The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” So wrote the classic science fiction writer H.P. Lovecraft back in the 1920s.
It’s still true today. Change always brings with it the unknown. Change means risk—it can mean opportunity, too—and risk can be a cruel judge separating the prepared from all the rest.
The same is true in the vacation rental management industry. In recent years the industry has seen consolidation, increased regulations and an evolving customer base that is leading the charge for easy access to information and services online—to name a few.
VRs’ response to this change is critical to their survival.
“How well organizations handle the process of change and transition, and how much we perceive we have control and influence over the change, is the key to managing the fear of change,” writes the business consultant Ban Weston, managing director for WM Consulting.
From Antiques to Technology
So how does a vacation rental agency (VR) cope with so much change going on all at once? For Carole Lynn Sharoff, president of Atlantic Vacation Homes in Gloucester, Massachusetts, who got into the VR industry 30 years ago, change has provided a kind of energy, an incentive, not only to grow her business but to move ahead of the curve. “I started my business with a hand-lettered chart on a piece of poster board on the wall,” she says. “We still used fax machines then. I would type up my listing sheets, run down to the photography store and get them copied, and then paste photos on each one. I kept them filed in my drawer and then I would mail them out to people seeking rentals.”
Back then, her office’s most important piece of technology was an IBM Selectric typewriter. That was replaced with a one-sheet-at-a-time copier, then a fax machine, and then, finally, a computer arrived on her desk. “Voila! Connected to the internet!” she laughs.
Sharoff truly understands and appreciates the revolution the internet brought to VRs. When she started, she operated a real estate business as an adjunct to a small antiques shop she had purchased in one of Gloucester’s outlying villages. “I got to know neighbors who would pop in on their Sunday walks and visitors to the area who would come in to ask directions,” she recalls. “This is before GPS and cell phones. Lost tourists helped to build my business. I was friendly, filled a need, and they came back year after year and ultimately rented while the neighbors ultimately listed.” The simplicity of those old days must seem quaint now to Sharoff, whose VR rents a growing list of about 100 units. Her rentals, mostly single family homes, go year-round, with a lot of weekend getaway guests driving in from Boston, though she adds that her Canadian and British clienteles are growing.
While the internet gave Atlantic Vacation Homes unprecedented access to its market, Sharoff says the most important change for her business the internet brought was an introduction to VRMA. She saw an article on VRMA’s website, called the company mentioned in it, and quickly joined VRMA. After joining, Sharoff learned about VR software and other technology changes affecting the VR industry, a step she says is critical to success in this industry.
“Mom and pop businesses can’t survive without having the technology knowledge to keep up with the extraordinary and exciting changes this brings,” says Sharoff.
But implementing new technology into her company hasn’t been easy. She and her team relied on lessons from their software company, then recruited staff who could apply that knowledge on a local level. Today, Atlantic Vacation Homes employs 10 people, most of whom have strong technology skills. (Sharoff has retained staff to deliver exceptional, personal customer service because, as she puts it, “That is what we do.”)
Ultimately, Sharoff’s strategic plan remains steady, but the tactics for achieving it are constantly changing. For help with this constantly moving target, she has turned to VRMA. “I continue to be active in the VRMA and appreciate how much knowledge and training it has brought to my business.”
Wolves at the Door
Blaine Smith, owner of 710 Beach Rentals in San Diego, California, agrees that the combination of updating technology and staying abreast of industry developments is key to accommodating and learning from change. Smith does this in part by reading industry publications and attending local meetings and industry conferences. “We try to stay ahead of change so when they become reality, we are ready with updated systems in place,” Smith says.
Smith’s experience with change in the VR business is recent. He began in 2009 with family-owned homes, then founded 710 Beach Rentals in 2011 and opened up his VR’s services to other owners. The area and inventory is a mix of condos and homes — “But condos in San Diego are buildings with two to four units,” he points out. “We don’t have any big condo buildings like you see in Florida.”
And while the internet has been as valuable to 710 Beach Rentals as it has been to Atlantic Vacation Homes, Smith cautions that it has also brought some wolves to the door. “I’m relatively new to the industry but in my short time nothing has had more of an impact than Airbnb,” he says. “This is due to the ease of entry into the market for people who have no experience, and this has led to a less professional industry in our local market. It has also driven down rates, as the competition has increased dramatically.” He adds that even more than Airbnb, government regulation has become a real issue for his VR. “San Diego is in the middle of it now, with the outcome having the potential to completely alter the way we operate,” he says.
How is 710 dealing with this unwelcome change? “We have become more innovative and resourceful, which will prepare us for more inevitable change,” Smith says, adding that it can sometimes be exhausting to continually change how you do business. “I’m hopeful the industry will settle itself soon.”
Center of the Local Universe
Sharoff remains enthusiastic about the VR industry, but she also understands that change isn’t always welcome. “I love the globalization of my business. I think of it as the center of the local universe—lots of rentals to celebrities, movie locations, weddings and events. It’s fun,” she says.
Still, there are daily changes to manage. For example, a simple change to an algorithm or policy at Expedia or Airbnb can profoundly impact her business and force her to look for other sources of revenue. And then there’s the growth of social media. Sharoff used to have an entry-level employee post on her company Facebook page. Today, she has a full-time employee handle all marketing and social media communications.
Other changes Sharoff says her VR is accommodating include the consolidation of small companies and the growth and expansion of what used to be small companies. And then there are centralized reservation systems to consider and online bookings, which threaten, she worries, “the loss of personal relationships with customers.” Keeping a VR technologically up to date but also personal and human may be the biggest challenge facing VRs across the nation and globe.
How can VRs meet such challenges? “The next generation is telling me what I have to make happen,” Sharoff says. “I can’t possibly tell them.” To that end, Sharoff says her son and daughter joined the firm last year to focus on areas that she views as their forte: process, speed, efficiency and technology—without losing sight of the long-term value of relationships. “They also understand the need to forge relationships with customers, with guests and homeowners, and continue to build on the base I created with the local and regional communities.”
For Smith, keeping up with the constant changes in the VR industry has been hard work.
“Although we provide vacations, the job is not a vacation,” Smith says. “It’s a competitive industry that requires a lot of work and constant improvement. People who want to be successful need to be ready to work.”