from Auburn University, point of sales technology for convenience stores that allows for real time analytics, won first place and claimed the $350,000 grand prize from Goose Capital. The company also won the $50,000 Business Angel Minority Association Prize, the $500 Best Digital Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $401,000. The company also won the CFO Consulting Prize, a $25,000 in-kind award.
  • AgZen from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a pesticide alternative spray and formulation technology company, won the second place $100,000 investment prize (awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The startup also won a $300,000 Owl Investment Prize, the $100,000 Houston Angel Network Prize, the $500 Best Energy Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $1,500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $502,000. The company also won the $30,000 in-kind Polsinelli Energy Prize.
  • FibreCoat GmbH from RWTH Aachen University, a startup with patented spinning technology for the production of inexpensive high-performance composite fibers, won the third place $50,000 investment prize (also awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The company also won the $100,000 TiE Houston Angels Prize and the $500 Best Hard Tech Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $150,500.
  • Candelytics from Harvard University, a startup building the digital infrastructure for 3-D data, won the fourth place $5,000 prize.
  • OYA FEMTECH Apparel from UCLA, an athletic wear company that designs feminine health-focused clothing, won the fifth place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $5,000 Eagle Investors Prize, the $25,000 Urban Capital Network Prize, and the $1,000 Second Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $36,000.
  • LFAnt Medical from McGill University , an innovative and tech-backed STI testing company, won the sixth place $5,000 prize and the $20,000 Johnson and Johnson Innovation Prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $25,000.
  • SimpL from the University of Pittsburgh, an AI-backed fitness software company, won the seventh place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $25,000 Spirit of Entrepreneurship Prize from the Pearland Economic Development Corp., bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $30,000.

Some of the competition's participating startups outside of the seven finalists won monetary and in-kind prizes. Here's a list of those.

  • Mercury Fund's Elevator Pitch Prizes also included:
    • Best Life Science $500 Prize to Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Best Consumer $500 Prize to EasyFlo from the University of New Mexico
    • Best Overall $1,000 prize to Anthro Energy from Stanford University
  • The Palo Alto Software Outstanding LivePlan Pitch $3,000 Prize went to LiRA Inc. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • The OFW Law FDA Regulatory Strategy Prize, a $20,000 in-kind award went to Paldara Inc. from Oklahoma State University.
  • The Silver Fox Mentoring Prize, which included $20,000 in kind prizes to three winners selected Ai-Ris from Texas A&M University, BruxAway from the University of Texas, and Karkinex from Rice University as recipients.
  • The first, second, and third place winners also each received the legal service prize from Baker Botts for a total of $20,000 in-kind award.
  • The Courageous Women Entrepreneurship Prize from nCourage — a $50,000 investment prize — went to Shelly Xu Design from Harvard University.
  • The SWPDC Pediatric Device Prize — usually a $50,000 investment divided its prize to two winners to receive $25,000 each
    • Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Neurava from Purdue University
  • TMC Innovation Healthcare Prize awarded a $100,000 investment prize and admission into its accelerator to ArchGuard from Duke University
  • The Artemis Fund awarded its $100,000 investment prize to Kit Switch from Stanford University
The awards program concluded with a plan to host the 22nd annual awards in 2022 in person.

If you missed the virtual programming, each event was hosted live on YouTube and the videos are now available on the Rice Alliance's page.

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