Post-pandemic return-to-office efforts have stagnated. Despite a slight uptick in September, VTS Office Demand Index (VODI) analysis has generally been trending downward in recent months amid rising interest rates and a cooling labor market. According to American Real Estate Partners (AREP), one possible route to get workers back to the office might be through a more responsive tenant experience.

VTS caught up with Paul Schulman, principal and COO of AREP. The institutional fund manager and operating partner of a $5.1 billion portfolio has, in part, used its AREPx tenant engagement app, built from the VTS Rise platform, to improve how tenants feel about their workplace. Here they talk about AREP’s customer-centric philosophy, how they approach creating quality in their properties, and the importance of providing a sense of place.

(For more on the collaboration between VTS and AREP, watch this video: Why AREP chose VTS Rise to power their tenant experience.)

VTS: Tell us a bit about your role at AREP. What are you responsible for?

PAUL SCHULMAN: As principal and COO at American Real Estate Partners, I am responsible for all day-to-day activities throughout the company’s 10 million square-foot portfolio. In addition to managing investments on behalf of our investors and clients, my team and I are laser-focused on making tenants’ lives easier and providing them with the tools they need to thrive during the day. As we continue to adapt to hybrid work, AREP is delivering high-quality properties centered around the tenant experience, prioritizing their overall health and well-being, and ensuring that they have access to world-class amenities and service offerings.

VTS: It’s no secret that tenant expectations are higher than ever before. At the same time, across the US, new office demand appears to be stagnating. What do you think is required for landlords in corporate, regional, and asset-level roles to be successful in today’s commercial real estate market?

SCHULMAN: In the post-pandemic world, we’re seeing more and more tenants move to high-quality buildings with state-of-the-art amenities. If property owners want to draw more people back to the office, they must create a workspace where people really want to be. That means offering perks like shared indoor/outdoor workspaces with seamless connectivity, curated food offerings, and activities like yoga classes. More significantly, it means approaching our tenants’ experience, including health and well-being, holistically from the inside out. Property owners must be flexible and ready to pivot. The ones who offer a value-rich workplace experience while remaining nimble will be the best poised for success going forward.

VTS: There’s traditionally been a disconnect between tenants, property managers, leasing, and asset management teams. How do you think these groups could work better together, specifically?

SCHULMAN: Tenant customers are the most important people in every building’s ecosystem. And property technology tools, or proptech, enable us to optimize the tenant experience — helping owners seamlessly connect with them and understand their needs. Building a high-quality tenant engagement platform is one of the most important things property owners can do. For example, building apps give tenants more control and convenience, enabling them to easily reserve a conference room or event space, access exclusive events and perks, order from neighborhood shops, get up-to-date building information, and connect quickly with property managers. Having a seamless tenant engagement platform also offers an additional opportunity for owners to listen to tenants’ wants and concerns as well as understand how they use the building.

VTS: How are you championing that change at AREP? What does tenant experience mean for occupants and asset-level teams?

SCHULMAN: We partnered with VTS Rise, the industry’s most comprehensive tenant engagement platform, to build and power AREP’s tenant engagement app called AREPx. The app provides curated, exclusive programming specific to each property and gives our tenants and visitors a best-in-class tech-enabled experience. AREPx delivers vital information and alerts and allows tenants to communicate any issues directly to property managers, ensuring problems are resolved quickly. Not only does AREPx deliver on our promise to create inviting, value-rich workplaces, but it also enables us to cultivate neighborhood services and provide a customer-centric environment that distinguishes us across our markets.

VTS: What is your tenant experience vision for AREP? How are you enabling that through technology, insights, and people?

SCHULMAN: Because AREP is uniquely positioned across urban & suburban environments in multiple markets, we understand where and how people want to work. As I mentioned before, proptech is a key pillar of the tenant experience, especially in the age of hybrid work. Our data and research inform our strategy for crafting the ultimate tenant experience, no matter the time of day. Ensuring tenants have everything they need to live, work and play at our properties is a core part of our vision.

As technology evolves, AREP will continue to keep tenants connected through the AREPx app and our state-of-the-art wireless technology. Health and wellness remain front and center in the amenity mix. From the moment people step into one of our buildings, we want them to know that their health is our top priority. Not only is our entire portfolio WELL Health-Safety Rated, AREP is the first commercial real estate company in the US to achieve the UL Healthy Buildings Verification for Indoor Air and Water portfolio-wide. The vast majority of AREP’s properties are in prime areas with proximity to food and drink options, fitness and lifestyle facilities, retail, and transportation. Not only do we ensure our tenants have a quality workplace, but we bring a vibrant post-work experience to them. All of our tenants are in a thoughtful space intentionally designed around work and play.

VTS: How are you driving engagement and adoption of technology across AREP’s portfolio?

SCHULMAN: In the age of hybrid work, it’s more important than ever that our tenants are well connected. In addition to AREPx, we have prioritized network speed and data connectivity. We are proud that a number of buildings in our portfolio have achieved WiredScore certification for future-ready, best-in-class, secure internet connectivity and infrastructure.

VTS: What do the next 6-12 months look like from a tenant experience perspective? What are you most excited about?

SCHULMAN: The race to innovate building amenities will continue over the next year. As owners and property owners look to attract and retain tenants — and tenants look to bring their workforce back to the office, physical amenities like hospitality/food options, gyms, flexible meeting spaces, and rooftop work or getaway niches are critical to fostering community, connection, and belonging. But today’s building owners must look beyond these traditional perks. That means exploring new kinds of partnerships that deliver unique experiences and make tenants feel special. For example, our entire AREP property management team is a vital amenity, connecting our tenants to the things they need.

In terms of what I’m excited about, I’m always looking at ways to innovate; to continue leveraging technology with other partners to gain crucial information from our tenant customers, and how we can apply this to enhance their experience. We’re in the people business.

For more on the VTS Rise platform, visit vts.com/vts-rise.