VacationRenter CEO Heath Hammett on personalising rental searches

US: STRz speaks to Heath Hammett, CEO of vacation rental search engine VacationRenter, to explain how the company’s business model and offering is unique in the market, the latest Spring Break trends in the United States, and how the RV rental industry is becoming more professionalised alongside other traditional lodging segments.

  • Please introduce yourself, VacationRenter, and the services you provide in the short-term / vacation rental industry.

My name is Heath Hammett, and I am the CEO of VacationRenter. VacationRenter is a vacation rental search engine. We bring lodging options together from a variety of top-notch partners to help prospective travellers find the perfect rental.

  • You were named as CEO of VacationRenter in October – what drew you to the company and what are your immediate and long-term priorities?

There were actually several things that drew me to the opportunity to lead VacationRenter. At the top of the list would have to be the amazing team at VacationRenter. The fact that they launched in 2018 and hit $1 billion in GBV [gross booking value] in 2020 speaks volumes about their talent and commitment.

I’m also drawn to the travel industry. I enjoyed a number of years with Hotels.com, part of the Expedia family of brands, earlier in my career where I was able to learn a great deal about the lodging industry as well as metasearch. Having worked in a variety of industries over the years, I can say there is just something special about travel.

I was also inspired on a personal level by the mission of VacationRenter’s founders. As a traveller, I know firsthand the anxiety and pain of travel planning. It is a touch self-serving, but I am thrilled to be in a position to help solve that problem for my family and fellow travellers.

  • What is unique about VacationRenter’s business model and offering in the vacation rental market? Are there any complexities / issues you are trying to alleviate?

We love vacation rentals, but not always how time-consuming and complex the process can be to find the right one. So we reimagined a solution to this problem with an emphasis on personalised searching. By putting rental options from the top travel sites in one place to showcase only the best results, we eliminated the need to search across different sites and scroll through pages of irrelevant results. We built our website from the ground up to show travellers the best options for their needs and give them the tools to quickly home in on the perfect home away from home.

While we specialise in common types of vacation rentals [homes, condos, cabins, villas etc], we offer an incredibly wide range of lodging options to our customers.

We have the largest selection of RVs available for rent, as well as an extensive inventory of hotels, hostels, apartments and more. We understand that different kinds of trips often fit better with one type of lodging or another. We want to offer everything our customers might want to serve all their travel needs. There is more to planning a trip than picking the best lodging option. For that reason, we also offer resources such as travel guides that include booking trends and nearby attractions to help travellers worldwide plan the best trip for the best value. We are actively working to expand these offerings more in 2022.

  • How have you supported hosts and travellers given the ever-changing travel restrictions? With which traveler demographics are you seeing most traction?
In response to the pandemic, we’ve made the health and safety of travellers, hosts, and the community a top priority by building tools that highlight contactless check-in and enhanced cleaning measures. We also know flexibility is critical, so we made it easier for our customers to find properties that have flexible cancellation policies. This has helped our lodging partners get credit for their efforts, as well as helped travellers feel confident they know what they are booking.
One of the more exciting changes we made during the early days of the pandemic was to add recreational vehicles to our lodging inventory. This represented the only option in some cases for people looking to get away and remains a fast-growing alternative to more traditional lodging options.
  • You’ve recently published a report and compiled data on 2022 Spring Break trends – what were your key findings from this?
That’s right. We conduct a variety of surveys with our fantastic customers throughout the year to keep our fingers on the pulse of travel and vacation renter needs. This recent survey on Spring Break trends was one of our biggest to date. We heard from almost 10,000 VacationRenter customers, aged 18 and older, from around the world, and found that more than half of them plan to hit the beach for their spring break getaways. Relaxation seems to be key for any future travel at the moment thanks to prolonged stress the pandemic has brought the world.
Another interesting finding from our Spring Break survey was the desire to explore “the new”. Over 60 per cent of our respondents plan to explore a brand-new destination this March, 50 per cent of them venturing abroad [regulations permitting]. Enthusiasm for international travel in 2022 definitely seems to be on the rise as regulations are easing and people are craving that ultimate getaway.
  • How do you envision travel returning in 2022 and beyond as we begin to emerge from the pandemic?
In one word: “fast”. A combination of vaccine availability, decreasing numbers of serious cases and general fatigue from the populace is driving greater relaxation in restrictions [reference Denmark’s recent decision to remove all restrictions] and an increase in people’s willingness to risk travel.
We’re not yet back to pre-Covid levels overall but we are on track. People want to travel. I expect RVs to remain a legitimate option to a whole new group of travellers. I expect hotels to continue recovering some of the shares it lost to vacation rentals, and I expect vacation rentals to remain strong as well. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a spike as people catch up on pent-up demand before settling down into the new norm. I also think new types of travel related to more flexible work arrangements, such as long-term stays, will stick with us.
  • How is the RV rental industry becoming more professionalised alongside the vacation rental segment?

In 2020, after that first month and a half of refraining from public travel, people were more interested in exploring an alternative way of travelling: recreational vehicles. The notion of RVs only serving a specific type of nomad community is vanishing, as more couples, families and groups are finding the freedom and flexibility of RVs appealing. RVs are one of the safest ways to travel while still protecting yourself from Covid-19. RV searches soared over 350 per cent during the month of May when compared to April and an additional 56 per cent during the month of June when compared to May, all in 2020.

Our partners, including Outdoorsy and RVshare, have done a tremendous job of marketing the appealing lifestyle of RV travel and have sparked an appetite among audiences that may have never considered that mode of travel and accommodation before.

  • What does it mean to VacationRenter to have the RV / mobile accommodation verticals represented with their own category at the 2022 Shortyz Awards?

While it’s not the largest part of our business, we are thrilled to have been able to offer this option to customers craving safer travel during the ever-evolving Covid-19 landscape, as well as those looking to try something new. It’s incredibly rewarding to see this level of recognition of the importance of the RV/mobile vertical as a serious option for travellers.

Heath Hammett is the CEO of VacationRenter. Heath has served as a marketing, metasearch, analytics, and customer retention executive in the travel, automotive, and hospitality industries.