The Most Important Component in Vacation Rental Software Installation: Your Staff

Teamwork
Teamwork

The most important component that will determine the success or failure of a new software installation is getting your staff on board with the project. This is so critical to success that I felt it deserved its own post. I have seen software installations literally come apart at the seams because the staff refused to going along with it. Unfortunately it forced the business owners to throw in the towel and they often didn’t recoup all of their investment. The good news is that this can be avoided with a little bit of planning and communication beforehand.

Heads Up

First, let your staff know that you are thinking about switching to new software as soon as you have made the decision to start looking. If nothing else, it gives them time to get used to the idea. Explain to them why you believe it is the right move for your company (be specific) and invite their feedback, questions, and concerns. If you wait to tell them until you have already chosen new software, you may have missed blind spots that they could have helped you see that would have changed your mind.

Heads Together

Second, invite them into the process of evaluating how new software can help you reach your business goals. They are the experts at their job and can help you create your list of “must haves”. This also gives them some ownership in the process, which makes them more invested in its success.

The instances where I’ve seen software installations come completely unraveled are where the staff resented the fact that they were not consulted about the change in the first place. So they complained about every little thing and made mountains out of mole hills until the owners threw up their hands in defeat. This could have been avoided by inviting them into the process from the beginning.

It’s A Team Effort

Third, as you look at the various options that are out there, have your staff (ideally your department heads/team leads) evaluate the software with you. But do your salesperson a favor and designate a single point of contact that compiles everyone’s questions/concerns and sends it to them once or twice a week.

Don’t overwhelm them by having everyone in the company bombard them with questions and comments.

Once you have decided on a particular software package, explain to your staff why you chose that particular option and help them see how their feedback made it happen.

Dealing with Stragglers

Even after all of the above you may still have an employee or two that refuses to get on board. Maybe you went with a different option than what they wanted, maybe they’re afraid for their job, or are just resistant to change in general. Whatever the reason, try and understand specifically what they are concerned about. Then, ask for their help in making this a success. Software installation is a huge project and everyone involved is critical to its success.

If that doesn’t work, you may have to put your foot down and explain that while you understand and appreciate their concerns, you believe this is the best move for the business. At the end of the day a company is not a democracy. You’re the boss and you have to decide what’s best for the business. People are counting on you to lead them.

This person may no longer be in the right role, or a good fit for your company. They might be better suited for a different team or it may be time to part ways. Whatever the case, you may have to make some hard decisions. It’s an unfortunate part of leadership that never becomes easy.

The good news is that by involving your staff and communicating regularly, it will greatly reduce the chances of these kinds of situations considerably.

Next – How to Find the Right Software

Buying New Software – 4 Steps to Ensuring Success

Setting Goals

Switching vacation rental software can be a daunting task.

Who has the best options?
Which offering is most cost effective?
What will you have to give up and what will you gain?
How disruptive will it be?

Before you undertake the task of switching software, there are a few things that you can do up front to make the job easier down the road. You will also want to give yourself plenty of time to prepare for the switch. I recommend budgeting at least a year for the entire process. That covers everything from looking at the different offerings to the actual installation of the software.

But before you start looking at what is out there, you’ll want to decide a few things first.

#1 Determine what your business goals are for the next 2, 5, and 10 years.

What are your goals as a company for each of those time segments? To increase your revenue? Stronger relationships with your owners? Growing your inventory? Enhancing your guest services? Reducing operating costs?

Knowing what you want to accomplish in the short, mid, and long term, will inform your decisions about the kind of software and services that you should purchase.

I recommend picking no more than 2-3 goals per time segment to drive towards. You can always update or adjust your goals if you find that your priorities have changed. Your long term goals in particular will change as time goes on, but they provide a clear direction for you to move in.

Write out exactly what these look like for you. What does “increasing your revenue” look like? By how much? What is the percentage or amount growth required to take your business to the next level? What are the specific steps that you need to get there?

What specifically does “enhancing your guest services” look like? What tools do you need to do it? What would you like to do that you can’t currently do?

If you don’t know the answers right away, that’s perfectly ok. Spend some time brainstorming, researching, and getting input from your partners and staff. The point isn’t to have the perfect list that will never change, but to have specifics that will guide the direction you move in. Those items may change depending on various things that are completely out of your control. That’s ok.

#2 Develop a comprehensive list of “must haves”, “like to haves”, and “nice to haves”.

No software package is going to do everything you could ever possibly want it to. There are going to be trade-offs and different ways of doing things within each option.

To get as close to the ideal for your business as possible, you need to know what matters most and what you can live without.

Instead of focusing on everything that your current software has that you don’t want to give up, focus instead on those business goals you wrote down. What do you need to achieve those goals? What do you need to continue to perform operationally while you move towards those goals? Define “need” as “can’t possibly live without”. It’s not that you could live without it and just prefer not to, you have to have that particular feature/report/widget in order to do what you need to do. This list should be as short and concise as possible. Remember, these are needs not wants.

Next come your “like to haves”. These are things that you could live without if you had to, but it could be fairly painful. They don’t directly tie into the achievement of your goals and operational requirements, but they support the things that do. Or they make your life a heck of a lot easier.

Finally there are your “nice to haves”. These are things that would be cool to have but your business isn’t any better or worse off with or without them.

Make sure to involve your staff in this process and have them come up with their own lists based on their roles within the business and the goals you developed. This will not only give you a stronger pictures of your business needs, but will also help them have a sense of ownership in the decision as well. This can make things quite a bit smoother down the line and shouldn’t be underestimated.

You will then combine all of the lists into one master list of “must haves”, “like to haves” and “need to haves”. Be brutal in your assessment of what is a “must have” and what is a “like to have” or “nice to have”. As painful and frustrating as this process can be, it will make things much easier in determining whether a product is a good fit for you or not.

#3 Data clean up

This is never fun, but you will be glad that you did it. Any software that you purchase should be able to import some of your data. At the very least things like Units, Contacts, and Owners.

If you have been using your current software for any length of time, there is probably quite a bit of junk in there. Duplicate entries, fields you used for things other than what they were designed for, etc.

As soon as you know you want to start shopping for new software, start on a data cleanup project. Determine what you want to bring over to the new software (it may or may not be importable, but it can always be manually entered) and what you don’t care about. Don’t fall into the trap of “I need to have everything”. If you host your current software, then you can always refer back to it if you find that there is data you need. If you are using cloud based software, export as much of your data as you can by running reports, exporting them to Excel or PDF, and saving them to a local drive to refer to later. (Make sure to save them to more than one drive in case your machine crashes. Burning the data to a cd is always a good idea.)

Then go about cleaning the data up. You may be able to pay your nephew a few bucks an hour to do this, or buy your staff pizza if they put in extra hours for data clean up. However you do it, you will never regret getting started sooner rather than later, and it probably won’t take as long as you think. A few hours each Saturday for a month will probably take care of it.

#4 What is it that you don’t currently know?

We’ve all had the experience of buying something only to find out about a different offering that, had we only known, we would have gone with. “I wouldn’t have bought the iPhone 5 if I had known the iPhone 6 was coming out in 3 months!” Right?

What is it that is just past the horizon that you are currently unaware of? Do your research and try to find out. Maybe there isn’t anything. Maybe you are totally up on all of the trends and new offerings in the marketplace and have a keen grasp on where things are headed. But make sure.

Read articles, talk to people, and attend webinars. Invest a few hours a week in your education on this. It can save you a bunch of anxiety and regret down the road if you know you are purchasing something that won’t soon be outdated. HomeAway, TripAdvisor, Tnooz, and PhocusWright are just a few of the companies that regularly report on new trends and technologies. I also write a blog post every Friday around news, trends and findings in the travel and tech industries that will help you.

No matter the size of your company, how long you have been in business, or how tech savvy you may be, give yourself plenty of time to choose and install new software. Make sure that you have taken the time to clarify exactly what you need to get where you want to be.

Next – Selling it to Your Staff

Travel & Tech News – Social Media, Mobile, and More

Travel & Tech News
Travel & Tech News

Do you use social media to market your rentals and interact with prospects and guests? Here is a great article on how to make Twitter work for you.  “65% of leisure travelers start researching online before they’ve decided where or how to travel.” This is a huge opportunity for engagement.

Ever wonder if your audience is seeing the tweets, posts, and articles that you put out through your socials media accounts? This article tells you the best times to post to social media.

While aimed at hotels, this article provides a great lesson in online engagement that can be applied to vacation rentals. “Hotels that responded to more than 50% of social reviews grew occupancy rates by 6.4%, more than twice the rate of properties that largely ignored social media reviews.” The same goes for your Guest Reviews. A company that responds to its customers (whether it be a complaint or praise) communicates that it’s paying attention and that it cares.

Are you ready for the “mobile mind shift“? Mobile commerce is forecasted to hit $75 billion by 2018. Here’s the kicker, “… no matter where they are or what device they are using, they expect a personalized, fast, rich and no-hassle online experience.”

Do you need a mobile app to stay competitive in this new mobile-centric world? Research from Phocuswright suggests that you don’t. Airline apps are by far the most widely used at 42%, follow by OTAs at 13%, a pretty steep drop off. The research finds that mobile friendly websites are where most travelers to look for places to stay and things to do, however.

And finally, just for the fun of it, if you are ever in Rome you can go to Roman Gladiator school, for about $140. I’m totally doing this if I ever get to Rome.

Until next week!

Value

Value

There is some really great and encouraging information in this recent article from TripAdvisor regarding the 2015 travel season. According to the article, more travelers are planning on staying in vacation rentals this year due to an abundance of information about them being available online in the form of reviews and photos.

Speaking of photos, having photo captions can greatly increase the number of inquiries a unit gets. Here is a really informative article about how to write great photo captions for your units.

Reviews are also extremely valuable to you. Not only do they give your prospective guests confidence in booking with you, they can also tell you where your blind spots are. I also know vacation rental managers who use reviews to get their owners to upgrade furniture, amenities, or the unit itself. If you aren’t reading your reviews to learn how you can better serve your guests, you are missing out a big opportunity.

One of the biggest things that jumped out at me in this article was how much value is a determining factor in a traveler’s decision.

For instance, 49% plan on booking a vacation rental after having read about or discovered the value and/or amenities that it offers over other forms of lodging. It goes on to say that 62% cited vacation rentals offering lower rates than hotels as their motivation for staying in a vacation rental in the future.

I think something that often gets overlooked, but is worth clarifying, is that value doesn’t necessarily mean the lowest price. It just means that the customer wants to feel like they got more for their dollar than they would have with a different option.

Let me share a quick story about value that I saw firsthand a few years back. Our local ice cream shop was under new ownership and the new owner was intent on making a profit like any good business person. What ended up happening though is that the servings became a lot smaller than they were under the previous owners, which upset many of the customers. I remember watching one disgruntled customer asking to talk to the owner, and then explaining how it was unacceptable that he paid $5 for the little bit of ice cream that he received. The new owner tried to explain that the previous owners were too generous with the serving size which reduced their profits to the point of having to sell the business. The angry customer didn’t care what the rationale was though. Then he said something that I’ll never forget. He was referring to the taco place across the street and he said, “When I take my family to eat over there, I get a free meal after I purchase 6 meals. That makes me feel good. I feel like I’m getting some value for my dollar.” (Emphasis mine)

What I learned that day was that how a customer feels about the transaction is waaaaaay more important than the actual details of said transaction. Let’s just look at the facts for a minute.
When this customer took his family of 4 to the taco place, he likely spent ~$10 per person, at least. A taco or burrito, plus a drink came out to roughly $10 after tax was included. From a strictly economic standpoint, this is a terrible deal for him. He has to spend $60 in order to get $10. Granted, you could argue that it was money he was going to spend anyway, but that doesn’t matter. What matters most is that he felt like he was getting value. Now I’m not suggesting that it’s ok to deceive customers and make them think that they are getting something for nothing. The point I’m trying to make is that how a customer feels about the transaction, based on their perception of the value they are receiving, is what matters most to them.

Here is some more interesting information from the article about value. The highest percentage (26%) cited a kitchen as the most important amenity. It then goes on to say that 72% cite this as their main cost savings measure. If travelers want to cut costs by preparing at least some of their own meals and eating in, one way to accommodate this and provide value would be to offer (for a small fee) a grocery package that could be purchased so that when they arrive some of the basics (milk, eggs, bread, peanut butter, etc.) are already there in the unit, thus saving them a trip to the store and allowing them to get right into their vacation. Or leaving a $10 Trader Joe’s gift card (or whichever local grocery store you like) along with a handwritten “Thanks for staying with us!” card on the kitchen counter for those guests that are spending more than $X with you. I guarantee that will make a positive impression, and that $10 you spend on the card has the potential to bring you way more in word of mouth referrals.

The last thing I thought was noteworthy is that nearly half (48%) cited free parking as a motivator for staying in a vacation rental.

Now these are all folks that “get it” when it comes to vacation rentals. But what about those that don’t get it yet? One of the best things that you can do is to educate your prospective guests on the value they are receiving by staying with you over the other alternatives. Help them understand through your website, correspondence, phone conversations, etc. that they get more square footage for their dollar with a vacation rental, not to mention more privacy, solo use of the amenities and features, etc. Adding details such as “A 5 minute walk to the beach” or “15 minutes from downtown” into your unit descriptions and photo captions will help the guest understand they aren’t losing anything by staying with you instead of a hotel. (Most hotels are closer to things like movie theaters, restaurants, stores, beaches, etc.) Call out “Free Parking” as a selling point in your unit descriptions and/or photo captions as well.

Remember, how a customer feels about the transaction, based on their perception of the value they are receiving, is what matters most to them. Calling out all of the ways that your unit(s) offer value to the customers can be a powerful motivator in getting them to stay with you and tell their friends and family about it.

Travel & Tech News – Services, Instant Messaging, and Canada

Travel & Lodging News & Information
News & Information

Amazon is getting into the “handy man” and demand services business, with “Amazon Home Services”. This could be a useful resource for vacation rental companies that need work done on their units and don’t have a regular plumber, electrician, handy man, etc. Or just want to shop around for the best price.

Here’s another new idea that Amazon is trying out; “Dash” buttons. (Press the button and it automatically orders you a new batch of the item it is associated with. Paper towels, detergent, etc.) Imagine a day when your guests don’t have to call you for something they need, but can just press a button and have it delivered.It’s hard to say whether this will actually take off or become a novelty relegated to “Remember When?” type articles and shows. Regardless, it is more evidence that services on demand via wireless technology are becoming the norm and will soon be expected, rather than just a luxury.

In the not too distant future, you may communicate with your guests predominantly through an instant messaging service. Hotels are already trying to figure out what this looks like, and services like Facebook’s Business Messenger could make it really easy and affordable.  This line from the article sums the idea up nicely, “…messaging is a platform for customer-centricity, which is among the biggest opportunities we have.

HomeAway makes an expansion into the Canadian market by investing in CanadaStays. According to the article, destinations in places like Montreal and British Columbia saw demand grow by double digits last year. This is potentially a very good thing for all involved as it adds popular inventory to the HomeAway Network for travelers, but could also get other North American properties in front of Canadian travelers. My guess is that it will be offered as a part of the bundling packages that HomeAway provides.