I’m writing this from quarantine in Pawleys Island, South Carolina, a market where vacation rentals have been on hold this spring and where the industry’s summer season also faces uncertainty. We are still deep in the COVID-19 storm, and many people around the world are hurting from the economic and social effects of the pandemic. Yet, we still have to plan for the future and believe we will travel again.
When we started Breezeway in 2016 and began speaking with industry leaders about operations, we often got a sideways look. The editor of this publication wanted to understand, “Of all the areas that you could focus on, why pick service and operations?” Over the past three years, we have written a handful of articles in these pages discussing parts of this story, including the following: the push for quality in traveler experience, the shifting identity of vacation rental operators, and communicating the full value of property care and service to homeowners. The theme is consistent: increased attention to the preparation of and service at properties is the critical point determining success or failure of professional hospitality providers. In fact, this is the overwhelming factor that identifies a “professional” operator.
Now more than ever, as we open our homes again in a world that has been so severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, professional managers have a unique opportunity to meet the demands of a new traveler persona. They must drive a wedge between their product and the “hobby vacation rental owner” and restart their gains in market share.
The New Traveler Persona Emerges
Travel will resume at some point this year. People will emerge from shelter-in-place orders with an itch to move around, explore, and reconnect. According to a March 18 article in Forbes, 58 percent of Americans are planning to travel between May and September, provided their destinations are not still subject to restrictions. Data from companies like Key Data Dashboard support this trend and suggest a steadying of cancellation rates and a healthy number of reservations through the summer.
As bookings return, they will come with an altered guest psyche. Guests will have a heightened sensitivity to hygiene and safety, changing how they interact with physical space.
Guests have assumed that the property was prepared and cleaned. Now, this assumption will be tested, and the property will be scrutinized on arrival with increased concern for health and hypervigilance about property preparation and maintenance. This includes, during check-in, familiarizing themselves with the layout, ensuring that every high-touch surface is clean, identifying how to communicate with the property manager, and accessing amenities. Travelers will be more detail-oriented than ever, pushing already elevated expectations even higher.
We soon will see the lines between safety, cleanliness, and quality blur.
Before, the concept of “quality space” centered around the property’s brand—how guests felt when they entered the property. A property’s character encompassed aspects such as predictable amenities and services, artwork, décor, and thoughtfully arranged furniture and lighting. Our current climate gives “quality space” a new meaning. Managers will need to help guests feel more confident about their stay, taking every precaution to ensure that hygiene and safety have been accounted for.
These new expectations will shape travel’s “new normal” over the next year and beyond. According to Phocuswright, the growth of vacation rental market share and awareness ceased in 2019 for the first time since they began tracking this aspect. Now we have the opportunity to push that awareness and regain more of the travel market.
The cruise industry is in trouble, and ships will not be sailing at capacity for some time. Tightened borders, travel restrictions, and expensive ticket prices will curtail international travel. As social distancing continues, leisure travel to many urban markets will be less desirable. The majority of us will have been cooped up for two to three months and will be eager—bordering on desperate—for a change of scenery. Plunging oil and gas prices have prepared people for a summer season wherein they are open to hit the road. Consumers will be more comfortable traveling in their own cars than alongside large groups in airports or mass transportation. All of this should set the stage for a summer travel season dominated by trips to lower-density locations like beaches, lakes, and mountains in drive-to markets.
Vacation Rentals Are Well-Positioned for Changing Demand
Shifting travel expectations and behaviors present an opportunity for professional managers to acquire market share. When stacked up against hotels, professionally managed vacation rentals often win out in cost, size, amenities, and quality. These advantages are historically amplified during economic downturns, making vacation rentals the most attractive travel option over the next year.
The factors mentioned above are all considerations we’ve seen in the past, but none are more important now than the expectation of quality space.
Vacation homes offer guests an entire single-family home or condo, promoting social distancing with decreased proximity to other guests. Furthermore, the self-check-in process for vacation rentals often involves the use of smart locks, lockboxes, and key drops.
Another advantage is that vacation rentals have a longer average length of stay than that of hotels. In fact, 67 percent of travelers stay at least a week at a vacation rental, compared to an average of just 1.83 days in a hotel. This difference translates to significantly fewer reservations per unit in a vacation rental, and subsequently fewer guests, property managers, and service partners entering and exiting the premises. Less foot traffic helps guests feel more confident that their rental is clean and that they will remain safe and healthy to fully enjoy their vacations. These market dynamics have left many operators optimistic about activity in drive-to-market destinations.
Leaning into Professionalism to Take Action Now
When travel resumes, guests will favor trusted vacation rental brands over hosts renting spare rooms with shared areas. Guests have always wanted professional, predictable, and safe places for travel.
This means now is the time for managers to audit property operations, review internal protocols, and brand standards and reconsider how they coordinate remote staff. “Today’s climate serves as an opportunity for us to rededicate ourselves to best practices,” says Ashley Hamm, President of 360 Blue. “Our property care is foundational to the guest experience, so we’re spending extra time educating our teams so that everyone understands exactly how to perform their work at each property.”
For managers who already leverage “professionalized” housekeeping programs for different event types (e.g., back-to-backs, owner stays, and standard departure), there are still calibrations that can be made to ensure an airtight process. For example, providers could increase the frequency at which they “deep clean” a property (although our clients average 2.4 deep cleans per year, many are considering performing these more regularly going forward).
Professionals could also consider taking extra precautions to supplement housekeeping checklists and protocols (e.g., wiping down high-touch surfaces, swapping in CDC-recommended cleaning products, replacing reusable supplies). This decision might add to the operational burden, but doing so will give brands an advantage and build more confidence that guests will experience a sanitized, clean, and disinfected space when they walk through the front door.
Professional managers have been stringently cleaning their units for some time now, but communicating this level of comprehensive service to guests and owners is more important than ever. Customer service is a core competency in the vacation rental business, and the expectations for proactive client communication become heightened in times of uncertainty. What guests and owners really care about is what has been done to ensure the property’s quality, safety, and cleanliness.
The programmatic communication of cleaning procedures reassures guests and helps demonstrate the full value of the services provided to them. Strategic client communication separates professional managers from the rest of the pack and is critical to reinforcing a trustworthy brand.
Expectation for Professional Management Demands Tighter Processes
Traveler needs are changing, and that is nothing new to the vacation rental industry. Although COVID-19 has created extraordinary circumstances, hospitality providers have always demonstrated the ability to adapt and meet guest expectations. Professional managers should use the coming months to audit their operational processes, housekeeping protocols, and remote work coordination because doing so will enable them to accommodate the “new normal” and gain market share.