The Story of a Vacation Rental Start-Up

Sep 12, 2018 | Testimonials

Phillip Simm is a man on a mission. A little over 12 months ago–after two years working for a large vacation rental company in Thailand–he started out on his own, setting up Holiday Villa Thailand, a vacation rental management company. At the time of our first interview, Phillip was barely three months into his new venture, but had already amassed impressive inventory of more than 100 properties in Phuket and Pattaya. We recently got back in touch to find out how things are going one year in and how he’s navigated the tough terrain of nurturing a successful start-up in a competitive marketplace. (Hint: It involves tons of ambition and seemingly inexhaustible supplies of energy.) Here’s his story… so far.
Originally from the UK, Phillip started his journey in sales but never quite found a role that he was 100% passionate about. “It felt a little bit like Groundhog Day – every day was the same… Then I got the opportunity to work in Thailand for a vacation rental company.” After the first two or three days, he knew it was the industry for him. He quickly found his feet, going from being the new guy right up to second-in-command in about 12 months. After seeing enormous potential in the industry, especially in Thailand, he decided he’d outgrown the company he worked for and needed to strike out on his own.
In the early stages of Holiday Villa Thailand, Phillip’s energy and proactive approach yielded swift results. Properties were onboarded incredibly quickly–100 in the first three months–largely thanks to the existing relationships he had already forged in Pattaya and Phuket. Having procured great inventory, the next step was to get the distribution right – and that’s where TripAdvisor came in. “I’d worked with TripAdvisor in my previous role, so I knew securing that reach and global distribution was so important. Everything moved very quickly, from setting up the listings and integrating my channel management software. Plus, having a dedicated property manager to help was great.” Another plus-point to working with TripAdvisor was the reassurance and confidence the iconic brand gives travelers when booking their trips.
“I’d worked with TripAdvisor in my previous role, so I knew securing that reach and global distribution was so important.”

From the get-go, Phillip was keen to provide guests with a great experience, from their first interaction with the rental listing right the way through to check-out. That all starts with ensuring the listing content is as accurate and high-quality as it possibly can be, particularly when it comes to rates: “If your rates are too low and a customer sends an inquiry, you’ve then got a very tough job trying to justify that increase. It’s a little bit unprofessional not to have the correct information there for the customer.” Following the actual booking process, Phillip’s approach is to communicate with guests and build rapport before their stay. By the time they arrive, the team is already on first name terms with guests having exchanged lots of emails and messages. This individual approach extends to providing the very best experience for each and every guest during their stay. In Holiday Villa Thailand’s first 12 months, Phillip quickly found that trying to establish a template or basic package for guests wasn’t going to work – because the requirements were different every time. “Every customer is different. Some guests are more than happy to have next-to-no involvement with the host. Other guests request everything, from airport transfers to a private chef, a birthday cake or even all their tours and excursions fully arranged complete with a timetable.” Setting up the infrastructure to provide those tours and activities can take a long time, but Phillip’s team are now using TAP–TripAdvisor’s Travel Agent Program. This new feature has allowed them to find and book experiences for guests while earning 8% commission in the process, simplifying and monetizing a service they were already providing.
“Every customer is different. Some guests are more than happy to have next-to-no involvement with the host. Other guests request everything, from airport transfers to a private chef, a birthday cake or even all their tours and excursions fully arranged complete with a timetable.”

Building solid relationships is a strong theme that appears throughout discussions with Phillip, and that’s not only with guests. When it comes to inventory procurement, establishing relationships with owners is hugely important. “I’m a true believer in the fact that any successful business is built around relationships. In the 12 months we’ve been operational, the only time an owner has stopped working with us is when they sold the house. Everyone is still as important to us now as they were. The way we treat our first 10 owners is the same as for the next 100.” Flexibility is another key area. Phillip stresses the need to “be a bit of a chameleon” with owners, recognizing that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach that will work. Some owners come on board with a one-year contract while others will partner with Holiday Villa Thailand for an initial period of three or four years. It just depends on the owner. “There’s no real rigid structure you can stick to because, just like the guests, sometimes the owners want different things. So, we have to be a little bit of a chameleon – change as and when required to meet the owners’ needs.” The company’s reputation–among guests and owners alike–is incredibly important to Phillip. Sure, he wants to procure inventory quickly and grow the business into one of, if not THE, most recognizable name in Asia’s vacation rental space. But he wants that reputation and brand to be built on great service and the fact that they deliver what they promise.
“Every day is like a new challenge. Even though you’re in the same environment, you’re always going somewhere new, there’s always a new property, a new opportunity. It’s not a question of me maintaining my dedication – it’s the industry which keeps sucking me in!”

In working towards building that brand, Phillip is not alone – he has a carefully curated team working alongside him. In the early days of the start-up, Phillip took care of a lot of the admin himself, including replying to inquiries and being the public face of the business. He now has 12 full-time employees across multiple branches and acknowledges the importance of recruiting great people who share his passion for the industry. “I have a great team around me which is really important. Because there’s so much work to do. Even though you’d like to do everything yourself, you can’t. So you need reliable people to whom you can delegate responsibilities.” The team consists of customer care managers–on call 24/7 to deal with any issues–as well as teams focusing on distribution and inventory procurement. The company also contracts out a lot of work for operational services like laundry and cleaning, for example.
A strong background in vacation villa rentals hasn’t kept Phillip from recognizing and pursuing different opportunities as his business develops. In an interesting twist, Holiday Villa Thailand is now adding serviced apartments to its inventory after being approached by owners seeking a total property management solution – which Phillip was capable and keen to provide. “We take over the whole building (which might contain 20 or 30 apartments) and manage every aspect – not only the online distribution and listings but also the management side of things, from maintenance through to accounting. We offer more of a total property management solution as opposed to just bringing somebody bookings.” As a result of this new and unexpected opportunity, the business has developed strong inventory in two more destinations – Bangkok and Hua Hin.
Phillip always has one eye on the future. We asked about his vision for the company over the next two or three years. “Because we’re a young start-up, we’re looking to expand and procuring the right inventory is the primary goal. If we get a large enough inventory in the next 1-2 years, that will put us in a strong position in terms of performance as well as reputation. People will be aware of us, recognize the name, and know our reputation for hospitality. That recognition is the ultimate prize over the next few years.” One thing that you come away with after a conversation with Phillip is a sense of his enthusiasm for the industry. How does he maintain such high levels of commitment and dedication? “Every day is like a new challenge. Even though you’re in the same environment, you’re always going somewhere new, there’s always a new property, a new opportunity. It’s not a question of me maintaining my dedication – it’s the industry which keeps sucking me in!”

Words of wisdom

After a remarkable first year in terms of expansion and growth, what words of advice does Phillip have about getting a vacation rental management start-up off the ground?

1. Don’t be afraid to take on new challenges, especially in the uncertain environment of emerging markets. Every challenge can turn out to be a risk or an opportunity for your business. Do remember though, you’re not alone in this – you can always seek support, e.g. from your trusted TripAdvisor account manager.
2. Always make sure all your listing information is correct. That your photos are great, calendars are up to date, and rates are correct. Check, check, and check again. Never assume. After all, we’re only human, so be very thorough.
3. Make sure you’ve got a good team around you and that they are 100% dedicated to the cause. This is not just a 9-to-5 job where you simply upload a listing and wait for a booking. Instead, you have to be proactive, committed and strive to give both your guests and property owners the best possible experience.

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