Pat Hagerman’s first experience with smart home technology was essentially a science experiment.
The experiment started 20 years ago at his vacation rental property in Lake Tahoe, California. Long before keyless entry and app-controlled thermostats were common, Hagerman sometimes had trouble heating his property in time for the arrival of guests. He lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, a three-hour drive from the property, and would often ask a cleaner or neighbor to turn on the heat before guests arrived. But when neither he nor they could turn on the heat in time, guests would arrive at a cold house—and get very angry.
“We’d relocate them to a bed-and-breakfast or someplace else in the neighborhood because we felt bad,” he said. “This was starting to cost us money.” For his experiment, Hagerman—who had a background in control systems and understood commercial-level heating—tapped into the home’s security system to see if he could control its thermostat. It was a success; he was able to heat the home from afar, without bothering a neighbor or worrying about a guest arriving to a freezing home.
The experiment was a revelation for Hagerman. What else could he do from afar? Since that first experiment, he has spent his career answering that question.
These days, aside from managing vacation rental properties, Hagerman said that he lives and breathes smart home technology. Hagerman works as a consultant, designing smart home solutions for other vacation rental managers, as well as senior care homes and high-volume homebuilders, among others. He also serves as the principal of Virtual Concierge Service, a service that uses the guests’ phones and smart speakers to give customized information on their area and property.
At his own vacation rental properties, Hagerman uses a cadre of smart home technology—PIN code entry, pathway lighting that turns on as guests arrive, devices that tell him when the internet is down or if the furnace needs service, speakers that can turn on music as guests arrive and control the noise amid their stay, and of course, a thermostat that can control the temperature from afar. He tests all of this new technology at home before installing it at his properties, to the occasional annoyance of his wife—just as one gadget becomes intuitive for her, he’ll install a new one. Typically, the technology works so well that it’s seamless, Hagerman said, cutting their time taking calls or visiting the properties by 90%, as well as taking a bite out of his energy bill.
“It’s completely automated everything,” Hagerman said. “As long as we get the dates and times right, everything else takes care of itself. From a guest experience standpoint, that’s what people are looking for. They don’t want to show up to a cold, dark house with a manual about how you turn on the heat or how you use the thermostats.
“The smarter we make the house, the fewer phone calls we get, and the fewer hassles we have
around things that aren’t working.”
THE RISING TREND OF SMART TECHNOLOGY
Smart home technology seems to be reaching a tipping point, both for consumers and vacation rental properties.
Statista reports that in 2017, the smart home market was just under $16 billion. By 2020, the
market was worth more than $25 billion—and it is poised to grow to more than $50 billion by 2025, even after adjusting for the pandemic. In the vacation rental market, a survey by August Home Inc., a smart lock provider, finds that 80% of vacation guests say that they are more likely to rent a property that has smart home technology. Intriguingly, 60% of guests responded that they would pay more money for a rental with smart home technology.
Smart home technology will likely become more important for guests due to the COVID-19 pandemic, if for no other reason than people are using it more often. The Spring 2020 Smart Audio Report, by NPR and Edison Research, finds that 52% of voice-assistant owners—more than 60 million people in the U.S. now own at least one smart device—use smart home technology every day, up from 46% before the pandemic.
“Once you change human behavior, things don’t go back,” said Alex Allison, founder and CEO of D. Alexander. His company, which he founded in 2019, owns a series of vacation rental properties it calls “destination homes” and has outfitted all of its properties with uniform smart home technology. Amid the pandemic, he has seen this decision pay off.
Allison founded his company when he realized that the vacation rental market had a problem. Since so many properties are owned or managed by individuals or small companies, there is no consistency of experience for guests—Allison believed that his company could create that consistency for guests. D. Alexander homes all have smart locks, smart speakers, smart thermostats, and smart internet. If a guest stays at one of D. Alexander’s properties then visits another, for example, their devices are recognized automatically. It may seem small, but this kind of experience is now what many guests expect, Allison said.
“And when it’s not delivered, it’s a bit of a shock,” Allison said. “For our audience, we’re looking to cater to what they want. They expect it. But they’re otherwise not getting it consistently in the marketplace.”
Hagerman doesn’t think that consumers care so much about the technology as the experience
it brings—smart home technology is a means rather than an end, he believes. While he doesn’t think that marketing a property’s smart home technology will increase bookings, he does think that guests who stay will notice the benefits of the technology and write about their experiences in reviews. This, he said, certainly increases bookings. He has noticed that guests often comment on the comfort, convenience and security at his properties, much of which is
attributable to smart home technology. Those are the three buckets he tries to fill when adopting new technology—comfort, convenience, and security.
“I’m surprised that property managers haven’t adopted this technology a little bit more readily,” Hagerman said. “I think they aren’t necessarily thinking about the guest experience side of what
happens when stuff like heating and the internet aren’t working.”
If consumers now expect smart home technology— or at least the comfort, convenience, and security afforded by this technology—how can vacation rental managers give that experience to them? First, start with the basics. See what works. Build from there.
UNLOCKING THE FIRST STEPS
Six years ago, Joanne Logie decided that any new property under management at New England
Vacation Rentals—where she is co-owner—would be outfitted with smart locks. They would even affix smart locks to homes with old, funky doors.
Back then, Logie noticed that when guests would come into her office for check-in, they often would be welcomed by a long line of other guests checking in. “We started seeing that guests were very anxious,” she said. “It would be a hot summer day, they had been driving or flying from somewhere, and it was taking a toll on them. They wouldn’t be as friendly sometimes.”
Although guests seemed anxious by their current process, Logie worried that they would lose the personal touch if they installed smart locks. But after installing them, Logie noticed that she felt less stressed; guests did too. In fact, they seemed even happier about their stays. “They love it,” she said. “We love it. Everyone’s super happy."
Property managers should follow Logie’s lead when implementing smart home technology—as Hagerman puts it, they need to start with lights, locks, and thermostats.
“They check a lot of boxes in terms of guest experience, as well as the efficiency and energy savings. I would start there, and then layer everything else around that.” Allison agrees, but also believes that strong internet connectivity is now a must. This is especially important amid the COVID-19 pandemic, when many guests are driving to properties as an escape from reality—but typically, it’s an escape where they must still log into work. This is a good point, Hagerman said—he uses a device that lets him know when the internet is down, which allows him to immediately alert guests and tell them that they are working on the problem.
The alternative, he said, is having unhappy guests tell you that the internet isn’t working— Hagerman has heard recent horror stories of guests calling the property manage in advance of a stay to be sure the internet works, arriving to a property with no internet, and immediately canceling their stay. That’s money lost that could have been easily saved.
Nailing locks and internet may sound simple, but Allison said that it can become complex if
managers adopt technology that doesn’t work together. Managers need to ensure that their smart technology is powered by the right operating system so that the technology functions properly, he said.
All of this may sound overwhelming, but remember: start with locks, build from there. When vacation rental managers get smart home technology right, the results can be fantastic.
Logie’s nervousness when installing smart locks gave way to better, more personal relationships with her guests. Her company has since installed even more smart home technology, including a smart thermostat, an automated welcome message as soon as guests check in, and the ability to let the cleaning staff know automatically when guests have checked out. Homeowners of the properties are happier too, Logie said, as the security systems and thermostat control give them peace of mind.
“It has definitely created a more relaxed guest and homeowner,” she said.
SMARTLY MANAGING COVID
Allison figured that the vacation rental space would one day become ripe for drivable experiences, getaways within distance for those who want a vacation without taking vacation days. “And it just so happened that COVID accelerated those efforts,” he said.
And that’s been one of the key factors all property managers Arrival magazine spoke with for this piece: Smart home technology is touchless, a perfect fit for guests amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Logie, for example, has taken out anything in high touch areas that cleaners can’t clean, such as
informational papers about the property and area. Her company had started putting that information into an app before the pandemic. Since the pandemic started, use of the app skyrocketed more than 100%, she said.
“When COVID happened, and we were back in business, smart home technology was the first one we could brag about,” she said. “We jumped right on it. And that’s definitely a feature.”
Tasks that used to require a person can now be automated, which Hagerman said is a huge benefit amid the pandemic. But this is also an aspect of smart home technology that many property managers find distasteful, he said, as many managers employ people who have been helping them with their property for decades. But amid a pandemic, guests want a touchless experience—they don’t want to risk running into someone at a property while trying to stay socially distanced. They want peace of mind.
“We let guests know that there hasn’t been anybody in the house for 24 hours by the time that they show up,” he said. “And I think people appreciate that.”
START SIMPLE AND MEASURE
Smart home technology is no longer a science experiment, Hagerman said. The companies that make smart home technology—Google, Honeywell, and Amazon among them—are all known for creating good tech. For this reason, he believes that these devices are crossing the chasm into mainstream use.
Even so, Hagerman suggests that vacation rental managers new to smart home gadgets keep them simple—lights, locks, and thermostats—as their own first experiments. No need to adopt a smart home dashboard, for example, before you’ve seen how the lock and light devices work.
“Make it simple and measure guest experience,” he said. “There’s no better way to measure the
success of this than reviews. We encourage people to leave reviews through a voice system. That is the holy grail of measurement. And then we start looking at efficiency and energy savings as the next few metrics to look at.”
Logie has as a similar message to vacation property rental managers: “Get it done, you’ll never be sorry.”
“Change is uncomfortable some people,” Logie said. “What’s that expression? If it’s not broken,
don’t fix it. Well, that is true. But if you can make it even better, that’s a good reason to change.”
From Hal Conick, a Chicago-based writer
Arrival Issue 4, 2020