By Doug Kennedy – Like the lodging industry in general, the vacation rental business is facing disruption from all directions. Online travel agencies are working hard to insert themselves between you and your guests. Major hotel brands such as Choice and Wyndham are nudging their way into the marketplace. Airbnb continues to expand its presence by focusing heavily on training its “hosts” to deliver authentic, genuine hospitality and telling its customers, “Don’t just stay there, live there.”
Meanwhile, most vacation rental companies focus on automating the entire service cycle and eliminating traditional touch points. Too many reservations agents are saying, “Did you look online yet? Check it out and then call me back…” or, “What’s your email address? I’ll send you a list of what we have that is available.”
Some companies even hide their phone numbers in small font at the bottom of the page, discouraging phone calls and theoretically encouraging online bookings. The migration to keyless entry offered by electronic locks eliminates yet another vital touchpoint as guests are sent straight to their accommodations instead of the company welcome center. Also, rather than encouraging guests to stop by for suggestions on local area restaurants and attractions, companies are pushing guests to an app to find such services.
As a result, many guests these days have no idea who they rented from during their previous stay, even if it was just last year. This is even more likely to be the case if the guest initially inquired on a third-party website where one or more of your rental homes are listed.
Although the entire lodging industry is fighting hard to differentiate their brand from the others, the challenge is greater in the vacation rental space because the accommodations are spread throughout the destinations. Also, multiple companies have inventory in the same buildings and developments.
What can we as operations and marketing executives do to avoid having our rental “units” become commodities like seats on airplanes? We can start by finding ways to personalize the sales and service experiences at each and every touch point by what we at the Kennedy Training Network (KTN) call “The Customer Circle of Life.”
Certainly, we as an industry need to embrace automation and technology. Many guests prefer to shop online, and everyone likes the comfort of being able to take virtual tours, see photos and even see the new 3D floor plans of their actual rental home. Keyless entry and automated check-in is absolutely a convenience for companies where accommodations are located far from the reception office and also in “Saturday to Saturday” destinations where traffic from the office to the rental can be brutal.
The trick is to maximize the levels of personalization at each and every remaining touch point in the guest experience where we still have the chance to interact with and engage our guests. We also need to find ways to use “high tech methods” in order to be “high touch” in an “old school” way of relationship building.
9 Ways to Connect With Guests and Move From Renting Units to Selling the Vacation Experience
- Keep Shoppers on the Phone
Rather than sending callers back online to look at homes or emailing them a list of what is available, have your agents walk callers through the website. Or even better…
- Use Screen Share
- Personalize Responses
Personalize the response to all electronic inquiries including chat and email. Many inquirers who send emails take time to provide hints about “the story” behind their visit. Train agents to paraphrase and restate “the story” in their response in order to show interest.
- Dive Deep
When chatting, encourage agents to ask questions about the inquirer’s visit beyond just asking for their vacation dates and number in the party.
- Respond With a Call
For both email and chat inquiries, encourage your agents to offer to contact the guest by phone especially if questions become complicated. This can not only save time vs. going back and forth via chat or email, but also provide the opportunity to connect personally. In fact, respond to all email inquiries with a phone call when a phone number is provided. Even if your agent only leaves a voicemail, it will differentiate your company from most of the others who will probably only email their response.
- Consider Video Chat
Use Skype or FaceTime video calls. Ask the prospect to connect for a video chat. This is especially important for those who are planning more complicated vacations with larger parties, larger homes, longer stays or special needs.
- Send Photos
Take and send cell phone pictures. While it is nice to send and share stylized professional photographs, send cell phone pictures in response to specific questions especially for homes with higher rents or for guests looking for longer stays.
- Communicate Across Departments
Make sure your maintenance colleagues know that their job has little to do with fixing things and a lot to do with hospitality and relationship building. Often they spend more time interacting with guests than any other colleagues.
- Host Events
In destinations with longer stays (and higher rents), consider company hosted social events such as mid-week cookouts, local band jam sessions, children’s activities or craft fairs.
While the front desk provides a tangible opportunity to connect with guests, many vacation rental managers offer remote access to the home with keyless entry. Here are a few ideas for connecting with those bypassing your office check-in:
- Send personal handwritten welcome notes on stationary with company logos.
- Place logo signage encouraging guests to call with “concierge” type questions.
- On heavy check-in days, have “greeters” stationed in each region to stop by and welcome guests upon arrival and to also explain the home’s features (such as how to work the thermostats, remote controls, kitchen appliances, hot tubs, etc.).
By Doug Kennedy