RockSTRz webinar one review: Humanity v technology

Worldwide: Last week, ShortTermRentalz’ much-anticipated new RockSTRz webinar series got underway with a session on “Humanity v technology: how will tech adoption accelerate the professionalisation of the industry“.

Host Paul Stevens, editor of ShortTermRentalz, was joined for the debut discussion of the series by Margot Schmorak, CEO and co-founder at Hostfully, Michael Driedger, CEO at Operto, Filipa Leitão de Aguiar, founder and CEO of Rent4Rest, and Terry Whyte, owner of Anna Maria Island Beach Rentals.

The opening focus of the conversation centred around how property managers can establish a guest relationship whilst not losing the personal touch during the times of the Covid pandemic.

Leitão de Aguiar, speaking as a property manager and a board member of the Portuguese Vacation Rental Association, began by highlighting the importance of creating touch points to show that you care for the welfare of your guests, including meeting in person when possible, guest baskets, calls and even simply smiling, in that you need imagination to go the extra mile.

Whyte also touched on making the guests themselves feel important by using one’ best friend of all – the phone. To maintain personalisation, however, he said that it should never get to the point where there is no human touch, but the simple thoughts of using text messaging and video / online calls when guests are arriving at the property can make a huge difference to their impression of the guest experience.

Tools and technology have allowed us more time to hone in on enhancing guest interactions, according to Driedger, but it is about how one uses them as well. To elevate the guest experience and best harness the tech aspect, the most successful property managers will make their processes “interactional” rather than “transactional” consistently through from check-in to check-out, allowing them to choose when they want to interact with you, the manager or host.

Likewise, Schmorak noted the “huge sea change” she had seen in the expectations of consumers and the advancements in technology were a vehicle for keeping up with these changes. Not only are people expecting to see photos, pricing and property information now, they want to feel important and safe, as well as have a seamless guest experience, and property managers who adapt best to changing situations will be able to balance their focus between both “low- and high-value conversations”.

The issue of tech adoption is also underpinned by the necessity to pick the right property management system, as Whyte opined.

In his words, the importance of picking the right PMS comes down to getting “the meat out of the system” and being able to identify that the property management system is one’s strongest channel manager. Moving forward, managers will have to look at their distribution to the “Big Five” [Airbnb, Booking.com, Expedia, Vrbo, TripAdvisor] and as Google muscles its way into the space, those likely to be successful will not only need strong PMS connections but also at least two to three channel managers for distribution to generate bookings.

Schmorak’s observations as the industry matures were that companies are seeking to integrate more personalisation into their operations, thereby moving away from a “solve-it-all” with one software towards an attitude of “let’s focus on what we’re really good at”.

Leitão de Aguiar expanded on the notion of distribution, and not just when it concerns the “Big Five” booking platforms. From now on, the significance of connecting to mid-term, niche booking channels, student marketing websites, all while improving your booking direct experience and home automation will be heightened as owners seek to recoup on lost bookings and cancellations from earlier in the year.

Equally, though, Operto’s Driedger believes the vacation rental industry has a lot of lessons to learn from the traditional hotel industry when it concerns overcoming its largest obstacles to generating bookings and providing the consistent guest experience for travellers. While he said vacation rentals are “rocking” due to the trend for domestic staycations at the moment, people are still “overwhelmingly” picking hotels over rentals for the future, and Driedger attributed this to the anxieties and uncertainty that guests are still facing when they try to check in to their rental unit.

For that, he said bookers need a standardised, clear process and information should only be trickled out to build up their trust. Referring to data, he said 80 per cent of guests wanted to check themselves in, whether it was in a hotel or rental, so the challenge was to make them feel no apprehension on their arrival.

Meanwhile at Hostfully, the company that Schmorak co-founded, its key differentiator is its digital guest guidebooks, which provide essential information about the vacation rental, access and wifi codes, and suggestions for local activities and amenities, alongside a number of diverse features to create trust. However, she added that since the outbreak of Covid, she had noticed how guests were using the guidebooks in different ways and this was leading to future bookings data that was consistent with previous years, even before the current pandemic.

If that was not a reason for anticipation regarding tech adoption in the vacation rental industry, Whyte stated confidently that “the darkest days were ahead for the hotel industry and vacation rentals will be the big beneficiaries of this pandemic”. Such a statement was partially based on real estate investor interest in the up-and-coming asset class, propelled by Airbnb’s impending IPO, which he said could come out as “the steal of the century” if Airbnb is able to turn over a profit once the market picks up.

In a relatively short space of time, Driedger said that the tech space was likely to still consolidate quicker than the short-term rental space as property management companies merge and join forces, ALTIDO being one considered example.

Rather than attitudes changing towards vacation rentals as a whole since the start of the outbreak, he said the lines between the hotel and vacation rental spaces had been blurring for some time already, and that while rentals were likely to boom for the foreseeable future due to pent-up demand for domestic travel, travellers still needed to be convinced about their safety and security standards. One merged asset class that has already profited from this convergence is aparthotels, which have emerged well out of previous recessions because of their unique inventory.

As the discussion moved towards its conclusion and the contributors’ predictions for the future of the space, it was clear that there were some common observations about how the vacation rental space will need to standardise and adapt to the challenges of the pandemic.

Leitão de Aguiar: “More tech adoption is definitely a blessing. Here in Lisbon, the tourism market is still dead but connecting with different short- and mid-term channels can make a big difference in occupancy and revenue. In the future, guests will prefer and expect to have all the information in advance, as well as the option for self check-in, but security will have to improve on the tech side.”

Whyte: “Covid will definitely be an opportunity for professionalisation. Tech adoption is going to explode, whether it’s smart home automation, revenue management, channel management, CRM etc. The biggest challenge is getting the standards like they are in hotels as at the moment, we are all over the map with some people who know nothing about hospitality. We will never have a better opportunity for this.”

Driedger: “Hotel occupancy is struggling compared to that for vacation rentals so for the future, it is definitely a standardisation piece. My hope is that more owners that are not good at hospitality will give over control of their units to property managers who know what they are doing and someone like Airbnb needs to take that into account.”

Schmorak: “Airbnb is leaning on its biggest asset, which is its brand. Its IPO is not in question now so it is just trying to maximise and focus on guest experience and adding value to its platform. I don’t think the Airbnb IPO will have an intense impact on property managers but they will have to concentrate on having strong marketing, wonderful direct booking options and distribution across various booking channels to overcome this turbulence.”

To watch the first RockSTRz webinar back in full, click this link to our YouTube channel.

The next webinar in the RockSTRz series takes place on Thursday 1 October at 4pm BST, which will focus on “Which business models will succeed in a post-Covid world?”. Sign up for the upcoming session at this link.

The rest of the RockSTRz series is as follows:

13 October: The rise of bespoke booking channels

27 October: Around the world in 60 mins: What has the industry learned from the pandemic and what are the next steps for recovery?