Sometimes the best business strategies are also the least tangible in the moment – yet always produce reliable, provable, tangible bottom line results. This talk was first given at the Vacation Rental Success Summit in 2017. Below is the full transcription of the talk.
Good morning everybody. At a conference this morning in the afternoon, just like the slide says, I think there’s a lot of truth to this. Thanks for that great intro as an aside. If you’re ever speaking, just make up whatever you want that makes you sound smart and then when you get to stage everybody just believes everything, it’s awesome. All that, no it actually was true. There’s a pretty story past there, I learned a lot of things along the way and hoping to get some of that imparted to you guys before the need of this.
I want to start with a day that I’ll never forget. It was my first long flight at NetJets. I felt like I had made it to the pinnacle of the aviation career. I’d worked for almost a decade to sit in the front of this plane, which is the Citation X. We were flying at 51,000 feet, which is about 15,000 feet above the airliners. We’re screaming along faster than any other planes up there, and you could see the curvature of the earth, it’s black up above you with the beginning of space.
I was talking with the guy sitting next to me, who had been there for a while and it dawned on me, this is why people pay $5 a second, which is about $20,000.00 an hour to sit in the back because this is awesome. We’re up here and stuff. He kind of laughs and goes, “That’s not why people pay $5.00 a second.” I asked him, “What do you mean?” He goes, “There are a ton of other companies that do this and they’re $2.00 a second in those companies and less than $10,000.00 an hour and here we are charging $20,000.00 an hour. What sets us apart is our brand story, the reputation that we have, and because of that, at a charge of over double what everybody else charges, we have more of the market than all of the competition combined. We are the only company that the ultra-wealthy want to be on. Everybody else is like, we’re like NetJets.”
That was really a pivotal moment in my business career. I realized that it’s not all about competing on price, which that’s what most of do. That shaped how I viewed a business that I owned right then, it shaped how I view every business since. And so, I hope that we can get through this today and make you guys realize that these cerebral and esoterical things like storytelling, and customer service, and all of that, will ultimately have real ROI. That’s the problem, we see these things like oh yeah story telling. Okay, what does that even mean? Where’s the revenue on that? Where’s my return on that?
Anybody that’s followed me online knows that I’m kind of a data geek, right? I want to engineer all of the processes that are going to make me money. It probably surprises you that we’re talking on something high-level storytelling. Okay, how do we make money with storytelling? I’m glad you asked. The first thing is positioning. We have these really awesome vacation rentals. The problem with our awesome vacation rentals is our marketing. When somebody comes to us, the first thing we want to talk about is a 70-inch flat screen or our Pottery Barn or Restoration Hardware bedding, and how it has a view and all these things like that. That’s what everybody does.
I stay about, probably 60 to 70 nights a year in vacation rentals, so I do a lot of inquiries on the guest side. This is what people try to sell me on, their 70-inch flat screen. I don’t care about a 70-inch flat screen. I have a theater room at home, so that’s smaller than my theater room. You’re trying to sell me on something that’s actually a downgrade for me. When we think about that, we realize that if we get into that amenity discussion without even realizing it, we’re entering a race to the bottom price-wise. Let that sink in and think about, do you want to be in a race to the bottom price-wise or do you want to be on a different level that’s charging way up here? How do we get up there?
We need to understand people don’t buy products, they buy what a product will do for them. With a vacation rental, it’s the dream. When I rent a property, it’s not because I want the bed, it’s not because I want the flat screen, it’s because I realize I’ve been putting in a lot of long hours at the office, and I want to be a better dad. I’m going to make up in my mind whether or not this is true. I believe that I’m going to make up for those late nights at the office, by taking my kids on vacation and having that high-quality time. I believe that I’m going to be a better husband that week, and so that’s what is going to sell me. If you can convince me that your property will do that, I’m going to book it.
You have to understand what is it that makes your guests tick. The way we’re going to do that is with persona-based marketing. I wrote a post on Matt Lindow’s site last year, almost a year ago now. If you go to that link, it has that whole post, or you can just go straight to his site. It’s about 2,000 words, lots of images all that, and it breaks this out. Basically, the idea was, and this was something we actually did at smokymountains.com, was we realized that Beth was the persona of a traveler that wanted a pet-friendly vacation rental. What do we normally do when somebody writes us and says “Hey, is your rental pet-friendly?” We say, “Yeah it is, and by the way, it has a 70-inch flat screen.” They don’t care about that. Get away from the 70-inch flat screen, forget all about it.
Realize, okay, what makes Beth tick, is her dog. Once we realize that, it’s going to totally just change the way we do marketing. When I realized Beth cared about her dog, I started to realize, hey I have a dog. I know the places that are pet-friendly in town. I actually board my dog with Just for Paws right down the street and know those guys. I start to tell Beth about all of these things. That resonates with Beth, who’s dog is like her child. We start to create this formula of a different response to an inquiry, then what we’re normally doing. Beth now is about 200% times, or 200 … let’s back up. What was it that Heather said? Math wasn’t your forte. Okay, so two times, or a 200% increase on conversions.
Out of everybody I know that’s ever done this, I’ve never seen somebody do less than a 50% increase in conversions. Why? Because we are speaking to what they love. We are actually now going after their dream, rather than the amenities of our property. We’re talking about them instead of us. That actually takes me into the first point which is … or the second point rather, which is helping. We need to be helping people with our marketing. We all want to sell, we want to talk about ourselves, but we’ve got to get back, let’s take a step back, and realize when we can solve somebody’s problem, then it’s going to actually work exponentially better.
Our inclination is if we just sell really hard we’ll close these people. You know, we need to email them X number of times, we need to do all these things, and that’s not necessarily true. What we actually need to do is help people, solve their problems. Oyster.com was a company that was recently acquired by Trip Advisor, I think it was. They had this idea when they launched their site, that people take real vacations, but book those real vacations off of fake photos and fake reviews. And so, when they launch, which was I think was back in 09′ or 2010, somewhere around there. They had this idea of we’re going to have a team, of professional reviewers, 45 of us, that go in, take real photos of the mildew in the shower, and say, “This is a nice resort, but just so you know, they miss a few things here and there on cleaning.”
Well, it turns out that resonated with the travelers. People liked the idea of hey, this is the real travel experience. They did a great job of blending that helping and selling, and there’s ways to do that. As we think about the brand story, how do we come up with this brand story, right? That just high-level idea that’s really hard to just grasp. The first thing and the foundational thing, is understanding what a unique selling proposition is. A unique proposition is the idea that there is a customer that has a need, you have a way of fulfilling that need, and you have a different way that’s better than anybody else. That’s just boiling it down to the simplest terms.
There’s a need, a way to fulfill that need, and you can do it better than anybody else. If you can do that, you’re already light years ahead of most of the competition. That’s your foundational element. Matt’s going to talk tomorrow on the limited edition vacation rental. I would say, right here, that you can’t be a limited edition vacation rental without a unique selling proposition. Those two are very blended together, they’re tied together. This is the foundation for your whole sales story, we’ve got to nail this. Nicki, where are you, Nicki?
Nicki, back there, runs a site called Clanventure and I think this is a perfect example of a unique selling proposition. The premise of her site is, she’s going to have kid-friendly vacation rentals that are equipped with kid’s gear. I’m a dad of three young children. I’ve traveled extensively with three kids under the age of four. It would take about 13 moving trucks, and like a staff of 55 to get us into the airport. I mean, it was crazy. I mean, you have like pack and play’s, and seats that make a kid sit a certain way, bibs, I mean just crazy amounts of gear that you have to travel with.
It’s literally a miracle that we didn’t drop one of the young children while they were under our arms and we’re like trying to drag suitcases with our leg. We didn’t know that Clanventure back then. We didn’t realize that there was a listing site that solved my needs. And so, what she’s done is she has carved out the listing site that solves that need. It’s not about the amenity. You know, at the surface it appears, okay, it’s an amenity. You’re talking about an amenity. No, you’re talking about the dream because I don’t have to start packing way, way earlier, and figure out to cram all this stuff, and have this nightmare.
And so, there’s two options of my dream, a nightmare of trying to get all this stuff to the airport, and to the house, or you can take care of it for me, which starts way before the vacation even starts, and continues all the way until I get back. That’s a USP. And then, you’re thinking well, I can’t do something like that. This is too difficult. I don’t see what sets me apart. Vodka is not easy to market. What does vodka have to do with this? Well, vodka is one of the most difficult things in the world to market. It is just, at its core, a clear liquid that looks the same as water, and has a side effect of making your very, very sick the next morning. It’s not easy to market at all.
There was a company that was trying to come into the United States and establish market share. They had invested millions, and millions of dollars and this is the amount they had, 2.5%. So, 2.5% market share in an industry that’s almost impossible to break into. They’re up against people that have nearly unlimited budgets, very loyal user bases, and they can’t carve out any more than 2.5% until they come up with this ad campaign. I’d like to point out, it’s not even about the clear liquid that makes you sick inside the bottle, it’s about the bottle. It’s the shape of their bottle. That was their USP.
Their bottle would be something that everybody could identify with. They made it about the places people lived. The ideas people had. They made it about all these different things that people could identify with, everything from eating, to travel, and everything in between, and all of a sudden, people begin to feel like Absolut Vodka got it. They got them and it was part of their everyday life. The bottle became their USP. How did this work? Well, is the longest-running pure ad campaign in history. It had over 1,500 ad iterations. It was just crazy successful when you realize they went from 2.5% to 50% market share.
That is unheard of. You don’t do that in a competitive vertical like liquor. That’s impossible to do, yet they did it. On Mad Man and in ad circles, they talk about how a campaign has legs. In the college textbooks, they actually call this millipede. It was the millipede example because it did what was in impossible. That’s what they did with something as simple as a bottle. I think all of us in every one of our vacation rentals has something more sexy than a bottle. If they can do it with a bottle, in a much more competitive vertical, we should be able to figure out what that angle is. I’m not saying it’s not going to take some work, it will.
The second half of this actually gets into the marketing. How do we market something? Are we going to market it with just good photos of our vacation rental, or what are we going to do to market our property? If we want to help in our marketing, the first thing to understand is this is a long-term strategy. You can’t do this and have it work for you tomorrow necessarily. This is something that’s going to take some time. It’s going to take a big investment for some of us, a smaller investment for others. It’s going to depend on what angle you take, and what your own skills are, but this is a long-term investment.
When we launched our brand, at that point, we didn’t even know we were going to go into property management. What we knew, and our founding principle, our north star was, we will touch, and positively impact every vacation to our area. We had zero visitors at that point. A little bit of a lofty goal. We’re about halfway to that goal now. We have 22-million visits to our area a year. We’re touching about half of those vacations today. It doesn’t mean we’re making money off of them. It means we’re touching it. We’re positively impacting it. They’re having a better vacation because of our brand.
Because of that, we made a lot of decisions, some that weren’t easy. At one point, Wes and I left very good paying jobs to start this company. We then moved across the whole state, away from our family, away from our houses, to just work 70, 80, 90 hour work weeks, building a brand from the ground up. As we did that, we did the reverse of a salary, which is where you take money out of your account and put it into the business. We finally got to a point where there was money at the end of the month. We’re like, whoa, what the heck? What do we do with this? And so we’re like, I bet the wives would really like it if we took a salary. They like shopping and stuff. They’ve been really patient with us up until now.
We thought about it though, that didn’t fit into our long-term strategy. How would us taking a small salary help us get to that next level where we positively impacted more vacations? What we did was we hired contract photographers, and a full-time photographer to get into our market and take tons, and tons of photos. We had an award-winning nature of photographer from LA come out three times to photograph the hiking trails. We had a photographer that was staff with us that worked out of her our office that could edit photos that she could go to restaurants and take just beautiful pictures.
From that, we now own over 30,000 high-resolution photos that belong to us that travelers now get to experience the area, and dream about the area before they ever get there. That created all these hiking guides. We have like over 50 of these now for the most popular hiking trails in the area, and it’s helping people. So, you remember how we’re talking about, how are we going to make these intangibles, tangibles? This isn’t just about helping people, even though that’s the guiding principle because it turns out, these people that are researching these hikes, need somewhere to stay, and that’s where we make money.
We have hundreds of thousands of visitors a year that are reading these hiking reviews and then they’re booking properties. It’s fuel for your brand. Warren Buffet, when he buys a company, will only buy the company if it has a moat around it. This is this idea that nobody can attack the company easily. The wider the moat, the more safe the investment is, and the more he’s willing to pay or invest in that company. A wide moat means you’re protected from your competition. What we’re talking about, here’s a long-term strategy, how do you set yourself apart from that competition? It’s not easy for one of the other 400 property management companies in the Smokey Mountains to hire photographers to accumulate 30,000 images, to write these reviews, and all these things.
It becomes this protective moat around your business. It was just amazing. And so, you think about it, this is a competitive advantage, even though it’s a bit intangible at the surface, you can actually start to measure the ROIs, you see people entering your site, and booking properties. Now you know, not only are they coming in, not only are now less reliant on the listing sites, but you’re also doing it in a way that nobody else can mimic because you’re so far ahead. We’ve done a lot of work. We’ve helped these people. They’ve found us and they’re coming to stay with us.
That brings me to the serving part of the equation. A bad ending is just mediocre, lackluster customer service. The worst possible ending is they’ve had this great experience with you. You’ve sold them on their dream and now they show up and they get poor customer service from you. I know that in this room there’s a lot of people that care deeply about customer service. I also know that in this room, everybody, myself included, have failed at customer service. We need to learn from those failures and we need to strive for excellence.
Every single employee when they started for me back when we owned the management company, which we have since exited, we would talk about the 95% rule. The 95% rule is this idea that everybody, the worst brands get 95% of things correct because you know, the absolute worst brands out there, normally get 95%. There’s still a bed there. They still get a key to the door. They get into the unit. Most of the property is probably cleaned. It’s that last 5%, with the small things in the unit. They’re going to add up. We colored every decision with this 95% rule of customer service. How do we bridge the gap between 95 and 100%?
The closer we can get to 100%, the more likely we are to have satisfied that guest’s dream. And then, if we don’t for some reason, the more likely we are to be able to sleep with ourselves at night. There may be some people that we can’t satisfy, but if we’re as close as we can possibly be to 100%, we can live with it. Toiletries were one of the things that we saw popping up in reviews. People were upset because they had these little bars of soap that would break in the wrapper, and they didn’t feel really nice at all. And so, when we launched the company, we went to Gilchrist & Soames. We’d used those at Ritz Carlton’s on vacations and we knew it was a good brand of toiletries. It was a five star brand of toiletry. We were marking luxury properties.
We called up Gilchrist & Soames and they asked, “Oh, what do you? You’re in vacation rentals. We don’t really work with vacation rentals.” Sometimes, you have to get a bit creative and the truth, manipulate it a little. We actually have 400 rooms lodging. We’re a 400 room lodging provider. That made sense to them. “Oh, okay. Well, we can work with you. That’s a really big hotel.” Yeah, it’s kind of like that and then let them imagine whatever they want. We started putting Gilchrist & Soames in the units. People liked that. It showed up in the reviews that we had better toiletries than other people.
Pleasant surprises equal repeat guests. What you’re looking at there in the middle was early on. We would package these. I did them by hand, myself. Not an employee, we didn’t have employees at this point. That was 101 boxes at 3:30 in the morning. Each one of those boxes takes about ten to 15 minutes to put together. In that box would be two coffee mugs, branded coffee, a handwritten thank you note, branded mints, and some other things. Everything from assembling the box itself, to writing the handwritten thank you note, it all takes times.
Things like the coffee. We couldn’t find a coffee provider that would work with us. We were too small. And so, what we did was we bought coffee at Costco, poured into branded bags and then sealed it with a heat sealer, and then packed it in there. Every guest, when they left our unit, had one of those waiting on their porch when they got home. What’s the ROI of that because we’re talking about where’s the tangible ROI? I’m going to tell you one story and there’s a hundred different stories about these boxes, and how they impacted reviews, and repeat guests, and everything else.
The ROI that I want to mention is the time a guest was driving home and they were so upset at our property management company, that the lady and her husband were talking the whole way home. What are all the sites we can roast this company on? And then, they get home and one of those little boxes is on their doorstep. They open it, and inside that box is a note from me, the co-founder of the company saying, “I hope you had a really good stay. This is our passion.” All the things we would say in that note. It had my phone number, my personal cell if they had any questions or any comment about their stay.
She said it just kind of like hit her, “Well, these people must care even though they totally dropped the ball on my stay.” And we did. And so she called me. I had about a 30 or 40-minute conversation with her. She didn’t want anything from us, thankfully she did let us host her back for free. She never put a negative review up. She just wanted her voice to be heard. We gave her an opportunity. She actually became a brand ambassador for us and sent us booking, after booking, after booking, all because of a box. All because of the intangible, we were able to produce a tangible result.
We need to provide evidence to our guests that we listen. This was a guest that had sent in an inquiry, “Hey, we’re coming up because we just graduated.” We just left him some cupcakes put a graduation card together, put a few things in a bag, and just congratulated them on this life achievement. It’s not hard. When you show you listen, you show people that you care. Building relationships is very important. Some of us in the room are property managers. This same stuff applies to you if you’re a single homeowner. What we did is we went out and we said, “Okay, each of our owners is going to matter to us, and they’re going to be paramount to us.” You can do the same. You can apply the same to your guests if you’re a single property owner.
What we wanted people to know is, you are not a necessary evil to our business. You are our partner. You are the reason we exist. One of the founding principles we had on the owner side, was each owner would be treated like they were our only owner like they were the whole reason we were there. When it came Christmas time, we just put together some branded goodies that we had created. We’d ship them to them in a box and gift wrap it. It costs us, you know, $50.00, $75.00 an owner. These owners properties make us far more than that per year. They’re worth far, far more than that in an acquisition. And so, trust me when I say that it pays back in real just hard ROI, real money that’s going to hit your bank account.
What happens is, owners loved it. We got a letter like this from Dave and Arlene. They said that … we talked with them too as well. They said that this was basically their only Christmas present that year. They put it under the Christmas tree and they were going to wait until Christmas day to open it. That’s how excited they were about this. They called me on Christmas day on my cell phone and we talked about just different things with families and stuff that day. When you have an owner talking to you on Christmas, opening a present from you on Christmas, telling you about their family, they can’t call you and leave your program. You’re like this. You’re like family.
I’m proud to say that the relationships we built stood the test of time. We didn’t lose a single owner in three years because we cared about these things. This is an example of good customer service. It’s 95%, maybe 96% customer service. A guest left an iPad in a unit. They called up, said, “Hey, we think the iPad’s there.” It was a weekend, a Sunday morning. I drove over to the unit myself because I didn’t want to take a chance on it ending up missing, or any doubt about somebody taking it. I found the iPad where they said they had left it. I took it over to the UPS store. I packaged it up. I overnighted it, all at my expense, even put in a note and said, “Thanks for staying with us. Here’s your iPad back. We hope to host you again in the future.” Pretty good customer service. Not 100% though.
This is 100% customer service. The Ritz Carlton had a guest that stayed there. They had a four-year-old son that left Joshie, their stuffed giraffe. Now, if you have any four-year-olds, you know this is not a stuffed animal that got left behind, this is a family member that got left behind. This is serious stuff. The dad called up, found out that they were able to locate the stuffed animal, and said, “Oh, thank goodness. I had to calm down my son and told him that Joshie was just staying on vacation a couple of extra nights. The employee heard this and ran with it.
They made a photo book of Joshie by the pool, Joshie in the spa, Joshie taking the golf cart for a spin, all these different things. That’s 100%. They took the photo book, and Joshie, and sent it back to the kid with a nice little note. That’s 100%. You know, the iPad, 100% might have been something like if I had found my favorite keyboard for my iPad, my backup battery for my iPad and sent those to him via Amazon and had it there at the same time as their iPad and said, “Hey, these are some of my favorite things I use with my iPad every day, I hope you enjoy these things that I use.” That would’ve been closer to 100%.
This is 100%. How do we do 100%? 100% is not easy. We do it with a top-down mentality. Top-down maybe really small if you’re a one homeowner, but it still applies. A top-down mentality is the idea that we empower everybody, even it’s yourself, to make decisions that positively impact customer service. Ritz Carlton gives everybody from part-time housekeepers to the CEO a $2,000.00 budget to wow a guest. When we read that and we read about Joshie, we gave our staff $250.00 because we’re cheap, that they could use to wow a guest.
And so, we did that, and things like the graduation gifts started showing up. We had Marium, actually, throw a sweet 16th birthday party because somebody said it was their 16th birthday party because somebody said it was their 16th birthday party. She decorated the whole property, put in a cake, all that kind of stuff, and this was a stay that the gross value of the stay was like $300.00 and we spent $100.00, $200.00 on it, but they talk. There’s tangible ROI on that because you get positive reviews, and the positive reviews impact your bookings. This stuff goes a long, long way.
Empower yourself, even if you own one, challenge yourself. I’m going to invest $100.00 once a month, at least to wow a guest. Just empower yourself if you don’t have an employee. If you have employee’s, let them know that they have the authority to do this without talking to you, and the expectation that they will be doing this without talking to you, that way they’re completely comfortable doing it. So, a strange request. We’ve all received them, right? This is a [inaudible 00:27:38] Hotel. They received this crazy request from this weird looking dude that says, ‘Hey, my dad was an assistant to Christopher Walken in Pulp Fiction. It’d be awesome when we check in if you could have a signed photo of Christopher Walken in the room.”
It’s a pretty weird request. He wasn’t even traveling with his dad. He said later in an interview that he just wanted to see if anybody actually read this. They nailed it. They got it right. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that hotels can’t get it right and that we’re so awesome at customer service that we can’t get it right. These last two examples were hotels. Are you guys doing things this awesome because we weren’t? They nailed it. They got it right. Look at all this PR they got. They were on Mashable with a headline story, Yahoo Travel, they made all over the internet. That’s tangible results. They aren’t paying for clicks from Google. These news organizations are sending them clicks for free. That’s where you get results.
Protecting this brand, we build this huge brand and we’ve worked to get people in the unit, and we try to have great customer service. Ultimately, our reputation is critical. Reputation matters. There’s actually a branding formula that just says, “Your brand value is equal to your tangible assets, plus your reputation.” This is real stuff. We actually sold off our property management division of our company. There weren’t any tangible assets. We sold a piece of our reputation, just a small piece of our reputation. It was worth a lot of money. Your reputation matters.
Rick Oster, he sold his one house, and he sold it at far more than a property is worth. He sold it because he had built a reputation of people that would come stay with him. He built a business there. Reputation matters. A doctor gets dragged off a flight. It doesn’t matter the detail of this. It doesn’t matter. All that matters is this is the perception of United Airlines. If you say United Airlines, this is what people think of today. So, does reputation matter? I’d think they’d say so. Their stock took a 3.7% immediate hit. There have been reports that their bookings are way down.
The long-term impact of this is significant. People started coming out of the woodwork with other bad stories about United. They have tons, and tons of $50.00k to $250-million jets and their stock is taking a billion-dollar hit over one reputation incident and that’s scary because reputation matters. Every single guest, every single day will determine our value of our brand. It’s easy to sit around and point fingers and United should have known that. There’s oversold flights every day. They could’ve had better policies and procedures in place.
That’s the same thing that all of us have been saying until we stop and realize, we probably should have better things in place. Bed bugs. It will happen to all of us, eventually. If you stay in this industry, you will deal with bed bugs. That will be a crippling reputation incident for you and your brand, the same as United. Instead of pointing fingers at United and saying, “You did it wrong.” Figure out what are you going to do right? You know this is going to happen eventually. What is your game plan? How are you going to provide 100% level customer service when somebody has bed bug?
If we want to, we can sit around and point at all the other reputation incidents, or we can think about, how does this apply to my brand? This is a real deal. Google suggests when you start typing you see words there. This is not an old-school problem. Reputation is right now more than ever before. I was looking for a downtown hotel, Courtyard Marriott, bed bugs. I know how Google suggest works. This is based on recency of search volume of the last 10,000 searches directly related to that query. Does that give you warm fuzzies? It doesn’t me.
The really crazy thing is, once you get on that list, it’s hard to get off because then people will click that, and so then, now that’s another query related to that in the last 10,000 query’s. If you find yourself in this, you have to change the conversation. You better be doing something great that people talk about, that changes the conversation, that moves it from spot two, to off that list. People aren’t going to stay with you if bed bugs are an issue. Nobody wants to take that home.
Without integrity, we can’t even build a reputation. There is no such thing as a reputation without integrity. You know, there was a family and they were booking the travel back to like the dreams. They wanted to be that awesome dad and mom that were taking their kids on this once in a lifetime vacation, so they bought a $10,000.00 week at this place with these awesome beaches, and the beautiful water, and just great pictures of it. They were ready for that once in a lifetime vacation. Then they got there. You can’t protect your reputation if you sell a photo like that and then it looks like this. There is no reputation management software that handles that for you. It’s impossible.
They got there, the doors wouldn’t lock, the toilets wouldn’t flush, nothing worked. The air conditioner wasn’t working. They just felt sick to their stomachs. Their dreams were crushed. They had spent $10,000.00 on a week in this dump. That matters. It went viral. It was on lots of different news stations, and newspapers, and websites. You can’t come back from reputational incidents like that. Think about your reputation. How can you protect it? I know you’re thinking, hey, I would never do that. What would you do? Where are you willing compromise on your integrity? And figure out, hey, can we be more real with guests.
For us, one of the ways we did this was, we had a property that was in a neighborhood with construction. People were complaining to us about the construction noise. Well, I’m a marketer. I’m going to sell people. I’m going to get their money, except this incident that I was just showing you pictures of, made me rethink that because my brand value is tied to my reputation. We actually added verbiage at the top of every property in that neighborhood that said, “This is a construction zone and the people are building houses. There will be construction vehicles coming and going, and this is going to happen between the hour’s of 8:00 am and 7:00 pm, Monday through Sunday.”
All of a sudden, we couldn’t get the same price per night and that sucks because I didn’t decide to build next door. That was somebody else. The owner of my property didn’t, but I’m still answering to them for the revenue I’m able to create. It has tangible results though because even though we got less per night, we got more per year. We didn’t have to refund people that were dissatisfied. We were able to take better care of the guests. They knew what to expect. We weren’t having to field all these complaints. We weren’t having to let people check out because they were so disappointed in their vacations. We made more money.
It also meant that with photos, if we had a property with 20 steps up to it, we took a picture from the bottom of the 20 steps, looking up. We put it number two, right there after the first image. They couldn’t miss it. They knew what they were getting before they got there. When you think about your photos, your photos obviously want to present your property in the best light. You want profession images, high resolution and all that, but you do not want your property presented any better than it actually is on the best day. That’s a rule of thumb to keep in mind all the time.
It means you have to be honest with people sometimes. We wrote a post called, Seven Reasons You’re Going to Hate Your Vacation Here. Not normally what you write as a property management company, or somebody’s that into content marketing. This went out in every reservation confirmation we sent. These are real things. This isn’t some click bait. These are the reasons you will hate in the Smokey Mountains. It’s reasons I don’t like living there sometimes. These are real deal things. We said, “Hey, even though you signed an agreement that said this was nonrefundable, take a look at this list. If there’s something that bothers you, let us know, and we’ll refund your money.”
We gave them 48 hours to get back out of their reservation if they didn’t like something. We had people take us up on it, and that’s okay because those people would have been big headaches, I guarantee you. I was saying, we sold our property management business. We sold our reputation and reputation is of value. Understand that, and treat it the same as your own house. You maintain it like a house, right? If you have a house that needs a new roof, that’s leaking, would you just hope it gets better on its own? Probably not. We have to take care of it and protect it the same way.
As we wind down, I want to talk about something that may surprise you, the dolls. You’re probably wondering why are dolls in a keynote at a vacation rental business, or summit. I’ll tell you why because my account said I could write off some purchases … no, I’m just kidding. Maybe. I said integrity matters, right? I want to talk about American Girl. This is a brand that has not got in the race to the bottom price-wise. We talked about, you know, how do you set yourself apart? What’s your brand’s story? This is a brand that’s been able to resist the market in an uber-competitive vertical, where it actually looks like that in toy stores if you go down there and they’re all priced the same.
It’s the one company that has been able to get past that pricing and just resist the market pricing. It is the one company that my daughters like. Yeah, I’ve tried to like show them the cheap ones. They aren’t having it. American Girl was founded after a lady named, Pleasant Rolland went to Williamsburg and the history just came to life for her. She thought this is awesome. She was a textbook author. She loved education. She just found that education came to life for her as she was there. She said, “What if there was a way I could make education come to life for my nieces and for kids everywhere?” But, she didn’t know how she was going to do that.
All of a sudden, she realized there was this gap between Cabbage Patch Kids and Barbie Dolls. There was nothing in between that was filling that gap. Going back to the unique selling proposition, remember we’re going to find that need that people have. We’re going to solve that need, and we’re going to do it in a unique way. Well, her unique spin on it was, she was going to also have each doll tell an educational story. There was going to be a historical background to the dolls. As she did that, she developed a brand that started to just take off and ignored the free market when it came to pricing.
I can tell you that because I can tell you that pair of pajamas on that doll that I have two pairs of, well, not me, but my daughters, $24.00 each. I think their real pajamas are $10.00. Two and half times for fake like tiny pajamas, how? That’s the only thing my daughters want though, so we get it. It ignores the free market. They have beds that are $100.00 for a doll. They have dolls that are $150.00. It just completely ignores the free market. This is me right behind him in a check line that was about 30 people long at the Atlanta American Girl store.
It took about 20, 25 minutes to get to the front of the line to spend $330.00 on stuff for dolls. That’s what you want your vacation rentals to be. You want them to be the American Girl, the NetJets, the thing that ignores the free market, that makes it about the dreams, that finds that hole that you can satisfy better than anybody else. If you can do that, you’ll have a line like this for your vacation rental. Who wants that? I think we all do. What is your unique selling proposition? What’s that angle that you can feel better than anybody else, that market void that you can solve?
That’s a Saturday at an American Girl store. They get so busy sometimes that you have to stand in line before they open to get a ticket that tells you what time you can come back and spend $330.00 after you stand in line for 30 minutes for the right. This is crazy. The funny thing is, people said she couldn’t do it. People will tell you that you can’t do it. She pitched her idea to venture capitalist, she pitched it to Mattel, she pitched it to brands like Toys R’ Us. Everybody said this is a horrible idea. There is no market for an expensive doll. It’s a commodity-driven market.
She didn’t listen to them. She funded it out of her own money. She had a little bit of money saved up from her textbook publishing. She invested it all. The ad agency she was working with even told her, “Hey, don’t use it all in one year.” She said, “Screw that. We’re using it all in the fourth quarter of one year, and we’re going to see where this goes.” That’s where it went. She put a million bucks in and got $1.7 back. She put that back in and got $7.6 back, and $30, and at just $350-million a year. Remember how just crazy that it is. You look at it, how did she do it? She was committed.
She actually had a horrible episode of breast cancer. They thought she was going to die. She never missed one day of work. Even in the hospital, she was checking in, and she was driving the brand because she was passionate about this. You couldn’t take that out of her. In fact, she credits the brand for saving her life. It’s what she lived for and that’s why she was so good at it. Mattel, the company that wouldn’t fund her idea, ran into troubles with Barbie. Barbie had these declining sales, even though we’re competing on price. American Girl had these sales that were just skyrocketing.
They came to American Girl and said, “Hey, even though we wouldn’t invest in you, we’d like to buy you for $700-million.” How do you think that felt? To be able to look at those people in their eye and said, “Wait, you want to buy me for $700-million when you didn’t want to invest $500,000.00?” That had to feel really good. How can we do this with our brands? That’s what we’ve been talking about today. We can position our brand. We can concentrate on people’s dreams. Forget the 70-inch flat screen and figure out, how do we use just persona-based marketing, and other methods to sell somebody on their dream?
When you do that, you’re going to succeed. Help people. That should drive everything in your business, everything from how you treat a guest while they’re in their unit, to how you market your property, we’ve got to help. Serve, just make sure we’re taking good care of them. Use excellent customer service. Empower people to spend money on that guest experience. And then, protect the brand at all costs because that’s the value, otherwise, you just have real estate if you’re a homeowner, or you just have nothing if you’re a property manager, so you must protect the brand. If we do these things, we will succeed, and then tangibles will become tangible. Thank you.