After nearly 20 years in the vacation rental industry, Durk Johnson has seen it all. From his accidental transition into the business with Deer Valley Lodging in 2001 to his executive roles at the Housekeeping Solutions Team and Vacation Rental Housekeeping Professionals (VRHP), Durk has cemented himself as a leading figure within the industry. Durk may not be in the nitty-gritty of managing physical properties anymore, but he spends his days giving property managers the secret sauce for better property operations.
That is why Ben Firn, head of marketing at Breezeway, asked Durk to stop by the headquarters in Boston. What transpired was an enlightening chat about the shifting landscape of housekeeping in the vacation rental industry.
Ben: Why do you think quality property care has become a focal point for vacation rental property managers?
Durk: Vacation rentals are more mainstream than they were a decade ago. Airbnb, VRBO, and HomeAway catapulted the industry forward and empowered guests to demand more. Quality property care is critical to the short-term rental business because if a guest has an issue due to housekeeping or maintenance, their stay is practically ruined. In fact, the guest could have an excellent reservation experience and a great front desk experience, but they could show up and find hair in the bathroom or dried spaghetti sauce on the kitchen ceiling, and at that point, the property manager has lost that customer’s loyalty.
Ben: Today, it only takes one cleanliness or housekeeping issue to ruin the guest experience, which leads to bad reviews, decreased referral business, and no return stays.
Durk: Absolutely. These vacation rental guests are time impoverished. When they finally get a chance to relax at a great location that they’ve been looking forward to, their expectations are high. If their first impression of a vacation rental doesn’t meet these expectations, guest complaints start to flow from there.
Ben: Time on vacation is precious, so guests expect an impeccable experience. Let’s not forget that travelers are younger and more demanding than prior generations were, which leads to higher expectations about the physical space—not only its cleanliness but also its intangibles like thoughtfully arranged décor, character, and concierge services.
Durk: People are starting to care more and more about the character of vacation rentals. Guests want to stay at a home away from home and want to feel completely comfortable during the stay.
Vacation rentals were chasing hotels for the longest time, but now, the luxury and amenities of the two hospitality types are almost on par. Ten years ago, guests would call down and tell the hotel front desk that someone left a bathrobe in their room (the response was “no sir or ma’am, we left that for you to use”). Now, guests call down and demand extra bathrobes. And these types of amenities are in vacation rentals too.
Ben: And have you seen higher expectations from property owners too?
Durk: Absolutely. I think it’s great to have educated owners as long as they aren’t misinformed. But even though expectations are higher, it’s difficult for the property manager to educate the owner with respect to the things he or she does for the guest and the property. This is where platforms like Breezeway come in so that the property manager can easily share reports that detail all the attention they’ve given to each property. I think it’s a good thing that owner expectations are rising because now everybody can elevate the standard of property care.
Ben: Which should lead to changes in property operations.
Durk: I think it already has. I look at how companies are now operating, and it’s much more efficient than it was 15 years ago.
I read an article recently that compared hotels to vacation rentals. When hotels miss a revenue number, they’ve got 52 weeks to catch up to their number. But when a vacation rental misses their weekly number during busy season, there’s no catching up. Vacation rental managers must be on their A game to make sure everything is accurate and running smoothly—staffing, housekeeping, maintenance, and much more.
Ben: This push for quality is real, and it’s putting pressure on vacation rental managers to acquire and maintain better inventory.
Durk: Therein lies one of the big issues for the property manager. Regardless of who you are—whether you own the property yourself or you’re managing it for someone else—people often delay upgrading inventory. Sometimes the owner is unwilling to spend money renovating or replacing furniture, and sometimes he or she holds too much sentiment. Either way, an unwillingness to upgrade quality is disadvantageous to business growth.
I think failing to replace an old mattress is a major taboo in the hospitality world. The industry cares about two things: safety and a good night’s rest. If your mattress is 20 years old, then that good night’s rest left the building 15 years ago.
Ben: What do you think matters more: condition or cleanliness?
Durk: Some people don’t care whether the property’s condition feels or looks old. These folks are after a nice cheap rate in the location they want. For most people though, cleanliness always matters.
That said, if you’re looking to maximize occupancy and revenue, then renovating becomes necessary. Most guests are looking for cutting-edge technology in the homes they spend time in. I always recommend that vacation rental management companies flush out a bottom-end property for every high-end property they add to their portfolio. This way, property managers continually improve the quality of their brand. This is akin to renovating your inventory—mini upgrades every year.
Ben: But it’s not just about the physical rental itself, right? Dependability and service can be a big part of a vacation rental manager’s brand.
Durk: The role a property manager plays is very much tied to the company’s brand. Think of the phone call that happens at two in the morning when an inebriated guest is locked out. The property owner is six hours away from the property and now needs to unlock it through smart home technology or assistance from a local housekeeper or caretaker. The property manager exists to work through these problems and to ensure that the guest and the property are taken care of.
I know many industry professionals think branding is slowly dying, but I couldn’t disagree more. I think companies that make the effort to get to know and connect with the guest will see their brands thrive. For companies that rely on OTAs for reservations and never connect with guests, their brands will slowly deteriorate.
Ben: Because back-office operations play such an outsized role in property management, managerial strategy is a key piece of running a great housekeeping operation. In your experience, what is the biggest mistake that rental managers make in their approach to managing their housekeeping department?
Durk: That’s a great question. I would say their biggest mistake is undervaluing the housekeeper and how he or she contributes to their operation.
Most management companies spend their disposable income on things like a new website or marketing campaign. And yet the housekeeping department is still working on computers that are 15 years old. They’re driving the rust buckets of vehicles, and they’re tucked back in the corner where nobody can see them. But at the end of the day, the housekeeping department has an enormous role in shaping the brand because it’s the housekeeper that cleans the interior, leaves the brochures and pens, and stages the property.
If you’re an owner who is disgruntled with your current management company and you keep seeing this housekeeper next door show up in a clean shirt and with a bucket of cleaning products, you’re going to want to know what’s going on and compare notes with your neighbor. In this case, your housekeeping operation serves as an additional tool for owner acquisition.
Ben: Parting shot—are smart home devices overhyped or are they the future of housekeeping and guest concierge?
Durk: Whether they are the future of guest concierge, I don’t know. There’s a place for them, and in fact, I’m looking at installing several devices in my own house to control light switches and outlets from my smartphone. Not an Amazon Echo; I have one of those, and I hate it—sorry, Amazon! I’ve also heard of a device that can detect and stop water leaks in a house. There are some cool gadgets out there that I think will be involved in the future of property management.