During these unsettling times, most businesses and individuals have been greatly impacted by the COVID-19 crisis. While we may not know what the future looks like for the vacation rental industry, it’s important to remember that we are in this together. Read below for a Q&A with Vice President of VR Partner Success at Vrbo at Expedia Group, Kevin Locraft. Kevin talks about his start in the industry, how his business and team are overcoming current obstacles and where he sees the industry heading post-pandemic.
Can you talk a little about yourself and how you got started in the vacation rental industry? How did you get to where you are today?
I started my career in the vacation rental industry with HomeAway back in July 2013. I joined the company in a strategy and corporate development role with the goal of better understanding the complexities and nuances of the business, and eventually found my way into the sales organization in May 2017. Since that time, we have transformed the sales organization, which had historically sold and renewed annual subscriptions, into our Partner Success organization that is focused on enabling our partners to achieve their goals and enhance the vacation rental traveler experience.
On a more personal note, I didn’t know it growing up, but I have had vacation rentals in my blood since birth. A bit of an exaggeration, perhaps, but let me explain. I grew up spending several weeks a year each summer at the beach in Ocean City, Maryland. Unbeknownst to me, my parents later revealed that they were only able to afford this family vacation home, “The Red Lion on 30th Street,” by renting out the unit during weeks that we were not using it. We created incredible memories there. Things came full circle for me when I joined (now) Vrbo and learned that Ocean City, Maryland is a top vacation rental destination in the world.
How has your business and daily work-life been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic?
COVID-19 has really given me a new appreciation for all those who seem to balance work and kids a lot better than I do! I can tell you that I certainly appreciate now, more than ever, all that my wife does at home with our two boys, David (8) and Miller (4), and two puppies, Gibbs (2) and Dex (3 months) to enable me to spend so much time with our supply partners, focused on making the vacation rental space better and better every day.
At Expedia Group, it’s been encouraging to see everyone come together and tackle the challenges created by the unprecedented volume of re-bookings and cancellations. Our immediate response focused on the most critical actions we could take on behalf of our supply partners, from clarifying cancellation policies and expectations to updating tools that make it easier to modify or cancel bookings. Throughout it all, our goal has been to take a balanced approach to the marketplace — simplifying things for partners and travelers, while giving our partners the time and flexibility to focus on taking care of guests and their business. Despite the incredibly difficult period that this pandemic has brought forth, we made truly meaningful improvements to systems, tools and processes in a short amount of time.
Throughout it all, our goal has been to take a balanced approach to the marketplace — simplifying things for partners and travelers, while giving our partners the time and flexibility to focus on taking care of guests and their business.
Uncertainty and fear have taken a forefront within the industry over the last few months. How are you and your team handling this crisis? What obstacles have you encountered and what actions are you taking to overcome them?
When the pandemic began, one of our biggest challenges was to keep up with all the questions from travelers and partners coming in via calls, social media and chat. We ramped our customer service and partner facing teams to field hundreds of thousands of calls per day — this was especially hard to do with everyone working from home, but I’m really proud of our team and how dedicated they are.
More than ever, we've prioritized communicating with, and listening to, our partners and travelers — it's critical that we understand their needs and what they’re facing. We’re doing this through casual conversations, scheduled partner consults, inbound partner feedback and formal feedback forums and surveys. We’re continually applying our learnings to create more educational content and resources, all of which can be found in the Vrbo Discovery Hub.
Meanwhile, with the heightened focus on cleanliness and hygiene, our product teams are making it easier for partners to highlight things like contactless check-in and cleanliness practices in search results and on partners' property details pages.
More than ever, we've prioritized communicating with, and listening to, our partners and travelers — it's critical that we understand their needs and what they’re facing.
Where do you see the industry heading post-pandemic? What do you hope to see?
Even though the economic effects of the pandemic will be with us for a while, I think people’s desire to travel will be extremely high. We all want to make up for those lost moments and memories with family and friends. And, after being cooped up in our homes for so long, we’re probably all ready for a change of scenery that's more than a walk around the neighborhood or a drive to the park. In recent weeks, we are seeing travelers, eager to come back to sites like Vrbo, Expedia and Hotels.com to book their summer holidays. Vacation rentals are playing a major part in the recovery, as travelers seek drive-to destinations and more private and versatile accommodations that enable them and their loved ones to get out of the house and enjoy more extended time together, while taking appropriate health precautions.
The above said, restoring travel will take an unprecedented level of partnership across public and private sectors, and a deep understanding of what our partners need. Since the beginning of the crisis, Expedia Group has worked with global health organizations and governments and I believe the entire travel industry will continue to partner across the public and private sectors as we reimagine and rebuild a more resilient, inclusive and sustainable global travel ecosystem.
In your opinion, what do you believe is the most important thing to keep in mind while working during these turbulent times?
The importance of family, whether it’s the one you were born into or the one you’ve built through friends and coworkers. COVID-19 has been a double-edged sword in so many respects.
On one hand, this crisis has brought me closer to my family and friends than I have been in years. When have we ever had more time with loved ones at home? Or, so much true voice and video connection with your mom and dad, or far-flung college buddies? I think it is awesome to see how the human spirit has overcome social distancing by connecting more than ever.
On the other hand, this crisis created all sorts of ripple effects that are really trying on our mental, emotional and physical health. That’s why it is more important than ever to take time out our busy days to be there – for each other, and for ourselves.
On a more practical point, the next few weeks and months will be critical for property managers in focusing on getting their property prepped and ready for upcoming demand, including making sure their cleanliness protocols are clearly communicated to travelers, and that any additional amenities they are able to offer travelers are also listed. It’s all about rebuilding consumer confidence at the moment.
Do you have any advice or additional comments?
As part of our recovery initiative, Expedia Group has created a complimentary training and education program to help furloughed and displaced workers called Expedia Group Academy. The program offers skill development through online learning modules and live content led by Expedia Group subject matter experts and travel industry leaders. It will feature concentrations in diversity and inclusion, sales and business skills, and leadership training. Participants will receive recruitment opportunities upon completion. Interested individuals can connect with other participants on the Expedia Group Academy LinkedIn Group prior to the official program kickoff in late June.