Senior Director Travis Riner Shares Insight into Objectives, Growth, and Future Plans
Marriott International jumped headfirst into the vacation rental industry in May 2019 with its launch of Homes & Villas by Marriott International, a vacation home booking platform that curates luxury home rentals. After a successful pilot program that included London-based Hostmaker and Austin-based TurnKey Vacation Rentals, Homes & Villas by Marriott International went to market with 2,000 homes in 100 destinations. By the end of 2019, the platform had expanded its listings to over 12,000 professionally managed whole-home vacation rentals, and that proved to be only the beginning.
In spite of the COVID-19 pandemic, Homes & Villas by Marriott International grew its inventory 160 percent in 2020, and it currently lists more than 20,000 homes in 240 destinations throughout North America, Latin America, the Caribbean, Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. Of those destinations, 40 percent are new to Marriott, meaning the company did not have bookable accommodation options in those markets before.
Homes & Villas by Marriott International operates as its own business unit within the company, with a “small but mighty” dedicated team that isn’t slowing down. They have a road map to enter new regions, including Asia, and to add more premium and luxury inventory in popular destinations throughout Florida, California, Italy, Mexico, and beyond.
The key is “premium and luxury.” During a November webinar provided by Morgan Stanley, Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson said, “It was clear to us the homesharing space included a business that was attractive to us and a business that was not attractive to us.”
“Sorenson saw upside in launching a Marriott-branded product, as it would be a way to cater to larger groups needing multiple bedrooms and who would be difficult to accommodate in a traditional hotel,” Skift’s Cameron Sperance wrote. “But if Marriott was going to get into the space, it would be with a product that could live up to company standards.”
To meet these standards, Homes & Villas by Marriott International lists only professionally managed vacation rentals, and property managers must meet a stringent list of criteria for a home before it can be listed on the site. In addition, property managers must agree to deliver on a well-articulated service level, including 24/7 on-call staff.
For vacation rental managers, the primary benefit of listing homes on Homes & Villas by Marriott International includes the ability to reach Marriott’s 145 million members of its Marriott Bonvoy travel partners. Plus, Bonvoy members can use loyalty points to book. Joining the platform has also proved to be appealing to homeowners, and property managers report a higher quality of guests booking through the site than through the other third-party channels they use.
We sat down with Senior Director Travis Riner to learn more about Homes & Villas by Marriott International.
Amy Hinote (AH): When Marriott decided to add Homes & Villas by Marriott International, what were its goals for this new offering?
Travis Riner (Riner): Our goal as a company was to innovate with the customer in mind. Before we launched Homes & Villas by Marriott International, we conducted a survey of our guests and found 27 percent of our loyalty members used home rentals in the previous 12 months. For those times when they needed a home, these guests were leaving our portfolio to book on other sites. This created an opportunity.
At the same time, we also saw that the short-term residential rental industry faced two challenges: (1) too much inventory without quality filters or brand assurances, and (2) inconsistency across guest experiences, leading to consumer frustration and disappointment. By exclusively working with top-notch property management companies and curating the best-of-the-best inventory for our guests, Homes & Villas by Marriott International solves those pain points.
Additionally, Homes & Villas by Marriott International participates in our travel program Marriott Bonvoy. That means that our nearly 150 million members around the world now have alternative, extended-stay accommodation options beyond our traditional hotels. Additionally, because we are focusing our inventory on popular vacation destinations that may not be able to sustain a full-time hotel, our members have many more locations to choose from when staying with us.
AH: Is Homes & Villas by Marriott International meeting your initial objectives for the platform?
Riner: We are encouraged by the growth of both our available inventory and overall bookings. Some of the property management companies we work with are reporting that we are a top-three distribution channel for their homes less than two years after the launch. However, it’s important to keep in mind that Homes & Villas by Marriott International is still a relatively small—but growing—part of the company’s overall business. From May through December 2020, bookings were up more than 500 percent versus the same time period in 2019. This tells me we must continue growing in markets that matter most to members of Marriott Bonvoy, which account for more than 90 percent of our bookings.
AH: How does your team ensure that a rental home meets Marriott’s standards for quality and service?
Riner: Quality and service are two of the most important attributes our guests come to Marriott for. Much of the credit for maintaining the high design, cleanliness, and safety standards our guests value us for results from our collaboration with the property management companies with which we work. They are just as dedicated as we are in ensuring the homes are in tip-top shape; we have updated the imagery for our site, and each home listed is professionally cleaned to the exacting standards we created in collaboration with Ecolab.
AH: Travelers have a set of expectations when staying in a hotel (i.e., a front desk, coffee and breakfast access, and 24/7 access to a live person). In addition, Marriott’s guests expect a certain level of quality in mattresses and linens. How are you managing the guests’ expectations for stays in homes?
Riner: Just as when any new hotel brand launches, customers need to experience it firsthand to determine whether it meets their needs. Renting a vacation home is the same.
Together with the property managers for each listing, we are very clear with our guests that Homes & Villas by Marriott International is considered an extended stay accommodation, meaning many high-touch services and amenities that might get in full-service hotels are limited unless specifically mentioned or requested. Additionally, because we work with professional property managers exclusively, our guests receive many critical amenities they wouldn’t get through vacation rental competitors, including 24/7 service should something need fixing, and access to procurement of hotel-quality linens and amenities with preferred pricing.
AH: In looking at the feedback and reviews you have received, how are Marriott Bonvoy members responding?
Riner: Our guests, especially members of our travel program Marriott Bonvoy, are thrilled to have home rental options that are assured by Marriott. We hear a lot of positive feedback about homes with space and amenities that enable the whole family to be together comfortably. This is largely the result of the close relationships we have with the property managers with which we work.
We choose to work only with those who have the shared value of putting the customer first. We read every comment and react to each customer’s feedback in an appropriate manner. Through this, we have learned quite a bit about our customer’s needs and wants over the past two years and have adapted, including by enhancing the customer’s digital experience by adding a “Near Me” search functionality, by highlighting our stringent cleanliness standards to help customers feel comfortable during this global pandemic, and by enabling our guests to cancel closer to the stay.
AH: Since you’re carefully reading each review, do you have any advice for property managers about how to better meet (and exceed) expectations from frequent hotel travelers who have not previously stayed in a vacation rental?
Riner: Providing clean and well-maintained homes is table-stakes for our guests. Our customers are hyper-focused on these elements, something that has been heightened during the COVID-19 pandemic. Even the biggest and most elegantly designed and furnished homes have the potential to disappoint if they are not thoroughly cleaned before check-in, or if basic items including cabinetry, appliances, and technology are broken or don’t work.
We encourage property managers to continue staying on top of cleaning and maintaining their homes. Scuff marks on walls should be touched up. Wires should be hidden. Bathrooms should not have a hint of mildew. Furniture should be dusted and vacuumed, then moved so the area under and around it can be cleaned, and all appliances should be checked to ensure they are functioning properly.
AH: What have you learned about vacation home rentals in the last year that you did not expect? Were there any surprises?
Riner: It’s no surprise that vacation home rentals are popular and have become even more popular as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. We’ve seen especially strong demand for premium homes— homes that range from $100–$500 a night, in drive-to and ocean or mountain destinations. That’s one of the reasons we launched the “Near Me” search functionality on our site that curates homes within up to 600 miles of the person searching.
We also saw the booking window shrink throughout 2020 as the global pandemic persisted. While most people still book 55 days out, we saw the number of people booking 6–30 days out increase to 40 percent of bookings. That is why we introduced a 10-day flexible cancellation for most homes, giving our guests the confidence to book without fear of losing money if they need to cancel. This is so popular we have extended the promotion through June 2021.
Members of Marriott Bonvoy have shown support for this offering since launch. Members are redeeming millions of points for stays and earning millions of points for bookings. In fact, one member redeemed nearly 11 million points for a three-week stay at an amazing property in Lake Tahoe.
Finally, we have discovered the need for more inventory in highly sought-after markets. It’s critical that we continue to curate the best homes, so our customers are not weeding through substandard listings, but we need to offer enough choice so that they can both find exactly what they need and know it’s available when they want to travel. This is one of the main reasons we continue to work with existing property managers and are looking for more who can help us add inventory to the hottest vacation rental markets throughout the world.
AH: Is Homes & Villas by Marriott International looking to provide services such as revenue management, marketing, and distribution to vacation rental operators?
Riner: The professional property management companies we work with are the backbone of our vacation rental offerings. Our marketing power and engaged audience are the two main reasons property management companies should work with us. We constantly market our listings to the 145 million members of our travel program Marriott Bonvoy. We are also constantly looking to make it easier and faster for property management companies to list homes on HomesandVillasbyMarriott.com—and will be rolling out several initiatives to this effect over the next few months.
AH: Can we expect to see a “flag” styled offering for vacation rental operators?
Riner: While we offer some branded hotel residences—whole home vacation rentals including the Ritz-Carlton, Westin Hotels & Resorts, St. Regis, and others—we don’t have any plans in the short run to introduce additional flags from brands that are outside our hotel offerings.