At Rental Scale-Up, we connect with people from all corners of the vacation rental industry. Some are well-known names hitting the conference stage. Others sometimes work behind the scenes and yet can bring so many insights about vacation rental businesses: They spend their days turning inquiries into bookings and finding their ways through the intricacies of OTAs such Airbnb and Vrbo. Elizabeth Donn is of them. As a reservation specialist, she handles guest inquiries, communication, and bookings for several property managers who want to scale up.
In this interview, Elizabeth covers:
- Key differences between the OTAs (Airbnb vs Vrbo vs Booking), as seen from the reservation & booking angles
- What changes when an OTA is merchant of record or not (e.g. how your guest pays is different and you may have to explain a lot more about OTA service fees to each guest)
- Why OTAs are still lagging in terms of guest identity checks (and what you can do about it)
- What an outsourced reservation specialist does.
- What it takes to be a virtual assistant for short-term rentals
- The questions you should as asking before hiring anyone for the job.
Dear Rental Scale-Up Club Members, today I’m with Elizabeth Donn, she’s the CEO founder of Reservation Specialists. Her company helps property managers do a better job, be more efficient and be great at guest experience. Elizabeth will explain exactly what she does because it’s very interesting. She can explain to you why you could outsource this important function of your vacation rental business. She will share which questions you should be asking before you hire anyone for this job.
Elizabeth is also an industry expert. She knows the industry through and through, and she will be able to explain to us the major differences she sees among OTAs. For example, from the notion of safety or notion of background checks or knowing what’s going on, these are key differences among OTAs.
Could you introduce yourself, what your company does, explain what, how a company like yours basically can help a property manager grow in scale?
Introducing Elizabeth Donn, from Reservation Specialists LLC
Yes, well, this all started back in 2013 when I was introduced to property management and introduced to short-term vacation rentals really. I was a former school teacher and really was looking to segue into something that involved travel and real estate and this really sort of blended itself.
So I was meeting with different property managers and understanding that there are property management softwares and then there’s also sites, booking sites we used to call them. We used to call them advertising sites. We never really called them OTAs until recently.
So I started to just dive in really to the software and understand, and I realized that I could help property managers really scale up. If they could have the ability to give some of their really busy, hectic jobs away then they could scale and have more time to network, market and do what they need to do to really grow and scale themselves.
So I started out my first job, it was in Miami and I learned as I picked up in the industry and now with what I know I’m able to really bring, especially baby property managers, lots of value and help them sort of navigate the course of the decision making of what softwares they would choose over another software.
What do you do on a daily basis? I think it’s one of these like hidden functions people, may not know about and may not know they can actually outsource. So it’s pretty fascinating because you are on the ground and it gives you an amazing viewpoint on how the industry works.
What does a vacation rental reservation specialist do?
So I’m able to scale with a property manager, whether they’re big, huge, large, or tiny because I work as much as they need me.
One of my biggest functions obviously is guest communications. So I’ll go into their property management software and I’ll look at all of their templating. I’ll also go into all of how their market their listings, and I’ll do a big overview of their company.
Then I go in and I actually become their communications person. So when a guest inquires online, whether it be from an OTA or directly, they go to me and then I sort of pull them through the process and help them book. Sometimes they get to call me and I can help, create their vacation, help them then get through all the layers of booking a vacation rental.
So this sounds like Elizabeth, you can solve a lot of issues or problems on the operational side, especially when people are expanding. So if I were a property manager, it could sound exciting and scary, right? I would give you the keys to my new PMS and you’d be the voice of my company. You’d be the person talking to my guests.
So let’s imagine I’m a property manager, I want to hire somebody like you, i.e. a reservation specialist for vacation rental businesses, a virtual assistant for short-term rentals. What good question could I be asking to make sure I have the right person working for me for my business?
How to hire a reservation specialist or a virtual assistant?
You certainly want to do a background check. You want to make sure they’ll sign an NDA, a nondisclosure agreement because you are privy to sort of their financial input-output and maybe some of their secret sauce as a property manager.
You also want to be able to scale with them. So initially a property manager is going to have very tight margins. There’s a lot of output, there’s marketing, there’s paying the OTAs, there’s all that goes into being a property manager, replacing things sometimes.
So the scalability it’s a little frightening to take on me because it’s expensive. It can be expensive or it doesn’t have to be. So I can either do as much as doing some administrative work for them, all the way down to just doing inquiry work for them.
We have a whole reviews program that we can implement to help get great reviews, track them, and see how many guests are returning every year. And who are those returning, repeating, reviewing guests. Those are the red carpet guests that we really want to bring back every year.
So I help them sort of go through those processes. You want to ask a reservation specialist, “What hours are you willing to work?” I’m on the west coast, you’re on the east coast, how are we going to do this? And we do have a team. So if they need somebody 24 hours, we can manage that. We’ll find somebody to be that extra hour on the hour. But we work together obviously with the property manager and see what their needs are first. So it can be a lot, or it can be very little.
And maybe one question I should be asking to you really, you said background checks, or how about experience? How can I gauge the experience? For example, I can go on a freelance website like Upwork and I see these great people with great profiles from the Philippines for example. What does it take to be a virtual assistant for short-term rentals?
Well, if you wanted to hire me for your St Barths properties, Thibault, I would say, “Well, gee why don’t you reach out to one of my beach markets and maybe you can chat with my client and see how our company has helped them.” And then you can kind of, if it’s a mountain market, maybe I would recommend somebody in Breckenridge to speak with one of my other clients.
Then, you could actually go to my website. I have a website (thereservationspecialists.com) and we’ve had lots of experiences.
You could take me on part-time and just see if it’s something that you really, it’s working out for you and then grow from there. You know, maybe they’ll say, “Oh, maybe we’ll just do this for like a month. Let’s see what happens for a month. And if you’ve really taken a lot off of our hands that we can grow our business, we’ll revisit it in a month and see how it works out.”
You go into PMS systems, you go into OTA systems, you’ve been working with different clients. You have a team of people. You’ve seen a lot when it comes to these booking sites/ OTAs. So what are the key differences that people really should have in mind when they’re thinking about Vrbo versus Airbnb versus Booking.com?
Whether a platform is the merchant of record or not has an impact on the volume of guest communications
Okay, good question because there are two really big things that stick out.
The first is that when you’re choosing which OTA to use, especially in the beginning, you want to remember one is going to be the merchant of record, the MoR. Who is going to be the person who collects the money before the guest checks in. That’s a key difference.
Airbnb is the merchant of record, for instance. So they collect all the monies before the guest checks in, and then the money is then deposited into your account when the guest checks in. The opposite of that would be, if a property management company is working with Vrbo. If you are a preferred partner Vrbo says, “You’re the merchant of record.” And so then you’re then collecting the deposit and the balance of the stay and Vrbo is taking their service fee.
So that’s something that as a reservationist a lot of times you’re going to have to explain to guests. Because they’ll say, “Well, your template says that we only paid this much, but we actually paid this much”, but they don’t realize that they paid a service fee because they haven’t looked at their bank statement to see that Vrbo has taken out this and this property management company has taken out this.
So it’s interesting, so in terms of being the merchant of record, then you have a little more flexibility then when it comes to cancellation let’s say. So let’s say your owner changes their mind last minute, “Oh, I know you have that reservation, but I really forgot and I need to be in my space at that time, my home.”
So then that’s where we come in. We have to cancel the reservation or really try to move the reservation to something else in the portfolio and then hopefully work with the guest, make sure that they understand. And sometimes that can be a tricky process. If it’s a Christmas booking, let’s say, or a really important holiday or reunion. And then I’ll even go the extra mile sometimes with guests and help them find and give them advice if our portfolio is full. So that’s one of the big things is merchant on the record.
Another one that I’ve realized is verification. Now, verification, guest verification, that’s fairly new on the scene. I mean, when we started, this was not a consideration really.
So what’s changed? What changed? Is it people changed or technology-enabled you to check both stuff?
Guest verification: What actually an Airbnb verified guest? How to prevent bad guests from staying at your properties?
I think, yes, I think a little bit of both. I think people now have taken advantage of some of the house parties and whatever. And I think that the OTAs have stepped up.
I think there are other technologies out there like SUPERHOG who sort of have started on now that really allow property managers to have a little bit more of a handle on who is actually coming to their property. Because property managers take care like it’s theirs. So they’re going to take on that responsibility of the guests coming in and certainly we do too. Cause the guest starts with us.
So we want to make sure that we do our due diligence. Now Airbnb, obviously they say they’re verified guests, right? What does that mean? Oh, they say a government-issued ID, but I don’t know Thibault if you’ve noticed lately, but sometimes I’ve had Airbnb guests that don’t even give us their cell phone number, right?
Oh wow, really?
So verification, yeah. So you don’t know their mailing address, which is not really necessary I guess, but if we have a cell phone number that’s New Jersey, right? We have a guest that is verified okay but then they’re calling me now, cold calling me from a Miami telephone number or something. So then you’re like, “Wait a minute, are you really the guest you say you are?” So there’s this verification that they say they’re doing, but I have found that people use other people’s account sometimes to book. Let’s say I was kicked off of Airbnb, but my buddy over there has an Airbnb account, so I’m going to book our stay on his account and I’m going, because I’m 25. So it gets a little confusing sometimes.
Yeah and sometimes I’m going to say right, if you’re are an Airbnb host, you have an account on Airbnb and sometimes you are using and sometimes, you have a partner and you both using your, cause you both handle the guest requests. So you use the same Airbnb account because you both host for the property and it does happen, it is weird for some, even if it’s legitimate and complete clean. It’s like some, some hosts, are like “who are you? You’re not exactly the person who’s in the profile.” You’re like, “No, I’m also a host, but I’m the other person.” So I can imagine, how confusing it can be and difficult.
It can be. And it’s important that you have somebody in place as a reservations person who’s not running around on their cell phone, in the car, driving, getting interrupted.
If you really want to do what you say, you know really good due diligence of bringing in the right guest. It takes time and it takes focus absolutely and asking the guest, there’s great companies though, SUPERHOG’s now just hit the Americas. And I’m so excited because I’ve started using it and I’ve already had two examples, where we’ve decided, I don’t think this guest is a good fit and if they would’ve booked straight out on Airbnb, we would’ve not caught it.
Interesting. I make sure to that, that friends at SUPERHOG see this video because that’s a great endorsement.
Well, we’re also sort of preferred partners with each other too. So I mean, it took me one, probably two days to go, “This is brilliant. This is really going to help property managers for sure.”
Again and as I said, you can really tell you know your thing and you know the industry. So imagine what if people want to connect with you and you know, either talk about the industry or talk about your services, what’s the best way to reach you, Elizabeth?
Yes, I have a website. I absolutely do. You can just go Reservation Specialists LLC, or you can do @thereservationspecialist.com. So we have a.com and then also I’m on LinkedIn. So my company’s on LinkedIn. I’m Elizabeth Donn, I’m on LinkedIn, you can PM me. I love giving advice. I love sharing stories. I have a lot of them. I could entertain an entire dinner party for an hour.