Development Innovation & Resiliency in the COVID-19 Era

COVID-19 changed the landscape for commercial and residential leasing and property management. For Fiera Real Estate Investments Limited (“Fiera Real Estate”), as landlord and its management partner Colonnade BridgePort (“CBP”),as property manager, it meant that they had to quickly adapt to ensure buildings remained safe for tenants and that leasing activities could be maintained.

Fiera Real Estate has two landmark residential developments in Ottawa: Westboro Connection, a two-phased project in which Phase 1 was completed in June 2016 and Phase 2 is scheduled to be completed in Q1 of 2021, and Hintonburg Connection, planned for substantial completion in Q4 of 2020.

For Hintonburg Connection, with its lease-up underway, it was critical for CBP to act quickly. Within a month of the shut-down a new marketing model was designed and an online leasing program was launched. Elements of the program included an informational video to communicate the new leasing model, the use of high-quality recorded tours and 3D virtual tours, and leveraging web-based meeting tools to maintain the personal service approach. The impact of this quick response is evidenced by the fact that the property is performing ahead of pro-forma projections and units are renting at full market rates.

On June 22, Phase 2 of Westboro Connection was officially launched in a fully virtual and contactless environment. CBP implemented unprecedented measures including inviting prospects to a live webinar that included a property tour video plus virtual tours of select units, followed by personal online meetings with a leasing consultant and lease application processing, all from the comfort and safety of their home without having to step foot in their potential unit. The lease-up is still underway but the initial response has been strong with units leasing at full market rents and residents beginning to move in in August 2020.

As Hugh Gorman, CEO of Colonnade BridgePort observes, “Our business is about people and perspective.  COVID-19 brought unprecedented challenge to our industry.  We were just about to launch the leasing of two new purpose built residential rental projects in Westboro and Hintonburg, when COVID-19 shut the world down. The team, ready with its traditional in-person leasing program, immediately pivoted and working closely with our partner, Fiera Real Estate, were able to roll out a 100% virtual program within a matter of weeks.  Our people, whom we often refer to as our boots on the ground, and our partners, have the perspective to adapt and to create solutions, converting challenges to opportunity.”       

Beyond the lease-up, other factors that were considered included how to move new residents in safely and efficiently, all while respecting social distancing protocols, and how to ensure that each existing tenant’s experience remained as normal as possible. With necessity driving innovation, a plan was quickly made to leverage the existing parcel delivery locker system in each building to facilitate a contactless key pick-up program. Additionally, digital signing and payment processing tools were implemented that enabled a fully contactless process and had the added benefit of streamlining internal workflows and creating operational efficiencies. Fiera Real Estate’s investment in leasing productivity tools and value-added amenities for residents was a smart move that realized unexpected benefits during the pandemic.

Peter McFarlane, SVP of Investment Management Operations states, “Our organization’s business depends on adaptive, responsible teams and its technologies and systems to ensure resiliency. As the crisis evolved, so did we, it actually encouraged us to continue to look for new and innovative solutions.” William Secnik, SVP and Fund Manager also echoed the same sentiment, “Whenever there is a disruption to our industry, strong collaboration between the partnership continued and remained unabated in the time of crisis with the aim to solidify our long-term strategy and mitigate any impact on our fund. We have definitely come out of this stronger and more resilient.”

Many landlords viewed the pandemic as a negative impact to its business, however Fiera Real Estate and CBP viewed it as an opportunity to enhance their respective competitive positionings in the market.