Oliver Bell, the founder of Oliver’s Travels, one of the biggest British villa rental companies, tells Rental Scale-Up how he has grown the company, how COVID-19 impacts his business, what his company’s promise of “finding the extraordinary” really means and shares his thoughts on Marriott International’s move in the homes and villas business.
In the UK, Oliver’s Travels is a big name in villa and chateau rentals. Your company sends travellers to Southern Europe and Mediterranean countries. What are the three most impactful things you’ve done to grow your company to where it is today?
When Ravi and I first founded the business in 2004, it was trading as Simply Chateau and we were focused solely on the rental of chateaux in France. We subsequently launched a number of other destination-specific websites but the only part of the business that was really getting enough attention was France as it was the main revenue generator. So, in 2013, we took the decision to put all of our destinations under one roof and re-brand to Oliver’s Travels. Since then we have grown at least 40% every year (up until Covid), culminating in our entry to the Sunday Times Fast Track in 2019. So it was certainly the biggest and best decision we ever made.
Not far behind the re-brand, from an impact point of view, was switching from a transactional model to one that puts customer experience at the centre of everything we did. Before the re-brand, we were a small team and we were not dedicating enough resources to every part of the booking journey. As soon as we realized how far behind our competitors we were in this respect, we mapped out the 50 or so touchpoints that we had with every customer from initial enquiry to their return from the holiday, and we just asked ourselves what could be done better at each and every touchpoint. This was obviously an absolute game-changer for our repeat booking rate.
Finally, as we’ve grown in size and started to deliver our owners the lion’s share of their bookings, we have also been able to take more control of the product by focusing our energies on exclusive contracts and the acquisition of a number of regional property managers.
How has COVID-19 changed your business? For instance, have you added more UK properties to cater to domestic travellers? How is your team dealing with ever-changing international travel restrictions?
We were actually very fortunate when compared to most of the other villa providers, as we already had a strong UK programme which mostly catered to the domestic market. Once the initial batch of 2020 deferrals was in hand, we diverted much of our product team resources to growing the UK programme so that by the end of the year it was a full 25% bigger than it was 6 months earlier. The UK went from being 13% of the business to 55% in a matter of months, but bookings to Europe for 2022 are now picking up at pace again.
The ever-changing travel restrictions have obviously been a bit of a nightmare to deal with as it’s been a question of continually updating the information on the website and then communicating it to all of our customer base. The uncertainty has also meant that many customers preferred to try and defer their holidays rather than taking them for fear of changing rules whilst they were away. That said, the government were between a rock and a hard place and I’m not saying I would have come up with a better solution!
You help your guests find the extraordinary. What does it mean?
At the very heart of what we do is the recognition that you only get a limited amount of holiday each year so why spend it somewhere ordinary? You could spend a week in a purpose-built villa within modern urbanization OR you could stay in a historic 300-year-old trullo in Puglia, or a medieval chateau in France, or a converted lighthouse in Croatia, or a Spanish finca surrounded by olive groves…the list goes on!
Consistent quality is the name of the game in luxury rentals. After your destination experts handpick a property, how do you ensure that it remains up to your standards over the years?
We only contract directly with holiday home owners and their property managers, we do not re-sell homes through other agents. This direct relationship means that we have a lot of input into how the homes are set up and run. We also conduct regular site visits, both for the product team for contracting purposes and FAM trips for the sales team. We are also constantly collecting and acting upon guest feedback (both during the stay and after their return), and we make sure we jump on any issues as soon as they are raised. We also supply our owners and property managers with pre-holiday checklists to ensure they adhere to the highest standards.
Marriott International’s Homes & Villas subsidiary seems to have captured the attention of many European high-end property managers. We’ve heard that booking volumes were not quite there yet, as American travellers are few, given travel restrictions. However, luxury property managers see it as a third-party quality label worth adding. How do you see it? Is it the only marketplace where Oliver’s Travels is currently offerings its villas?
We were actually one of the very first companies to partner with Marriott and clearly, the timing of the pandemic can’t have helped their booking volumes. But even though the volume may not be there yet, they have been fantastic to work with and we know it won’t be long before it comes good. They are an incredible brand and the high standards required to include your homes on the Homes & Villas platform have meant that we have also brought many of our homes up to a hotel standard in order to be added to the collection. So if it also raises vacation rental standards in the long term it can only be a good thing for the industry.