Atlanta Apartment Association vice president Russ Webb shares his thoughts about the need for constant innovation, accountability and fun in the modern association era.
Even after 17 years, Russ Webb, vice president of the Atlanta Apartment Association never knows what to expect when he walks into work each day — and he wouldn’t have it any other way. Read on to learn how the nation’s third-largest multifamily housing trade association has managed to grow every year since its founding in 1975, and why it has one of the association world’s highest levels of volunteer involvement.
Association Adviser: Russ, tell us a little about The Atlanta Apartment Association
Russ Webb: The Atlanta Apartment Association is the multifamily housing trade association for the metro Atlanta area. We were founded in 1975, and we’re the third-largest local apartment association in the country after Houston and Dallas. We represent over 1,450 member companies consisting of 350 companies managing over 340,000 apartment homes, and over 1,100 businesses that provide products and services to the industry. We’re an affiliate of the Georgia Apartment Association and the National Apartment Association.
AA: Is there such a thing as a typical AAA member?
RW: Not really. On the property management side, we have members who manage anywhere from single properties to 30,000 units. On the vendor side, we have global icons like AT&T and Comcast, as well as single-employee small businesses. We don’t have individual memberships per se. If your company is a member, then every employee at your organization has access to AAA benefits.
AA: Since you’re so closely tied to the housing market, how do you handle membership ups and downs?
RW: Actually it’s not that volatile. We’ve been growing every year since 1975, and even though members may change jobs often, they tend to stay with us at their new employer. Even during the Great Recession, our membership numbers held steady. The multifamily home and property market is being helped by the fact that people rent by choice. They rent because they like the lifestyle, not because they can’t afford a home. Apartments and rental homes account for roughly 40 percent of all residential housing in the U.S. We need 300,000 to 400,000 new apartments every year just to keep up with demand.
AA: Are there any other factors driving your membership and industry growth?
RW: Demographics are a big factor. Aging Boomers are scaling down from big houses. They want to maintain an active lifestyle and not spend their time maintaining a home. Meanwhile, many millennials and Gen Z’s don’t ever intend to own a house. They like the freedom that renting provides, plus even if they have good jobs, chances are they’re paying off student loans. On the vendor side, we’re growing because suppliers recognize the huge buying power of the apartment industry. They want a piece of that.
AA: How does AAA differ from other real-estate and multi-family housing organizations?
RW: Even though we’re pretty large, we’re very much like a family. Our members look out for each other. They’re very interested in what happens to the industry as a whole, not just to their own company. Plus, I think our volunteer base is the best of any association in the country when it comes to the number of members willing to serve on committees.
AA: How do you get so many members to volunteer?
RW: They look at members who’ve been involved in the past and they see the huge ROI that those folks received both personally and professionally. More on that in a minute.
AA: How long have you been at AAA? Do you have a background in real estate or commercial construction?
RW: I’ve been here 17 years. My background is in hospitality. I was director of national accounts for a convention center, and before that I worked on a Royal Caribbean cruise ship for five years.
AA: How did those experiences/people skills help you in managing a trade association?
RW: Hospitality trains you to deal with so many different types of people and personalities. You’re often dealing with people on vacation or at their annual convention. They have very high expectations, and when you work in that kind of environment you want to strive for perfection. I always tell my staff the four words we never say here are: “That’s not my job.” Also, we make sure to spend time with every member who calls. If we don’t know the answer, we go out and find the answer.
AA: What are the biggest challenges faced by AAA members, and how is AAA helping them?
RW: Regulatory. It’s always been that way. Municipalities tend to think all apartments are run by giant multibillion dollar companies. The truth is that most apartment owners are small businesses. A big part of what we do is go to bat on behalf of our members and help them with regulatory support. Also, we help members stay on top of what we call “the changing face of the renter.” Both building owners and managers need to know what future generations expect in apartment living. Those needs of the future must be incorporated into the design stage now.
AA: To what extent is the apartment industry affected by the economy in general, and the new rising interest-rate environment in particular?
RW: It definitely affects the deals — both development of new units and re-development of existing stock. Interestingly, the same places that renters go to get loans — Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac — are where our members go for financing. Interestingly, the default rate for multifamily homes was much lower during the financial crisis than it was for single-family homes and other types of real estate. Unfortunately, we all got lumped together for regulatory purposes.
AA: What are AAA’s most important member communication vehicles?
RW: Our industry is very social. At every one of our events, classes and gatherings we promote all that we do for members — from education to advocacy to industry trends. We use a wide range of communications channels to get the word out. Social media is huge. LinkedIn Groups are best for messages that are more serious in nature. Facebook and Twitter are more effective for messages that are a little more fun. Social media helps us take the pulse of our industry. We also use email blasts and e-newsletter a lot, and we publish our bimonthly magazine, The HABITAT (4,700 distribution) in print and digital form. The magazine goes not only to members but to apartment and rental housing organizations that we share interests with. We still have a print directory, but we’re taking advantage of Naylor’s online buyers’ guide technology to make it more mobile-friendly for our members. We’re looking forward to our members having access to that information at the touch of a button on their smartphones.
AA: What initiatives do you have for reaching on-the-go members?
RW: Everything we do is mobile friendly or soon will be. This month, we introduced a mobile check-in service for our events. It not only expedites the registration process for attendees, but makes it easier for us to track where they’re going and what they’re doing at events. We can track which sessions they’re attending. At a quick glance, we can see who’s checked in, who hasn’t checked in, and what substitutions have been made. With the software, we can also do quick on-the-spot surveys of attendees when they’re checking in. Many of our members, especially vendors, are very mobile. They need to be able to access information from wherever they are. That’s been a big push of ours over the past several years and the website is completely mobile responsive.
AA: What are your toughest member communication challenges?
RW: A big challenge is the transient nature of our industry. There are lots of opportunities for our members and they can change jobs often. While our members remain our members, they just work for a different company. Keeping up-to-date information on our members continues to be a challenge. Our members can now have all of their information about an event texted to them. They may change jobs and emails, but they tend to keep the same mobile number. So when they get a text from us, it reminds them, “Hey, I should update my member information.”
AA: How does AAA bring new ideas to the table?
RW: We’re always looking for ideas from inside and outside the organization. I read somewhere that there’s no such thing as a new idea. If we see another organization that we think is doing something spectacular, we will try to emulate it and put our own twist on it. We’re big advocates of working smarter not harder. My technology task force is part of our strategic planning team. They’re always looking for ways to use technology to better serve our members. The association world needs to adapt faster than the regular business world because our members are looking for us for innovation. We need to innovate all the time.
AA: How do you make that happen?
RW: There needs to be some risk in order to get reward. We don’t take huge risks, but we’ll try things on a smaller scale and if it starts to work, then we’ll scale up. That’s a great way for associations to operate.
One example is aerial drone photography. It’s a very fast growing tool that the apartment industry is using to showcase properties. Zillow, the national online real estate listing service, now has a plug-in where you can add aerial views of your listing or complex.
AA: How would you describe your leadership style?
RW: People would say I’m a coach who leads by example. I was a youth soccer coach and scouting leader for many years. I would never ask anyone to do something that I wouldn’t do myself. By the way, the last thing we put at the end of each of our job descriptions is: “…and any other duties as needed.”
One of the best ways to get people motivated, believe it or not, is to have fun. People tend to do things they enjoy. When we do our big golf and tennis fundraisers, we always say, “Put the ‘fun’ in fundraising.” People are volunteering their time for us. We’re not paying them to be here. I tell them they’re going to get great experience, make amazing personal contacts and help advance a great organization. But you’ve got to make it fun. That’s why we build friendly competition and gamification into many things that we do.
AA: What do you like most about working in the association world?
RW: Every day is different. I’ve never had two days the same in 17-plus years. I love that! Also, I love the fact that everyone is working toward the same goal. That’s different from the corporate world where things can get fragmented and not everyone’s working toward the same thing.
AA: Do have any special strategies for connecting with millennial staffers and young members of the profession?
RW: Our communications coordinator is only one year out of college. Everything we plan to send out to members and the public must go through her. If she thinks any communication piece is not going to resonate with younger members, she’s very quick to let us know that it should be changed. Also we’re very inclusive of each generation when we put together our committees, including next gen.
AA: What’s keeping you up at night (work related)?
RW: We do so much, but there’s still so much we want to do. We need to make sure we continue to evolve.