By Pamela Babcock
From online meetings and electronic voting to tablets and do-it-all management software, technology is transforming the way associations operate. There's something out there for every community—even those most resistant to change.
Major traffic jams often greeted everyone entering Kiawah Island, S.C., as renters in the community association and guests of the neighboring resort queued at the gatehouse. The experience raised residents' ire and created a negative first impression for visitors.
Jimmy Bailey Jr., CMCA, AMS, chief operating officer of Kiawah Island Community Association, collaborated with the resort to set up a system so guests and renters could download and print gate passes in advance, allowing most drivers to sail through with ease.
"Implementation of this simple step—much like printing a boarding pass before going to the airport—dramatically improved gate operations and virtually eliminated long summer lines," says Bailey.
When Lee Ann Weir, CMCA, AMS, general manager of Lionsgate at Woodmont Corner in Bethesda, Md., wanted to gauge owner interest in renting underutilized areas of the condominium garage for storage, she simply clicked the survey link on the community's BuildingLink website interface and fielded a poll. Within minutes, her inbox was growing with numerous responses.
And Fripp Island Property Owners Association in South Carolina recently paid $8,000 to upgrade its boardroom audio-visual system, saying goodbye to a dated setup with blurry images and garbled speech, giving both the local and long-distance audience a much-improved experience.
Community associations increasingly are leveraging technology to improve operations, governance and management using the latest tools, including devices, hardware and software. Some are arming managers and board members with tablets backed up to the cloud, while others are exploring new ways to hold online meetings, engaging owners with electronic voting and more.
Yet there are many community associations today that are behind the technology curve. Some don't have the budget, know-how or interest in adopting the latest and greatest tools and features. Failing to at least explore what's available could be a mistake, according to experts.
"As technology has evolved, there's really killer software for everything from a 10-unit condominium to an association with 30,000 doors," says Bruce R. Gran, CMCA, AMS, PCAM, president and CEO of Gran Community Association Consulting in Scottsdale, Ariz. "If you're not leveraging technology, then you're out of the game. It used to be optional, but it's not anymore. Technology is your starting point."
Gran says many owners today want association technology to feel just like the experiences they have with other types of technology as a consumer.
"I'm looking for my association to give me the same experience I get from American Express or Chase or Bank of America," explains Gran, adding that all have excellent websites. "Residents expect to be able to make a payment on their phones. If they have a violation, they want to look at it and be able to respond online. And they want to be able to do pretty much everything on a phone or tablet."
Stephen R. Gothard, vice president of Advanced Technology Group, a King of Prussia, Pa., provider of community management software, says the biggest trend is technology for smartphones and tablets.
The devices can make board members and managers more efficient since they allow an entire library of an association's history to be available in perpetuity, says Blake Morlet, CMCA, senior manager of The Avalon Management Group, AAMC, in Temecula, Calif., which manages about 30,000 units in Los Angeles and San Diego.
Such devices are a particular boon for board members who spend a majority of their time off-site or travel frequently since they can participate in meetings remotely via video chat. Meanwhile, managers can gain efficiencies as they prepare for each board meeting by creating content and delivering it digitally.
The upshot? "Managers who have more time on their hands can provide better service," observes Morlet.
Avalon uses Apple's iPad and applications such as Google Apps for business e-mail and Google Drive for storage and information distribution. Implementing technology in association management has been so vital to Avalon's growth and effectiveness that the company offers only technology driven digital management services to new clients, Morlet says.
Gothard notes that adequate cell or wireless Internet coverage is often a stumbling block for associations and their residents. A property's size and location—and a resistance to installing cell towers or wireless networks—can impact what associations offer and residents' experience on their smartphone or tablet.
"You may have Wi-Fi in your house. But what do you do when you're down at the community pool?" Gothard asks. "People want to be connected."
THE VIDEO AGE
Although tablets are not yet de rigueur for board members at Kiawah Island Community Association, technology increasingly is being used in many facets of operations. Since only 15 percent of the community's 8,272 owners live on the property full-time, webinars, video calls and electronic communication are all part of regularly doing business.
"Rarely do we hold a committee or board meeting without someone participating via video," notes Bailey.
Kiawah Island has used commercially available platforms Skype and GoToMeeting. However, their effectiveness has varied, particularly because of sometimes spotty Internet connections. "We have looked into the possibility of using something more robust and sophisticated but have not yet pulled the trigger, primarily due to cost," says Bailey.
Several of the community's seven board members use personal tablets for board meetings and to download meeting materials, but it's not required. Some of Bailey's board members still use spiral-bound notebooks and mechanical pencils. "It sort of runs the gamut," he observes.
In 2009, the community began using BigPulse online voting software; owner participation has increased each year, reaching as high as 39 percent in the last election.
The association also communicates with owners using e-mail, text messaging, social media, video, its website and a mobile app that resembles the website and was developed last year by a Charleston, S.C.-based technology firm. Kiawah Island uses the app to send notifications to residents about things like traffic and gate information, weather alerts, voting or other time-sensitive notices.
BuildingLink, the web-based platform used by Lionsgate in Bethesda, Md., combines everything from communication tools and an ability to report maintenance issues to incident reports, package delivery tracking and more.
A resident might notice crumbling concrete in a common area, snap a photograph and upload the report directly to the manager, explains Robert Garcia, a D.C.-area representative for BuildingLink. Maintenance tickets are centrally located, meaning board members and managers can pull up any repairs within the past month, for example, and track who got the job—in-house staff or an external contractor—and how well the job was done.
BuildingLink, used primarily by condominiums, also offers a resident discussion board that goes beyond a simple listserv. Discussions can be controlled by the association, which means it can be kept "clean and useful" with posts like "who knows a good caterer?" or "I'm forming a walking club," Garcia explains.
Associations also can track various logistics, including permission-to-enter slips for real estate agents and preventative maintenance schedules that provide alerts when something needs to be done.
The 158-unit Lionsgate has been using BuildingLink and its mobile app since 2010.
Weir says the community was able to customize fields for bicycle storage, pet information, and parking space and car identification. Lionsgate even used the system in conjunction with security cameras to help solve a case involving minor damage from a hit and run. Another plus is a secure key drawer that opens with fingerprint identification technology, Weir adds.
Kate Hines, AMS, LSM, PCAM, general manager of Fripp Island in South Carolina, says the community of 2,167 homes is always looking for ways to do things better and smarter and also to save money where it can. As the association learned, the transition to technology isn't always seamless.
The community held its first online board election in February through Votenet.com, a voting platform that cost the association about $1,300. The move saved $2,500 in printing and mailing costs. Unfortunately, owner response wasn't as great as expected. The association sent several e-mail blasts announcing the change, but only 21 percent of owners cast ballots compared with an average of 36 percent in previous elections. A couple of owners were mailed a paper ballot because they didn't want to vote electronically.
Fripp Island is hoping to find a better way to market the online voting by working with the board's communication committee. "We're not calling it quits," Hines says. "Votenet could not be simpler."
In February, the community switched to MailChimp, an e-mail management and tracking system, to send a bi-weekly newsletter to owners. Owners love the change.
"It's professional, attractive and easy," says Hines. "We're getting a lot of compliments."
The association spends about $50 a month to send an average of three e-mails to about 2,000 addresses. Hines loves MailChimp's ability to provide a report on each sent message, tracking how many people received it, how many people opened the e-mail, the links that are being clicked and more.
In April, an urgent e-mail about a security incident during prom week garnered a 67 percent open rate within 20 minutes. MailChimp also tracks whether a message is read on a smartphone or computer—valuable information as the community continues to ponder additional technology upgrades.
In January, Fripp Island began using GoToMeeting, at a cost of $400 annually, for board meetings. Half of the community's 10-member board are nonresidents. The association previously used Skype, which often was glitchy due to Internet connections.
"The voices are clear, the people are clear, and we don't have the screw-ups we had with Skype," says Hines.
The association also upgraded its audio-visual system in April, installing speakers and microphones in the ceiling and a much bigger video screen on the wall.
Gothard believes there will be many technological innovations for associations in coming years. He points to rapid communications as an example. Some communities are already employing emergency broadcast texts and targeted notifications, such as package-delivery alerts.
Through new software updates and a better understanding of a community's data, Gothard thinks there will be even more targeted messages, such as, "The plumber was in your home from 10:23 to 11:50 fixing your leaking faucet."
And as vehicle manufacturers continue to develop technology for cars, Gothard envisions a day when a manager drives through a neighborhood and conducts inspections right from the car through a grill-mounted, rotating camera controlled from the center console.
"Imagine having those images and the resulting inspection details sent immediately back to the office, and the necessary letters merged and printed in minutes rather than days," he says. "The same technology could be used for maintenance purposes. A manager takes a picture from his car of a broken fence or downed tree, fills out the details and in minutes sends maintenance staff or a vendor a work order."
Gothard is excited about how technology can continue to improve associations and thinks board members and managers should be too. "I think we will see things we've never thought of come to light and technology that we cannot even imagine," he says. "As software developers, we strongly believe that if you don't dream it, you can't develop it."
Even communities resistant to technology should explore how technology can help improve operations, governance and management. Association leaders should take the following steps:
- Consider forming a technology committee or holding technology workshops.
- Survey your owners, then tailor your technology to their wants and needs.
- Make sure your technology can grow and change with the association and its population.
Tablets often are the easiest way to get started, according to Blake Morlet, CMCA, senior manager of The Avalon Management Group, AAMC, in Temecula, Calif. They can become your go-to source for all association information, including e-mail, board packets and financial statements, governing documents and contracts, minutes, resolutions, legal opinions, education information, guidebooks, site plans and maps.
With a tablet, you can carry around years' worth of documents as well as quickly review homeowner requests and photos, for example. In addition, tablets make it a lot easier to pass community history on to subsequent boards.
Once an association decides which equipment and services it will purchase or rent, Morlet recommends the board establish policies for appropriate use, repair and replacement. —P.B.
Pamela Babcock is a freelance writer in the New York City area.