Going to university can be a daunting prospect for many students, not least because it can mean leaving home for the first time. Too often, freshers arrive with nobody to welcome them or show them their new accommodation and how everything works.
This was one of the observations that inspired this year's Retail & Consumer winner, Unite Group, to develop its 'student hospitality' concept. A new student going to Bath Spa university volunteered to be filmed as she arrived, providing Unite with ideas for how they could make the experience a lot better.
Now, new arrivals at Unite's 110 properties across 30 university towns are likely to be greeted with balloons, jugglers, porters ready to carry their luggage, hot food and a special service that introduces them properly to their new home and its facilities. By the time a new student has checked in, their bags have already been delivered to their room.
Unite is the UK's biggest independent provider of student accommodation; it started 15 years ago with just 12 beds in Bristol and now has some 37,000 customers, with 5,000 beds being added each year. Unite has moved from leasing properties back to universities to letting directly to students.
Some premises are purpose-built; all offer high-quality accommodation with en-suite bathrooms, broadband internet and shared facilities such as TV lounges, laundries, games rooms and bike storage. Bathroom and kitchen modules are tailor-made in its own factory.
Unusually, Unite also hires live-in students to run social events for other residents, from movie nights to clubbing - even organising visits to Ikea for new arrivals. 'Over the past two years, we have undergone a shift from being a real-estate property developer to a customer service-focused business,' explains Marie Barter, MD of hospitality services. 'In doing that, we realised that the best way for our staff to provide excellent service is not to look in manuals but to do the right thing by reference to a set of values.'
One step in that transition was to move its customer services people out of a call centre to hospitality teams based at the properties. As well as looking after the buildings and sorting out TVs or toasters that don't work, staff are trained to handle serious welfare issues like meningitis and attempted suicides.
Unite takes listening to its customers seriously, with satisfaction surveys four times a year. Last year, 71% said they were happy with their accommodation, while 83% said they were likely to recommend Unite to others. The firm also holds regular student focus groups and liaises with the Students Union. The organisation is a strong believer in partnering. It conducts stakeholder surveys with its university partners and has also been successful at bringing on board other service providers who can benefit its student customers. Tesco Metro stores are being brought in to some student blocks, for example, so that students can do their shopping without too much disruption to their studies (or their partying).
Unite commissions an annual industry-wide report from Mori on student living, which enables it to design properties students want to live in. Its accommodation is not cheap - starting at about £49 a week. But, tellingly, the more expensive properties, such as a £180 a week studio in Bristol, are snapped up first, demonstrating that Unite can command a premium price through its service offering. Customers have maximum choice - show flats are available on-site and accommodation options can be browsed on-line.
Unite takes its position in the wider community seriously - it even set up a charity, Uniaid, to help students suffering from financial hardship, and has donated some £560,000 over four years. Says Barter: 'We are playing a vital role supporting the education of tomorrow's leaders at a time of their lives when they are uncertain, growing, learning.'