We had an opportunity to chat with John Suzuki, who gave the closing presentation at VRM Intel Live! in Destin, Florida, last month. Suzuki is HomeAway Software’s former vice president of sales and has recently moved into a new role as HomeAway’s “Evangelist” for property managers in North America.
AH: We are all curious about your new role. What exactly is a HomeAway Evangelist, and what about the role has you so excited?
JS: My job is to inform our property manager clients about the great things that are happening and how they can take their businesses to the next level of success with HomeAway. Most of my time is spent sharing the latest products, news, and developments from HomeAway and learning about what’s important to our clients. I spend the rest of my time communicating back to the senior leadership team at HomeAway. So I get to evangelize HomeAway with our clients and advocate for those clients with HomeAway all at the same time. While it is a new role for HomeAway and me, so far it’s the best job I’ve ever had, next to selling butter toffee peanuts for the YMCA when I was ten years old.
AH: In Destin, you talked about the coming wave of vacation rentals. What are the new trends that contribute to this “coming wave”?
JS: We expect some really great developments coming in 2017. One such wave we are looking forward to involves a jump in demand and traveler awareness of the vacation rental category. Today, HomeAway receives about 110 million visits to its websites every month. And that’s the reason many of our customers like us so much. Now imagine that number going up dramatically in a very short period of time. So check this out: while HomeAway receives 110 million visits a month, Expedia sites receive about 450 million, and we believe that half (or more) of those visits are guests new to vacation rentals. When our clients’ vacation rentals get listed on Expedia, we expect the results to be pretty exciting.
AH: You also spoke about HomeAway’s new service fee to travelers and the new Best Match algorithm. What has HomeAway learned from those experiences?
JS: First and foremost, it’s all about providing the best experience for travelers booking their vacation rentals and giving our property managers the best services in the industry. Our PM clients have asked us for three things consistently: (1) keep me competitive in my market, (2) broaden the global awareness of vacation rentals and open new markets for me, and (3) generate more bookings for me.
All of these things cost money, and we could have simply raised our prices. However, we knew our customers would not be happy with higher pricing because we know they are constantly under pressure to lower their costs of doing business. So instead of raising our prices, HomeAway decided to reduce commissions on our pay-per-booking program, and simplify our subscription offering with significantly lower costs to our clients, which pleased a lot of our clients. The other big change on the Internet was Google, which changed its algorithm to reward paid advertising. We now have to pay for the highest placement, which is no longer based solely on free organic search results. The result of all this was for HomeAway to implement a service fee to travelers, which helps to fund many things, including the efforts to broaden the vacation rental category and the exposure, drive more bookings for our clients, and enable our transition to eCommerce.
AH: There were a lot of folks upset about the service fee. What do you tell them?
JS: When I explain the service fee and why we did it in terms of meeting our clients’ needs, investing in the future, and enabling more eCommerce bookings, virtually everyone understands and appreciates the explanation. A handful are still not necessarily happy but appreciate the reasoning behind the change. I’ve also been told that we have a lot of room for improvement in communicating these kinds of changes, which we are working on actively to improve every day.
AH: What about HomeAway’s change in the sort algorithm from subscription levels to Best Match?
JS: That is another big change we are making as we transition from a listing site to an eCommerce marketplace. Until September 2016, our clients were able to buy their way to the top of sort with subscription levels, which often led to bad traveler experiences because we were not able to surface the most relevant results. Moving forward, our goal is for vacation rentals to be booked with the best possible traveler experience based on expectations shaped by other great eCommerce sites such as eBay, Amazon, and others. The good news is that unlike Google (that doesn’t tell you how to optimize your results), we have a specific playbook that we share with our clients that they can get by calling HomeAway.
AH: You also gave us some very interesting highlights on HomeAway’s plans for data-based recommendations. What’s that all about?
JS: We are hard at work ironing out this feature at this time, but we plan to bring a lot of travel data to our clients to help them manage and maximize their revenue—information and recommendations based on actual HomeAway data that have never been made available before. I believe this alone will catapult property managers to levels of success they’ve not experienced before. But there is much more to come on that, perhaps in a future issue of VRM Intel!
AH: What do you see as being some of the biggest challenges for VRMs in 2017?
JS: Off the top of my head, I see two. The first is the spread of burdensome government regulations. We continue to see threats of vacation rental restrictions across the US and around the world. As an industry, we must all get involved and support our regional communities where these restrictions are being proposed. We see the same playbook happening all the time: somebody falls in love with an area after renting a vacation rental, decides to buy a place there to retire, does retire, and then takes exception to vacation rentals in that neighborhood and takes NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) action with the local legislators to prohibit vacation rentals in the neighborhood. This action can happen in an instant, and we must all do our best to stay informed and educate those property managers, owners, employees, etc. to get ahead of these discussions. Again, everyone needs to get involved somehow—form a local association, collect information on the positive contributions vacation rentals make in the community, and meet with city council members.
The other big challenge for the industry is to keep up with accelerating change. Admittedly, we at HomeAway will be driving some of that change, so our charge will be to communicate effectively with everyone on a very timely basis, and we are working hard to put those processes and tools in place.
AH: You seem really excited for what’s happening. Any closing comments on your view of what’s coming?
JS: Oh my gosh, I am so excited for the new year! There is so much going on, and as excited as I am for our clients with the waves of business opportunities that lie ahead, I am mostly excited for all of us to make a difference in the lives of millions of vacationers around the world in helping them connect and reconnect with their families and friends.
I personally have my own stories of my last vacations with my mom and mother-in-law (who are both no longer with us) that involve vacation rentals. It’s those precious moments, memories, and experiences that we in this industry can help enable for people all over the world. After all, we’re in the vacation business, right? So yes, we all have opportunities to help make life-changing differences in the lives of so, so many people. By that definition, don’t you think the world needs all of us? In the final analysis, we can all enrich the lives of others through vacations. How cool is that?