Feb. 2, 2022

Finding National Success through Local Operations, with iTrip CEO Steve Caron

Finding National Success through Local Operations, with iTrip CEO Steve Caron

In this episode we are joined by iTrip CEO Steve Caron, an industry veteran whose tour of duty began in the Air Force as a special operations night instructor. When Steve departed the service, he went on to use his computer science degree as lead technologist for Abbott Resorts, the largest vacation rental company on the Gulf Coast at the time. Abbott was eventually sold to Resort Quest,  the first company to attempt becoming a national vacation rental brand. Founded by hotel execs, Resort Quest looked to standardize the companies they acquired but in the process lost sight of one of the most important parts of a successful vacation rental business - the local operators.

Steve went on to found Sterling Resorts in the Florida Panhandle with Jim Olin in the early 2000's, growing inventory from 0 to 1700 units during the big real estate and construction boom of  condo resorts. Sterling became one of the largest and most respected regional brands in the industry, until being sold several times and eventually to Vacasa in 2019, at which time the brand dissolved and folded up under their national namesake.

Topics we also cover:

  • Why Choice Hotel's efforts to get into vacation rentals didn't take off as expected
  • Will hotel brands continue to partner with local vacation rental companies, or will they start acquiring their own inventory?
  • How iTrip differentiates itself from other national brands 1) as a platform and 2) as a company that values local operations and relationships
  • Why healthy coopetition is vital to the future  of our industry 
  • How has the InhabitIQ rollup in 2019 effected iTrip and the other companies it acquired
  • Is pecking order really a thing? Are chickens the original Mean Girls?! (Annie says YES!)  Steve shares stories of his recent adventures in becoming a farmer in Tennessee.  If one thing is for sure, he really loves his Chicks!🐥🐣🐤

Watch episode on YouTube here: https://youtu.be/cg5iJU8NzOk

CONTACT STEVE CARON
steve.caron@itrip.co
iTrip.net

CONTACT ALEX & ANNIE
AlexandAnniePodcast.com
LinkedIn | Facebook | Instagram

Alex Husner - Linkedin
Annie Holcombe - Linkedin

Podcast Sponsored by Condo-World and Lexicon Travel

Transcript

Alex Husner:

Welcome to Alex and Annie, the real women of vacation rentals. I'm Alex. And I'm Annie. And we are joined today with the GM and CEO of iTrip vacations. Mr. Steve, Caron, welcome to the show, Steve.

Steve Caron:

Good to be here. Great show I enjoyed. I was been binge listening a lot of your shows last few weeks. And I love the topics and I like the energy you guys bring to the table. So happy to be here.

Alex Husner:

We appreciate that very much. We're excited to dive into your background. And you know, what's going on in the consolidation, side of vacation rentals and technology and franchise and all the interesting topics that you know a lot about. It's gonna be a good, good episode. Thank you for being here.

Annie Holcombe:

Thank you. So Steve, I think to get started it might be it might be good to assume that not everybody knows who you are. And maybe tell us a little bit about your background and how you got into the industry because you didn't have a normal path to get into it.

Steve Caron:

I would say I definitely didn't have a normal path. I would went to Florida State go Knowles.

Annie Holcombe:

Go Gators. But that said Go Gators.

Steve Caron:

Okay, we're done. So, so I got a degree in computer science. And I took the next obvious step, which is I joined the Air Force and flew airplanes all over moved to Japan, and lived around the world ended up in special operations as an instructor Navigator, and did a lot of dumb things with airplanes around over the years. Lots of lots of thing we flew, you know, night vision goggle low level below the terrain, refueling helicopters in flight. And throughout that whole time, what you learn is how to be a team member, right? Yeah, nothing like going 350 miles an hour below the train with somebody trying to hurt you to, to learn how to work together, right, because everybody's gonna have a really bad day, you know, you know, half a second after the next person when you when you impact a hill or something. So learn, really have a plan, how to work how to how to have attention to detail. And then once you've planned and you and you go do what you trained to do for real, you learn how to adapt in real time, right? Because in that process in that environment, it's everything comes at you very fast. And it's and you can easily get tasked saturated. And and you know that task saturation means you have to you have to really figure out what's important, what's not important. How do you communicate? How do you do the mission? Yeah. So I learned so much data that from that process that when I got out of the Air Force, I was in the panhandle of Florida. And there's two industries, right. There's the military there, special ops and the Navy are both in the panhandle of Florida. And then there's the resort businesses. So I went to the next natural place, which was Resort at a time when automation was just starting to come up, because I stumbled into it by geography actually, but fell in love with it right away.

Alex Husner:

I can definitely see how you could use that experience very well on vacation rentals. I mean, there's always something that we can be focusing on things coming at you from all different angles. So being able to see the wide view but then also to stay focused on the task at hand is that's a challenge. I mean, it's there's just a lot of balls in the air when you're instrumental operator these days.

Steve Caron:

You have to be you have to be something of everybody, right? Yeah. These businesses are just rolling in cash, right? They're all thinly margin businesses. The teams are doing many, many things at one time. And being adaptable is a trait that, you know that you have to have.

Alex Husner:

Yeah, yeah. And you have two bosses and you have the owners you have the guests. Owners are well, three owners of the company. And there's a lot of people to appease

Steve Caron:

diametrically opposed. Yeah, yeah, exactly. high rise condos. You have HOA fees, too. Yeah, that's true. That's contrary to what everybody else wants them to business, but you get you get and get yourself in quite a pickle. And you have to be able to, to again, work work with people their value and find out what is best for everybody to get the best result for everybody.

Annie Holcombe:

I always like in managing condos to it's a building full of hotels. So you have a general manager that's running each one of those units, and they all have a different idea of how you should market and price and do all those things. And so, your military experience I'm sure helped you kind of keep that grace under pressure to handle those people.

Steve Caron:

Right. Well, it's about it's about consistent consistency in what you do. Right. So it's, again that teamwork and all those things about how are you consistent in delivering because if you deliver you know if you're flying an airplane and you're deliver and you're doing it you know you're successful you have a home right the circumstance is a little more dire. But in our business, if you're consistent, you retain your homeowners and you bring back guests. And again, you become relevant to the industry in a way that that your business grows. And, but if you don't do that by being all over the map, right, you have to be consistent in how you handle and handle your business,

Alex Husner:

especially on the franchise side. We'll get to that in a little bit. But the standardization is so important, the standardization and the professional professionalization that I think you guys have done a great job with it. But before we dive into the ITF side of the business, I'd like to hear a little bit more about your early days in the Panhandle with resortquest, and Sterling resorts. And it's interesting to me, we're in the North Myrtle Beach, Myrtle Beach market and have a lot of connections, Annie, obviously one of them for a long time down in your area. But I feel like there's so many people that were part of that era with, you know, Sterling and resortquest. And, you know, the early 2000s. It's just, it's amazing. And a lot of those people are still the leaders within our industry. They're just doing something different. But can you tell us a little bit about what your involvement was during those days?

Unknown:

Yeah, so I won't tell you what year I started in the business. But, but in the early days of the business, I joined actually started in the business working at Abbott Resorts back, they were they were the largest independent operator on in the Gulf Coast. I think at one point, they were the biggest independent in the US. But at that time, they only had 3 or 400 units, and they were the Abbottt Brothers and the partners, were looking to hire a professional management team. I got hired as part of that on the technology side. So I joined the industry from it as a technologist falling back to my degree, even after promising several professors that I would never do anything in the industry. And I was going to go fly airplanes. So please pass me on that one class that I struggled in so but I ended up as a network engineer and a technologist and we started building and that's how added resorts in the Panhandle grew from very small to 3800 units in a very short period of time. Because we network, the beach back when nobody had networks, and nobody had any computers, we had an AS400 that had purpose written technology for the business. So we were just so far ahead of everybody, we're able to take that that hotel, that's a condo and make it 100 miles wide. And so we had condos and individual homes and offices up and down the beach, that were all tied by technology. So the automation is where I got into the business early on, then we got bought by resortquest. And, and then Resort Quest came in and said, here's our standards, and they forgot about the local operation. That's I know, Amy's written some great articles about that. And there's a lot of us with some scars from that, but you learn from it as well. So early in the early days in the business, was really about learning the business, learning how to take care of a customer, and then all and then being there for the days of the automation, which was was really exciting to see how we can how we can enhance the business and make it more efficient.

Annie Holcombe:

Oh, sorry. I was actually gonna ask. So kind of along those lines with all the growth that you saw, and I was in Panama City Beach, kind of when all of that was happening. And so it was interesting when resortquest came in, and people thought, well, they're changing everything, I don't think they really understand what it means to have the local market be part of it. And so I think that that speaks well as how you grew into, you know, resortquest and Sterling, and then you ultimately ended up at AI trip. So I think that your history and seeing what happened there gave you a lot of lessons that you were able to take with you. Maybe speak a little about a little bit about the importance of the local involvement in the local flavor of a management company.

Unknown:

Yeah, I think the resortquest experience really drove a lot of what my view is about the industry today. Partly from a negative, there were really good things about it, you know, the, the taking the data, it's about data and the founder of iTtrip is always about it's the data, right? You take that data, and you turn it into knowledge and you turn it into action, right? It's not just data. And that speaks to me as a data nerd and a tech guy anyway. But so Resort Quest did a lot of that. So they took the data and they really studied the industry they made, they got a lot of knowledge, but the actions they took were wrong. And so they tried to the biggest example I always they took all our contracts for copiers and products are things that were going to centralize all that in Memphis and they pulled it away. What did they do? They took contracts from local business people who we've been doing business with, by the way those local business people were some of our owners allow not only you're pulling, you're pulling apart the core of your business because you're taking away opportunity from the owners that are supporting you and you're supporting them because I think you guys all know and the people who have been successful in this business know this is about relationship Ships and those relationships got torn apart. And we lived it real time. And it was painful. And so when Jim Olin and I started Sterling Resorts, we purposely, we were, we intended to grow very large. And we we had 1700 contracts right around 2008, when lots of other bad things happen. We grew that and in a three year period from zero to 1700 units, because we were focused on the people focused on local, local business, but still being very smart about the technology and smart about how we how we, how we worked with an understanding of how we, we optimize to business I think, is the right way to say it, because it's not just about the data, but it was about how we optimize our contracts and optimize our language. And we optimize our practices. Concurrent with that iTrip was doing the same thing. I started in 2008 2009, looking for a better answer. The founders of the company, and I wasn't one of them. I joined in 2018 as a partner. And I remember as they were five, founding it, and we met with them once and and I remember thinking this is never gonna work because it's your franchise, the industry we're going to create and at that time, they were really creating a license agreements, franchising came a few years later, but it was that standardization of the business again, I was like that we've done that, right. Yeah, don't do think what the difference was and the twist and the learning that they had from it was keep the local. And so iTrip is big, are kind of our mantra is, you know, we're a national presence. But we're a local, but we have local owner operators. And so while we have standards of practice, and we have consistency across the brand, in key areas, we don't take that local ownership away from the owner, our franchisees are independent to large degree, they own their own business. And that gives us that foot in both sides of the world that I think is necessary for us to be successful.

Alex Husner:

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, thinking back to your days as Sterling, Sterling was always one of those brands that I think really did a great job at the brand at branding, you know, over the years and it was sad to see that go away when they were purchased Viva casa. And that was actually we worked with Sterling resorts here at condo world that was one of our partners in the panhandle. And it was so great working with them, because their inventory was so similar to what we have here. That is the condo resorts. And literally, I mean, the buildings, the properties, they looked identical. I mean, you could walk out of a condo in North Myrtle Beach and not know that you're in Panama City, but

Steve Caron:

designers and builders, right, so yeah, exactly. Yeah, we were building those buildings. And we not only managed we built high rises, sold them. Yeah, we sold, built them and then manage them. And we worked with other developers. And during that period in the early 2000s 2004 2008, we were going in teaching other developers how to rewrite their condo docks. So we would have rental friendly properties around an area front desks, you'd have commercial space that could be leased out, we would then of course, go lease that for 15 years, right? Yeah, we had we had a process we went through. And so we had contracts for 10,000 units that we built all up and down the beach from Mississippi all the way over into Port St. Joe. And then of course, when 2008 happened, the cranes went away and yeah,

Alex Husner:

I'm sure. So yeah, there's that was actually when I got into vacation rentals was about 2008 2009 not the best time to get into it. But I know prior to that, probably in that same time period that you were building the properties for Sterling, our real estate arm here, it was so busy that our broker at the time, if somebody came into our office and wanted to see a condo, he would literally say to them, are you going to sign a contract today? And they don't always want to look? He said, Okay, well do this, go down the street, you go to XYZ rental company, let them show you the unit when you sign up, bring it back to me, you know, and people will do it. I mean, he made a fortune. But that was you know, it's similar to these days right now that real estate sales are so hot again too. And I hope that we're not having it at the disaster that we were back in the early 2000s. But it's it's just interesting to see you know, how much has changed over the years?

Steve Caron:

You know, I think there's a difference Yeah, because in those days you're right when we start we plan a building and we put it for sale we we tease that we sold $85 million in real estate in about three hours on what we sold whole building. Oh my gosh. relief in one in a three hour period on one of our Wow. Yeah, because everybody was interesting, but the prices admittedly were pretty inflated, right? The whole Yeah. Oh, yeah. The Florida economy in general was going crazy. I think what's different now and I I think there's certainly some some over inflation because investors are looking for a place to park their money. But the difference is and I know Simon talked about it and a couple of you've heard a couple of people talk about it is we've got From a market awareness back then of nicotine 20%, market awareness of 90%. So where we were, we were out there saying, hey, you know, we're really not an alternative. We're really we're a great idea. You know, now we're really not an alternative, right? Everybody that the market agrees Yeah. And so that's driving real value now where it was perceived value in the past, there's real value in the product, because there's demand for that product that we've never had. So I think there's some obviously, I'm not a real estate guy, so I don't, but I see market prices going up crazily, but I think there's some real demand value that can support some of that these days.

Alex Husner:

Yeah. I mean, we used to have to describe in our marketing, what vacation rentals were and what the benefit was saying them, we don't really have to do that anymore. I mean, you don't have to sell anybody on what the value of this product is. Because it's just, you know, that level of awareness has grown so much. And once people see it, and they experience it, if you're traveling with the family, you know, it's a no brainer that this is a better experience than staying in five different hotel rooms. But

Steve Caron:

it back in those days, I was on the advisory committee of hotels.com. For their alternative lodging, and Carl Shepard, This was free verbo days, this was back when it was W VR group. And there was he was on that board. I was on that board. There was a group of us around there. And we were trying to teach the OTAs what we were and and we had this this torturous round robin with the senior execs and the management teams with hotels.com. And all we could manage to do is to find what we weren't right. We're not a hotel room. We're not, we're not that. And we just they never could get what we were and so they could never merchandise the property right. And we ended up we took bookings, but it was always a conflict. It was never clean. The guests were never the guests experience was awful. The faxes came in for the bookings. I mean, it was back again, it was pretty rough. But I remember those days with Carl saying, hey, you know, he'd say, here's what we're gonna I got teased, he was teasing some of us about what he was going to do. And, you know, he was they were building an execution plan to change to really disintermediate the market and change the market. And, you know, history's history shows.

Alex Husner:

It sounds like your experience, any that you've talked about with Expedia, almost identical.

Annie Holcombe:

Yeah, yeah. So it's funny, like I was at, I was at Royal American when they were building the boardwalk. And you guys were still building some of the Sterling properties. And so I took over business development for that company and went kind of went behind Sterling properties in terms of like bidding on management contracts, and all those type of things. And one of the things that we decided when the building at Boardwalk was built, and we had about 3000 under kind of HOA management, but we had maybe 1500 1800 on a rental. We just went ahead and operated them solely like hotels, we leased out the front desk from the HOA, we paid them a kickback on you know, whatever, like commissions we had for rentals. But we included the cleaning in the rental. So it wasn't broken out. And I think I want to say was the hotels.com thing. Was it called condo saver? Is that what they called it? One of the parts of it? Yeah, yeah. And so I do remember, we just had conversations with the market people about you, you don't understand us, you don't understand us. And so ultimately, when I got hired at Expedia, the director that hired me, she said, Well tell us what all the things that you don't you think we don't understand. I was like, How much time do you have? Six months into the conversation six months into being there. I took over Gulf Shores and I always tell this story. Hari Nyer was the VP of market management the time and we had a conference call and I said, started to take over Gulf Shores there's like 16,000 rental unit vacation rental units there. And he's like, 6000, that's a lot of numbers. That's that's a really good number is like 16,000. He was like 6000. And they were like No 1600 How are you? 16,000 units in there like, holy cow. Like all of a sudden, they saw that there was this inventory that they needed to figure something out. So there was like a lot of fast tracking that happened. But even when I left Expedia after four and a half years, and they had bought Verba or bought homeboy at the time, there's still a lot of stuff that they don't do well or don't understand, but it was just a constant. This is what you're doing wrong. This is how you can fix it. And just having these like mind numbing conversations with people that were so hotel centered, they just didn't understand just the little tweaks that they needed to make to make vacation rentals work.

Steve Caron:

And by the way, the resort the resort quest story is similar in that it was founded by a bunch of hotel execs. Yeah, so the original senior team were all hotel execs. And at some point, it was clear that wasn't working. And then the board made a change and they brought in industry execs and I ended up as a CIO at resortquest and Jamala was the CEO and Mark Brady became one with people who had built these companies that were operating. And then at that point, then the merger was with Gaylord came you know, shortly after that. So a couple years later, we ended up merging with with Gaylord and I rightly made my exit at that point because I swore I never wanted to be part of another big big company again and Though I broke that rule a couple times in my career,

Annie Holcombe:

yeah, yeah, you've been at a lot of different like pieces of the industry different parts. You were at Choice Hotels, when they were trying to do vacation rentals. I remember them coming through the market here. And again, kind of similar to the hotels calm, like, again, not really understanding what needed to be done. And of all of the like pieces.

Steve Caron:

We eventually signed the contract with royal American. Yeah, absolutely.

Annie Holcombe:

Yeah. We're

Steve Caron:

really excited about your background. Yeah.

Annie Holcombe:

I don't know that it never took off. It was a great thing. I don't know that it ever took off. But did you? Did you I mean, all of those pieces, I think that you probably took a lot of learnings from each one of those that you've been able to take to your experience or your tenure at I trip, right?

Steve Caron:

Oh, definitely. And that, and that's really again, at one of my one of my I did a tour of international wholesales, I built a big for a vacation rental division for an international wholesaler. And I learned about what are the demands of international markets? And how do you and how do you deal with that? And what are they want versus what the property manager needs. And so yeah, all of those pieces kind of fit back together. And so we're expanding, you know, I'm using that here. And I learned a ton of stuff from choice. You know, they've got a great marketing, you know, pedigree, they've got great technology, again, their hotel people. And you know, in my exit interview with the CEO, he asked me, am I running from something there to something? And my answer was yes. Because many here, the partners wanted someone to come in and and join them. Ultimately, there was an exit envision for them. And and we've done that sense. And they wanted someone who had the background of taking taking things bigger. And, and really building structure around it, right. We're very, very purposeful in everything we do. We're very process driven. They always, the founders always have been. And I've taken kind of what I've learned over the years, and some really great best practices from great companies and brought that here. And we've we've done pretty well in the last three years.

Alex Husner:

Yeah, absolutely. It's interesting, what choice to like, when you look back on it, it's interesting that they were the first hotel brand to get into vacation rentals. You know, I mean, I think that that would have been a Marriott or Hilton that would have seen the writing on the wall. But why didn't Why do you think that that program hasn't gotten off, you know, off the way that they probably originally intended it to?

Steve Caron:

I saw there was a lot of reasons, and some of them were just the market wasn't ready, I think, that we were trying to conquer we were trying to come in franchise very large property managers, and convert existing operations into a franchise operation. And as you know, the people who own those, most of them are entrepreneurs. And they're like, how Give me your old clarity on why I'd give up? Yeah, revenue to you, royalty. Yeah. A lot all together anyway. And that was a really hard discussion. And there were a lot of great. There were a lot of great ideas behind that. But we didn't have the execution behind it yet. So the deal we did with a royal American was one we're growing into the royalty and we had to prove ourselves. And and so it, I think it could have taken legs. But it was costly. And I think the biggest issue and I think it's the biggest issue for any of these large companies is their diversity risk. And when you're starting up a company, whether it's a small startup, or a startup within a large company, there's a cost and there's risk, there's a risk that goes with it. And and when you're when you have an aversion to risk, then everything is takes longer. And that doesn't, it didn't match well with the pacing that property managers wanted us to build the business. So we were too slow. And we weren't we weren't producing enough bookings and the technology and all of that just kind of bogged it down. And so, you know, I've had this discussion with the Marriot team. We're partners with them. You know, I wish them all well. I wish choice had kept going. Because I think the more people that are in the space and the more demand driving into the space, the the higher the boats going to lift, right. So I wish I'd stayed. I think it had something to offer I think Marriot. Could do well, but they've got to remember, they've got to be nimble. Right. Yeah. Very nimble group of people that we work with every

Alex Husner:

day. Yeah, I think it's almost like choice was they were just they got into it too soon. Or, you know, like if they had waited, any it reminds me of Steve drovers comment that whatever he's gonna do in 10 years, like that's what we want to focus on. was we asked him, What's one idea that you want to do in 10 years relating to it, but yeah, I think the timing on it just doesn't seem like it was right. And it's, you know, it's interesting with Marriott homes and villas coming in now and then thinking about what the future is going to be with other hotel brands coming in and trying to capitalize on it. And what do you what do you see as the future of that? Do you see these companies trying to continue the way that they are right now that they just partner with local vacation rental companies, or do you see them as testing the waters and they want to go For the acquisition long game,

Steve Caron:

you know, there's a lot of folks that fear the ladder, right? Yeah. And I think that, and we consider that and my franchisees considered it because we signed our agreement with Marriott, it's actually each franchisee has to agree, right? And they're independent owner operators, I think they can join or not, some of them didn't, because that was their biggest fear. I think they're, they're cognizant of that. And I think they're aware that, that if they try to make a big move like that, it's gonna it's going to drive their inventory away, because then I don't but I don't know if they yet get that. It's, it's, everything's local, right. And at the end of the day, there is no master control, right? And whether, whether you're a franchisor, like us, right, while we're a national company, we don't exercise local control, because we get that if a big multinational company or public company tries to do that, which is what they tend to want to do, I think they're going to find that to be a painfully expensive path with no control, I think is where they'll end up. They go down that route, I don't think they'll succeed at that, at acquiring and being successful. They'll acquire some companies, but those companies won't necessarily succeed. And we saw that in the in the resortquest years where they buy companies, and half the owners would leave and they, you know, the asset they bought wasn't what they had, you know, eight months 10 months later. So I think there's a lot of risk in that in that path for sure for anybody. We don't want to be bought, we're all very every one of us that are property managers are very single minded and in in passionate about our local market and to try to nationalize that is dangerous. Yeah, I totally agree with but there's but there's a way and I I really think and you asked me about what the future of property management can be. And I think franchising has a very obvious answer to that, because we can bring standards we can bring, we can bring quality, we can bring consistency across it, we can bring national and international marketing. But we recognize that need for the local, the local always and when we just never step on it, we were very careful down to a guest complaint. At the end of the day. The guest rents a unit from a franchisee that franchisee sets their own policies while we have standards about how we handle and treat guests. If they've if they have a cancellation policy of Acts, we've we allow them to enforce that we don't. We don't we don't take that away because their market may be different than another market. And as we know, there is no standards across all

Alex Husner:

markets. So they do have the flexibility to do their own cancellation policies. Yeah, interesting.

Steve Caron:

Yeah. Because every market kind of functions a little bit differently. Yeah, that's true. We have some templates in there. And we have again, we have standards about how you handle Yeah. But we don't necessarily dictate every policy.

Alex Husner:

That's really smart. Because I mean, that's one of the main pain points with Airbnb and certain channels is that you don't have any flexibility. It's either option A, B, or C, and really not. None of those fit exactly with how we all operate. And you're right. I mean, it is because it is such a fragmented, I don't mean that in a bad way, in this context. Every market does things differently. And it's, it's tough to roll that up into one easy to understand thing. And really, I don't know that it's necessary, because you know, Are people really are they? If they book an Airbnb, do they expect the cancellation policy is going to be exactly the same everywhere that they go when they book it, expecting it's going to be the same? I don't know. But

Steve Caron:

I think they desire to control that which they have no control over, right? Yeah, I remember one of one of the CEOs of one of the companies that I had a startup that got acquired, and we were sitting in a staff meeting and he and we were all we were a wholesaler, we were an OTA effectively, we were the merchant of record. He's like, Well, we're just gonna make those guys do that. And I did my hand, how'd that go? Let me tell you a story you have, you have zero control over what they're going to do. The manager has the illusion of control. At the end of the day, the homeowner controls this product. So if the property manager is at servicing their owner, and taking care of their owners needs or owners and value to that owner, that property is going to go away, you're not going to make that manager do anything to make that owner go away. It's just not going to happen. Right. And I think that has to be the focus and anyone that wants to control this has to know, it's all about the owner. And that's that's all about local operations, that's boots on the ground. So I think that's why it's hard to nationalize this in a way where you control it from, you know, one chair in a city somewhere far, far away. Yeah.

Annie Holcombe:

It's interesting. We work in a lot of markets at lexicon, you know, a lot of the beach markets and mountain markets and some of the acquisitions that have been made by some of the larger companies, they come in and they make the sweeping changes to policies and you know, staffing and those things, but the policies always seem to be the biggest one. And we've had some acquisitions that have happened not to our partners, but in markets where we have partners and the partners we're at We have in those markets will say, Oh, that acquisition was our biggest source of business. Because when they came in and they made all these sweeping changes, owners were like, I don't you know, I want to work with local Bob, I want to work with local Sally, I want to know that I can, I can manage what I need for my unit. I don't want somebody in wherever it is making the decision that's completely unrelated to my market. So I'm really curious. I think that I Trump answers kind of a, the need to have some standardization in the industry, but still allows the local flavor and flair to still still exist. So I would use that as a question to you. How do you see? Or how do you position yourself different from a Bokassa an eye attract versus a casa?

Steve Caron:

So I think that the biggest answer is, is we have local owner operators, right. So no one cares for the local needs of the business like a real like an owner, right. As opposed to a general manager, somebody who doesn't have any stake in the game, they're there to do the job. They're competent, they're great people, I think they care. I'm not saying we don't care, I think they just don't have that same level of, of all in that an owner does. And so when when our property managers who are local owner operators, they've invested their their their life savings in a business, unlike what we were doing at choice, these are startup businesses. So they, these are folks who are fortune 100, fortune 500 executives who have made a purposeful choice to be in this business, and then back into it by being a realtor they didn't grow into because a friend says the units, they're here because they want to be and they start with zero units, they grow that business, they're building their fans, this is the legacy for their family, just like its industry started, right. These are many of these were family businesses. And so they're building that, and they have a love for their business, and they have a love for their communities. And I think that that passion of the that ownership plays out to those owners, and it's seen by the owners, and I think by their staff and and by the other people they work with the other the other local businesses I contract with, we're very careful to make sure we stay in our lane and do what we're good at. We don't step on the vendors in our business in our markets, because we think that it's it's about again, it's about lifting that lifting tide raises all boats, and we believe that and we preach that. And we teach that to two new franchisees, I think that gives us that advantage. But I can still market nationally, just as well as any as a casa and I don't know, I don't, I don't try to compete against anyone on one company, we do our thing we don't, we don't try to do contrary to something else. We we look at what's good for our guests, what's the best guest path, what's the guest journey for a guest and try to be relevant to that guest and so that owner, and so, but when we bring that national footprint, we were the first LEED partner for HomeAway. We're the only ones that have been elite for six years. So we've been since they had their LEED program. We didn't get that because we it was an accident, we purposely pursued them, we worked well with them. We've tied our technology to them in a way. And we have a very strong relationship with their team. So we build these relationships, not just with owners and staff and logo, but all the way through the value chain. Because that's how this we get that this is a relationship business.

Alex Husner:

Yeah, absolutely. And I'm curious of the new franchisees that you get is it mix of people who have been trying to do it on their own, that they might have a handful of units. And they because we see a lot of these now at Burma that they have a handful of units, and they're using a bunch of different software products. And you know, kind of scratch our heads like, where are the margins for you if you're having to, you know, buy all these different things that you can't scale across multiple properties yet? Do you get owners like that? Or are they more that they are starting from scratch and they just know this is going to be the best path to success.

Steve Caron:

It's a mixed bag, but I can tell you most come with no units. They love the industry. They've been a user of the product. And they show it but we have some that are particularly urban folks that buy in in the urban markets. They're doing Airbnb, they've got a handful of units, but they're looking for structure. And so there's a lot of people like that in the industry that you're seeing come in into Verma that have they they're in the industry. They're small, they don't have scale. They're struggling to get scale. And I think those are some opportunities for us in market arena won't have anybody where we can provide them a lift, they fill in a gap in a market where we don't have an operator. So there's an opportunity for us there I think but generally we're coming in with zero properties and we were a very hands on we're a platform so when you join us you get from the day you sign the agreement, there's a trainer on the phone you're assigned a coach you have six months of coaching and you know with a with a dedicated weekly coach and homework and there's all sorts of hands on approach to it. We provide you all your technology and we drive all the guests to your business, their jobs to add owners You know, take care of the guests, when they arrive, make sure they get pre arrival in house and post arrival, or post and post departure, and to build relationships with local vendors in order to service the business. So we we draw that line. And we and of course, we all cross over a little bit, we help each other out, but, and then franchisees help franchisees. So the other the other side of the business, we don't just have local operations that are isolated all my local operators share Intel with other local operators about how to build best practices. So I community, yeah, yeah. But it built into the built into the business to lift our own business, and the lift each of their practices. And we and when we find something that works, we build that into our process and our secret sauce that we don't share with anybody else.

Alex Husner:

Yeah, I love that you say it's a platform, because I think that's one of the core differences in what you have built is that I mean, you are operators or previous operators that built the technology now that your franchisees use so I mean, you are your own target market, which inherently makes your product offering very different than just a off the shelf PMS that was you know, just introduced a year ago. Maybe we

Steve Caron:

actually operate a business in Panama. So yeah, we have 100 units in Panama City. Oh, okay. Okay, we actually we actually have that the rich store number one is a company store. Yeah, they're still there. I you know, I get involved in you know, guest issues and other fun right, all the things about your cleaning issues. And last laundry, you know, this owner didn't show up and you know, all those fun things. Yeah. Yeah. Right, that we all deal with. We deal with those. So we drink our own Kool Aid. We Yeah, look technology for our own self. We test new ideas on ourselves, and then roll them out to our to our franchisees. So we're in the business as well as No, we don't just sell the business. We're in the business.

Alex Husner:

Yeah, no, I mean, that's, that's definitely a good model for success right there. How have things changed since you got rolled up under the inhabit IQ umbrella? And can you tell us what year that was

Steve Caron:

happening in 2019? Okay, mid mid year 2019. We joined in the inhabit back then it was vacation brands, and then later became what it renamed and rebranded as in habit. It's, you know, I've done probably 40 or 50, mergers and acquisitions in my career, either on the on the acquirer side or being acquired with a couple of my startups, not all of them have been really great experiences, I can tell you, this has been a really good experience. We we've been folded into a group of people who are really the leaders of the industry, that's the technologies of the industry, and particularly the service companies in blue tan, blue Tech was starting their company at the same time I had a startup, we actually helped each other, lift those companies off the ground and get them started together. And so we all of us who are running these companies that are that are part of the inhabit family are all we already knew each other. And what it had it did is gave us structure kind of like what we're doing with our franchisees we're wrapping structure around their independence. So we still do our own thing we're part of we're one family, we do things together, we work together. And I was meeting with my advisory council of franchisees yesterday, we're talking about what's inhabit bringing to the table, because they asked me this question all the time, too. And the answer is I you know, they're they're enhancing my ability for development, I'm getting access to new tools, where I used to only write our own software, everything was purposely built inside, we were a closed system, we're now working in interoperating, with these other companies and expanding our technology, and expanding our processes because of it. So it's been a, it's been a very positive experience. I mean, it's a big company and things, things can be there's work to be done there, right. It's not easy. It's no different than flying that airplane, right? You work at it, you train at it, you you make some mistakes, but you're better at it. And we've learned to work together as a team. And I think it's hone down and it's hitting all the marks. I think you're seeing a lot of great things. Because those companies or service companies in industry, they have operators now who are part of their company, that's us. Yeah. And the we I'm a consumer of all those products, right? So we give them very unvarnished advice on what they could do to make them better. And I think that's going to make those companies better. Because they've got they've they're getting a, you know, you know, an honest answer, not a customer's answer, necessarily, right? There's no right, taking this to make sure that Mike, my company and I drip is successful. And these are the tools I need to be successful. Yeah,

Annie Holcombe:

I would imagine that you get the ability or the access to a deeper tech team by having their resources. So you're getting a lot of really good minds that are coming up with a lot of good things, which kind of leads me to my question about what's happened in the industry in terms of technology advancement. So you've been in it since Abbott and your as 400 days, you know, where what do you think is has been the biggest piece of technology, advancement, creation enhancement that you've, I guess been part of or have seen in your time in the industry?

Steve Caron:

I mean, clearly online booking is the but that that's sort of a very broad view right online has adapted over the years from let's just put a few of the houses on and see what happens. And it's, it's really a booking request. And so in the resortquest days, we took and brought all the all the independent resortquest never was a single database of properties. It was always a loose affiliation of Aurion companies really. And it was on five or six different technology bases and NorQuest did. And it was difficult because the technology was very, very antiquated. There was just too new, we were able to consolidate that into an image of a single database that we could then merchandise, the inventory. So I think the ability now to truly bring that together with the data technologies that are out there and the data speeds that are available. You know, when Abbott was bringing that when we were automating Abbott, we were excited because we had 14 for modems, we were tying together. Yeah, you're online. Yeah, we're at the front desk was what happens if the modems down and we can't operate. I'll never forget John sociate. Ours, she was our Director of Operations. She's an icon in the Panhandle and greet. And she looked at the front desk manager said, take their money and give them a key back online. Today, it's about customer service, I'll take care of the guests. So technology is only an enabler of the business. But technology has enabled bring it to so many more people. And I think I think, you know, the internet and the online booking capability. And, and what really powers that, obviously, is data speeds. And database technology has really changed it. And now that we're there's everybody in the last five years, I think the big issue is there's institutional money just pouring into the space. And so people are building so many new tools, people have built them for other industries, we're now getting their attention. And it's accelerating the amount of technology that's out there that can enhance the abilities of property managers to really drive their business. And that's what we seize on. And that's why we were excited about the inhabits acquisition, because we saw that as an opportunity to accelerate and make our our franchisees more efficient, and they're right, they're more efficient. They're customer facing. They're not they're not down here typing on their computer. And that that's bad.

Alex Husner:

Yeah, yeah, for sure. What do you see as the future of inhabit and just that whole model with? I mean, there's two different software companies, right, streamline and live rez, and technically I trip? I mean, with your software, so three completely different products and VRM

Steve Caron:

as well. So okay, and delay and super control over in, in Scotland to Okay, actually,

Alex Husner:

I can't imagine that they that they don't when they're looking at everything. I mean, they don't I can't look at yours. And then the other ones are not see, okay, well, we should use some of this methodology and vice versa. I mean, is it? Is the plan to keep growing each product independently? Or do you think the plan is to eventually merge into one? I mean, maybe not. I tried, because yours is specific to being a franchise also. But from a software product offering? Does it make sense? Do you know what the roadmap is for that?

Steve Caron:

So So I absolutely do not because I'm not part of that group. But But I can tell you just from practice, and from from being on the periphery of that is that our focus is on every one of those brands, when they don't buy the brands of Sunset brands. They buy brands to build them up. Because as passionate as you may be about streamline, or, or VRM. You know, the next person is passionate about live raise, right? Everybody loves their software. They don't want a software switch. Nobody wants, right. Yeah, first of all, it's a nightmare to switch sometimes, right? Oh, yeah. I as a technology person, as a property manager, for me, it was a decade decision. Yeah. And, you know, I made that decision very poorly. When I was at Sterling, I shifted us from one software package to another, to a hotel based software I thought was going to really meet our needs. And I regretted it forever, afterwards. And eventually we switched over back to a to a homophone product, but so it's an important thing. People are very passionate about their software. I don't see any consolidation coming up. I see him, I see interoperability, I see assistance. You know, features you see in one that have been written we don't have to relearn how that works. We can we all share that we share we have a crossover in that area. Again, I think that's the the value of that consolidation is the meeting of the minds and the meaning of the ability to to to assist each other to accelerate not not to take apart Yeah, it's really about ability job not taking anything down. That's that's the view I get. I don't have any I'm not privy to the inner workings of the longer roadmap, but I don't see any path towards that. I've never seen any steps in that direction.

Annie Holcombe:

It'll be interesting to see where we where we end and there's, like you said, there's a lot of Have money pouring into the industry and people wanting to be part of it. So I think we're kind of getting your time and we wanted to wrap up with a couple of questions. But one of the things I think we found most interesting about you in our conversations is that you've worn a lot of titles in your life. You've been a navigator, you've been a CTO, you've been a CEO, you've been a GM but you are also a farmer on the side. I am. Yeah. So so how many chickens do you have? And so is there is there a future like farmer in you in terms of having cows and horses in the whole nine yards?

Steve Caron:

So for years, my wife used to joke I want chickens. Because we, you know, we live in the panhandle, right. We live near the beach. We are live in the neighborhood. Well, when we move to Tennessee from the DC area when I was with choice, we bought five acres. On a wooded area. We're only 12 miles from downtown, but I've got five acres on a hill. We're pretty isolated. And she said, can we have chickens now?

Alex Husner:

Yeah. So why not now? Why not? Right? Yeah, I ran out of excuses.

Steve Caron:

Now I have a big John Deere tractor. And so it I don't think I don't see myself as a farmer. It's it's my it's all therapies. Wow. Yeah, well, you're filing for therapy. I move rocks with my tractor dig holes. It's all

Annie Holcombe:

like living a childhood dream. I mean, when you're a little boy, little boys always love to play with dirt and move rocks and tractors. Right?

Steve Caron:

I've moved over 110 tons of rocks this year and built two roads, and oh, my gosh, working platforms. And it's just, it's just a lot of fun. So it's

Alex Husner:

gonna do great things for your creativity. And just absolutely break though. Right from the day to day of being a slugger. Operator. Yeah, having a it's a hobby in essence. I mean, that's just wonderful for your mind to escape.

Steve Caron:

Girls give us a pace of our day, right? So well, because we had to exchange students for years. We have five exchange students, my wife and I did over the years, we have two sons. We didn't have any daughters. And we always wanted a daughter. So it was way to borrow someone's daughter and really hold them and send them home before they hated you. Right. So parents forever. Yeah, yeah. These are now our exchange chickens. Right? So these are our girls are spoiled. They got a tray of awesome food every day at noon, and they get that at bed, you know, there's a bedtime and they sort of set a pace for our lives. You have to remember, you're more important than just just grinding out technology. Yeah, it's a stop saying there's just take a minute refreshing to get back to this but it's therapy for me.

Alex Husner:

There were there was one that you were telling us that lived in your house for like six months or something.

Steve Caron:

Yeah, well wasn't six months, but it was about seven, eight, maybe nine weeks.

Alex Husner:

Okay. Okay. Yeah, I got picked on an extended stay cool tree. And

Steve Caron:

it was we had a coop in here. And so we have a setup means to keep the house from being too bad. And she was in the guest room, but she was getting pecking orders a real thing. And she was the youngest of the chickens and she was getting bloodied. And then we got a relationship with this Crazy Chicken name is good theory. It's but I like to call her stance with this because when I went out to the coop that she was she was these other chickens were around her pecking at her and dumped in my arm. So she was defiant. She was fighting. She's my chicken every night we go home go to put them to bed at night. He turns around and she slowly turns around, she gets old scratch on her breasts.

Annie Holcombe:

Oh my goodness. These are the original mean, girls. Is that what you're saying? Yeah, exactly. Oh, my God.

Steve Caron:

I love that good alternative to the regular day.

Alex Husner:

Yeah, well, you've had a lot of different jobs over the years. But one of the questions that we had asked that I thought you had a good answer to was about your very first job. Can you tell us what that was?

Steve Caron:

So flying airplanes is that is over Sharma or?

Alex Husner:

Ah, I don't know I had it down that I was very good. Is it? Okay, maybe that is what you meant. That's my bad. That was one of the questions that we had sent over. I thought there was another side story on that. Okay, so a bonus question then. What is the biggest thing that you think is not being discussed in the vacation rental industry today? That I think

Steve Caron:

it's being talked around, but I do. There's a guy who created a group called trend Hunter Jeremy gushee, I think is his name. I can't never pronounce his last name, right? But he talks about chaos a lot. And out of crisis comes chaos out of chaos comes opportunity. And we've just followed that path, right? I mean, we've had chaos of all chaos when pandemics and everything else. Our industry has really gone through a transformation. And then there's an opportunity now to seize change, but you have to do that with a purpose. Yeah, in a purposeful way, you have to do with consistency. I think as an industry, what we're not still doing is as an industry coming together and saying, This is what we want to be as an industry, I think. So it's not a one thing. I think it's about how do we wrap ourselves up and say, hey, 90% of the people now are interested in our product, how do we consistently provide a consumer experience and an owner experience that is consistent and reasonable for both so that we can provide a great product? And I think right now we're all trying to solve it on our own. And I go back to that teamwork idea. And there's a certain amount of teamwork. One of the guys one of the people who acquired me in my life and one of the businesses I was in, said, You know, it's really about coopetition. Right? Yeah. each other we can, you know, this industry is close enough, it's small enough, it's pretty, you're either going to work with, for or against somebody in the industry, don't make any enemies, because you're gonna find them again in your life. It's so true, that we can all work together to really establish what we want to be now that we've grown up and we have an opportunity to play in the big game. Yeah. doing that. And I think that's being missed right now. They are industry associations are too busy talking about training and some of the stuff and we're not we're not bringing up that level of discussion, I think.

Alex Husner:

Yeah, I agree with that. And I think that in some ways, I think that associations are just getting too big that it's not possible to have those conversations. And somehow I went to, I think, three or four different Artemis summits. OPMA. And we never got a chance to meet those somehow. I know you were one of the founding members, but that is where I met Annie. But one of the things that I loved about those summits was that they were small, and that they had intimate discussions. And I always felt like when I left those that, you know, it wasn't as much of an emphasis on the content of presentations, but it was the conversations that you left with that you really felt like, okay, we're making, we're moving the needle forward. You know, I mean, we're at least identifying what the problems are. And, you know, hopefully, we just had Paul, we talked to Paul Wolfer, just recently, and he said that maybe might be coming back this year, or fingers crossed. But I think it's, it's those discussions, and it's those trade associations that really need to lead the charge. And it doesn't need to always start at the highest level, sometimes it takes smaller groups to get together and identify and you know, start to build that viral effect to it.

Steve Caron:

And incidentally, I've seen habit doing that at least internally, right? Yeah, I'm sure. My franchisees have that with each other. I have that now with industry leader. Yeah, we have those come we had, we had one of those meetings yesterday, we spent several hours on the phone, we'll go to follow it up tomorrow with another and we discussed waiting needy problems that it doesn't necessarily benefit one side of the other. But it's about how do we interoperate for the industry better? Yeah, because we span a lot of seconds. So I that that type of conversation is heartening. Because I can see that if we could broaden that out across all the great minds industry and Macondo world's got a great, a great legacy of properties, you guys have a great history of awesome operations. You ain't lexicons, the companies, you guys represent our companies that have great pedigree, but you're not in the conversation with us. And I am awesome for us all to be really talking about how do we make this industry better? And who's it better for was for our owners and our guests, right? And what's the stuff? Well, let's compete on a fair playing field, but we can compete against each other for the guests. But let's make let's make sure the guest is getting what they need. Because then then they'll come back, right? They will opt to another option. And that's it the end of the day. That's what benefits us.

Alex Husner:

Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. My Word of 2022. If you're watching on YouTube, you can see my cup right now, but is a spray to core which your military background I know, you know that words. But I think that kind of summarizes it that, you know, that's that feeling of a lot of us feel that way we have that pride and fellowship of our industry organization. And it's really you know, how you bring more people into that mix and how you share that knowledge for the betterment of everybody.

Steve Caron:

Right? How do you love this? And if you love it, how do you care for it? Yeah, exactly.

Annie Holcombe:

Yeah, I think this sounds like a road show for Alex any any? Yeah,

Alex Husner:

exactly. Yeah. That was the show. We were talking about the coffee and cars or Commedia

Annie Holcombe:

cars and coffee, but it'd be Alex and Annie have a glass of wine with local people and talk about vacation rentals.

Steve Caron:

Yeah, that would be a good that'd be good. You guys. You guys aren't hit every show and have a little a little little side table over there. We'll order the last one and have a little a little little interviews.

Alex Husner:

Yeah, we've talked about that. About that very, very well be on the roadmap.

Steve Caron:

gonna wear a blue shirt today, just so I can match in with the kind of the iconic blue that you guys do. But yeah,

Alex Husner:

no. Yeah. Steve, thank you so much for being on with us today. This was a great conversation and you We'd love to have you come back another time to you know, dive into more topics related to franchise and consolidation and technology. We just really enjoyed talking to you. So appreciate what you bring to the industry and what I trip does. And we wish you the best of luck in 2022.

Steve Caron:

Same and thank you guys for doing what you're doing, by the way, because this is how that conversation starts. Yeah, absolutely. Ryan Hummer, we and Matt are doing that with their their podcast. They started you know, it would be cool is for you guys to do a joint podcast

Alex Husner:

is yeah, we've been talking about it. Yeah, we did a we did a joint podcast with John and Matteo. Before it was Alex nanny. This was back in the spring. But yeah, we should reach out to Matt and Brian and do that, too. I agree. I think they're doing a great job there.

Steve Caron:

I think we got to start talking to each other. Yeah. Yeah. I think that's the key to making work, communication and teamwork. Yeah. Even if we're competitors. It's

Alex Husner:

Yeah, well, it keeps, you know, that's one of the things of the pandemic that LinkedIn and you know, some of these online type panels, things have kept conversations going outside of just what we get at the conferences. And I think that's what's happening with podcasts. And I know for us that's that's been a big benefit here is that we're opening up the discussion to keep things moving along. So it's not a lull between April and October, when we all see each other. We're still moving the needle. So thank you.

Annie Holcombe:

Well, Steve, if anybody wants to get in touch with you just to ask questions or learn more about eye track, what's the best way for them to reach out to you

Steve Caron:

probably email so Steve, Karen, CA aro n at i trip.co. i trip Co. and I'm online probably about 18 hours a day.

Alex Husner:

So and I trip is I tripped. dotnet is your

Steve Caron:

URL, or you can do I dropped it. We have it up dotnet is our website. And in my email, I've got SEO.

Annie Holcombe:

Okay. Yeah, no, don't put calm because it'll bounce back. I learned that

Steve Caron:

dotnet we I do have an agent dotnet Steve, Karen at your dotnet is perfect.

Alex Husner:

Okay, if anybody wants to reach me, and I can go to Alex and Annie podcast.com. And thank you again, Steve. And thank you everybody for listening, and we will talk to you next time.

Steve Caron:

Great. Thank you ladies.

Annie Holcombe:

Thank you

Steve Caron Profile Photo

Steve Caron

GM/CEO iTrip

Steve Caron has been GM/CEO since March of 2021. Prior to being promoted to GM/CEO, Steve was the Vice President of Operations since June 2019. Previously, he was our Chief Operating Officer from October 2018 to June 2019. Prior to that time, Steve served as Vice President, Head of Vacation Rentals of Choice Hotels International from April 2016 to October 2018 in Rockville, Maryland. Additionally, Mr. Caron served as Vice President of Vacation Rentals of Tourico Holidays, Inc. from February 2013 to April 2016 in Altamonte Springs, Florida. Steve began his career as an Special Operations Air Force Officer and Instructor Navigator for 10 years before joining the short-term rental industry including roles as CIO at ResortQuest Intl, Co-Founder of Sterling Resorts and Co-founder of several industry focused startup companies.