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Managing Varsity Towers: Creating a Fun and Supportive Environment for Student Accommodation

Caroline and Rex Fitzgerald have been managing Varsity Towers, a student accommodation building on the Gold Coast, since 2006. With their unique approach to management, they provide a fun and supportive environment for their young residents. Read on to discover thier experiences.

Caroline and Rex Fitzgerald’s two children Jade, 11, and Declan, 9, think it is perfectly normal to live in a 328-room house at Varsity Towers.

And with up to a third of the 350 18-23-year-old students in the building coming from America and Canada, trick or treating at Halloween is their favourite time of the year.

“The students are right into it and they offer to do things for the kids when they pop around,” said Caroline. “Baby sitters are not hard to get as there are always students looking for a bit of extra work.”

The Fitzgeralds, both a young 42, took over the management rights of Varsity Towers, next to Bond University on the Gold Coast, in 2006 after at stint at Lu Elle Palms on the Tweed Coast. Prior to Lu Elle Palms, Caroline had been a kindergarten teacher and Rex a casino manager for Jupiter’s and Crown casinos. He was part of the opening team that went to Melbourne for a five-year contract that turned into seven.

“We wanted a better life and always knew we would come back to the Coast,” said Rex.

When they began at Varsity Towers they dressed more professionally but found students did not communicate well with them. “We had to desuit and boot to come down to their level so they would stop and talk to us both,” said Rex.

Appearances were not their only problem. They inherited a building that previously been managed by the developer’s staff using a computer system and website more aligned with property sales than accommodation. Previous managers had only lasted up to four months because of the demanding nature of the building, its systems and student residents.

“Within six months of taking over, we rebuilt the developer’s website and have since written procedure manuals for everything,” said Rex.

Bond University operates on three semesters a year. At the end of every semester up to 300 rooms are vacated by students leaving to go home on the same day. The Fitzgeralds have just 14 days to prepare for the next lot of students.

“Conducting 300 full room inspections, gathering all the data, finding replacement articles, maintenance and cleaning was previously done manually over the 14-day break,” said Rex.

Varsity Towers
Varsity Towers

“Writing the procedure manual for that was the biggest job, then a programmer from AW Retail Systems, who works for EzyRez, designed a backend program that we use to enter data while inspecting each room.

“It’s still a big job but the system makes it much easier.”

Each strata-titled room has its own inventory and students sign a property condition report before moving in. When they leave that inventory has to be complete but with students moving between rooms taking glasses and plates with them, the losses soon mount.

“We replace 200 wine and water glasses every 15 weeks plus plates, knives and forks. In our first year we had to replace $30,000 worth of stock,” said Caroline.

In September Rex and Caroline launched a new website for Varsity Towers more in tune with their student tenants. “We completely redesigned it to create a more young and funky, user-friendly, trendy website,” said Rex. “We have an Internet reseller business that actually does work in alignment with a company called Allegro.”

With such young residents, security cameras fitted throughout the building have reduced damage and cleaning dramatically.

“When you have 350 students and then add their boyfriends and girlfriends to the mix, we can have up to 450 people in the buildings at any one time,” said Rex. “Surveillance cameras in our first month saved us more than $1000 in cleaning up messes from students being sick in the corridors. Now they usually make it back to their room because they know they will be recorded by the security cameras.”

Varsity Towers is run like a frat house with tenants ‘fined’ for noise breaches, leaving rubbish and locking themselves out after hours.

“We are a bit looser with students because they are all not going to be in bed by 10pm. By that time they are usually coming back to change into their third outfit for the night, then have a few drinks in our bar before heading off to Surfers Paradise at 11pm in one of the buses or maxi taxis that service the buildings,” said Caroline.

While being parents to their own children, they are also like parents to the students. Rex said managing them was a bit like being ‘the bar tender, pastor, mother and father’. “We like to think that when they come here, they go home a little bit more independent,” said Caroline.

“Some of our North American students have never lived away from home before so we have education sessions to teach them what their roles are as tenants. We let them know if they do the wrong thing they will be fined.

“At the check-in session I warn them about sharks, the surf and swimming between the flags because some of them have never seen a beach before. We tell them about Australia’s strict alcohol licensing laws and warn them about problems in Surfers – it’s a bit of a mothering session to provide them with life skills.

“And every semester, someone has a burst appendix or breaks a leg so we are a bit like the mother and father to 350 students.”

Varsity Towers
Varsity Towers

A surfboard above the 360bar with a shark bite out of it reminds students of the dangers from the bull sharks in the Gold Coast’s lakes and canals.

Rex and Caroline also help students form groups of like-minded people so they can look after each other and provide support.

Varsity Towers is zoned student accommodation and because it has a licensed bar, only students aged over 18 are accepted.

The student experience at Varsity Towers is a key part of Rex and Caroline’s marketing.

“Eighty per cent of our marketing is by word-of-mouth from brothers, cousins, friends and other relations who have had a good time here and recommend us,” said Rex. “We make sure the students are treated well and do not tolerate any discrimination on race, creed, colour or gender in the building – we make sure everybody feels welcome and go out of our way to make their stay is massive fun for them.

“Then we have international booking agents from Arcadia University, CIS, Student University in the States and Study Australia who have a good rapport with us and know the building inside out who can advise students wanting off-campus accommodation that Varsity Towers should be one of their primary choices.

“Social media plays a part in the marketing with the bar running through Facebook (Facebook varsity towers-360bar) to organise social events such as sausage sizzles and barbeques down the beach and advising which bus to catch for an event at Byron Bay.”

Annual accommodation rates run at 86% because of the breaks between semesters. From September to December it is 97-100%, January-April 97-100% and May to August 82-85% because of the northern summer when the students stay at home to enjoy themselves.

“One of the big benefits for unit owners is that we pool the rent so they are guaranteed of getting a rental income from their property during the breaks between semesters,” said Rex.

Varsity Towers is a five-minute walk from Bond University. Built beside Lake Orr its two towers have 328 self-contained studios and apartments with a choice of one, two and three bedrooms, all with balconies and views.

Each studio and apartment is fully furnished with a bed, bedcover, study desk and chair, chaise lounge, bookshelves, dining table and chairs and a robe with hanging and drawer space. The kitchen is fully equipped with pots, pans, fridge, microwave and crockery and cutlery. Each has a private bathroom with a shower, vanity unit, washbasin and a toilet.

Facilities include a swimming pool, coin laundry, secure undercover parking, a licensed lounge bar and a mini store for counter sales with basic hygiene supplies and food.

Besides Rex and Caroline, Varsity Towers has a full time front office manager, building second in charge, bar manager Craig, casual bar staff and contract maintenance. Security personnel are contactable 24 hours a day.

Are you interested in lifting your industry profile?
Email [email protected] or call (07) 5440 5322

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