Vacation rental companies hope CX will give them an edge as hotels come back
Newcomers AvantStay, Vacasa and Mint House support every customer touchpoint with technology, but will that investment in experience pay off?
As life begins to transition back to pre-pandemic normalcy, a new class of travel companies focused on rentals is betting that the CX and digital marketing investments made in the past year will keep them ahead as traditional hospitality picks back up.
You see, vacationing changed during the pandemic. Restrictions on air travel and social contact meant cooped-up travelers started seeking out alternative destinations, favoring short-term rentals of homes or apartments versus large hotels and resorts.
At the same time, the digital-first shift during the pandemic meant travelers wanted more than just their own vacation space. They wanted a digital-first experience, which covered everything from researching rates and booking online to having completely contactless experiences.
A focus on CX
A lot of these changes are here to stay. For instance, 74% of Americans say they plan to continue to favor contactless experiences after the pandemic is through.
“Guest expectations have changed to prefer a new type of accommodation with flexible, multi-length stay options and a ‘house away from home’ experience with high tech features,” said Will Lucas, CEO of Mint House, a service that rents out luxury residential apartments to business travelers.
Mint House, which operates in several U.S. cities, orchestrates a hotel-like experience digitally. This included a contactless visit, keyless entry, the ability to pre-stock a fridge with groceries, and smart thermostat settings that could be saved on the traveler’s account and repeated during future Mint House stays in other towns.
Mint House, whose New York City space goes for about $800 a night, also partnered with fitness company MIRROR to provide fitness devices for live and on-demand workouts.
To keep up with expectations, Mint House used CX platform Kustomer, which bills itself as a customer service CRM, to help anticipate what the new wave of customers were looking for through predictive modeling.
“We want to further our predictive guest service using our digital concierge, accessible via the Mint House app, and proactively offer services, amenities and travel tips to our guests as they need them,” said Lucas.
App features are also important for AvantStay, which sells short-term stays at vacation homes in over 50 U.S. markets and counting. From their app, guests can order concierge, massages and other comforts. The company is growing, and with that customer requests.
Using AI-powered chatbots helps triage requests that can be automated, setting them aside from issues that need more attention. Meanwhile, the CRM personalizes and contextualizes the experience.
“Clients contacting Avantstay to locate the key to their rental property need more immediate attention than a customer calling about future bookings,” said Gabe Larsen, vice president of growth for Kustomer. “By storing check-in and check-out dates on each customer profile, they were able to leverage AI to provide added support and information to their CX team and better meet the demands of travelers.”
Inventory and brand-building
“Demand is through the roof obviously,” said Reuben Doetsch, co-founder of AvantStay. “A lot of people are jumping out of their seats to travel. They’re deciding whether to drive, take a summer trip and get out on the road. Remote work has become destigmatized, adding to demand.”
Pandemic restrictions nudged travelers to look at the drive market in a new way and find hidden gems closer to home. This meant that while many consumers were conducting travel-related searches, they were more specific than usual.
Vacasa, a vacation rental brand that manages more than 30,000 units, already had a loyal following before the pandemic, but tapping into the COVID-19 vacation surge presented a different kind of problem to solve.
“It was less about how to be innovative in our space, and more about how we can capture all this demand,” said Caleb Donegan, Vacasa’s VP of digital. “We had to make sure our inventory was in front of travelers who were booking at rates and searching at rates we’d never seen before. It was less about what we could do to try new things, and more about getting all this guest demand and harnessing it, getting them to the unit they wanted as quickly as we could.”
In normal times, people generally know where they want to go on vacation, said Donegan. This changed during the pandemic, when vacationers began to search out their own backyards for new places to ski or hit the beach because they didn’t want to fly, or couldn’t.
But to keep up with that demand, Vacasa also needs to keep a steady pipeline of homeowners looking to rent out their spaces. To do that, the company focuses on search and content marketing.
“We focus a ton of effort into finding owners of second homes,” said Donegan. “On the owner side there is much more education going on, a lot of questions relating to things about renting out a second home, taxes and regulations. We use a lot of content to educate renters and eventually get them to talk to us. Our approach is how to help them feel comfortable doing this and how we can ensure they understand our value proposition versus doing it themselves.”
Outreach for Vacasa is primarily search- and email-driven, and they built proprietary technology on top of these channels to further segment renters and vacationers. Personalized communications get customers to book, and browser behavior informs the marketing team about what individuals truly care about, leading to more targeted messaging, Donegan said.
“While we’re a national company, we’re also a local company,” he added. “If you stay in one of our units, you don’t really care that we have places elsewhere. All you care is that we know the market, and even more so on the owner side. We’ve built technology that allows renters and owners to know that we know the market and how to market in that market.”
Inviting the influencers
“Property management is an old-school industry, but technology enables every step in the process to be relevant for this generation and allows us to build a brand in the space,” said Doetsch.
A high-end rental brand is tailor made for Instagram, he added. The formula is simple: host influencers at your properties, and their followers will begin to recognize the brand and seek it out when planning their own trips. It doesn’t matter how spread out the properties are. If the experience and brand are consistent, they’ll link together to make a luxury chain.
As an example, model Helen Owen hosted a bachelorette trip for a friend at The Wesley by AvantStay, in Palm Springs, California. Posts related to the trip got over half a million impressions. Additionally, Owen had a giveaway in her IG stories that prompted users to swipe up and enter their email. The promo captured nearly 2,000 emails for AvantStay.
To celebrate Pride Month, AvantStay hosted engaged Amazing Race winners Will and James in Malibu. The brand also launched a new partnership with food delivery service Daily Harvest, who has introduced four new “fan fave” boxes curated exclusively for AvantStay guests.
As air travel and the traditional hospitality industry rebound, some pandemic-era trends in travel behavior are likely to stick. Marketers who paid attention will have new tools to reach those travelers.
“In the last year, we have seen a significant rise in the digital nomad trend,” said Lucas. “And with business travel returning, the ability to offer a contactless experience and smart-tech features, such as the Mint House smart TVs and pre-stocked fridges, as well as partnerships with brands like MIRROR and Minoan, will be important to capture and retain the attention of tech-savvy travelers.”
The question is whether hotels, which have long offered similar luxury features, will claw back some of those customers.
“Hotel demand is also coming back now, but we think a lot of people who go to hotels were exposed to rentals over the last 18 months,” said Reuben. “They realize they like to have a house with a pool and stay somewhere with their friends.”
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