Agency Management We’ve reached summer and passed the longest day, and as the nights start drawing in and my annual vacation is a mere 12 weeks away, I figured it was a good time to reflect on our busiest month of the year as June closes with Canada Day (July 1st) and for those south of the border, who begin their long weekend today, Independence Day (July 4th). I am the owner of two vacation rentals, Osprey Cottage and Kingfisher Cottage and both have been fully booked for the summer for months. In fact the majority of our guests in Osprey Cottage are back for their second, third, and in one case, sixth year, so it’s nice to be able to welcome people again, and know exactly how well our places are going to be treated. Back in the office though it’s been a manic month as we finalise bookings for the 200+ vacation homes that we manage at CottageLINK Rental Management. When I say manage, I mean we arrange the rentals – we don’t look after housekeeping, or maintenance or seeing guests in and out. The reason for this is that our properties are widely dispersed – the furthest away is in the very west of southern Ontario, near the US border on Lake Erie (six hours) while the half dozen we have in Quebec are equally far. So, it is not practical or manageable to oversee the housekeeping of our cottages. I’ve have a couple of people say how lucky we are not to have the day-to-day property management to handle, but we face an altogether different issue – that of 200+ owners managing their properties in individual ways. Maintaining consistency can be challenging but the majority of our owners either do the changeovers themselves or use local property management companies that do a great job. The 80/20 rule applies here so we are generally only dealing with issues from 20% of properties. I thought I’d share what a month in our life looks like as there are some issues that will be familiar to both individual vacation home owners as well as managers of agencies such as ours. It’s a Last Minute World Although we’ve had our busiest year so far since we started the business in 2004, and many properties were fully booked by the early spring, we have a massive last minute market. Given we are still listing new cottages onto our management programme ( 4 more this week), we are consistently adding availability, which is a good thing since a typical day brings several hundred emails and a barrage of phone calls. 90% of our guests are travelling less than 4 hours as they are mostly located in Toronto, so many decide at very short notice that they want to get out of the city – they often decide in the morning that they want a property that afternoon! The 80/20 rule applies again The 20% of our guests who are the last minuters generally cause 80% of the issues. It is usually the late nature of the reservation that results in complaints as guests are in such a rush to book, they neglect to read the listing thoroughly and reserve something that doesn’t quite meet their needs. Staffing Part of the June busy time is training new staff. We have five full-time staff but take on a couple of part-timers for the summer. One is our Guest Services Manager and the other deals with the massive amount of email that we’ll deal with over the next few months. This year, we have hired a VA in the Phillipines and Hana started with us in mid-May. We wanted someone who would work from 8pm through the night responding to emails and doing other data entry tasks. Hana works from 8am – noon ( which is up to midnight our time) then starts again at 8pm – midnight (our morning) which works perfectly. I have used outsourcers before for small one-off tasks but this is the first time we have hired for the longer term. We used an outsourcing agency in the Philippines and for a relatively small fee they took our job specs and found us 3 candidates, providing resume’s, references and an array of work profiles. After interviewing them all on Skype, we selected Hana and it has proved to be a great choice. We talk every day on Skype and she is very much part of our team. Expectations Guests have more expectations and demands every year, and when we take on new properties, we spend a lot of time explaining these to our owners who may have decided to rent for a few weeks just to pay taxes or fund a reno. They don’t realise that standards have to be the same whether they are going to rent for 2 weeks or 52 weeks. We tell our owners that the minimum standards guests expect are: Spotlessly clean accommodation High quality amenities and appliances Quality mattresses and bedding Up to date entertainment equipment – flat screen TVs, iPod docking stations, wireless speakers etc This year, wifi is the most in-demand amenity; and a dishwasher and laundry facilitieis are expected as standard. Why FAQs are a necessity Is there a blender? Where is the nearest marina/hospital/church/veterinarian/general store/liquor store? What fish are in the lake? How far do I have to walk out in the water before it goes over my head? These are just a few of the questions we field every day, and every year the list grows longer. We have taken all the questions asked about any property over the past few years and created a FAQ sheet for each. This just makes it so much easier when a guest has a specific question and we can refer them to the FAQ list. I’d love to hear what weird questions you get!! Problem solving During the summer months when we have upwards of 180 families in properties in a busy week, there are bound to be issues. Some, like today are just minor – a light bulb has blown and needs replacing; a canoe paddle has gone missing; the satellite TV isn’t working……….easy ones to manage. But when something major occurs it can take a lot of time to resolve to everyone’s satisfaction, and often that is just not possible. A few years ago at the VRMA conference in San Antonio, I got talking to another agency owner about how he handled issues and complaints, and he told me that each year he hired a law student who had some mediation experience to deal with guest and owner issues through the high season months. We thought that was the greatest idea, and this year is our second year of law student hire. Our current Guest Services Manager is terrific. He seems to relish every chance of dealing with a problem and handles them all equally well, creating compromises, managing even unjustified complaints and requests for refunds with a calm confidence. He will make a great lawyer one day. Moving the issue management away from front-line staff has been one of the best decisions we ever made and worth every penny. The added bonus is that last year’s GSM who has just completed his second year at law school was head-hunted by several leading law firms, and will be articled for his final year by the firm that has employed him this summer. His job with us came up in every interview he had and seemed to hold value for potential employers. It sure beats a summer job at McDonalds! Emergency Planning I seem to talk about the weather a lot and if you’ve ever listened to a podcast you’ll know it’s pretty much a focal point of my day. Here in Ontario, as in many parts of N America, we are prone to some violent weather – in fact last week saw two tornadoes touch down not far north of Toronto. So, we deal with ice storms and blizzards in winter, floods in the spring, tornados and violent thunderstorms in summer, and often the remnants of hurricanes in the fall. And I wouldn’t live anywhere else! However, with the risk of a major storm at least once during the summer, we have to make sure our emergency plan is in order and we are ready to deal with what nature throws at us. Last year when a storm drenched cottage country one Friday in July it brought with it high winds that took down trees and powerlines in many areas. At the time we had 148 families in properties with a changeover on the following day, the Saturday. Power was out across a vast swathe of the area, and with the coverage from the electricity company storm line, we were able to identify which of our guests would be affected which was more than half of them. Our Emergency Plan kicked into action and we brought in extra staff to handle calls; we liaised with owners and caretakers as well as guests; organised generators and emergency supplies for guests in cottages that were cut off. Some properties were without power for over a week; some guests stayed on and relished the back-to-nature camping type of experience while others were distressed because their children could not watch TV or check their Facebook updates, and had to leave. We had a plan, and it worked. This year we have refined it, put policies in place so our staff know what they can offer to guests, and we will wait to see if we have all our bases covered. 24 hour/7 days a week/365 days a year A few years ago I tried to book a property from a (to be kept nameless) agency in Sedona. It was infuriating because I wasn’t able to call during the day, and they only had voice mail after 5pm and weekends. I vowed at that time that our guests would never be directed to VM unless they requested it, and there would always be a real person at the end of the phone. We found a local call centre and were able to directly train their staff to handle our calls after hours, at weekends, and on statutory holidays and they have been working ‘for us’ ever since. Sometimes I get surprised when I call them to hear the professional greeting giving the name of our company with the name of a person I have never heard of, or met. They do a fantastic job and we never miss the opportunity for a sale because guest questions are always answered promptly. As we close out June and welcome Canada Day and July, it’s with a lot of satisfaction that we are doing a good job; business is up 23% on last year, and we are still selling, every minute of the day. What do you do that makes your high season run smoothly? Tell us your best practice…I am always looking for new ideas.