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Industry Perspectives

Lockdown learnings from UnderTheDoormat’s Founder and CEO

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CEO and Founder of UnderTheDoormat and Chair of the UK Short Term Accommodation Association (STAA), Merilee Karr shares the challenges facing short-term rentals during recovery – and the opportunities that have emerged

How can short-term rentals adapt to the challenges of Coronavirus and bring back business? Merilee Karr, CEO and Founder of UnderTheDoormat, a luxury short-term and vacation rental company, shares her learnings from a year of crisis.

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Merilee Karr
Merilee Karr

Click.: What’s been some of the biggest challenges and learnings for short-term rentals during this time? 

Karr: For me, it’s been about reaching new customers. Due to travel restrictions and other government measures, your database of customers might not be as relevant as it used to be. For example, in the past you may have hosted a mix of international travellers. Now, since international travel is limited, the staycation market is dominating. Or, depending on where you’re located, you may only be able to host essential stays, such as government and healthcare workers. 

The key to reaching these new demand segments is accessing good channels. For example, by working with Booking.com, you benefit from its extensive marketing efforts and get access to new, global markets. Being present on those bigger platforms and using them as a key tool to reach new audiences is critical, especially during recovery. 

The other challenge is there’s a lot of tech overload. Everyone’s talking about tech, and there’s always something new to implement and figure out. COVID-19 means that resources are often stretched, highlighting the importance of technology to automate and simplify operations where possible. Sometimes, smaller property managers are afraid of technology because of the complexity or the feeling of giving up control. That’s why we set up Hospiria, a service and technology package for independent property managers. We want to give smaller businesses the technology to grow their business successfully while enabling them to have full control. 

Click.: Did you uncover any new opportunities for short-term rentals during the pandemic?

Karr: One of the opportunities we had during this time was to show that short-term rentals are a valued part of the communities we operate in. We did that in the UK by launching NHS Homes, an initiative where healthcare workers could access affordable, or even free, accommodation. That initiative evolved into Trusted Stays, a new scheme launched by the UK Short Term Accommodation Association (STAA) that offers professionally managed accommodation to any government or healthcare worker. This led to government purchasing stays in short-term rentals for the first time ever and is opening a new market for short-term rental companies. Historically, it’s been a challenge because certain criteria had to be met that often only hotels could fulfil. Now, many short-term rental businesses have professionalised and can prove they meet certain standards through accreditation. 

I don’t think NHS Homes would have happened without the Coronavirus crisis, and Trusted Stays wouldn't have happened without NHS homes. It’s really exciting that in the deepest, darkest depths of the crisis, the sector came together. It says a lot about what collaboration is possible and what good can come from it.

Click.: How can property managers navigate the new hospitality landscape? 

Karr: Now is the time to think about your proposition. Do you still want to offer guests in-person service? Or, do you want to go fully touchless? This is something all accommodation providers are currently grappling with, and we’re going to see companies doing a mix of both. As much as guests want properties to have the right precautions in place, they don’t want the experience to be anonymous. One of my favourite sayings is: we want standards, not standardisation. If you make the experience too sanitised, clinical and anonymous, where’s the hospitality? 

Click.: We’re finally starting to see signs of light at the end of the tunnel. What’s your outlook for the short-term rental sector post-pandemic? 

Karr: I believe the sector will emerge stronger than ever in the recovery. Consumers see short-term rentals as safer because they are, by their very nature, socially distant. Additionally, the professionalisation of the sector has, in some ways, prepared it for a COVID-19 world. For example, having robust cleaning standards in place, which is now non-negotiable for many travellers, is something professional operators are doing anyway. Making a small change to further ease concerns, like including hand sanitiser or a face mask in your welcome pack, isn’t a huge ask when you already have professional cleaning operations in place. 

Click.: Finally, if you could share one piece of advice with property managers during this time, what would it be?

Karr: The recovery is coming. Think about the things you can do now – whether that’s upgrading your tech, rethinking your guest experience or focusing on your supply – to facilitate a faster, smoother recovery when demand does return. As soon as the traveller confidence is there and governments say it’s safe to travel again, we’re going to see an environment like the roaring 20s, a century on. Make sure you’re prepared for it so you can be one of the success stories. 

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    Takeaway
    • Using good channels as a key tool to reach new audiences is critical during recovery
    • As a result of the crisis, STAA launched Trusted Stays, a new scheme offering professional managed accommodation to any government or healthcare worker
    • This led to government purchasing stays in short-term rentals for the first time ever, opening a new market for short-term rental companies 
    • Now is the time to think about your proposition. Do you still want to offer guests in-person service? Or, do you want to go fully touchless?