Let me start by introducing myself. I am Damon Stoddard. I co-own a vacation rental property on beautiful Lake Chelan in Washington State. My wife and I visited Lake Chelan in 2011 and by June of 2013 we owned a brand new vacation rental called Marina's Edge. When we opened in 2013 we knew nothing about vacation rentals. I am professionally trained as a Six Sigma Master Black Belt (simply stated, I have built my career on continuously improving the companies I work for through the implementation of systems and the analysis of data). It turns out these skills have really helped our vacation rental business. In our third year of business we are building a second building!
In the book the eMyth Revisited, Michael Gerber encourages everyone to "Work on their business, not in their business". It was this thought process that led me to OwnerReservations, and today I couldn't be happier with this vacation rental software system. I approached the purchase of OwnerReservations with the intent of using it as our booking SYSTEM (Saves You Stress, Time, Energy, and Money).
In this blog I'm going to talk about how OwnerReservations has helped us focus on continuously improving our customers' experience. We use an approach called Net Promoter Score (NPS) to gather customer feedback.
The email triggering mechanism in OwnerReservations allows us to automatically send a survey out to every customer. In this survey we ask 4 simple questions, compute a Net Promoter Score, and get feedback about what people like about Marina's Edge and how people would like us to improve.
We use the data from these surveys to continuously improve our customer experience. For example, in 2013 the feedback indicated three major areas that we needed to improve on (parking was confusing and guests didn't feel there was adequate room around the pool to sun bathe in, and guests mentioned the rooms were letting too much light in). We spent $50 and put up some parking signs, we also did a major landscaping improvement, adding a very large grassy area for people to enjoy. Finally, we added blackout cloth to our windows to darken the rooms. As a result, our Net Promoter Score in 2014 was 77%. For comparison purposes, a recent benchmark study showed Net Promoter scores ranging from -15% to 70% across multiple industries.
We also take the verbatims from this feedback and use a tool called "Wordle" to help us visualize the themes. Here is an example of the output from Wordle summarizing the words people use to describe Marina's Edge.
OwnerReservations makes it easy to automatically collect feedback from our customers. Tools like Net Promoter and Wordle make it easy to glean insights from the data. Marina's Edge will always use these insights to continuously improve our customers' experience while staying with us! If you would like to understand more about how we've configured OwnerReservations to collect this data feel free to email me using the link above.
I'll also be writing a few more blogs on how we are using the data and analytics from OwnerReservations to grow our business.
We've added a bunch of things to OwnerRez over the past couple of months to greatly increase the level of automation you have available to you when responding to inquiries, answering emails, setting up email templates for certain situation, and integrating with your own website. Each of these things builds on the other, so this will be a multi-part blog series -- starting with an overview and delving deeper into each item one by one.
There are four major areas:
Rules define what is allowed at a given property, and can be found as a new section under each property. You can set up rules for anything from maximum number of guests to minimum number of nights per stay, to minimum number of days before arrival a booking may be accepted. These rules are applied through the system, particularly to automated systems like book now widgets and auto responders.
If you manually create a quote or booking that violates the rules you have set up, you'll get a warning, but will be able to override that and manually continue with the booking. The automated systems won't violate the rules -- if a guest submits an inquiry for 10 guests and you've got a maximum of 8 allowed, for example, they'd either automatically get a rule violation email or that inquiry would be kicked into the manual queue for you to address.
We've always had a simple month calendar widget. We moved widgets into the main settings section and added two more widgets to allow deeper integration with your website:
The ribbon calendar widget is a multi property calendar that looks similar to the one in the Bookings section in OwnerRez.
The Booking/Inquiry widget can accept bookings directly on your website. It collects contact information, dates, and guest counts, creates a quote for the guest, and lets them check out. All of the information is validated against the rules and rates you have set up for the property to ensure it matches your criteria. If the information violates the rules, only an inquiry will be allowed. You can also set the widget into inquiry only mode if you want to use it as a contact us form.
Auto responders analyzes incoming inquiries and instantly responds to them via email. Auto responders builds on the rules you have configured for the property and allows responding with system default or auto responder specific email templates. There are three different categories of inquiries: Available, Unavailable, and rule violation. You can enable or disable each category separately, and set individual templates. For a fully automated system, enable all auto responders and every inquiry will recieve an immediate response. You can also enable one or more separate ones and deal with the rest of the inquiries manually.
For example, maybe you want to manually handle unavailable time or rule violations so you can upsell guests to other dates or properties, and automatically respond only to Available and Quotable inquiries so guests can immediately check out. Just set the relevant settings and you're up and running.
Auto responders are disabled by default so we don't send out any unintended inquiry responses or quotes. They can be enabled/disabled for each property separately.
We have enhanced and renamed the "scheduled email templates" capability we had before and broken it up into "custom templates", "email triggers", and manual "scheduled emails". This is the first step toward making a much more powerful event trigger system. We don't have any dates to give out for the bigger system, but we've got ideas for other trigger events on the drawing board, like payment and security deposit charges, as well as plans for other contact types like SMS or automated phone call.
For now, this trigger system allows you to be much more specific with email, add custom emails manually as well as having event triggered emails based on booking arrival and departure. Each trigger can be configured to be applicable to all properties or a specific set of properties.
The email tab for each booking gives a clear view of exactly which emails will be triggered on what events and when for what bookings. You can also use the booking email tab to skip emails for a given booking, send them early or multiple times if the guest didn't receive, or add manually scheduled emails to the booking.
You can find the new Triggers and Email Templates sections under the main settings section.
Recently, we've been forced to make a corporate decision as it relates to pricing.
Users will no longer have free service in exchange for an OwnerRez-created merchant account.
We will be contacting each OwnerRez merchant customer directly about this news with more details on why we are making this change and the history behind it. The details are not something we want to share on our public website as it involves some bad acting on the part of our merchant account partner.
This was a very hard decision to make and something that we debated for more than six months. In the end, we were forced into making this change because of our merchant account partner's actions.
If you are not an OwnerRez merchant customer but would like to know the details, please contact us directly and we'll let you know.
What Will I Be Charged?
All customers, whether you use an OwnerRez-created merchant account or not, will begin paying the usage-based pricing that is listed on our website for all invoices created after February 1, 2015.
For instance, if your invoice day is in the first week of February, that invoice will show usage-based pricing for all bookings that were created during the month of January.
We know some customers will be frustrated with this change. More than half of you have been merchant customers and have never paid monthly fees. Please give us time to explain the details to you, by email, and we hope that you'll understand why this change is necessary. We are working on developing monthly fees that are not usage based for those customers that prefer that type. In the meantime, thank you for using OwnerRez and we look forward to a great new year of features in 2015.
One of the first goals we had, from the very beginning, was creating a simple way vacation rental owners could keep their HomeAway/VRBO calendars up to date and collect inquiry data across multiple listing sites in one central place.
This is part of our fundamental goal to be the best neutral vacation rental software on the market. We want to work with all listing sites, but we don't want to be part of - or influenced by - any one of them in particular. And we want you to be able to manage your guest data in a neutral central way.
Over the past several years, integration with HomeAway has gotten increasingly difficult to maintain as HomeAway continues to increase the security of their websites and hide the guest information you pay to see.
We have maintained an open dialogue with the HomeAway development team and continued to ask for APIs and other industry-standard ways of sharing guest data - again, data you pay for - but those needs have not been met.
The latest increase in HomeAway security is a 2-step authentication requirement which requires the user to get a phone or text message before logging into the HomeAway website. While we have developed programmable ways of integrating with this, it is fraught with uncertainty and our testing has shown less than desirable results.
Even more heinous, the HomeAway login screen is now using a fingerprinting technique to 'remember' the user's computer, but the technique is extremely buggy. During our integration testing, we found that we could access multiple user accounts even after restarting the browser and clearing login data!
This testing has shown us that their latest round of security updates is not well developed and is prone to errors and attacks.
Given this current state, and the belief that HomeAway will continue to hide guest data and make access difficult, we have made the official corporate decision that we will no longer integrate with the HomeAway/VRBO family of websites with respect to using the user's credentials to update their account.
In other words, we will no longer "crawl" your HomeAway listing to do updates. This applies to calendar, inquiry data and any other data associated with HomeAway listings. If it requires our system to use your HomeAway login, we don't do it.
We will, however, continue to integrate with HomeAway in public ways that do not require your login. For instance:
There will be a lot of disappointment over this, I'm sure, but we sincerely feel that there is little choice here for us to make.
I'd like to note that virtually every other vacation rental software provider - all of our competitors - have had to do the same thing. Over the past few weeks or months, they've been slowly turning off HomeAway integration except for the larger accounts that have at least 5 listings and support the PM API.
This decision to turn off HomeAway integration is not the fault (or desire) of neutral software providers like OwnerRez. It is the fault of HomeAway for making purposeful decisions to block you from your customer data and force you to use their reservation tools.
And would you do us a favor? Tell HomeAway how you feel about this. Contact them directly and explain that, as a customer of HomeAway, you'd like them to provide direct integration with software providers like OwnerRez so that you can manage your bookings more quickly and efficiently. If they mention using their own reservation software, remind them that you have listings on FlipKey, Airbnb, your own website and elsewhere, so you'd prefer that they integrate with neutral software providers like OwnerRez.
The good news is that we will have vastly more time to spend on features that you've been asking for.
One of the big drawbacks to supporting listing site integration, where it required crawling, is that is sucked a lot of energy from our development efforts. Every time HomeAway made a slight change, our crawlers had to be adjusted, tested and re-released. We have had to delay numerous new features - auto responders, rules, booking widgets, better notes, etc. - over the past two years because of setbacks with crawling. No more! We look forward to putting these efforts back on the front burner and getting them out there!
Need to jot down a reminder about the guest or booking? Want to flag the booking as having a problem? You can now do that directly on the booking. And anything you write down in the booking notes can be found in search.
Early check-in and late check-out
You can now set a specific check-in and check-out time on the booking, alerting your staff when a guest is arriving early or leaving late. The booking ribbon and calendar views also show indicators so that you're reminded in the future. You can also create email templates for the early/late check-in/out time so that your guest gets a confirmation of the change. Your third party people (staff, housekeepers) will also receive a notification just as they do when the dates change.
The "Double Blind" Email Problem
The major listing sites (FlipKey, VRBO) have been making it more and more difficult for you to see your guest's contact info when they send inquiries. We've tried addressing this by incrementally updating our inquiry parsing engine, but it's come time to think outside the box.
In the "Sync Settings" for a linked account, you'll now notice some double blind email settings at the bottom. This will allow you to direct your inquiry responses (the emails that say "yes, we're available") back to the guest through the listing site's internal messaging system instead of to the guest's real email address. This may be necessary for several reasons:
We'll be making lots of changes to our inquiry response process over the next few months as we work to close the gap between the listing sites' policies and your need for central management.
We are an online booking service for vacation rental property that helps managers and owners save time, create quotes and bookings faster, look professional and keep detailed records without needing an accountant or staff.