The Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has caused massive disruption to every business that focuses on travel and tourism. We sat down with Caleb Donegan, VP of Digital at Vacasa, an international vacation rental management company, to find out how it responded to the challenges of the pandemic.
Click.: When the pandemic began, how did you mobilise and respond?
Donegan: At the outset, there was fear among employees and about our business in general. We also saw hesitance from owners, some of whom were unsure about having guests in their homes, while others were worried about the impact of lost revenue.
The first things we needed to address were cancellation policies and cleanliness. We introduced the idea of future stay credits to allow guests to get 100% of their money back as a credit applied within the next 15 months.
We then created our Vacasa Premium Clean programme, which introduced new techniques to help reassure guests that we’re cleaning homes to an extremely high degree using EPA-approved disinfectants. The programme was designed around CDC cleaning recommendations but also follows guidance from hospitality industry experts like the Vacation Rental Management Association's SafeHome guidelines.
Following that, we worked hard to understand the rules of when, and under what circumstances, properties could reopen. We still have a dedicated team tracking all of these regulations.
Click.: How did you react to the massive drop in business? Was there anything you did that, in hindsight, looks like a good or bad decision?
Donegan: Our new CEO, Matt Roberts, came into this scenario just a month into the job. Unfortunately, like many companies in the tourism sector, we had to both lay off and furlough employees. Many of those furloughed we have brought back since.
We made an important decision to shut down all of our homes for the month of April. It was difficult to immediately support deep cleaning and get all the gear our cleaning teams needed, but we also felt it was important to protect our housekeepers and people in the field.
Click.: How did you use the time in April to prepare for reopening?
Donegan: First, to be able to offer a more flexible cancellation policy, we had to quickly build the future-stay credits functionality into our booking process. It didn't exist on our website.
From a content perspective, we took our messaging and added it to our transactional communications, in our app and on our website - anywhere we communicated with guests, both pre-conversion and post-conversion.
During those first couple of months, we were not encouraging guests to travel. We didn't want to tell people to take vacations but we wanted to be thorough and highlight our new cleaning programme. Our thought was: let's not talk about vacation just yet. Let's talk about all of the things we’ve put in place to make the guest experience safer.
Click.: It sounds like pausing rentals for a month was a good idea in your particular situation. It sounds like you got a lot done.
Donegan: We did. What I was trying to look for during this time was a point of inflection. It wasn't about when people would start travelling or booking again, because we weren’t encouraging people to travel at all. It was trying to determine when people were going to start thinking about it.
When markets began to reopen, there was incredible pent-up demand from guests, who began to book vacations very quickly. A lot of those vacations were further out than our normal booking window.
Click.: The long booking window you mention lines up with trends we saw at that same time. Did you also see a lot of drive-to travel with short booking windows?
Donegan: Yeah, absolutely. And we're still seeing a lot of drive-to destinations and “near me” searches. Seven months later, we're still seeing guests travelling at higher rates domestically this year versus last year, and we're hoping that will continue into the winter season. There's still some challenges for the winter season, in terms of what ski resorts are going to do.
Since the initial shutdown of our business, we're way ahead of where we thought we'd be. There were two months that hurt us, but at this point, we’re seeing bookings at a similar rate to what they were last year. We took drastic steps - and it paid off.
- The pandemic hit Vacasa and its brand-new CEO hard, compelling them to offer refunds and future-stay credits before reopening
- During a month-long pause, it rolled out a Premium Clean programme focused on disinfecting and deep cleaning for all vacation rentals
- It built new platform tools for refunds and cancellations, incorporating messaging throughout the user experience
- Since reopening, the company has recovered and is now seeing bookings at a similar rate to what they were last year