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Vacation Rental Management Conference: Casal dei Fichi’s Bob Garner on eco-friendly vacation rental businesses

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This article is part of our Rental Scale-Up vacation rental management conference series. This is an extract from our April 2020 conference: “Get Your Business Through the COVID-19 Crisis By Discovering How Local Property Managers Resist the Global Coronavirus Epidemic.”

Vacation Rental Management Conference: Casal dei Fichi’s Bob Garner

Bob is the award-winner owner of Casal dei Fichi, a collection of 8 eco-friendly luxury apartments on an Italian farm. Bob has for years been very active in the #bookdirect movement. He will explain why developing true relationships with his guests helped convince them to reschedule their bookings for next year more easily. He will also explain why you should care about making your rental business greener: Because of COVID-19, travellers will first opt for drive-to destinations. With flight-shaming becoming a thing, there is a real trend in guests opting for out-of-town, eco-friendly places that they go to without having to take a plane.

Vacation Rental Management Conference: Video From The 2020 Local Property Manager Conference

  • Bob is currently in Le Marche in Central Italy, a little south of Venice. He purchased an old farmhouse and converted it into luxury apartments about 15 years ago.
  • He’s spending time improving his business and getting ready for guests to come back.
  • Most of his guests are regulars, so he stays in contact with them and considers them his friends.
  • Bob had to process a lot of cancellations and date changes this year, and he predicts there won’t be a summer season at all this year. He refunded all deposits or held on to the deposit if the guest changed dates.
  • When Bob reached out to his guests about cancellations, who were disappointed but understanding. Most of the guests were able to reschedule.
    • He’s also received a lot of messages of concern from past guests, just checking to make sure Bob is okay.
  • Bob thinks the property managers who will weather this crisis the best are the ones who have built strong relationships with guests and have a loyal base of guests.
    • These relationships cannot be built overnight, but you can start by maintaining good communication and providing great service.
  • Bob lives on-site, so he has lots of opportunities to deliver a great guest experience. He says his guests’ enjoyment is absolutely paramount.
    • He also says that hospitality needs to come from the heart, it needs to be human and genuine. Otherwise guests will see that you’re not being honest.
  • This time is the perfect opportunity to invest in making your property more eco-friendly.
    • Guests are more sensitive to environmental issues and people become more hesitant to fly, opting to drive instead. Many of Bob’s guests drive to his property from elsewhere in Europe.
  • Bob never preaches or forces people to care about his green efforts. His website has a few pages about environmental friendliness and they try to subtly educate guests when they’re on-site with the hope that they’ll leave the property with a more eco-friendly attitude.
  • Hosts who run an eco-friendly business can use it as a point of differentiation among the competition, but it’s important to genuinely try to do the right thing instead of just slapping an “eco-friendly” button on your website.

Vacation Rental Management Conference: Full Conversation Between Bob Garner And Thibault Masson

Thibault:

Dear Rental Scale-Up members. Thank you for joining us for this new session. I’m joined now by Bob garner. Bob is in Italy now. And he’s the the owner of Casal dei Fichi, which is a suite, a series of luxury eco-friendly apartments in Italy. So would be talking about the business, what the business is like usually for him in spring and in the summer we’d be talking also about what it’s like right now. We also have a different two very interesting topics to discuss with Bob. One is greening your business, why now downtime may be a good woman to to invest into green initiatives. And the second thing we’ll be doing, we’ll be talking about direct booking. Bob has always been very strong in, in direct bookings and making sure people are rebooking with him directly. So we’ve talked about how this could be a strength for his business right now and what you can do maybe to so get this to help your business in his current situation. Further ado, Bob. Hello. How are you?

Bob:

I’m good to go. How are you?

Thibault:

I’m being pretty good. Pretty good. Thanks. So I was saying you, you’re in Italy right now, so, so where are you in, what’s the lockdown like?

Bob:

Yeah. Yeah. So we’re in, we’re in a region called La Marche in Italy in central Italy, a little bit South of Venice. Not very well known. We’ve been here for 15 years now. We bought an old farm house and converted it into luxury apartments. And we love it. We live on site and we, and we love what we do. At the moment, of course, like everybody else where I’m locked down. So no guests the bookings that we had early part of the season of obviously had to be canceled. And we’re spending our time, you know, improving our business looking forward to when the business can start again and what we can do to make the most out of that for ourselves and for our regular guests that come to us each year.

Thibault:

Hmm. So are you basically writing off the whole early part of the of the service season? What do you think is going to happen?

Bob:

Yeah, w w what we’ve tried to do, because most of our guests are regular guests and we get to know them, they almost friends towards, we kept him very lean, regular contact with them. So early on, many, many weeks ago we wrote to them and we said we’re going to waive the booking period for cancellations so that you can hold off making a decision about your holiday until the last moment and if you decide to cancel or if we have to cancel on you, of course we will refund you your deposit. We would never hold onto that all we’ll book you in for the following year. We’ve since obviously had to cancel some of the bookings and we’ve canceled up until the middle of July. But in all honesty, we don’t think there’s going to be a season this year. We can’t see things being relaxed and back to normal. The guests will feel comfortable coming or will feel comfortable hosting them and giving them the great whole bit of the expected cause I’ll be faking. So we’re, we’re assuming half the half the season has gone, but in theory we think it will, it will all go in the end, but we’ll wait and see.

Thibault:

Okay. Well it’s very interesting in what you said is that obviously you, you knew your guests and I think you have a, a rebooking rate of about close to 60% I think. Right. So what’s been the reaction of your, your guests when you approached them and said, well, basically this is what’s happening. You may can switch if you want or you can postpone your stay. What, what has the reaction been like?

Bob:

Well, of course, as I say, we know them really well and we’ve kept in locked lots of contact with them when we’ve had so many messages, emails and phone calls from our regular guests asking how we are. Because of course, until recently, Italy has been the center of the, of the virus in Europe. So they’ve obviously been concerned for our welfare. But we’ve kept them in touch with what’s going on. Of course, they’ve been disappointed if we canceled. But they’ve understood and really some of them would have canceled themselves. They were just holding off and waiting. So everyone’s disappointed. Most of the ones that have canceled have we booked for next year and we switched their deposit to next year. All there’s a waiting to see, we keep getting messages saying we hope to come. We coming in August, we’re coming in September, whatever it might be or we hope they can come to, but really don’t think that’s going to be possible. And I’m hope I’m proven wrong.

Thibault:

Hmm. So this is what we’re hearing about your rebooking rate, for example, or this close relationship you have with your guests because you are a big proponent of the direct booking movement, I believe, right? And yes. How do you think it’s, it’s helped you well, can, can understand already from what you just said is how it’s helping you, your, you litigate a crisis. But for property managers or vacation rental owners who may have not done this before what, what can they learn from what you’ve been doing? What could, what can they do now?

Bob:

Sure. Well as I, as I wrote in a recent article, I think the property owners and the managers who will be the most successful going through this crisis will be the ones who’ve already built a good relationship with guests and have a regulatory on sale because those people who put the effort and the time into that relationship building, it will come back and pay dividends them because those guests are loyal. They will be considerate of our situation if they were treated well in any cancellation process and any management of the deposit, they will remember that and they will come back. But of course that relationship has been built over many, many years sometimes. But of course you have to start somewhere. And so I think the important thing is, is communication with your guests both before they arrive, while they’re with you, after they’ve left.

Bob:

And of course, in our situation, we have the advantages that we live on site. So we interact with our guests every day. And so for those, the absolute passion that we have for our business comes through. I hope because we love interacting with our guests. It’s by far in a way, the most enjoyable part of the job that we have. So we see our guests every day, we talk to our guests every day. We help them have a good stay. We host a pizza party for them. That, that their enjoyment of their holiday is absolutely paramount. So was, and we hope that they go home happy and satisfied. And they seem to, in terms of booking again, Oh, in terms of the reviews that we get and the people that they recommend to us. So how the loyal following, but of course that’s only as good as the last interaction that you had with the guests.

Bob:

So it’s not a one hit wonder then you’re done. You’re only as good as the last time you spoke to that guest. The last time you reached out to them, the last time that you communicated with them. So it’s an ongoing process. It isn’t something that’s just a tick box and then it’s done. But so what was it comes naturally we enjoy with people, people, myself and my husband who run the business here. And for those it’s the, it’s the best part of the job. So I hope it comes across as natural because it feels very natural to us. So so how can property managers or owners who, you know, may have collected email addresses but have not maybe regularly kept in touch with their customers or people who stated that guests, how can they reach, reach out to them now and make it feel like, as you say, natural for them to reach out right now will be simple?

Bob:

I’m advice because I like, for example what you said about sharing some flexibility for people with upcoming bookings for example. That’s interesting. But what kind of advice can we give to people who want to start out now and you don’t want to look like they are hungry for bookings too much? Sure. I think, I think it has to be genuine. It has to be heartfelt. It has to have meaning. There is no point in communicating with a person face to face or in writing or through a message. If you’re just giving some prostitutes and you’re just trying to create a relationship artificially for your own personal, I think it has to come from the heart. You have to mean it. People are not stupid otherwise they will see through that communication and I think it has to be built. You start by by also opening yourself up, telling them about your situation, not asking for sympathy or support, but showing the human side of you and asking about their lives and about what’s going on in their situation.

Bob:

What are they hoping to do, what’s their aspirations, their holiday this year or next year, and trying to find out something about the guests so that you can find out what appeals to them and see whether the holiday package that you can offer would suit them. But I think also sometimes it’s also about saying, well, it’s great to hear about what you’re interested in. Actually, I don’t think my place this year is suitable for you because there’s no point in trying to shoehorn a guest into a situation when they’re going to go home. Feeling somewhat dissatisfied that isn’t helping anybody in terms of repeat guests. So it’s, it’s appealing to those people who are looking for, in our case, a traditional Italian holiday in the countryside with the swimming pool with the sea and who were interested in usually being quite gregarious, getting to know where the guests and getting to know the hosts and, and enjoying time together. Those are the sorts of people who are interested in coming to Santa Fe.

Thibault:

Hmm. So listening to you, a good use of the time right now is to maybe go back to a past guests or even people who had inquired and tried to reach out to them and get to know them better and then start the conversation again and share some news, get some news from them. But another way to choose the time is, could be as well to be stronger into a green green initiatives. And again, that’s, you were describing your place. It’s not just a place that’s luxurious, that’s beautiful in Italy. It’s a so very specific place because you’ve been very strong. There was reading a post from you on LinkedIn recently about this. Are you doing green your business? And that could be a, a good time right now for for vacation rental owners for you. And you should do this. And I would just want to say something here because we were discussing before this before recording about trends now and we hear a lot that this summer in Europe or in the U S as well drive to this nations, they’re gonna be big, right? Yes. But there was another trend happening in last couple of years. Months was the, the flight shaming, right? People being shamed because flying, so I had to drive anyway. So this, this is maybe these things are coming together and making it, making, making it seem more important. That’s

Bob:

Property management. [inaudible] Owners can prove consumers can actually do things that are green. So what’s your take on it? What have we been doing in neutral finish? [inaudible] Yeah, sure. Yeah, I think, I think there is the perfect situation could be about at the moment, as you quite rightly say, there’s this issue of flat shaming, people feeling conscious that by taking a flight, their carbon footprint is going up and that’s having a negative impact on the environment. There’s a great deal in the tourism press now and the quality chosen press about eco holidays, about how to make your holiday greener, how to have less of an impact on the environment. And there’s also a general awareness that’s gone up a great deal in the general public about what we need to do about climate change. It’s in the news all the time. Oh, it has been until the covert crisis, but it will be again and some of the crises that we will face in terms of dealing with the carbon issue moving forward over the next decade.

Bob:

So all those things together, you know, with people then thinking, well, maybe I can drive to the destination. So for perhaps 50% of our guests do drive to us. So the Northern Europeans do drive, the British tend to fly. Although some do drive we’ll see how that needs to change in the future depending on how the co-req crisis pans out. But certainly I think people are seeing that the green issue is becoming much more important. And for us, the two biggest things that are really that we talk about every day how can we make the guests happier and how can we continue to green our business? So those, it’s one of the most important things we do all over our website, all over our materials, through our touch J guide, through every email and every communication we talk in some way we touch in some way on the eco issues that we think are important.

Bob:

But what’s really, really crucial and it’s something that we’re very conscious of. We never preach, we never lecture. We never try and push it down anybody’s throat. We gently introduce it into conversations. We gently encourage guests while they will with us to help us do more on the green issues. And we’ve won awards as a result of our, our green efforts. We’ve had a great deal of press based on our green efforts, which of course press is press. Getting some press publicity is a great way of also getting some new leads into your business. That doesn’t cost any money. So we have a press page that’s full of press about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. And we’ve got several pages on our website all talking about what we, what we do in terms of making ourselves environmentally friendly.

Bob:

But what’s important and we’re passionate about it is it’s not enough that we are doing it. We want to use the guests as the multiplier effect. So if we can give them somewhat of a slight education so they go home with a slightly different behavior or a different attitude. We have, we have multiplied our effect by 200 people based on the number of people that might visit visitors in a year. So we’re using them in a careful and supportive way to become, to get the world to be even greener and towards it. It’s really important. So just give you one, one small example. You know, we offer a carbon offsetting scheme to our guests so that can plants and trees to offset the carbon that they’ve used in terms of traveling to us. I’m not saying it’s a perfect solution, but it’s a solution that goes some way to greening the holiday and allow a lot of guests appreciate that and most of them participate in it.

Bob:

So I would say that for managers and hosts, you know, something to this or looking at this, if they’ve not started that green [inaudible] start it and I’d be very happy to support and unlimited this and get into it too to me and I will. I will help them on that path. Take some baby steps to get started. And actually it’s really, really addictive. Once you’ve done two or three things, it’s really fun and interesting and easy to move on to something that’s slightly more difficult but slightly more challenging. We’ve been doing it for 15 years now. So we’re into some of the more complicated, some of the more challenging aspects, the being environmentally friendly, but every host, every manager could do a dozen things tomorrow just by tweaking their business slightly and it doesn’t have to cost them any more money, but they can then brand themselves and differentiate themselves from their competitors as somebody who is trying to do the right thing.

Bob:

And we’re not talking here, and this is very important about greenwashing. It’s not about putting a label on your websites that you can say you’re agreeing. One, you know, again, people will see through that. You have to genuinely believe in it and take genuine actions. But if you do, you can differentiate yourself from your, from your competitors. And there is a market out there for people who are interested and supportive of what we do. I mean, at the end of the day, who doesn’t want to be more green on that holiday? What harm does it do? Can only do good. Correct. So to be more about what you’re doing, obviously we put a link below the video to the [inaudible] dot com website. You can say, we can explore the website. You see a bit more what you’ve been doing up to. And if they won’t, maybe to, as you said earlier, people can reach out to you.

Bob:

So how I can get, how can they get the hold on you? Yeah, yeah, yeah. They can contact me through the website. We’re on drift. They’re all through the email [email protected] they’ll get hold of me. They’ll, they’ll find me on Facebook or on LinkedIn and I’m really happy to help anybody get them started. Help them develop an action plan, which then can get them on the road to being greener. And if they’ve got some free time at the moment, because of the difficulties everybody’s facing, it’s a perfect, perfect opportunity to take some baby steps that are not difficult, but will have a real impact on making you greener. And that’s something that you can then sell and promote to your, to your customers.

Thibault:

So Bob, thank you so much because was so thank you for your positive energy, because obviously it’s not an easy situation. I’ve been the lockdown business-wise. It’s tough for everyone, but you’ve also not only be able to know to give great advice about, you know Derek bookings, greeting your business, but also you’d be able to convey this positive smile, any funding energy that’s very immediate right now. So, yeah, thank you for the content, for the, for the Watson and how both.

Bob:

You’re very welcome and thanks for the invite. You’re welcome. 

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