Our Thought Leader Spotlight series is a regular profile interview of interesting and notable ‘game changers’ in the international vacation and short-term rental industry.
We ask these industry experts, all with different backgrounds in the industry, questions that aim to get to the core of what they view as both the challenges and opportunities facing the short-term rental industry.
We also delve into how our Thought Leaders personally relate to the industry, and what they, and their businesses, bring to the collective table.
What businesses, organisations and enterprises are you currently involved with, in the industry?
I serve as Executive Director for the Vacation Rental Management Association, or VRMA. VRMA is a non-profit trade association headquartered in Washington, DC, where I live and work. We also have offices in Chicago. We have—as of today—around 900 total corporate members, 750 of whom are property management companies managing anywhere from 5 to 14,000 properties. Collectively, our members manage over 100,000 properties worldwide.
The remaining 150 or so members are our supplier partners, who are product and service providers to those management companies. Everything from the major listing sites to insurance companies to property management software to supplies and linens to data and revenue management to smart home automation and everything in between; our supplier members are truly cutting-edge industry leaders. VRMA has been around since 1985 and continues to grow; we host eight events annually, with our biggest being the upcoming International Conference in New Orleans, taking place October 13-16.
What do you consider to be the key to your success?
That’s easy; VRMA volunteers. Trade associations are only successful when they have an engaged membership who are passionate about the industry and committed to advancing not just their careers and companies but also the collective objectives of their peers and colleagues. In my four years in this role, I’ve found that vacation rental managers are very passionate about what they do and the value they bring to the hospitality ecosystem, which is significant.
VRMA has a board of directors comprised of 13 individuals who volunteer a ton of their time to advancing the mission, vision, and strategic goals of VRMA. Besides the board, there are committees that are comprised of volunteers who focus on specific areas like our events, education, marketing, content, and government relations. They also make major contributions to VRMA. As a non-profit, we couldn’t afford to pay for this level of talent. So it takes committed volunteers to move these things forward.
And of course, any leader of any organization is only as good as their team; I have an awesome team of professionals who help drive the day-to-day. They do all the hard work behind the scenes; all the event logistics, education, content production… and that’s on top of the regular business operations. We’re a non-profit, but we’re still a business.
In your view, what are the biggest challenges and or threats to the vacation rental industry?
That’s another easy one; regulations. I would imagine that everyone reading this is aware of the threats that some of these regulations pose; they’re being written and enacted by people who don’t understand our industry and what vacation rentals bring to our communities. And in many instances they’re incredibly difficult to navigate and even to enforce. There’s just not a lot of thought—or at least logic and reason, of which I am a fan— going into these, but there’s a lot of emotion and a lot of money, especially by those who feel that short term rentals are threatening their business models and their revenue and their shareholder value. And that’s a tough battle to fight when you’re outnumbered and outgunned.
But it’s a fight we can win. Because we have a better story.
What counter measures would you suggest to minimise these risks?
There are so many moving parts to battling regulations, but there are a couple key components that will really contribute to our collective success.
First is being a true voice. We need to organize more effectively when we catch wind of these types of regulations coming our way. Local and state alliances with a unified voice and a clear, consistent message… that’s what moves the needle. I can send letters and make phone calls to state and local representatives until I pass out; it doesn’t do nearly as much. They need to hear from their constituents and from the individuals and companies that are actually driving the economic activity in their areas. That is who they listen to. And we, as an association, need to arm those individuals and groups with those messages and with data and clear talking points.
We have expanded our advocacy efforts a lot in the past few years; we have toolkits and a messaging guide and a national policy agenda and a legislative tracking system and outreach tool all designed to help our members with these issues and to reach their local policy-makers. But we can always do more, and we are. You’re going to see more grassroots activity from us in the coming months. And we are also holding an advocacy fundraiser and live auction in New Orleans at our upcoming conference and have already raised some significant contributions from some of our supplier partners; many thanks to them. All of this money will be going towards data and research to help back up our talking points. So look for a lot more to come from us on this topic. And be sure to check out advocacy.vrma.org to see everything we’ve been working on.
And second is differentiating ourselves. A lot of the emotion I talked about in the last answer is coming from neighbors and communities where there are non-professional managers and hosts renting out properties either illegally or in an unsafe manner or just in a manner that has a negative impact on the community. These are few and far between, but they generate the most passionate vocal minority of opponents. VRMA members and professional property managers don’t engage in this type of activity. But we’re lumped in with them. That doesn’t need to be the case.
Really differentiating the professional property management companies from these other bad actors in the space will go a long way. VRMA is working on that, and launching our company accreditation next month at the conference. We’ve been working on this for a couple years, and started with the launch of our certificate program last year. That’s more focused on individual managers; the accreditation is a distinguishing badge of honor for companies who adhere to a set of best business practices in this space; those practices were developed by a committee of dedicated volunteers (are you sensing a trend here?) and all applications will be reviewed and approved by a committee of volunteers.
Earning this accreditation will help your company stand out and provide a level of consumer confidence for the guest—and in many cases, the owner—that your company is one they want to do business with. And when we’re having conversations with legislators and regulators, we can point to this and focus on the professionalism in the industry as a key point; it’s a version of self-regulation but also a spotlight on the fact that these are professional, compliant businesses contributing positively to the local community and economy.
In your opinion, what are the greatest opportunities for both individual property management businesses, and the industry as a whole, both now and in the short to medium term future?
I’d say professionalism across the board. For individual business, there’s a focus on this new era of distribution. Distribution options and new players seem to emerge every week. This is a good thing, overall, as we’ve all heard the stats about the new travellers coming into the market and the increasing ease of guests finding vacation rentals; it’s being where those travellers are searching that’s key. Marketing and branding are obviously a huge part of that, but once booked, the guest experience is the real differentiator.
Forming that unique relationship with the guest— that only property managers and property management companies can— that will make the guest want to come back to a property managed by that specific company; that brand loyalty is a huge opportunity for many reasons. And professionalism will drive that. And there are many companies in this space that can help with all of these items; distribution, marketing, branding, guest communications, even pricing and revenue management. And they’ll all be at our conference.
We have almost 120 companies in our exhibit hall; this is the largest expo hall of product and service providers in the industry. So if you’re interest in—or in the market for—any of these tools, you need to be in New Orleans in October.
For the industry as a whole, it all ties back to the professionalism discussed in the previous question. It will help our narrative, our reputation, our growth, our advocacy, our education… really everything.
If you were to start over again in the vacation rental industry, what would you do differently?
I would own a vacation rental company! I’ve never been a practitioner, just an association executive. Our members are hard-working and passionate about the industry but the aspect that stands out the most—to me, at least— is how much they love their jobs. And as an industry that was born in vacation destinations, many of our members live in beach or mountain towns. As someone who sits in DC traffic every day, that sounds really appealing. Maybe all the knowledge I gain in this role will enable me to do that someday; I’ll run a VRMA-accredited vacation rental management company and start a local alliance to get ahead of any bad regulations. And I’ll come to all of the VRMA events to stay up to speed on all the latest trends, practices, and tools available to help me grow and succeed.
And finally….. what and where would your dream vacation rental be, and who would you invite to share it with you?
The “who” is easy; I have an amazing wife and three awesome sons aged 9, 7, and 3 who I love more than anything and always want to be around. So they’re on the invitation list, no question. And just in case, I’d send an invitation to Keith Richards. Seems like he’d be a fun guy to vacation with for a few days, and he comes with built-in unbelievable stories and amazing music. Worth a shot.
The “where” is a little trickier, but I had the opportunity to visit Hawaii with my wife for our 15th anniversary last year; we stayed on the island of Kauai for a few days, hosted by a former VRMA President, the great Lucy Kawaihalau. There’s a town there called Hanalei that is just perfect. A super laid-back, charming beach town where you can walk anywhere you need to go, there’s unbelievable hiking nearby, and beautiful views in every direction. I’d love to take our kids there someday.
But for places I haven’t been, another VRMA Past President, the great Ben Edwards, has sent me pictures of his recent trips to Argentina with his wife Tiffany. Malbec and steak are two of my favorite things, and it seems like you can get those pretty much anywhere in Argentina. And it’s beautiful scenery and a rich culture with tons to do and explore; seems like a good fit.
So either of those would be great.