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Commercial real estate pros discuss benefits, challenges of emerging technology

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In today's business world, connectivity is key; so much so that in a recent BOMA International/Realcomm Technology Survey, a BOMA member commented, "I can't function an hour -- let alone an entire day -- without my BlackBerry."

It is this attitude that has prompted the commercial real estate industry to further delve into wireless opportunities designed to drive real estate solutions and keep properties evolving to meet tenant demand.

The BOMA International/Realcomm Technology Survey was sent to all BOMA members, surveying them on everything from their primary business solution usage to the challenges associated with implementing these solutions.

Eighty percent of respondents were employees at property management companies and 38 percent of respondents managed more than 2 million square feet of office property.

A common theme ran throughout the survey results -- property owners and managers are inexplicably tied to wireless communication devices.

"At RREEF, we absolutely rely on state-of-the-art communications technology, especially during an extensive tenant improvement job," said Sonia Miro, RPA, district manager at RREEF.

"For example, at any given time during construction, there may be a problem, say at the loading dock where sensitive and expensive materials are being delivered, and we're able to either call, text or e-mail our contractors who carry their cell phones or BlackBerry around the clock. This ability to be able to reach a superintendent or project manager within a couple of minutes can mean thousands of dollars in savings in order to expedite an emergency decision."

Commercial real estate professionals also rely on the vendors conducting their commercial remodeling or tenant improvements to have the same connectivity capability.

ROEL Construction, which worked with RREEF on tenant improvement projects, ensures that team members are fully equipped to respond wirelessly to property management and building staff when conducting a project.

"In the fast-paced world of tenant improvement construction, wireless technology has been extremely beneficial for the entire construction team," said Jason Hunking, project manager at Roel Construction.

"When ROEL works with RREEF, tenant changes can be incorporated into the project within minutes if necessary, keeping costs down and the project ahead of schedule. Information that typically took days to go through all the channels can now be sent directly to us in the field, office or on the road, and we in turn can redistribute this information immediately."

While many survey respondents listed the benefits of wireless and online communications in the commercial real estate industry, many also said they felt some technologies were counter-productive.

The mixed feelings of commercial real estate professionals toward wireless devices used in property management stem from conflict between the ease of managing properties efficiently and the pressure of constant tenant access, many times through a PDA device.

But when asked what technologies property managers find indispensable, 38 percent of respondents picked the PDA or handheld device and 63 percent predicted an increase in the use of a PDA device over the next two years. Spencer Stewart, RPA, a regional sales manager for Yardi Systems, provided expert analysis to BOMA International on the survey, touching on the business impact of wireless solutions.

"Now that PDAs have dropped to very affordable levels, how can you not justify delivering work orders to your engineers or maintenance staff on their wireless PDA?" wrote Stewart. "If you're in the property management business, it's a must have technology. It is now becoming an ingredient to not just winning the assignment, but staying in the game to the final round."

Throughout the survey, wireless options continued to outdo older technology. BOMA members responded that pagers and landline phones were both on the way out, with only 2 percent and 7 percent, respectively, expecting to continue to depend on thheir use in the coming years.

The impact of specific commercial real estate technology products was also highlighted in the survey, with 87 percent of respondents saying that they use account receivable/payable solutions, 70 percent saying they use work order processing technology and 61 percent saying they use property management software.

Tenants also continue to reap the benefits of a streamlined, technology-savvy property -- intranet sites and contact management software were both listed as primary business solutions respondents used most frequently, with these applications allowing property owners and managers to communicate effectively with tenants, vendors and other staff.

One property management company in San Diego, Brandywine Realty Trust, lists its e-Tenant program as a tenant amenity on its Web site and attributes a high level of tenant service and satisfaction to its commitment to building value-based relationships with clients.

Amenities such as the e-Tenant program are tools that allow managers to easily communicate with tenants on a daily basis.

Beyond allowing tenants to easily access updated property managers' contact information and photos, tenants can also input and track their work orders online.

"Our building's concierge and work order programs are both wireless," said Heidi Reid, an assistant property manger at Brandywine Realty Trust. "The e-Tenant program makes a huge difference because it makes things a lot easier for our tenants. All in all, it's about constantly improving our customer service and the program gives tenants the opportunity to see how fast we are taking care of their requests."

While commercial real estate professionals continue to work toward implementing faster and easier to use technologies at their properties, BOMA International's survey also revealed the challenges that members are experiencing when trying to use new technologies.

Survey respondents listed funding constraints as the biggest challenge to implementing new technologies.

"There is definitely a cost associated with initiatives like our e-Tenant program, and it adds up," said Reid. "But Brandywine recognizes that these technologies are important for communications in our building, and we're even moving towards an even more advanced version where you'll be able to check the weather, HVAC status and building events."

Other challenges listed revealed the significant technology knowledge gap that exists within parts of the industry. Forty-one percent of BOMA members who took the survey said they did not know what solutions were available, with 26 percent responding that they didn't understand current solutions.

However, respondents also reported that they would use various software and technology solutions if they knew more about them, calling on much needed further education for property managers and their staff.

For more information on the survey or to sign up for BOMA International's educational seminars on technologies, trends and tips available to property owners and managers, visit www.bomasd.org.

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