Expanding the Radius of Your Brand with Like-Minded Brand Amplification
As we close out the first quarter of 2019, we are seeing continued changes that will shape our industry for years to come. The most recent is the flurry of acquisitions and investment of more than $150M in new and existing players in the space.
The strategies are not much different from past years: acquire weaker players, buy market share (inventory), and let property managers and travelers stand on the sidelines as they fight it out for supremacy. I imagine this is a pattern we will continue to see until investors start asking for returns. In the meantime, professional vacation rental managers and hosts must continue to make adjustments and find ways to build on the value they have created over the years.
What Is Now Clear
The economics for the “rent by owners” are untenable. They will be squeezed for every commission dollar possible. If they refuse to play…they will go to the back of the line. We are seeing trends in our local market of owners who would not have considered professional management in the past openly embracing the model as a clear alternative.
Regulatory issues continue to bog down the industry. Although some might blame politics, the housing crunch, and NIMBY, the reality is that these regulations are market forces at work. The heavily bankrolled companies are at risk equal to that of the independent operator; the scorched-earth approach of the past is no longer the answer.
Consolidation Is Opportunity
Further consolidation of property management companies and software vendors will shape our industry for the next level of growth. The traveler has had a front row seat to the rapid changes and creation of our “cohorts” for the future. I have been talking about fragmentation for the past three years in our industry, and I believe that it is now happening with the vacation rental traveler.
I recently spent time with a C-level executive from a small boutique hotel group (one of the hundreds that exist). His hotels are in highly competitive markets and have carved out a unique brand and reputation. When asked about what keeps him up at night, he answered, “To continue to stay true to who we are and what we do well and make sure we remind our guests that they are why we do what we do.”
The vacation rental industry has thousands of unique independent brands and hundreds of thousands in a unique inventory. As we see this consolidation take many forms, the running theme is that everyone wants to be an OTA. Be it the regional niche operator, mega property management company, or property management system, as the pie grows, everyone wants a bigger slice. As independent operators, you hold the golden ticket in the form of inventory control. How you position your brand in the future will dictate how that inventory will be distributed.
One of the big advantages that hotels have had with the OTAs is brand amplification, that is, linking the unique attributes of each destination to the brand for maximum reach. A traveler in California could be visiting the Hyatt site for a trip to New York in November. However, that same traveler could be looking at a trip to Los Angeles in two weeks. Brand amplification allows the traveler more options to book without conducting another search.
The same is happening in the vacation rental industry at a micro level. Although the brand amplification happens within the “radius” of the brand, it does not travel any further; distributing through multiple channels does not change that. If you are an independent with a strong micro presence, your marketing costs will only increase; it will be more expensive to compete against yourself because you will have no brand amplification on the channels. No amount of SEO spend will solve this problem.
Brand Value as Currency
Brand value in relation to vacation rentals is not what social media think it is; far from it. Brand value in our industry starts with the experiences that have been delivered over generations. The biggest brand asset value is our DNA. This DNA begins at the owner level and spreads into the organization, but it does not stop there. It forms the basis of trust, which includes our relationships with guests, owners, and vendors, that is hard to break. What is now proven is that money does not buy trust. Owners and travelers recognize the value of this DNA, to Wall Street’s consternation. It’s reassuring to hear podcasts and stories of independent vacation rental operators thriving in this market.
This success has not been without challenges; for some, it has come at a high cost and involves making strategic decisions that they would never have considered in the past. These decisions could never be made without the confidence in their brands and their ability to execute (DNA). Google places a high value on your brand—just do an organic search for your company name. OTAs do not, and for good reason. The traveler recognizes your brand and wants to #bookdirect.
Independent Brands 2.0
Let’s start with the premise that this is a human business, which is easy to forget when all you hear about is technology. For many years, the OTAs have done an incredible job of separating independent vacation companies from each other. In fact, it was a top sales tactic: “Your competitor down the street just joined us.” This may have worked in the early days of “free,” but not anymore. Independent brands are now forming robust professional marketplaces that engage the traveler at the planning (intent) stage. They are using the collective strength of their brands to bring the vacation rental traveler the best overall value while delivering something both covet—transparency between vacation rental managers and the vacation rental traveler. These regional networks consist of brands that have been in business an average of 12 years. With this type of longevity comes trust:
Trust from owners that their property will be maintained and kept to the high standards expected by our guests.
Trust from our guests, knowing that we offer the best vacation rental experience possible and that they will always receive the best rate guaranteed when they book direct.
Trust from our partners, from the local plumbers to laundry service and everything between.
Trust from our communities that we promote, protect, and provide economic benefit.
Trust from our respected network partners that refer guests to other regions and share the same values and respect for the vacation rental traveler as we hold.
These networks not only create viable alternatives for travelers who want to engage with the brands directly but also provide opportunities for these networks to explore partnerships that would never be available to them as a stand-alone vacation rental management company.
The Trust Flow
What 2.0 represents is monumental change in the way independent vacation rental managers view their path to success. They have always understood the value that their individual brands possess at a local level, and, in a significant shift in thinking, these brands now understand the power of linking these well-respected local brands at regional, national, and soon-to-be global levels. In September 2018, the Northwest Vacation Rental Professionals (NWVRP) launched NorthwestStays. The performance of the combined brands, coupled with members’ participation in promoting the brand to their respective guests, has proven a welcome alternative to the OTAs.
For vacation rental managers, the ability to amplify their brands beyond their local reach will prove to be an effective model that will support their book-direct initiatives for years to come. In January, the NWVRP extended its reach by launching CaliStays to serve the California market, further strengthening its network on the West Coast. Most recently, the announcement of NortheastStays by the Vacation Rental Professionals of Maine (VRPOMe) was made. Although on different sides of the coast, the leaderships of both organizations recognize the value of working together. These combined networks (and others coming online) form a “trust flow” that travelers deserve and expect. We find that travelers are calling the brands direct when interacting with the marketplaces. Keep in mind that they engage the site at the point of planning, not at the point of booking. The advantage is that, because the travelers have interacted with our brand before and talked to our agents, there is a greater chance of their coming back to our site to #bookdirect.
Spoiler Alert: Travelers want to book directly with our brands
In Q4 (our Q1), the NorthwestStays brands generated 70 percent of its leads directly, which represented 40 percent of its bookings. This is significant because the OTAs no longer promote their respective brands; they hide information until the booking and continue to frustrate the traveler with promises they can’t keep. Despite these challenges, the network is expected to significantly increase the direct traffic, with a knock-on effect on direct bookings. As those numbers increase, closing the gap on the bookings will be a function of training and yield management.
The network also shows a reduction of 30 percent across the board of members not renewing their inventory on HomeAway/VRBO; some have even taken the drastic step of delisting their entire inventory. This bodes well for and Booking.com in the short term. However, once guests stay with one of our network partners, service and education will provide them with alternatives because many of these properties will not be listed with any OTA. For these established businesses, the OTAs have forced innovation and a positive shift in the value of investing in themselves.
How Do I Find These Marketplace Networks?
These marketplaces are membership only. The common thread that links them is the leadership behind state and local associations that recognizes that a higher level of value must be attained to keep the membership engaged and proactive, rather than reactive. The groups below form a hub of education, business modeling, mentorship, standardization, code of ethics, and true networking that will form the future of how independent vacation rental managers can thrive in this ever-changing environment.
On the traveler side, these marketplaces provide transparency that mutually benefits both stakeholders. Our network members continue to be the face of the industry and are looked upon as the experts in vacation rental experiences. Travelers will benefit not only at a local level but also by being connected and referred to other like-minded vacation rental professionals throughout North America.