May 10, 2023

Special Episode: How to Build a Sustainable Brand, Live from RR Summit 2023 with Stuart Butler and Pete DiMaio

Apple Podcasts podcast player badge
Spotify podcast player badge
Amazon Music podcast player badge
Google Podcasts podcast player badge
Castro podcast player badge
RSS Feed podcast player badge

Today's episode is a very special one, as we bring you a recent panel discussion we hosted at Rent Responsibly's 2023 Sustainability Summit. What does sustainability have to do with branding and company culture, and why is it more important than ever to focus on this way of thinking? Tune in to find out!

Tune in as we dive into this topic with two of the smartest minds in hospitality marketing, Stuart Butler and Pete DiMaio
. You do NOT want to miss this one!

Stuart Butler

After 20 years in the hotel industry, Stuart recently became the Chief Marketing Officer at the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce & CVB, the official destination marketing organization for the Grand Strand. A native of England, Stuart moved to the United States in 2001 and has spent the past two decades implementing marketing strategies for hundreds of hotels and destinations worldwide. With a degree in Rocket Science from the University of Kent at Canterbury, he leverages cutting-edge technology and takes a scientific and innovative approach to everyday marketing challenges.

Pete DiMaio

Pete is the Vice President and Director of Marketing at TravelBoom. With TravelBoom, Pete takes an analytics approach to hotel marketing and works tirelessly to ensure his clients are able to drive occupancy, increase RevPAR, and improve direct bookings; all while providing a granular level of reporting that proves the return on investment. Pete has over two decades of experience in hospitality marketing from both the traditional and digital sides of the business. 

Highlights of the Episode

02:16 - Episode Intro by Dana Lubner, Head of Leadership Development at Rent Responsibly
05:17 – Guest Intro: Stuart Butler CMO for Visit Myrtle Beach and Pete Dimaio COO for TravelBoom
05:45 – What to consider when starting the brand
08:11 – What happened to companies that did not start thinking about building the brand
09:48 – Fundamentals for starters
14:23 – How not to get bogged down in making the right decisions
20:19 – Will the ability to customize by guest detract or build trust?
24:02 – The importance of company culture
32:29 – Assets that need to be protected
41:12 – Testing and why it's so important

Connect with STUART:
LinkedIn|LinkedIn PageWebsite|Facebook

Connect with PETE:
LinkedIn|LinkedIn Page|Website|Instagram|Twitter

This episode is brought to you by
Casago,Guest Ranger, andGood Neighbor Tech

Special thanks toRev & Researchfor being the presenting sponsor of Alex & Annie’s List.

Connect with Alex and Annie and get more real vacation rental goodness:



Dana Lubner (00:02:16) - Today's session is top Tips for Building a Sustainable brand with Alex and Annie of the Real Women of Vacation Rentals podcast. We appreciate your presence and we're thrilled to have you join us today. My name is Dana and I'm with Rent Responsibly, and I'm excited to be your facilitator for today's session.

Alex Husner (00:02:34) - Well, thank you so much, Dana. We're so excited to be here today. And, um, as, as Dana said, Annie and I, we are Alex and Annie, the real woman of Vacation Rentals. Um, I'm also a C M O with Kaco and Annie is, uh, director of Business de Development for Merit Homes and Villas <laugh>. So we're excited to be here and we have two amazing guests with us, Pete de Mayo, COO of Travel Boom, and Stuart Butler Cwell Visit Myrtle Beach. So, branding is something that, you know, we talk a lot about on our podcast. And, um, you know, something that really needs to be at the forefront of anybody in vacation rental, in any type of business within this spectrum, but especially as things continue to become, uh, more competitive. You know, the last few years it's been easy just to get bookings on VRBO and Airbnb, and now we're starting to see that, you know, having a brand actually is what you fall back on when that demand softens and supply just rises and you've actually really gotta go compete for bookings. So today we're gonna talk about how to build a sustainable vacation rental brand and what that really looks like, you know, how that, uh, affects the future of your company and, uh, the market that you, you operate in.

Annie Holcomb (00:03:45) - Yeah. So, uh, Stewart, I think yesterday we, we were able to kind of get a sneak peek on some of the ideas that you and and Pete wanted to share, but I think one of the things that we really wanted to start with was kind of the foundational, um, you know, starting point for anybody building their business and wanted to turn it over to you. And you had some really great tips of things that you think people need to take into consideration again when they're starting their brand and building it for that long-term sustainability and, and multi-generational handoff that we see a lot of these businesses do.

Stuart Butler (00:04:14) - Yeah. So, so the, the first thing I wanted to talk about is this concept called cathedral thinking. It's, it's not a new concept that's been around, certainly in the travel space for decades now, but it, it's, it's the thought that when hundreds of years ago when cathedrals were, were built regularly, it wasn't one group of people that built the cathedral. It would take multiple generations, sometimes a hundred plus years from start to finish. But, but it started with a blueprint. It started with a foundation that you could build upon. And so you knew that whether it was multiple generations of, of builders or multiple generations of, of the clergy at that cathedral, you still had the, the end goal in mind. You could pivot a little bit as you went along, but the foundation that you laid was thinking about what things look like 5, 10, 20, 50, a hundred years down the line.

Stuart Butler (00:05:00) - So for me, when you're starting with a brand, you, you obviously want to be thinking about the here and now, have one eye present on what you're dealing with on a day-to-day basis, the block and tackle stuff. But you need the other eye looking on the horizon and saying, what's coming next? What's gonna change? What's not gonna change? What are the things I want to be a long time from now? And so that, that gives you the freedom to think bigger than, than you can. It, it, it's easy to, to say and get overwhelmed on what you can accomplish in the next day or week or month or even year. But when you start saying, well, what can I do in the next decade? Often we underestimate what we can accomplish in that kind of a timeframe. So we have Visit Mole Beach, obviously we have a brand that is, um, important to a lot of people. You know, mole Beach is a destination, transcends just travel. It's, it's a part of their d n a. And so we, we try to be really good stewards of that. Like, what does the brand represent? What does it stand for? Who do we stand with? And obviously that evolves as we go along, but we're always doing it not just on what the latest craze is, what the the next fad is. We're really thinking about, well, what is this gonna look like tomorrow and the next day and the next year,

Alex Husner (00:06:09) - Stuart, along the good steward <laugh>

Stuart Butler (00:06:13) - All steward, right? For sure. Right.

Alex Husner (00:06:15) - <laugh>. Hey, uh, Pete, I'm curious for your take on, on what Stuart just said and what happened. You know, I mean, looking back three, five years ago, for companies that maybe did not have that, you know, forward thinking, infinite mindset of where they needed to be right now, w what's happened, you know, like if, if they did not start thinking about building the brand and, and that long-term thinking, where are you seeing those types of companies today,

Pete Dimaio (00:06:40) - The ones from several years ago that didn't do that, you're not seeing them at all. And I think that, oh, that is kind of the point that Stuart made, is if you don't build that fantastic foundation and you're always reactive to the latest market, you know, hiccup or trend or pandemic, whatever it might be, if you don't set up for a higher purpose and have that cathedral thinking you're going to, in many cases, go into a shell when things get hard. And when you do that, your com competitors are gonna go bypass you, you know? So I think one of the, the biggest things that take away there is to create that higher purpose and to have the, the methodology of saying, okay, we're gonna be here when this is over. So what do we need to do during any given time to make sure that we're not just surviving, we're actually thriving in those, you know, difficult times that were in the past and may come in the future.

Annie Holcomb (00:07:28) - So moving, so moving on. Um, you know, you, you, you get this foundation, you're, you know, using your cathedral thinking. What do you think are the, are the, the main points that people really need to focus on? I think, um, over covid, one of the things that we really focused on was technology. And some people that are starting out in the industry, they're not thinking long-term about that technology. They're thinking about, well, I can just put it up on Airbnb or V R B O and I don't need to worry about the fundamentals because the bookings are coming through that channel. I don't need to worry about if I add more units. I can keep continually adding to that. But I think that people need to step back and there's, there's some things that they need to think about in terms of their marketing and, and what that brand looks like to the consumer and how it, how it has room to breathe and grow. So what do you think are some fundamentals that people need to, to have in line when they start?

Stuart Butler (00:08:16) - I wish we had Southwest Airlines on, on this, uh, conversation. <laugh>,

Annie Holcomb (00:08:19) - We'll get them next time. They're

Stuart Butler (00:08:21) - Taking some interesting hits on that right now, right? Because they, they did invest in infrastructure and technology the right way. And, um, I, I think for me, it's important that you start by thinking about the consumer first, right? Your customer is, is everything. And, and, and if you make decisions through the lens of, is this good for my customer? A lot of other things sort of fall in place. And so thinking about reducing friction and booking process, thinking about how can I communicate with that customer if I'm cut off from them, if, if I don't have the money to, to spend on an OTA or a third party or something like that. So I think that's the, that's the rubric through which you wanna make decisions. Is, is this good for the customer? What's in the customer's best interest? I think if you start there, a lot of the other staff sort of, um, begins to take shape.

Stuart Butler (00:09:09) - The other thing to think about is, okay, what, what's fixed now related to our relationship with the customer? What's not, what's gonna change, right? So things like technology can change. We're seeing that right now, especially with a ai. I was at a conference last week and, and someone on stage asked, um, it was, it was about 300 destination marketing organizations, and someone asked a question, how many in the in the room have played around with chat? G p t, every single hand in the room went up, right? This is the fastest technology adoption we've seen in the history of humanity faster than Facebook, faster than tv, faster than the internet, faster than radio. It, it's, it's gonna be a game changer. And, and even we're seeing on a, on a weekly basis, there's new announcements coming out like auto G P T came out a week or so ago, and it's, it's just added tremendously.

Stuart Butler (00:10:00) - So you've gotta take into account that certain things are gonna change, but your fundamentals, your, your priorities of your brand, about how you treat your customers, how you treat your staff, what what our commitment is to the quality of the product. Those things, regardless of technology, should never change. So you, you want to start by saying, what are the things we stand for? What are our values? What are the things that we're gonna prioritize? Um, uh, not my phrase, but it's one I love where focus goes, energy flows. And this is, you have to decide what are your focus points? Where are the places we're gonna put our energy every day? Because if you get that that right, like cleaning the rooms, right? Like customer service and customer experience, if those are your core values that you're gonna put all your energy into, you are gonna be fine as technology changes, as as consumers change and things like that. So really write a list down what are the things that will change? What are the things that won't change? What are the things we're willing to be flexible on? What are, what are our immutable things that we will not ever move on? So that, that's a good place to start, I think.

Pete Dimaio (00:11:01) - Well, you know, and Stuart, I think that goes to the fact that technology is the conduit to what you actually offer. You know, a hotel, you, your vacation renter, wherever that might be, at the end of the day, you're about delivering amazing experiences and amazing memories to your guest. And that means going 100% in to being the best hotelier you can be. The best inkeeper think of it from that perspective. And I always go back to the way Starbucks hands you your coffee. They don't say number 2, 4, 7, they say, Alex, here's your coffee. Enjoy this. You just paid $9. Why

Stuart Butler (00:11:35) - Are they, they saying, Alex, here's your coffee when your name's Pete

Pete Dimaio (00:11:38) - <laugh>. I always, that's name, uh, for anonymity, small details, <laugh>. But, but you know, when you think about it from that perspective is if you can create, they say there's 100, you know, a thousand true fans, if you can become something that people look forward to, regardless of the technology that they use to find you, they're looking for you. You're not just the, the product that chat, g p t spits out mm-hmm. <affirmative>, you know, you are, you're the destination that they're seeking to find.

Alex Husner (00:12:04) - When you become a power brand, people will drive farther the wait longer, and they will pay more for what you have. And that's, I think we can all think of brands in our lives that fall into that category. Um, ha I mean, if somebody were to be starting to think about this at this point, you know, there's so many things that we don't know about the future, which at G P T, and I mean, of course, it's something that we know is gonna help in a lot of different ways, but we don't know the effect of what it's gonna have in the long term, um, on, on websites and where this goes, and it's probably gonna grow significantly. But how do you, how do you not get so bogged down in worrying about whether or not you're making the right decision on specific items like chat, G p T and still keep your head above the clouds? Like, do you have any advice on on that, on that side?

Stuart Butler (00:12:52) - Yeah, I, I, I think you've gotta control what you can control and then mitigate risk of the stuff you can't, right? And so what you can control is the, the guest experience. So the end of the day we're in the hospitality business in the human experience that someone has is the most important piece of your brand, right? Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, you, you really can try to control your brand, but at the end of the day, you don't, the consumer controls your brand. Their perception is the reality of the brand. And we've seen that sort of exacerbated with social media over the last decade or so, right? It's, you, you can, you can lose your, your, your supporters really quickly with one bad decision. Um, and then it takes a long time to, to build that back. So I think focusing on, on the quality of the product, you know, investing in the product, investing in your team, investing in training, investing in the, the touch points that you have, the human touch points you have with people, and that the technology there to reduce friction.

Stuart Butler (00:13:46) - I think that's the priority. Because if we, if we spend all our time worried about the technology of today, we're gonna get left behind there. There's a story that a lot of speakers use about London in the early 19 hundreds. I'll forget the specific details, but somewhere around 19 10, 19 12, the most, um, the biggest challenge facing the city of London was the number of horses and carriages was creating two issues. One was all the, all the waste coming out of these horses and having to clean that up <laugh>. The other is they were running outta space for stables. And so they were having to have this, they were creating these massive, um, ecosystems around shipping horses in and out of the city of London every day. And so the, the mayor and all the, the, the city government were focused on this problem. And then a year or two later, the automobile came along and fundamentally reduced the need to do anything with horses.

Stuart Butler (00:14:44) - The number of horses drop dropped dramatically overnight. And so the, the most pressing issue went from being all they could talk about to, to an afterthought. And we could be at that, that kind of a, a inflection point here with the travel industry. We've seen such an acceleration of human computer interaction through ai, and we're really close to where the, when this gets cobbled together, which could be within 12 months, we could be in a conversational transaction landscape where instead of people going to a website or multiple websites and making a ton of in individual research decisions on their own, a lot of that could be automated. And, and they could be literally talking to a computer. And in two years ago, I would've said, that's a decade away today. I think that's a year or two away. I think, I think for some of the early adopters, that's the reality.

Stuart Butler (00:15:36) - And so that's scary for small mom and pops, right? Because you, you have no idea how you are gonna get on that. What I will say is because technology is accelerating so quickly and because it's actually a lot, lot less complex than people thought it was gonna be to get to this point, the cost and barrier to entry is a lot lower, and the, the cost of switching technology is gonna be a lot lower. So I think if you look at the hotel in industry as an example, we've had these legacy PMSs for, and the same with the vacation rental space. We've had these legacy PMSs for a long time that have had their clauses in everything. I don't think that's gonna be the case in the next few years. Agree. I think there's gonna be new technology that comes Yeah. That people will be able to switch to fairly easily because a lot of the complexity of that is gonna be automated through ai. So, um, yeah, we're, we're at the precipice of a major sea change in, in how we do business.

Pete Dimaio (00:16:30) - That's where you really need to make sure that you know who your guest is, and you are not just a product at the end of Expedia's pipeline or Airbnb's pipeline, making sure that you have that one-to-one relationship with your guest. Right now it's email that is still one of the best ways you can communicate with your existing guest. But as AI comes online as and, and chat, G B T is just an instance of, you know, G P T ai, but think about us being able to finally achieve personalization and mass. I think that's what it's going to get to. But to do that, you have to first know who that guy is staying in room 2 0 4 if you don't know that all this other stuff really doesn't matter. And I think getting to that point where you can talk directly to your customer, you can start building that one-to-one relationship. Whatever happens from a technology perspective, you're gonna be able to continue to update that user's profile in your systems so you can communicate with them, you know, right now via email or s m s or social, create the audiences from a search perspective to, you know, hologram communications or whatever comes down the road that you don't know yet. You're building that infrastructure like Stewart talked about. You're building that foundation of a cathedral and you don't know what the, the pinnacle of that's gonna actually look like. Yeah.

Stuart Butler (00:17:45) - Do you think,

Annie Holcomb (00:17:46) - Um, I was gonna say, do, do, do you, you think, um, going back to the, the chat, I'm really weirded out by the whole ai, the chat G G P T, I think it's cool technology, but it, it kind of freaks me out. Um, but what I, what I think about is, you know, a big topic within our industry is the trust. And, you know, you do, you work with a vacation rental manager and not with a channel, or not with, you know, allowing a channel to own, you know, your, your, all your distribution because you can build trust with your guest and trust with your consumer. Do you think that being able to customize to, to Pete, to your point, to be able to customize that communication down to the specifics of a guest. And I think of, um, Virgin, um, hotel group has done a really good job with, um, their customization with a guest. So when you, you, you go to stay at a hotel, you've given them all the things that you like and they've built a persona out for you within like their app. So when you book a reservation, they know that when Pete's coming in, this persona with his wife, they like to go to these type of restaurants and they make recommendations for that. So do you think that the ability to customize by guest is gonna detract from, or help build trust down the road?

Pete Dimaio (00:18:51) - It, it's going to build trust when you do it the right way. You know, there's the, the right way, and then there's the example of, uh, target, this is over a decade ago, where they had a really impressive personalization platform that was based on looking at the buying habits of the user and seeing them recommendations right up. It was great, right up until the point where they were sending, I think a 16 year old girl, uh, prenatal tools, you know, like no,

Stuart Butler (00:19:17) - It was her dad remember? Oh, based her dad's

Pete Dimaio (00:19:20) - On what the daughter was, based on what the daughter was buying. And then the dad got the mailing saying that they're recommending like baby strollers and things like that. Yeah. Oh, the AI knew that the daughter was fooling around before the dad did. And it got to the point where it showed that creepy side of AI where we don't necessarily want to share all this stuff, right?

Annie Holcomb (00:19:40) - So

Pete Dimaio (00:19:40) - Using it the right way is incredible. You know, another example is of the right way is right now, a lot of Arby's in California, they use a AI chat system to handle their drive-through orders. So the, when you make the order and the the thing talks back to you, you don't realize that that's not the person that's handing you your food at the drive-through window. You, that is that where you kind of mesh in the AI and the chat components of it, and the customer doesn't realize, they just realize they're getting great service, which at the end of the day, that's all we all care about anyway, right? Don't show us how the sausage is made so much, right?

Stuart Butler (00:20:15) - And the technology just, just tools, right? And they, they'll ch the tools will change. I think what we've gotta really focus on is, is why we're doing what we're doing and what it is specifically we're gonna do. The how, how we do it, that that will always continue to change. But you gotta make sure you're solid on the why. So, um, you know, why do we personalize? Because we want to build a great relationship with, with the consumer or what, what, what are we doing to personalize that, you know, how to what level? Because Pete's right, you can, you can do it the right way and it's invisible. The technology should be invisible to the consumer. What whatever the technology is and should feel like it's helping, not selling, should feel like it's natural as if you were having a conversation with, with a guest as if they were in front of you.

Stuart Butler (00:20:59) - Um, but, but you, if you mess up the implementation, the execution of that, it can have catastrophic impacts. Like, you know, I mean, Pete gave some great examples of that, but, but you can even go to simple ones. Like you, we've all seen emails where it says, dear first name in angled brackets, right? Because it was meant to insert your name, but it didn't, it, it, it, it it's obvious that you're hacking it. So what, what we gotta decide as an, as an individual business is where's my tolerance for scale? Because we can automate and get more scale in terms of the volume of people we talk to and how we talk to them and how we personalize versus how much do I want to keep the personal touch? How, how do I want to, how do I, how much do I want this to feel white glove?

Stuart Butler (00:21:43) - And, and there's a dis disparity between those two right now. But, but I will say that gap is closing every day. It's gonna be easier every single day from here on out to appear to be given that white glove kind of a, a, a value prop without actually having to do the, the laborious stuff towards it. So you've just gotta decide where you are on that scale right now. Like, do I want to use technology to automate this and just go for broke and just do it for everyone? Into what degree, or do I want to keep that sort of personal connection? There's a market for both. I think you as a business owner or as a manager and operator have to decide what, what is your specific brand, you know, how, where do you stand on that scale?

Alex Husner (00:22:25) - And you had mentioned earlier had touched on company culture and how that's important in this process. Would you say that part of defining your culture is answering that question first internally, what, for yourself and your team,

Stuart Butler (00:22:37) - Hundred percent, your, your team has to know what you stand for as a brand. They have to be living breathing versions of what you have on paper. And so you've gotta decide what that is, you've gotta communicate it. And more importantly, you've gotta get buy-in and, and make sure that it's isn't just lip service, that people aren't just, um, going through the, the, the motions of it, right? We've seen people, um, that try to emulate what Chick-fil-A does. You know, when you say thank you at Chick-fil-A, everyone will say, my pleasure. And, and you'll get degrees of it, but you do genuine generally feel like that person isn't just saying it because they've been trained to say it. They, they, you know, they're trained from the very beginning on the culture that the guest is important. You sh you should appreciate the guest. There are others that just go through the motions and it, it doesn't, doesn't really work.

Stuart Butler (00:23:27) - So you've gotta make sure that from the top to the bottom, your culture is something that you live and breathe every day. In, in, in order to do that, you've gotta define it because clarity of purpose is the most important thing when it comes to culture. If people know why they're coming in every day and what difference they're making individually and what they're contributing to the whole, that's when people are going to step up and give that extra 10 or 20 or 30%. And, and the customer will feel that, they'll feel the, the, the genuine nature of your, your team that actually enjoy what they do, believe in what they do. And, and I feel like they're making a difference.

Annie Holcomb (00:24:08) - I think one of the things I've learned in, in my career is that when you work for an organization that understands that they have an external and an internal customer, and they, they read their customer reviews internally as much as they do externally and really, really drive the point home that, you know, they need that feedback. They need to engage with that internal customer in order to create raving fans. And if you can create rating fans on the inside, you can create rating raving fans on the outside,

Pete Dimaio (00:24:35) - You know, to, to build on this. You a lot of the, the audience, you know, on the show today is, you know, starting out that we're starting to building, you know, we don't already have, you know, this sustainable company. And one of the nice things about culture is it's really easy to do at a small schedule. So for instance, if if I have, literally if I'm A, B and b I've got five units, I can create an amazing culture easier than Target can create that amazing culture. So lean into what you're small, lean into what you can do, amazing culture, know your guest, get the guest information so you can start having that one-on-one communication. If you can do that, that means you're gonna be able to scale. But if you wait till you scale and then you say, oh, you know what, we never bother to do culture, you're not gonna get it at all because you've already built something

Annie Holcomb (00:25:25) - After fact. <laugh>, right? Yeah, yeah,

Stuart Butler (00:25:27) - Yeah. It's not something you can force. Um, the conference I was at last, last week, they talked a lot about authenticity and marketing and, and I think, I think it's an overused word, um, because a lot of times people are trying to look at it as how, how do I create authenticity, right? And it's not something you can create, right? Yeah. It's something that is, so I think when you start to think about what are your values, what do you stand for, what is your culture? Those are really important inception questions at the very beginning of your business, it has to be true, right? Mm-hmm. You can't say, I stand for this, but personally I don't, right? Mm-hmm. Whoever the leader is, you know, the, the owner, the manager, whatever of this organization, this has to be a reflection of what they truly feel. You, you can't fake culture, right?

Stuart Butler (00:26:14) - You can't be one thing and say you're something else because it will, it will never work. It has to be a reflection of who you are as a leadership team. And it has to go down to every level of your organization, especially the hiring process. Because if you know what your culture is, the people, the team you select need to be people that naturally innately match that culture, right? You can't say we're gonna be friendly and then hire <inaudible> from Winnie the poo. Right? It, it's not gonna work. Right? And we've all met those people in the interview process. They may be the best accountant or bookkeeper in the world, but they've just got a negative attitude. If you're about positivity and, and, and welcoming and hospitality, you can't hire those people in your organization cuz it will erode your culture. So you starting from hiring and then you've gotta really focus on training.

Stuart Butler (00:27:06) - And the most important thing you can do, and you guys touched on this, is always be talking about it, looking at things like reviews. Yeah. Looking for opportunities to improve. Looking at celebrating the wins of where we did reflect our culture, but also talking about and analyzing the places, the opportunities where we missed on our culture and where there's opportunity to grow. The best organizations in the world across every industry are the ones where they have a unified scorecard of some kind, where they have, we know what our purpose is. Everyone in the whole team knows our purpose. Everyone knows where we are on our way towards that north star or whatever it is. And we can keep score along the, the way we've gotta know whether we're winning or losing. Right? And if, if you have a universal scorecard of some kind that looks at specific key performance metrics that matter to you, that might be review scores, that might be occupancy, that might, there's a lot of things that could be it need, you need to decide for your organization what makes the most sense and it needs to reflect your culture, but then have that scorecard and talk about it every single day.

Stuart Butler (00:28:10) - How are we measuring up to our objectives related to our North Star? That's how you build culture.

Alex Husner (00:28:16) - Yeah, absolutely. I've spent a lot of time, um, thinking and learning about culture in the last few months since I started my job at at casa. And a lot of what you said, um, Stuart, sounds like it could have, could have come out of Steve's mouth, <laugh> almost identical. But, um, really learning the difference between values and principles. And one of the exercises that we did that I thought was really interesting related to values was your personal val, you can have personal values and you can have business values and they don't necessarily have to be the same, but they can never be in conflict. So if one of my personal values is honesty, but one of my business values is transparency. I might as a, my personal values, I having my whole life transparent <laugh> isn't necessarily what I want, but for the business it is, and those, those values are, they're not in conflict at all.

Alex Husner (00:29:05) - And, um, I think when you align your staff around this, you know, you, you personally might have different values with other staff members, but if you, you all still have to be able to have values that, that they're not in conflict and they actually compliment each other. Um, and I, I think your point of, you know, it's not, it's not what you inspect, it's what's, or it's not what you expect, it's what's the inspect, it's kind of the same mentality of when you talk about things, your focus goes with where the attention is. And, you know, we have our, our orange credo that we talk about our culture on a a five minute standing call every day that we talk about one part of it and how it related to something that happened that day in the business. And when you start getting people talking about culture all of a sudden it just, it really, it becomes viral and, and it's it's bigger than the leader. It's bigger than your own brand. It's bigger than the company. It becomes your, um, in internal communication and, and understanding of each other and, and the business.

Stuart Butler (00:30:02) - Yep. Couldn't

Annie Holcomb (00:30:03) - Agree. So let's, let's look at, um, you've built the foundation, you've started your business. You're, you know, you have the, the, the premise of your brand, you know, what your, your audience is looking for. Start talking about the actual marketing assets that, that people need to, to think about. I think one area that Alex and I have noticed, um, and we've been, uh, not proponents or against or you know, for, but the, we are not Airbnb subject. And what we've noticed was a lot of people, um, were, again, they were putting their listings on Airbnb and that became their p m s that became their website, that became their brand. We've even talked to people that have been doing all their SEO and s e m sending to their listing on Airbnb. So they're, they're, they're building up someone else's brand. So they're spending time, money, and their own assets to build up some somebody else's brand. So I think that it's important for people to understand, like, what are the assets that they need to make sure that they're mindful of and that they own and take care of and protect.

Pete Dimaio (00:30:58) - I think you, you have to, and I don't wanna say own the customer cause I feel that sounds, you know, uh, too aggressive. But you do have to have that one-on-one connection. It always goes back to like, for instance, on Facebook, you know, if you're on Facebook, you are the product, you know, you, they're not selling you something, you are what they're selling to the advertisers. And it's, it is no different than for Airbnb. They have the products on there, it's Airbnb's customer. You have to, as a new hotelier or vacation rental manager, you have to own your guest. You have to have that direct connection. And then from there, I think you build out the tech stack that you can actually manage. Don't necessarily worry about the latest, you know, AI enabled personalization strategies. If you don't have your emails set up, don't worry about a, an advanced, you know, campaign this or personalization that If you don't have a basic P P C strategy or a basic metasearch strategy, all that, you gotta do the basics first and then start scaling from there. Cause like sort mentioned before, if you're just constantly thinking of all this stuff that you're not gonna get done, you're not gonna do any of it, right? If you are a, a small property and you do a phenomenal job with just email and communicating directly to your guest, you're gonna do so much better than a small property that's just trying to do everything. And then they realize that their confirmation emails three years outta date.

Alex Husner (00:32:15) - Yeah, absolutely.

Stuart Butler (00:32:16) - Yeah. I, I agree a hundred percent Pete, and, and, and I think, you know, I would stop by saying the most important marketing you can do is focusing on the experience, right? If you have a great, unbelievable experience, then you're gonna get business. The first person will come along at some point and they will tell all their friends and then their friends will come. It's a slow way to build a business, but you can do it with great customer experience, right? If you have terrible customer experience, all the advertising and marketing you do in the world is not gonna work out long term. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, right? You're gonna, your brand is gonna go in downhill quickly if you don't have, so, so the first thing you do from a marketing perspective is make sure you have a great, great experience once you've done that. There's, there's two sides to this.

Stuart Butler (00:33:01) - One is, I, I would consider more farming and one is hunting, right? You can go out and find the demand that's there and using Airbnbs and where there's already audiences and you, you should probably start there because in all honesty, it's cheaper to do that to begin with and it's quicker turnaround. So if I go and put my listings on an Airbnb or on an o t a or, or some third party that already has people coming, I'm gonna get business. Now that comes at a cost, right? One, I don't really own the customer in, in the terms of Pete use, which means I don't have that direct relationship. Two, it's gonna cost me a little bit more. There's certainly the o t a tax in, in, in a lot of cases. Um, and the, the, the bigger risk is long term when there is a downturn and everyone's only hunting and that number of things you can hunt reduces, you're in a lot of trouble.

Stuart Butler (00:33:54) - Cuz now you're gonna compete and you've, the only opportunity you have to reach an audience is through a third party. So I think it's good to start there. It's, it's a cheap effective way in terms of not having a lot of capital expense. So it's certainly a place small businesses should start and I think it's an easy way to get your business up and running. But while you're doing that, as your business grows, you have to invest significantly in farming, in building assets that you own, that you control. Cuz you've gotta remember, if you build your house on somewhere like Airbnb, that's least land, they can change things at any point and you have no control over it. So your, your pipeline could, could die tomorrow. So if we farm on our own land, that means building a, a kick butt website and booking experience that is on par with any third party.

Stuart Butler (00:34:45) - It is building your database of people, right? Making show you have a real one-to-one relationship with every one of your guests collecting their emails and their cell phone numbers and their physical addresses and their names, and over time more information about 'em. What are their interests? When do they travel? What am I who are they traveling with? All that stuff. So, so certainly focus on that, that data and then, and then use platforms like a MailChimp or a constant contact, initially very low cost to start communicating with them in, in a, in a, a meaningful way. But I think that's, that's the order you do it. You, you probably start with the, you know, with the third party stuff because quick and cheap and relatively in terms of upfront and then you start to farm by creating the, these things that are gonna pay dividends. When we saw the pandemic hit, the, the brands that did well were the ones that invested in farming way before the pandemic hit. The ones that had their infrastructure, they had a booking engine, they had, uh, an audience, um, they had relationships with people. Those are the folks that did, okay. The folks that were relying only on third parties, they're the ones that that, that, to peace point aren't in business anymore. So mm-hmm. <affirmative>,

Pete Dimaio (00:35:53) - I always say that number one new business strategy for any property has got to be the OTAs. It's a phenomenal new business strategy. But if that person comes to the OTA the second time, then you failed. Yeah. Use, use that platform. It's so phenomenal. I mean, you can get people that don't even know about your property or your brand. You get them in the door and then you've gotta make that direct connection and you're gonna woo them all the way to the point where now they're your rabid fans and they'd be crazy to go through an OTA to book with you again.

Stuart Butler (00:36:21) - Yeah. Yeah. Third parties are the best source of new business. Hands down. They can do it quicker, cheaper, more effectively than you can do it on your own, especially if you're a small brand, but your best source of, of repeat business should be your own assets. The things that you've done to nurture those relationships. A hundred percent agree. Yeah.

Alex Husner (00:36:40) - And, and I think unfortunately with what's happened over the last few years, just the, the, the global vacation rental short-term rental community is, is somewhat guilty of, um, falling into the trap of what Airbnb created. That it, it was this amazing stream of new reservations. But, you know, I mean they really have become the Kleenex, the, the main brand that's associated. You don't say, you hear people say about hotels that I, I stayed at a, um, Travelocity last night or, you know, I mean, like, they don't, they don't use the OTAs as the name of the product. Um, and so to Stuart and Pete's points that when you get those guests, it is a hundred percent your responsibility to bring them back in the way that you want to be, um, portrayed and using your language and your communication to them and build that relationship. And, you know, if we're very much in a, a repeat business market here in Myrtle Beach and those repeat guests are everything, I mean, you, you don't have to keep continuously going out and advertising if you're building up a really good base of repeat guests. So, well that's, that's certainly important.

Pete Dimaio (00:37:41) - Well, I mean, think about it this way, Alex. It it, let's say you have a single oceanfront condo, you need 52 customers. That's it. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, you know, if you build that amazing thing, you don't need a thousand truth fans. You need literally 52 people who want a book a week. And you find those people and you make sure that when they're ready to book again, they're coming right to you.

Stuart Butler (00:38:00) - Yeah. Yeah. And if you find 53, then you can jack the rate. That's great. Cuz then this Yeah,

Pete Dimaio (00:38:05) - That's really put screw bidding.

Alex Husner (00:38:07) - Yeah.

Stuart Butler (00:38:08) - <laugh>. So, so Pete and I used to do a podcast together and one of the things he, he used to say a lot, I'm gonna take full credit for it though, Pete is your no, your, your, your best next customer is your current customer, right? So you should be doing everything you can when someone is booked a vacation with you and is staying with you to collect their information and then try to get them to stay again. Now your next best customer after that one is their friends and family, right? Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And so, because people tend to huddle in tribes, they tend to have people that similar, socioeconomically similar interests, values, geography. So your best next customer after your existing customer is their friends and family. And so the best savvy marketers, what they'll do is they'll turn their customers into their secret Salesforce, they'll turn them into advocates. So if you can build a relationship with your, your existing customers, then you can earn the right to ask them to refer your business to their friends and family. You can leverage their social networks to, to build your owned assets. And that's, that's when you create a flywheel, which is unstoppable and you can start to scale your business. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>.

Alex Husner (00:39:16) - So look, look, looking at that marketing flywheel, I know you guys also, and, and, and Stuart in your previous role and Pete, in your current role, you always talk about, uh, testing and how you can make sure that you're, you're always, always, always be testing, always be looking at your website, your OTA information, your emails. Um, tell the audience a little bit about your perspective on testing and why that's so important.

Pete Dimaio (00:39:38) - Well, I mean, you said a b t always be testing and it <laugh>

Alex Husner (00:39:41) - Right? Gave it away. <laugh>,

Pete Dimaio (00:39:42) - You gave it away, but, but it's, it's because you spent so much money getting someone to your website or getting someone aware of your brand. Yes. And when you get them to your website or wherever your conversion metric is, you wanna make sure that's the best mouse trap you can possibly have. Even if you look at your homepage or your booking engine and say, I can improve my conversion rate by a 10th of a percent with this one test. You know, maybe I move the position of the book now button. Maybe I show a book now button and a learn more. Whatever that test might be. They can be very simple and very easy to implement, but you're making a 10th of a percent improvement here, a 10th over here, a 10th over here. And you get to the point where you've optimized your website and you've basically continued to create a brand new website every time someone visits. And now you're optimize that conversion funnel and your conversion rate is the envy of, you know, all your competitors. You have to do that because you spent too much money to not do it.

Stuart Butler (00:40:37) - Yeah. So the way I look at it, it it, people that ask should I invest in testing is, well if I told you, you you, I I would increase your marketing budget by 10%, would you do it? And everyone's like, yeah, absolutely. Mm-hmm <affirmative>, well if I can make my existing marketing budget 10% more efficient, I'm essentially doing the same thing, right? And it doesn't take a lot of iterative compound improvements to get to a 10% improvement on something like conversion rate of email signups or bookings. And so having that mindset that we can always be better tomorrow, right? Whatever we, however great we were today, we can be better tomorrow. It's, it's the mentality of, it's not that I'm ever dissatisfied, but I'm never satisfied. I always want more. I'll celebrate this win and then I want the next thing cuz I think it's better.

Stuart Butler (00:41:24) - And so adopting that always be testing mindset, um, just says, I'm never gonna settle, I'm never gonna assume that what I have is the best it can be. And so you gotta, you know, look at it across your entire business, not just your website. Like how can I test other things? Um, and how can I get input from my customers and from my team to validate a hypothesis? So go, go Google the scientific method, right? Go look at what that is. It's basically setting a hypothesis, devising a test which will prove or disprove that. And then, and then you iterate on it, right? You run the experiment and you can, you can prove it's a very simple, um, approach that will dramatically improve your business over the long-term. And again, we need to think cathedral thinking, long-term thinking. If I can make a 1% iterative compound improvement on my business, on my website conversion every week, every month, every year over the next 10 years, that's massive.

Stuart Butler (00:42:24) - That's transformative. And so you have to allocate time, energy, and money to this, this approach. Um, and say, I'm never gonna be satisfied. I, I want to do better tomorrow. And I want to, um, look at ways I can learn from my customers. Cuz that's one of the most underutilized opportunities I think for most businesses, certainly in the hospitality industry, is understanding what my customers like, what they don't like, and what they'd like to see me improve in the future. Right? You should be asking that through surveys when, when you see them at check-in. If you still do in-person check-ins, you should be talking to your customers. It should be a two-way conversation, not a one-way conversation because learning from them about the things they like, they don't like and that they would like to see give you the platform from which to test. Right now I can start to implement new operations, new ideas, new initiatives, new new things that differentiate my business because my customer is gonna be the one that's real time giving me feedback on, on the product and how it's doing. So it's, it's part of your cu part of your culture should be always looking to improve.

Annie Holcomb (00:43:34) - Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. So we always say that we could talk about this forever and I think we need to have you guys back on the show on um, <laugh>, Alex and I need to talk about this. But thank you so much for joining us today. Thank you for being part of this great, um, session that we put on for Rent Responsibly. Thank you Rent responsibly for hosting this, uh, day of incredible knowledge for people starting out or people who have been in the industry for a long time.

Dana Lubner (00:43:58) - Awesome. Well thanks everyone for attending this session. I hope you're feeling inspired and looking forward to implementing some new ideas that were shared on this session. Thanks so much everyone for presenting in this session. Have a great day.

Annie Holcomb (00:44:11) - Thanks everybody. Bye.

Stuart ButlerProfile Photo

Stuart Butler

Chief Marketing Officer Visit Myrtle Beach

After 20 years in the hotel industry, Stuart recently became the Chief Marketing Officer at the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce & CVB, the official destination marketing organization for the Grand Strand. A native of England, Stuart moved to the United States in 2001 and has spent the past two decades implementing marketing strategies for hundreds of hotels and destinations worldwide. With a degree in Rocket Science from the University of Kent at Canterbury, he leverages cutting-edge technology and takes a scientific and innovative approach to everyday marketing challenges. Stuart was previously the host of the hotel industry's #1 podcast - “The Fuel Hotel Marketing Podcast”, but now spends his time challenging the status quo and redefining destination marketing. In his spare time, you can find him debating the finer intricacies of the Star Wars Universe over a cold craft beer.