"I need to fly to New Orleans."
The realization literally woke me up on Tuesday of last week.
It was like 4:30am.
And although it was early, I was surprisingly alert and laser focused.
Without any real planning or phone calls, I logged onto Kayak.
Found a last minute flight to New Orleans.
And began asking myself some questions...
Property Managers are dramatically different from the normal vacation rental owners that I've spent the past decade getting to know so well.
PMs have different business models.
Face different challenges.
Fall into the business in different ways.
And I have learned these things because I myself am beginning to build out a property management branch here my little historic district in Panama.
Property management is an entirely different world from single-property owners.
PMs speak a different language.
They live by different norms.
The original plan when I landed was to go purchase a ticket to the VRMA conference. But I ended up bumping into some friends in the lobby of the hotel. And I realized that the true value of these sorts of conferences is in the personal relationships you make outside the showroom floor anyway, right?
And on Monday night, in a James Bond-style salon at The Columns Hotel, the wisdom of a small but influential group of conference attendees began to speak its mind and here's what I learned:
When you understand the personality of a property manager, everything he does makes a whole lot more sense.
Two perfect examples of this were Ralph and Karen Moorehouse, who own and manage rental properties in Paris, France.
Ralph is an academic by trade, so he is naturally curious about how things work. He can put together the engine of a car, but was never formally trained to be a mechanic.
He likes doing things himself and is not afraid to fail. Evidenced by their worldly travels, Ralph and Karen truly know how to appreciate life. And they seem to effortlessly transfer that passion to their successful rental business.
Learn your ideal client's personality type well enough and you'll be able to market to their lifestyles (as opposed to having to convince them on features or benefits).
They say you don't truly know something until you can teach it. And Heather Bayer hasn't just scaled her own property management company to massive proportions...she also teaches others how to do the same! Meaning she grasps the mechanics of property management as well as anyone at the VRMA conference.
But what I learned from Heather is that the size of a PM agency truly dictates its most pressing challenges. For instance, a PM with 50 properties may be dealing with hiring its first employee...a MUCH different challenge than looking for a housekeeper to clean 500 properties. There were some common denominators like "How do we scale?" and "how do we get more efficient?" But from Heather I learned that nobody has built any kind of framework to help PMs understand where they fit on the curve.
If you are overwhelmed with what are the next best steps, make a prioritization matrix and rank each task on a scale of urgency and importance. You'll at least be able to give yourself a road map to break any paralysis by analysis.
David Angotti and his business partner Wes Melton were among the most advanced PMs that I met at the VRMA conference. Their holistic marketing strategy for SmokyMountains.com gets them regularly featured in international press. Thanks to Wes' programming background, their internal reporting and systems are on par with a hotel franchise. And the way they acquire new owners is equally cutting edge: David and Wes helped me understand that most property managers view owners as a necessary evil and that is why they have trouble scaling. To set themselves apart, David and Wes invest heavily in courting the right kinds of owners..
They use highly personalized automated marketing campaigns. And a proprietary "scoring system" to make sure they are delivering the most bespoke, white glove service to each of their flagship 50 property owners. And guess what? These owners are now becoming SmokyMountains.com brand ambassadors, out doing the word of mouth or "raving fan" marketing for free.
Owners who universally dislike PMs and PMs who universally dislike owners have both got it wrong. Property management is a real need and property ownership has great merit too. Finding an agency or owner who thinks that way makes everything better.
Rick Oster is a real estate developer: he builds high-end vacation rentals on golf courses. And he manages them all himself. As he grows, Rick is getting more thoughtful about what tools he uses to run his business. But what we first discovered together in New Orleans is that -- because the VR industry is so new and fragmented -- most of the software options out there are doing very similar things. Perhaps worse, is that many of these vendors are misleading with their features.
For example, "We've got channel management!" was a claim from several who really don't have channel management. This led Rick to begin his software selection process with a priorities list based on specific software features...as opposed to choosing company that "does it all."
Vacation rental software companies should really be more thoughtful about how they define their services. And software clients should base their searches off prioritized features (and accept that they probably can't find a one-size-fits-all solution).
Most of the recognizable players at the VRMA were kinda antiquated both literally (sorry, but it's true) and figuratively (in the way they appear to be solving problems). And the companies who I observed to be really setting themselves apart were doing something entirely new.
This innovation was manifested in Jessica Vozel (a former academic) and Andy McNulty (a former executive at Gucci) and their content creation agency GuestHook. As the world's first (and only, I think) vacation rental-specific copywriting agency, GuestHook is seeing massive results when they rewrite PM property descriptions.
Why? Because professional descriptions are like professional photos in generating results.
What I took away from an amazing few hours with Andy and Jess is that the companies who are thriving are the ones not just getting ahead (by being the first)...they're then compounding that head start with premium delivery.
In the PM space, keep your eyes out for industry parallels: start-ups using a model that works well in the hotel or tourism industry may be immediately applicable and surprisingly successful.
Over the weekend hanging around the VRMA conference, I began to see a trend: the older a company was on average, the less innovative their product or service or offering seemed to be. And from PMs themselves to the vendors in the showroom, I learned over lunch with Andrew McConnell that a new generation of players are focusing on a pain point far more scarce than acquiring more vacation rental properties and that is FINDING MORE TIME.
Evan Hammer and Nick Persico were great examples of this: their company SmartHost uses dynamic pricing (the same way the hotel industry has for years) to help PM's maximize their revenue. They're also managing their own vacation rental property in Cape Cod almost the same way famed sports journalist George Plimpton went to play for the Detroit Lions in order to write about the NFL.
Above all else, Evan and Nick are millennials like me. We know how travelers (like us) want to book. And we know that our parent's generation of property owners are...well, gettin old. My takeaway here is that if you want to look 10-20-50 years into the future of all facets of property management, look to milennials.
While the PM world is full of experience and clout, keep an eye out for the new generation. A rising tide lifts all boats. But disruption tends to sink those who are not willing to adapt.
I can't tell you how many times I met a PM at the VRMA conference who used to do something entirely different for a living...and who was utilizing that very strength to set their PM company apart from the competition. Lots of PMs appeared to be Accidental Vacation Rentalists and one of my favorite personalities of the evening was Andree McDonald who lives in New Orleans yet owns and manages properties in Central Florida.
She made her name in the world of custom printing (think flyers, coffee mugs, banners) and her vacation rental branding initiatives (as you can imagine) are transitively world class. To set themselves apart from their competition, the successful PMs that I met seemed to have that "ace up their sleeve" from a previous life. From meeting Andree, I gleaned that if you have a player on your team who used to be really good at something that is even remotely applicable to property management, it may be worth reactivating that passion or strength in its new element.
Those in the PM world who can leverage their skills and passions while exercising creativity will likely have greater success than those stuck to decade-old manuals.
Most property managers I met had a small team of 3-7 employees. And since most of those employees were wearing multiple hats in the business, they struck me as extraordinarily entrepreneurial. What's a known pitfall of being an entrepreneur -- however -- is the lack of accountability. Because they don't necessarily have giant teams rallying around their desks or bosses to definitively report to, I learned the true value of the VRMA conference: the opportunity to be around people with the same challenges as you in a world that feels otherwise quite lonely.
That isolation was epitomized by Lisle Head who owns Lost Coast Vacation Rentals in Jaco, Costa Rica. Getting to know his business intimately over the past few years, with 150 properties, I can confidently say that Lisle is among the top PMs in all of Central America. But that's the catch: Lisle is a motivated entrepreneur who is working in a severely isolated learning environment. And so to him, the opportunity to personally meet other successful PMs from around the world, appeared to feel almost like a support group. "I'm not alone!" he told me.
Surround yourself with like-minded people who are on the same mission as you. Seek out those support groups to save time and scale quicker. If those groups don't yet exist, create them.
All of these individuals came from different backgrounds: old/young, rich/poor...etc.
But in synthesizing all their thoughts, I realized that their goals and their values were very much aligned:
In summary, I was proud to rub shoulders with this private club.
And I was particularly excited about how seemingly different people (owners, managers, vendors, bloggers) could all get along so well when the right foundations are in place.
But it's not financially or logistically feasible to have physical meet-ups like these as often as everyone would like.
Which is why we built the next best thing.
The Inner Circle is a robust online forum where the same sparks fly...albeit virtually.
"A conveyor belt of best practices to help PMs scale."
"A support network to reduce costly mistakes."
"A place to get inspired and to inspire others."
Our Inner Circle has 593 owners and PMs interacting daily online and meeting up physically in cities around the world.
And while I never made it to the actual VRMA conference, my trip to New Orleans to understand property management better was worth its weight in gold.
Matt Landau is the Founder of the VRMB and the Inner Circle, two online resources dedicated to helping vacation rental owners and managers generate more bookings.
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