The mission of the Vacation Rental Housekeeping Professionals (VRHP) is to be an industry champion, elevating guest experience through the operational excellence of our members.
Creating an excellent experience in a vacation rental property is a process that has a lot of moving parts. VRHP has long been focused on helping property managers improve their back-of-house operations and make those processes easier and more efficient. The quality of your properties (inside and out) is a primary driver of your brand, so raising the bar on the processes and activities that go into achieving the highest possible quality is extremely important. That said, there are a wide variety in approaches in how that bar gets raised.
How your property operations fit into your overall organization, how team members communicate, how responsibilities are distributed, what expectations are set, and how they are met—these elements will be different from business to business. When it comes to not just improving the overall experiences of guests and owners, but creating excellence, where do smart property managers put their focus, and how do they prioritize? Without a roadmap or plan, “operational excellence” may be hard for some to define and the put into action.
I asked five vacation rental operations experts from across the US for their thoughts on what operational excellence means to them and what their companies are doing to achieve it.
Miss Kitty’s | A Vtrips Experience
To me, operational excellence means being able to support the “three-legged-stool” of short-term rental management. We have to present every home to our guests in a 10-out-of-10 state. Along with looking and smelling clean, the home should appear as presented on our website so there are no surprises. All features and amenities should be in working order and ready for guests’ use.
The second part of this is to manage the home in a way that generates maximum income for our owners. We should be preventative and proactive so that small issues do not become large cost points. This is done by making sure our staff is detail oriented and familiar with each home. The final part of operational excellence is making decisions that are good for our company. Every policy, procedure, and task has to make sense for our internal stakeholders, and that includes everyone from our board of directors to management to field-level staff. If we miss our mark on any one of these three parts, our three-legged-stool will fail.
Within Miss Kitty’s, we constantly revisit our working model to make sure we are achieving operational excellence. We continuously look at our staff: Do we have the right number of staff to manage our homes within our budget? Are we giving them the tools and resources they need to succeed? And, most importantly, do we have the right people in the right place? Another step we take is to examine our policies and change what isn’t working. For example, we recently made the decision to eliminate the manager position from our maintenance team. This places a higher level of responsibility on that team but also frees up budgetary funds to increase their compensation and bring on a higher level of technician, putting our money where we need it most. It has also been decided that outsourcing our linens makes more sense now that our inventory has grown. We also recently transitioned our quality inspectors into property manager positions with the goal of showing a higher level of ownership for the homes in their specific portfolio.
In summary, operational excellence is a goal that supports success for our local team, our owners, and our guests. Due to the ever-changing nature of the short-term renal industry, it’s a fluid goal that requires constant reassessment and dedication from everyone at Miss Kitty’s, not just the employees typically thought of as “operations.”
Vice President, Operations and Strategy Deployment
Outer Banks Blue Realty Services
Kitty Hawk, North Carolina
Operational excellence means the never-ending push for continuous improvement. Short-term rentals is not a perfect business, but if we apply our skills, knowledge, and capabilities to learn from our mistakes, we can always make tomorrow better than today, which was better than yesterday.
At Outer Banks Blue and Sandbridge Blue, we set clear goals and measure ourselves constantly. From daily targets to annual goals, we post our measurements throughout the office so everyone knows every department’s critical targets and where they stand.
Operational excellence starts with effective communication across all departments. It’s not only about discussing challenges, but also sharing and celebrating triumphs and successes. Second, all leaders, including top executives and middle managers, should have a “servant leader” mentality. Operational staff needs to feel that they are being supported and can have honest conversations with their managers without worrying about retaliation or, worse, that they will not even get a response. Lastly, operational excellence means having a tech stack that serves the operations team’s success.
At BookStayHop, we have a weekly manager’s meeting that includes the owner, executives, and middle managers. This has been effective in opening the lines of communication and being proactive in dealing with any foreseen issues that may arise. We also discuss ways to improve operations and take the input from all staff very seriously. Once we develop a plan, we communicate that to the staff, either in their weekly department meetings or in our monthly staff meeting, and ensure that there is always time for the employees to ask questions and offer input. In 2022, BookStayHop also made some major changes to our tech stack, including a new property management system and website. This has not only improved sales but also our communication and productivity, which has been reflected in our guest ratings and reviews.
Auntie Belham’s Cabin Rentals
Pigeon Forge, Tennessee
First, I’ve got to say that true operational excellence starts with a happy, healthy work culture that provides positivity and purpose for each employee’s position within the company. Once a supportive work culture is genuinely in place, operational excellence is each employee understanding and respecting their co-workers, their clients, and their company/brand, which plays out in thoughtful follow-through, going the extra mile, proactive work and reasoning, being team minded, a will to be flexible and open minded regarding solutions, each employee having the training and confidence they need to make executive decisions if necessary, open and timely communication, and, whenever possible, a noticeably sincere sense of pride in the company they work for.
When all of this comes together in your workplace among your teams and departments and its positive effect is being mentioned in customer feedback (via reviews, conversations, general feedback, etc.), that’s when you know you have it; that is operational excellence.
I create and give out annual employee engagement surveys in order to learn more about them and to learn from them in order to improve our operations and departments. This works to reinforce strengths, correct or adjust for weaknesses; it inspires contribution; it creates self-awareness and reflection; it puts our finger on the pulse; it allows employees a space to be heard; and we learn a lot about them personally as well.
We have open-door policies with all managers, and systems of accountability are in place. We also try to provide opportunity for growth in any way possible. Even if they can’t “climb the ladder” in their position, we can help make them stronger and more satisfied in their position, which is worth its weight in gold for our clients.
Operational excellence to me means having and building your standard processes. It means having a clear path of what to do in a given situation without needing to reinvent the wheel, thereby empowering staff and creating an efficient way to operate.
In our company, we’ve really focused on documenting our process—from how to answer reservations and working through damage claims to steps in assessing our next hiring need. It can be a bit tedious in the moment, but it saves immeasurable amounts of time down the line when someone can simply click on a document to guide them through a situation when it comes up again. It’s always a work in progress, but that’s the great part: We make improvements and tweaks as needed when a certain aspect of our operations needs adjustment, always building and improving on the process that we have.
In short-term rental management, there are a million moving pieces. And the hardest part is that, in most cases, our inventory of properties are completely unique from one another, making it difficult to standardize. But if you do create a process and standardization for what you can control and create rules and exceptions for other situations that might arise, it empowers teams in their decision-making and, in turn, increases efficiency.
A Journey of Continuous Improvement
While the perspectives of these five property managers are different, strong themes of communication, data and measurement, developing and adhering to set processes, and maintaining a positive work culture provide tremendous insight. Achieving operational excellence, for this group, is a journey of continuous improvement in which everyone in their organizations participate. Leadership, teamwork, and shared goals help set property managers on the path and are critical to their success.
Michelle Williams, a VRMA director and chair of Vacation Rental Housekeeping Professionals (VRHP), is general manager of Atlantic Vacation Homes in Gloucester, Massachusetts. VRHP is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the advancement of back-of-the-house vacation rental professionals. For more information on becoming a VRHP member, visit vrhp.vrma.org.