One company is building mobile applications to bring a deeper sense of community and communication to master-planned communities.

Bozeman, Montana–based real estate technology company Alosant is a pioneer in the burgeoning category of mobile apps for master-planned communities—sprawling developments that feature an array of amenities, such as schools, workspaces, shops, restaurants, bars, and golf courses.

Since 2017, Alosant has developed branded apps for more than 60 master-planned communities across the United States, including some of the largest such as Lakewood Ranch and Rancho Mission Viejo. The apps cater to current and future residents, as well as people who work in the communities or who patronize stores, restaurants, and other amenities.

April LaMon, cofounder and CEO of Alosant and a member of ULI’s Lifestyle Residential Development Council, says that master-planned communities have largely been behind other residential real estate sectors—namely, the multifamily segment—in trotting out mobile apps.

Why? LaMon said multifamily developments tend to be more transactional than master-planned communities, with tenants leasing apartments, scheduling move-ins, paying rent, and so forth. Meanwhile, master-planned communities are more lifestyle-oriented than transaction-oriented, LaMon said.

Not that long ago, mobile apps geared toward residential real estate weren’t a good fit for master-planned communities, according to LaMon. These apps failed to adequately embrace the lifestyle-anchored mindset of master-planned communities, she said.

“Yes, you’re getting your house, but you really are buying into a much broader lifestyle for yourself, for your family, and have a much higher desire to really become an active member of that community,” LaMon said of master-planned communities.

LaMon wasn’t in the app-building business back in 2017; she specialized in behavioral analytics surrounding website traffic. But that soon would change. That year, Paul Johnson, who spearheaded the design and rollout of the Rancho Mission Viejo master-planned community in Southern California’s Orange County, approached LaMon and business partner Mike Swanson about creating a branded app for the community.

According to LaMon, Johnson sensed the divide between Rancho Mission Viejo’s physical and digital environments—with mobile phones in the hands of seemingly everyone in the community—and tapped LaMon and Swanson to close that gap. In the fall of 2017, the community launched the RanchLife app, developed by LaMon and Swanson and their team. Within 90 days, LaMon said, the app racked up about 2,500 active users, representing a little over 90 percent of the community’s residents.

Amaya Genaro, vice president of community services at the 23,000-acre (more than 9,300-hectare) Rancho Mission Viejo, said the app currently enjoys a 98 percent adoption rate, with about 7,500 users. The community encourages new residents to download the RanchLife app at the homebuying stage.

Today, about 4,000 homes have been completed in the community. Upon buildout, Rancho Mission Viejo is projected to be populated with 14,000 homes.

The RanchLife app enables Ranch Mission Viejo’s thousands of residents to learn about events, classes, clubs, programming and services in the community. For instance, residents recently used the app to sign up for the community’s Harvest Pumpkin Patch.

The app also alerts residents about happenings like road closures and pool shutdowns. Next year, Rancho Mission Viejo will add the ability — through the new Alosant Azul technology — to rely on the app to control entry access at community amenities.

Genaro said the RanchLife app empowers the community, including tenants of Rancho Mission Viejo apartments, “to continue to connect residents on a daily basis with one another and to the offerings that really provide a robust lifestyle.”

LaMon echoed that sentiment, saying Alosant’s apps are designed to boost engagement among a master-planned community’s residents and visitors. LaMon believes offering a branded app is now just as important to a master-planned community as providing WiFi access throughout those community.

“We live at that crossroads of digital and physical,” she said of Alosant, “for the people in those communities to have richer, more in-depth experiences — to be able to not only find everything in one place but do something with that information.”

In some cases, information supplied through one of these apps can be potentially life-saving. For example, the primary means of the Sienna master-planned community near Houston to communicate with residents during the brutal February 2021 winter storm in Texas was with push notifications sent via the community’s Alosant-created app, according to LaMon.

“Being able to communicate with the people that are under your wing is vital,” she said.

Cyndi Hernandez, community relations manager for Sienna’s homeowners association, said that aside from the Sienna app’s emergency notification option and other benefits for residents, the technology has been a “great marketing tool.” Through the app’s Guest View feature, potential residents of the 10,000-acre (more than 4,000-hectare) community can get a snapshot of the amenities and of new homes that are available, she said.

“With the ever-changing and expanding role of technology in our lives,” Hernandez said, “I believe it is important for communities to find ways to reach out to residents utilizing tools that residents have easy access tolike their cellphonesfor information and a near-immediate ability to take care of business, whether planning their calendars or signing up for a class or activity.”

Screenshots of the Lakewood Ranch My LWR app. (Alosant)

At Lakewood Ranch, a master-planned community in Sarasota County, Florida, that spans more than 33,000 acres (over 13,300 ha), executives want people to use the Alosant-developed My LWR app to take care of business, too, with the overarching goal of bolstering community engagement.

“We have a lot of people moving here, and we want them to really be able to plug in and connect right away,” said Monaca Onstad, director of community relations at Lakewood Ranch.

Onstad said the app allows the new and existing residents alike to engage in a variety of activities, including tai chi classes, ukulele lessons, bingo games, a weekly farmers market, and theater productions. Residents can even submit maintenance requests through the app.

Users of the app also can find out about the opening of new model homes and new villages. Laura Cole, senior vice president of Lakewood Ranch, said My LWR lets prospective residents “test drive” the community by exposing them to the community’s myriad offerings. In 2020, Lakewood Ranch ranked second among the country’s top-selling master-planned communities.

In addition to being an amenity for residents, Cole said, the app gives Lakewood Ranch a better grasp of which amenities and programs strike a chord with residents. That data helps inform future decisions about the community’s offerings, she said.

Onstad said the app, which launched in November 2020, notches a monthly usage rate of 87 percent of residents.

My LWR has “made us a more connected community, because you have … an app that’s a Lakewood Ranch app that you can go to, and you have a little more ownership over your community,” Onstad said.