Previously, the idea of viewing a home through your phone, tablet or laptop screen might have felt a bit odd – even unnecessary – but when it became absolutely vital, during the first lockdown and ever since, it was given a whole new lease of life and has never looked back since.
But, of course, people now demand much more from video and virtual viewings, and it is those firms who offer USPs or the highest-quality tech for competitive prices who have thrived since March 2020.
A number of PropTech companies sensed an opportunity from March last year onwards and have grown quickly ever since thanks to increased demand for this kind of viewing experience.
Here, I speak to Joel Smith, CEO of Gavl, and Eduard Cristea, co-founder of Holofy Spaces, for their take on how demand has soared, what makes a good virtual viewing experience and whether Covid will prove to be a game-changer for a market which had struggled to achieve much cut-through before the pandemic hit.
How has business fared since the first lockdown in March 2020? Has the demand for virtual viewings technology soared?
Joel Smith (JS): We’ve been offering livestream viewings in the UK since mid-2020 - demand from agents and consumers for our product has increased significantly as a result of the pandemic.
The results for some agents have been phenomenal. Kent agency Oakwood Homes let 26 properties in December without carrying out any physical viewings. Meanwhile, Midlands agency Nicol & Co says our livestream events have allowed it to grow market share without recruiting new staff.
Covid-19 has made it very difficult for agents to carry out physical viewings - their hands have effectively been forced to try out virtual alternatives.
Those that have embraced livestream viewings have quickly experienced the many associated benefits, including saving time and money, qualifying applicants more easily and building a buzz around properties.
Eduard Cristea (EC): We launched after the spring lockdown in 2020 when we noticed a gap in the market for an app which allows agents to film video tours more easily from their smartphones.
Over the last year, the demand for video viewings has increased exponentially. Providing some form of digital viewing or video tour has now become a consumer expectation.
Agents are increasingly adopting video tour technology not only due to the pandemic, but because it saves them a huge amount of time organising and travelling between physical viewings. They can also qualify applicants more easily and there are environmental benefits to consider.
For this combination of reasons, we see the demand for video viewing technology from both agents and consumers continuing to rise as it becomes an integral part of the property transaction.
What makes for a good virtual viewing experience? What should it include and what should it not include?
EC: Agents can provide a professional video tour by planning what they are going to say and the route they are going to take beforehand - this allows them to create a clear and seamless video in fewer takes.
It’s important to show the whole of a property and not hide away any disadvantages. Viewers will appreciate an agent who can bridge the gap between representation and reality.
When filming a video tour, panning slowly, capturing the smaller details and keeping a distance of two metres while filming the overall layout of a room contribute towards the best end product.
Most importantly, agents need to be honest, inject some of their personality into the tour and make sure they are creating something engaging for consumers.
We recently launched a free academy to help agents become video viewings experts, which you can see here.
JS: A livestream viewing event provides a very effective means of showcasing a property to a large number of applicants at the same time.
The nature of our events provides buyers and tenants with the opportunity to ask agents questions through interactive chat functionality. This allows them to find out what they need to know while the walk-through is taking place.
Agents carrying out livestreams can provide the best viewing experience by making sure they take the time to show every aspect of the property and pay due consideration to the key features viewers will want to see.
By treating a livestream event as they would a physical viewing, agents can help applicants to make up their mind in a way that is vastly more efficient for all parties.
Will Covid-19 prove to be a game-changer for virtual viewing technology, transforming it from niche to mainstream?
JS: There is no doubt that for many agents carrying out virtual viewings became the norm pretty soon after physical viewing options became limited last spring.
We work with many agencies which have said they won’t be going back to the ‘old way’ of doing viewings even after the pandemic has eased and I expect this to be the case for most of the industry.
The technology to view properties remotely has been around for a number of years, but the pandemic has expedited the adoption of virtual viewings in a positive way.
In lettings, it will not be uncommon for properties to be let sight unseen on a regular basis. The change may not be quite so drastic in sales as serious buyers may still want to view a property before committing.
However, livestream viewings will significantly reduce the amount of physical viewings that agents need to carry out, vendors need to prepare for and buyers need to attend.
EC: Absolutely. We believe that there will be no turning back for the industry now. Agencies which don't embrace video viewings could lose out on instructions or alienate themselves to applicants.
Covid-19 has forced businesses to find alternative ways to operate and remain successful. In the property world, the adoption of digital viewings and video tours is the main example of this.
In just a few years’ time, we’ll have a whole generation of property consumers who are used to viewing properties remotely.
We’ve already seen in the lettings sector that video viewings are extremely popular and, in many cases, help agents to let properties sight unseen.
Is the next logical step the widespread use of VR and AR viewings, to really help recreate the in-person experience in someone's home?
EC: This could become a popular way to view properties in years to come, although is likely to be most common at the very top end of the market in luxury properties.
In our experience, consumers appreciate interaction with an agent when they undertake a video viewing. They will also want to see a property warts-and-all - something which a video recording may be better placed to achieve than VR or AR.
JS: Much like it has for livestream and video viewings, the technology for virtual and augmented reality tours has been around for some time. There could be an uptick in the use of this viewing technology over the next few years, but it is unlikely to ever become mainstream.
We believe this is because applicants viewing remotely want to see a property live with the agent walking them round the property, which is the next most realistic experience to actually being there.
There is also the high cost of VR and AR technology to consider. Our proposition, for example, only requires use of an app so it is very accessible to consumers. The training required for agents to carry out high-quality livestream events is also very minimal.
In a now much more crowded market, what is your USP?
JS: Our USP is that we offer agents the opportunity to provide a livestream open house viewing event. This means they can showcase a property to all interested parties at once.
Following the livestream event, agents are provided with a transcript as well as details of all the applicants who turned up. This makes their job of following up interest easier and more effective.
As well as increasing efficiency and meaning agents can open the dialogue with qualified applicants at the viewing stage, a livestream event is a great marketing tool to generate a buzz around a property. Each event has its own dynamic live link and can be embedded on an agent’s website and portal listings, as well as promoted on social media.
Meanwhile, the viewing events are interactive with live chat-box functionality, allowing consumers to directly ask agents questions about the property during the walk-through.
Ultimately, our technology can help agents to spend less time on the road carrying out physical viewings while still completing the same number of transactions, if not more. This can increase productivity, save them thousands of pounds each month and also increase their earning potential.
EC: In a nutshell, Holofy Spaces helps connect people with spaces they want to live in in the most authentic and transparent way possible. Our simple-to-use technology allows agents to film video tours and take this immersive experience anywhere, from own website to third-party platforms, emails, texts, QR codes, posters - whatever way you want to create awareness, we are there to power it up.
It is essentially as simple as a Facebook Story. There is zero training needed to get started and the whole process is seamless and virtually instantaneous.
Another factor that sets us apart is our deep analytics. Agents using the Holofy Spaces app can analyse the level of interest in each property by seeing how many viewings it has received, how many days it has taken to sell or let, which parts of the property are most popular with applicants and how long consumers are viewing each room of the property for.
With the help of Holofy, your high interest prospects become your highest-quality leads. That’s why Holofy organically separates the ‘just browsing’ to ‘I’m ready to do a deal’, by letting your leads engage freely with all the details of the space, making only the ones that are highly engaged relevant to convert in the first place.
We also integrate with agents’ existing technology and our API connects with major CRMs. Embedding the videos onto your website in form of a Widget, has zero performance impact on your existing infrastructure, making it the fastest-ever video platform with no processing happening on your server side.
We will soon be launching Holofy TV - your portfolio of video viewings all in one place. Stay tuned!
Thanks for the answers, guys. It really does seem like virtual viewings are very much here to stay.
Before I go, I can’t sign off without mentioning the Propertymark debacle. In something more akin to a week in politics, the organisation lurched from one crisis to another for a few days, culminating in the resignation of CEO Tim Balcon after only four months in the role. A man I interviewed as recently as mid-January, and who I found to be a savvy and impressive operator who I expected to be in place for a considerable amount of time.
A restructuring and rethinking of the body is now urgently needed if it is to regain the trust of the agents it aims to represent.
Until next time…
*Nat Daniels is CEO of Angels Media, publishers of Estate Agent Today and Letting Agent Today. Follow him on Twitter @NatDaniels.