As in just about any industry worldwide these days, owners of vacation rental companies have to always be concerned about what has become known as “disruption” in the business world. For at least the past few years now the travel industry in particular has experienced major disruptors. Hotel executives have been kept awake at night thinking of the growth of OTA’s and more recently of AirBnB. Uber and Lyft have disrupted transportation companies such as taxis and car services. Silver Car has the rental car companies worried, while legacy airlines have already been forced to adapt to the no-frills, ultra-discount carriers such as Spirit and Frontier.
VR managers have already had to deal with the proliferation of “by owner” rental distribution websites, and more recently, the growth of regional and national brands that is largely fueled by lower commission models and national marketing campaigns. Now that we have entered 2016, more distribution is certain to be just around the corner.
But one thing that remains the same in the VR business model, despite all of these changes, is that the vast majority of our inventory is individually owned. The right to list and represent these individually owned properties is won (or lost) one relationship at a time. As VR industry guru George Volsky always says, “Inventory is king!” When you think about it this is absolutely true; without something to sell, it doesn’t matter how good we are at distribution and sales!
For over 20 years now I have been involved in conducting sales and guest services excellence training for the staff of VR companies that convince those who are planning vacations to book with “us,” and then to provide excellent service to those who do so that they will do the two things we want most, which is to stay with us again next time and to help get the word out to others about how well they were treated. With all of the online distribution channels, guest review sites and social media postings, these skills are still important to focus on.
Yet the more I continue to learn about this business the more I realize that what is truly the key to the long-term viability of any rental company is the relationships it has with the owners of its inventory.
Unlike so many other tasks that VR managers are involved with, these are relationships that cannot be outsourced to third parties, nor can they be fully automated by technology. Thus they are especially difficult for mega brands to replicate on an “assembly line.” Oh sure, an owner here and there might be temporarily lured away by the offer of a lower commission structure. Yet when they have their first bad experience with having a mega-size regional or national brand with remote-based operations and they end up feeling like just another anonymous name on a contract, they will come running back across the bridge, so long as it is left standing on their outbound journey. What is going to happen when their house gets rented to the wrong guests and there are damages or legal concerns? What happens when the regional super-size company has to deal with a crisis such a weather event, a broken water pipe, or natural disaster?
Certainly a few major circumstances or events will cause those owners to remember back to the “good old days” when they had long-term relationships with the long-term employees at their local VR company, or perhaps even a relationship with the owner of that company who on most days could be found working right inside the building.
Yes, these extreme events will cause many of leave to return, but it is the everyday interactions with owners that build owner loyalty to keep owners from leaving in the first place. At the core, it is the very same skill-sets that our staff uses to build relationships with our guests which create loyalty for owners. Building rapport, listening, anticipating needs, pro-actively volunteering information, avoiding problems in advance, and service recovery. These same skills help us lock-in the loyalty of those who own our inventory so that when that offer of a lower commission model comes in on a postcard or email, they are going to think twice before responding.
At the most recent VRMA conference I had the opportunity to sit in on an excellent break-out session conducted by Maureen Regan from Seaside Vacation Rentals in York, ME. During this session Maureen played videos of interviews she had conducted with her owners, each one telling their personal story of how they acquired their vacation rental properties, what they did to renovate and decorate it, and how important it is to them and their families. This was very insightful and helped me understand on a deeper level that we are not just in the business of renting vacation rental “units” to guests. I have often said there is a “story” behind every caller’s vacation plans. Likewise there is a “story” behind every owner’s special vacation home or condo.
Here are some training tips:
- Just as you encourage guest contact staff to practice hospitality excellence with guests, focus your homeowner service staff on providing excellence in every interaction with owners.
- Take time to listen to owners and get to know their “story.” Include what you have learned in your own owner-tracking systems just as you do in your CRM for guests.
- Use CRM systems to stay in touch on their milestone days such as the anniversary of their listing with you, their 100 rental, etc...
- Respond promptly to all owner questions and communications, even if it is only to acknowledge their message and to let them know that you need more time to respond in detail.
- Be prompt with owner statements and processing of payments.
- Communicate with owners frequently. The VR industry has invested heavily in social media contacts with guests; we should also use these new mediums for communicating with owners. Let them know all of the conferences, educational sessions and legal work you are doing on their behalf.
- Share stories of situations that occur with guests and what your team had to do to respond. This helps them understand all of the behind the scenes work that goes in to renting their homes.
- When owners do leave, make sure you build a bridge as they head out the door. Trace them in your CRM for follow-up 9 months after they left, or right after season ends, or whenever you think the time is right to win back their business.