An Interview with VR Industry Sage, Heather Bayer
By Alex Nigg / Nov 16, 2017
It’s no secret I have heaps of respect for Heather Bayer so I grabbed the opportunity to chat with her at VRMA National in Orlando. If you’re not already listening to Heather’s podcast, cottageblogger.com, I highly recommend it. I also encourage you to join us at the Vacation Rental Success Summit in San Antonio, TX in May of 2018 – an intimate and informative conference for the vacation rental industry produced by Heather and her son, Mike. Tammi and I will be speaking and hope to see you there. Now, onto my interview.
Alex: Heather, thank you very much for joining me. We’ve known each other for a long time and I’ve always enjoyed both your Vacation Rental Success Summit conference and listening to your podcast at cottageblogger.com.
Heather: Not at all! It’s a little bit unusual for me to be on the other side of the microphone.
Alex: Since I think you’re one of the most perceptive observers of the industry, I think it’s very much deserved that you’re finally on the other side.
Heather: Thank you for that.
PROPERTY MANAGERS AS GLORIFIED HOUSEKEEPERS?
Alex: On a recent podcast you interviewed Steve Milo – one of the legends who has a really good perspective on the industry and great entertainment value.
You asked if property managers are becoming relegated to glorified housekeepers. Can you expand on that?
Heather: It’s coming from conversations I’ve had with OTAs. They’ve been coming to us, telling us that they can do everything we do. What they’re saying is basically “you as a property manager, you can go out and clean the houses and changeovers and we’ll do the rest” and that floored me.
It’s such a big divide, on the perception of what a property manager actually is and what an OTA thinks they’re doing for the guest.
Alex: So what do you do as a property manager? How do you defend yourself from that?
Heather: Well, it’s unique for us, because we don’t actually do cleaning and maintenance. We manage the rental, not the property. Our properties are dispersed over a very large area so we’re not logistically able to dispatch cleaners and maintenance people, Our owners either manage their own people or they do it themselves.
What we do is manage relationships with guests, deal with damage claims and handle bookings. We speak to guests beforehand to make sure they’re matched to the right property.
For example, we’re in a rural environment and everyone’s got a septic system; if the power goes off you can’t flush a toilet. Things like this need to be shared with our travelers. That is something only we can do. An OTA can’t be answering the phone at 11 o’ clock at night where the guests are saying “We’ve got a power outage, how do we flush the toilet?”
GUEST COMMUNICATION & RELATIONSHIPS
Alex: I remember an example you shared about guest experience. A guest came for a fishing vacation. You catered to the demands of that guest by managing the process with the home owner since it’s ultimately your brand and guest relationship. How do you do that?
Heather: It’s a matter of beginning the relationship with the guest from the moment of inquiry. It could be having an inquiry from a guest that said “where is the nearest gluten free restaurant?” We made sure that the owner knew this and then the owner provided a wonderful gift basket with gluten-free baked goods and a list of gluten-free restaurants in the area.
It comes down to that personalized method of working, which at the moment we’re seeing that taken away by OTAs. Today we get contact information prior to a booking. Because of our unique situation, we need to talk to the guests. I was told by an OTA that “you’ll still get your contact information this year.” And I know that’s going to be taken away. So all of a sudden we’re out of the vacation planning process, which is essential to our vision of hospitality.
GUEST EXPERIENCE & OTAs
Alex: Yesterday Nate Blecharczyk of Airbnb gave a very good representation of what experiences on Airbnb can look like and how Airbnb provide a holistic experience for the guests. What I didn’t hear is how the property manager fits in that equation.
Heather: I sat in on that and I couldn’t quite get my head around it. I’m looking at it from a different perspective. An experience is not necessarily that the guest is going to sit with me and we’re going to make pasta. The experiences we provide are based on knowing what guests are like, knowing what they want before they even ask. I don’t think Airbnb can do that. They haven’t got that connection with the guest.
Alex: They are going to utilize technology and start to capture what guests are interested in. Your strength is that you understand what your market has to offer. Is this a temporary lack of understanding between where the OTAs and property managers are heading or do you think relationships between the OTAs and the property managers will be more fraught?
Heather: I see the relationship between property managers and OTAs moving further apart. Steve Milo talks about the survival of the fittest; those who can adapt will survive. That adaptation doesn’t mean falling into line. It means being creative and seeing what’s coming with technology.
Did you read the article by Richard Vaughton on the Rentivo blog recently? He described a scenario, in about 5 years’ time. A family will arrive in a vacation rental and touch a remote lock. It will be Alexa that welcomes them by name the moment they walk into the door. Alexa knew the moment they walked in the door and knows what the weather is like and what they want to do because the algorithms have told Alexa what this family likes to do. And at the end of the vacation, they walk out of that single estate and in all that time they haven’t spoken to a single person.
Richard put that forward as the vision of the future; that vision will come to pass but is it what travelers want? Are they going for a person-less experience? That’s where the division is coming. There will always be people who want to go to the boutique hotel,not the cookie-cutter hotel. Whether the balance of population will be enough to support the property managers, I don’t know.
Alex: We heard a lot about artificial intelligence in today’s keynote. With devices like Echo from Amazon or Google Home, can the property manager re-establish a guest relationship? If it’s true that guests are now increasingly coming from OTAs, and you may have no chance of communication, then the question is how do you recapture that relationship? Maybe the property is the place you do that by having a device that allows the guest to reconnect with you and with local services available.
Heather: Yes, we can input personal information. Remarketing is where our concentration needs to be. The moment guests arrive, we offer that personalized experience and so the next time they come, they come direct.
So how do we bring our brand into every property? They’ll remember the home and it will be something simple, like sending them a postcard in the mail that has a picture of the home they stayed in to remind them and branded with our company logo. These postcards look handwritten, and people are going to get that, “hope you had a fabulous time, here’s our website, this is the discount for booking now for your next trip.” So there’s a huge variety of ways that property managers can remarket and use the opportunities of people being in the home, because the OTAs can’t go in there. We need to stop complaining about what’s happening with the OTAs, and do what Steve says. Use them for our needs, don’t allow the OTAs to use us.
HEATHER’S FIVE-YEAR VIEW ON THE INDUSTRY
Alex: Changing tracks slightly, if you look at the next 5 years, what are you most worried about and what are you most excited about?
Heather: I’m most worried about property managers being turned into just housekeepers. What I’m most excited about is technology. Not only can technology make our business processes better and more streamlined, but it can also allow us to make more personalized guest experiences. Artificial intelligence can be helpful, but property managers can do more because we know these people through conversations and discussions. Apps or “Your Welcome” tablets or push notifications enable us to extend our guest relationship.
The other day, there was a major storm through Ontario. We had a family in a property that was 20 miles to the nearest town. They were out of power and ran out of the remaining propane. But we were able to text everyone in that area, tell them exactly when the power was coming back on. We were able to get fresh water to them and all that using technology we didn’t have 5 years ago. In 5 years’ time, most of our properties will have automatic generators, we’ll be able to see how they’re working, what’s being used and whether our guests are comfortable.
Alex: I think what the true difference is that there’s Heather Bayer behind all of it who understands her guests’ and what they need because of your many, many years of experience which no artificial intelligence is ever going to replace.
Heather: And no OTA will replace.
PROCESS MANAGEMENT IN VR MANAGEMENT
Alex: I had a conversation this morning with David Angotti, who I think is one of the smartest PMs in the industry. He talked about how important processes are for him and that it’s one of the big neglected areas for property managers and could be the key competitive advantages for the property manager. How do you manage your processes?
Heather: You need to get your processes in place right at the start. Most of us started in the business thinking we can do everything ourselves. We’ve got it all in our heads and we don’t have systems and processes written down. One person in the organization knows about the property management system, another person knows about Facebook marketing but there’s no backup. So if we could start again tomorrow I would do everything so differently.
I would start with processes and make sure that you double-up on absolutely everything and have everything documented, so anybody can come along and pick up that document. We do emergency system management brainstorming every year and we’ve come up with the most amazing scenarios. From bedbugs to tornados to the barbeque catching fire. Anybody can pick up that document now and go through the process of exactly what they have to do.
TECHNOLOGY + PEOPLE
Alex: You said that technology is important but technology is always the servant of something bigger. It’s great to have a technology like Noise Aware that tells when a group is too loud but then, what to do about it?
Heather: We had a call recently from an owner who uses Party Squasher, “We think there’s 6 people in there, but they’ve got 18 devices, what do we do?” We have a system of dealing with that. Call the guests. Eighteen devices amongst six people is not unheard of. So number 1, reassure the owner. Number 2, get in touch with the guests. If there’s overcrowding, then there’s a process to deal with that. So you’re exactly right. The technology’s there, people that have to deal with the output from that technology.
Alex: Heather, thank you very much. I think that’s a good closing quote, that technology can solve problems but ultimately it’s people.
Heather: Yeah, thank you very much.