VANESSA DE SOUZA LAGE

Gutsy Genius Thinker

Build partnerships; you get there faster

VANESSA DE SOUZA LAGE – Co-Founder & CMO, Rentals United; Founder, VRTech Events

Vanessa de Souza Lage

Barcelona, Spain

Rentals United has been a major influencer in the world of hospitality tech since it was founded in 2015. It is an advanced distribution platform for professional short-term rental property managers with ten-plus rentals looking to advertise on worldwide booking channels.

When Vanessa, James Burrows, and Emil Majkowski cofounded the business, channel management was available but relatively new to the hospitality sector. Airbnb triggered a revolution in the alternative accommodation space, and owners needed a way to efficiently distribute and market their apartment, beach house, yurt, and more on everything from Booking.com to Vacasa. In stepped this scrappy start-up. According to Vanessa, “The first few months of Rentals United were spent in a dark cellar (literally!) and with a hoard of interns, cold-calling property managers around the world.” When a semblance of traction was detected, the first angel investor was found, who funded a new, slightly less-dark office. Fast-forward a few years, and they secured $ 4.2m in venture capital investment and took off.

Like every business in the travel space, C-19 has influenced Rentals United’s business volume. C-19 has not stopped Rentals United from driving maximum volume even in a lower-demand marketplace. For those of you who have followed Rentals United’s digital pushes, they have become a leading voice (with data) in speaking to the strength of the comeback of the alternative accommodation and boutique hotels.

Vanessa is a GGT on every level. Her focused energy has invigorated and motivated an entire category, and she is also the founder of VRTech Events, which recently hosted its VRTech Start-up competition. Adapters are community leaders, “give before they get,” and in this case, Revyoos (an all-in-one review aggregator for short-term rentals) was the beneficiary.

Vanessa’s Adapters Tips

  • If you can’t win separately, come together
  • Build partnerships; you get there faster
  • Be a force of change; lead the way in professional property management. Travelers will reward you
  • Digital nomads are here to stay; it’s a fact, not a fad! Market to them
  • Organizers of events need to widen the attendance at conferences and dig-events to include diversity as a primary goal

 

THE INTERVIEW – Making IT Work in Vacation Rentals

Glenn Haussman
I’m delighted to bring you another episode of Adapters and how the travel and hospitality industry is making the world connect. We’ve got another great conversation with a gutsy genius thinker today, helping drive the fourth age one experience at a time. Of course I’m talking about Vanessa de Souza Lage, CMO, and cofounder of Rentals United. Sean, great to see you. Why don’t you take it away?

Sean Worker
Good to see you, Glenn, and welcome back from Vegas. You look good.

Glenn Haussman
Thank you. I appreciate that. For those of you watching, a little context. I was in Vegas for the grand reopening and yes, I survived. 

Sean Worker 
Vanessa, it’s great to have you and thanks for making the time. I think a lot of the viewers would love to know the path that led you to where you are today and what you’re doing at Rentals United. So give us some context on that. 

Vanessa de Souza Lage
Thank you very much for having me. Love the energy of the episode already. I’m Vanessa and as you said, I’m Co-founder and Marketing Director of Rentals United, a distribution platform for vacation rentals. It’s kind of the end of my path, for now, at least. It started off, in the vacation rental industry. I was an OTA, but early on, before Airbnb times. We had around 8,000 online bookable apartments and villas around the world. And that was the distance of my journey really, as an entrepreneur, at least in the VR (Vacation Rental) field, cause this was already my third company. So, we did very, very well for quite a few years. We had customers all over the world. We were selling online; we had a website that was ranking really, really well. And then, well, Airbnb came along with all their millions and HomeAway. Now, VBRO started buying agencies all around us and it became harder and harder to make the marketing dollar work, you know, in a B to C world, you know, a lot of money. Also we made some terrible mistakes in SEO [search engine optimization]. That cost me, you know, it was, it was just too hard. So after eight years of running this fairly successfully, we were coming to the end of our journey with the OTA. 

And then we got a phone call out of the blue from a competitor, also a medium-size agency. They said we need to get together, otherwise we’re going to die. So, let’s get around the table and discuss ideas of how we can survive, because at the end of the day, we had a lot of products. We had a big database of vacation rentals, property managers, etc. 

So what can we do with it to save it? This is how the idea of the distribution platform came along. So now we have all this product, why not put it onto the big boys, the big OTAs that have the marketing dollars to spend and still make bookings and still make our margins. Right? And so this is how Rentals United was born. It was basically born out of necessity, to survive as an entrepreneur. 

SW
So you stepped into the role of a distribution channel manager, which is a big difference between being the OTA and utilizing a channel manager. Why did you do that? 

VdSL
It was a big step and it also required a lot of technical work, but it felt like this was the solution for us because we couldn’t compete with them. There was no way, as a small or medium size website, that we could compete. And so it felt like it was the only way. So, do take my rentals, Airbnb; do take my rentals, Booking.com, etc. But, you know, then we had to create this distribution platform, which was very hard on the technical side and took quite a few years and it’s still being refined, obviously still constantly being improved. But, yeah, that was it. 

 

GH
You explained how, but what goes on inside that allows you to recognize that now is the time to adapt; now is the time to make that change in order to keep your business going forward?

VdSL
The great thing was, I guess, that because we were in a group, it wasn’t just us. The small OTA was just my partner and I, the two of us. Obviously, we had employees and stuff, but it was the two of us, and not being part of a network at the time we never went to events or the industry events. We didn’t really know anyone in the industry. We were just doing well, in our little bubble. But suddenly I’m being called to this round table, we realized that with partners we could potentially save what we have. And I think that was the key. The key was to not be alone and to really connect with others and grow this in a different way. 

GH
That’s interesting that you say work with others because a lot of folks would want to just go at it on their own. So do you have to think about how to make it work with another partner and I mean, your psychological mindset, not the dollars and cents of it, because here you’ve got this company, you’re the ones firmly in charge and now all of a sudden everything is up-ended. 

VdSL
I agree. I’m a huge promoter of partnerships. In fact, since this happened, we run a business pretty much just as partners; partners who are sometimes only a few percent off of what we do, so they could be called competitors. We’re still partners with them. So, this has completely changed my approach to making business rather than being completely on yourself. I’m out there speaking to everyone, speaking to competitors, always trying to find a way we can partner.  Maybe there’s a way we can make this work together. So, and this has been a life motif with all the partners that we work with today. They’re very similar to us, but we share this aspect of we have the same customers, we have the same challenges. What can we do together to improve?

 

GH
So the synergy was there. It’s just all of a sudden you had to go from a competitor mindset to a partnership mindset.

VdSL
Correct. And that proved it. It was great. It still is. Out of all these companies that met that day at the round table, only two remained in the end. We were three at one point and only two remain, but we know we have formed extremely good bonds with these people and we’re now co-founders and excellent friends. It’s great to be able to have people from all sorts of walks of life to bounce back your ideas to. 

SW
So when you’re thinking about why your product is different, how do you compare your competitive edge to others that you perceive as true competitors?

VdSL
I am very lucky, because in my field there are very few competitors. As I said, the barriers to entry are very high. It’s technically a very challenging environment. So luckily I don’t have many. If I think of why we are so appreciated by the industry, you know, most of the large industry players want to talk to us.  I think it’s a question of transparency. I think we’re extremely transparent as a company. We – sorry, am I allowed to swear? We don’t BS.

GH
(Laughs) You can say anything you like.

VdSL
We’re extremely transparent.  I think that gives us this branding edge in a way. People want to talk to us because we’re passionate. We’re transparent, we’re active, we’re going everywhere, shaking hands, not scared of any kind of partnerships, always open to business, always giving advice. And of course, if I come back to marketing, what I do, then I think we have a huge competitive advantage because we’re not trying to sell anything. We’re educating. We’re educators in a technical area of a vertical within travel that is not technically inclined, and that needs to be educated. We’re miles away from our competitors who are not doing anything in that respect. 

SW
So when you’re out there looking at competitors or partnerships you know the landscape is broad; you’ve got the full on OTAs; you’ve got other switches and it might be helpful just to find that for our viewers, what a channel manager does in a minute, but equally it’s complex. Where do you see the fight, demand and supply?  How do you balance that out? What’s your USP that separates you from the others?

VdSL
Obviously numbers, we need to have lots and lots of product, right? So on one side we have three types of clients being a channel manager, meaning that we sit between the person who has a holiday rental and wants to advertise it.

SW
Is that an individual or a company, or you do business with both?

VdSL
It’s a company, just for simplicity sake. I usually say, you know, you own something and you want to rent it out, you would need a technical partner that would help you make these listings on all the websites that you want to advertise on. 

SW
So how it works is they list with you. And then you say, I’m going to distribute it to OTAs and other like products where eyeballs want something that’s not a hotel. Is that a good way to think about it? 

VdSL
Yeah, absolutely. Yeah for today.

GH
What about tomorrow? How should we think about it for tomorrow?

VdSL
No, I mean, strategy wise, we have a meeting tomorrow, so I can tell you the next time. We’re obviously always looking to increase potential customer segments. But today they are on one side – the professionals who have short term rentals that they want to advertise and there are the OTAs that connects to us. 

SW
Are there any names that you can share that are on your platform? Any brands that we might all recognize? 

VdSL
You have the big brands… Expedia, Google. We are one of the few partners where you can advertise on Google Travel with, and recently we added Trip, which has the largest Chinese OTA with Ctrip and Skyscanner. These are the big names, but then I think as a channel manager, we need to be excellent at having tons of channels that you’d want to be advertising on. So let’s imagine you’re in a region, you’re in the South of France, and there’s a few websites that actually rank better than Airbnb and Booking.com. You’d want to be on those. So, it’s my job to make sure that they’re connected to my channel manager. That’s the competitive edge, as well. So the more channels I have, whether local niche, the ones that deal with digital nomads, even midterm, which now is a definite topic. Right? All of that gives me my competitive edge. And then on the other side, having tons and tons and tons of apartments and villas that I can give to these OTAs so that they are attracted to connect with us.

GH
It sounds like there’s an art form to figuring out where are you going to do the distribution? Because you can’t just do a splatter effect and see what sticks, right? You need to take each of the client’s products and kind of match them up with the distribution sources that you think would work best for that scenario. Plus, I would think, and you’ll tell me if I’m wrong, that some of these more niche sites probably have a lower commission, which will help yield higher profits for you and your clientele.

 

VdSL
Correct. That’s why they probably won’t make you as many bookings. But they make you better bookings, and then there’s also the question of which segment of traveler do you want. Some people don’t want to advertise on Booking.com, because their guests treat their apartments like a hotel, while if you have guests that come from Airbnb it is much more personal sale. There’s all sorts of preferences when it comes to hospitality and in the vacation rental world. Apart from the big boys, the big operators that care about rev par and all the rest, there’s still this aspect of the human aspect, right? I’m welcoming you into my home. So not everyone wants to be on everything. That’s the challenge because we want to make them bookings. So, yeah, please go on Booking.com because it does work.

SW
Let’s talk about where you are today [June 10th, 2020] and for context, we are speaking as the world opens up again.

As we’re thinking about your user experience, right, on the demand side, so you’ve really covered the supply side. What are you seeing as the trends and demand returning? There has been plenty of data that suggests long term rentals and medium term rentals have done pretty well during the crisis, but can you share your insight into those trends? 

VdSL
So as of today, in terms of short term rentals, we see the curve going up, and steadily. There’s not been any drop in most of the countries that we are present in. And this includes US, was just 7% down, two days ago.

SW
Against?

VdSL
Against 2019, 2 days ago.

GH
Wow. Okay, but specifically in your niche? I just want to make that clear.

VdSL
Yes, this is specifically based on our data, which sells short term rentals, on the OTAs. That was 7% down on Monday. We’re seeing the curve in the US is not quite straight because of what’s happening, currently, with the protests. Last week was very up and down. France is on the up. Australia is doing amazingly well. Italy’s up, Spain is up. UK is suffering, still not clear yet.

SW
In relative terms 2019?

VdSL
And relative to the rest of Europe. So, we feel that the confidence is coming back and that’s great for our property managers because many have had to make some tough decisions, right? Many, thank God, not too many, that work with us, closed. We had about one percent share, so far, which is not massive. Then we’ve had quite a few that went and put the entry onto the midterm booking model. And that means midterm is anything from one month, two, three, four, five, six months loosely. So they were very keen on trying out the midterm channels that we have integrated in Rentals United. And that seems to be a trend. I think what we’re going to see more and more, because we have a vacation rental product that’s a furnished apartment, we have this flexibility of going short, medium and potentially long. Alright. So I think we’re going to see that more and more as especially bigger operators in turn, in case of crisis, want to be ready to kind of move their entry here or there. Obviously there’s tons of things to think about in terms of contract, in terms of rules, there’s complications, but I think we’re much better positioned to have this flexibility coming from the short term rental world then the other way around. 

Alright. So, I’m preparing a piece on that, how to mix short, mid long, and I’ll tell you why. 

SW
Yeah, gotta get that mix right. You know, what we’re really interested in learning now about is you as a founder and speaking to an audience that are reading and will listen to a lot of entrepreneurs and founders, what are the three to five attributes that you believe that a founder must have to be able to survive through everything you’ve survived through? What advice do you have for those that will read and watch? 

VdSL
Never steal? (laughs) Yeah. I mean, this is not my first gig as an entrepreneur and I’ve been through, you know, really bad times. I think you need to remain positive. I think that’s the number one thing – is remain positive, for me personally, as a person. It’s always been, okay, if it doesn’t work out, then I’ll go and find a job. You know, it’s not the end of the world. But I’m going to give it all, you know, it’s going to be okay. So therefore you live kind of without fear. I think the fear kicks in when obviously you start having employees and that’s where you need nerves of steel, because this gets very emotional, you know, the last thing I ever want to do is to have to fire our employees or part with them. 

So for this particular crisis, within two weeks, we had a plan; worst case, middle case, and best scenario for until the rest of the year. We managed to get help from the government to fund our staff. And we didn’t have to fire anyone. And from then on, I was sleeping much better, but it took those two weeks to “just don’t let this get to you, you know.” Make sure that everybody’s going to be okay. That’s the most important thing. I would say that’s it. And then, you know, I know I love my life as an entrepreneur. I couldn’t imagine it otherwise. 

GH
Right. But beyond nerves of steel, there’s gotta be more attributes that got you to this particular place. So dig a little deeper, be honest with yourself, with us, about some of the things that you need to have in place in order to do it. And also, maybe what is one of the lessons that you might have learned that helped you gain one of those important attributes that you might not have had prior? 

VdSL
Well, to tell you something that you haven’t had before, well, probably, you have. You know, I’m relentless. I’m obsessed with my business, with my industry. I absolutely love what I do. And I think passion is a huge part of it, of being an entrepreneur. What else? I don’t know. I haven’t really thought of that.

GH
You talked a little bit about the emotional type of stuff – the actual skillsets and open-mindedness and those types of qualities that you think you need in order to be a successful entrepreneur? 

VdSL
Definitely it’s about teams. Personally, I think I’m quite good at what I do. I’m very confident in my field and as an entrepreneur, I wouldn’t be able to do this by myself. So I’m very comfortable in what I do. And I have the right partners to do what they do best, which is one side finance, you know, you can never get me into, being the CEO, making really tough decisions. I haven’t done that. I’m quite comfortable helping the founders making decisions, giving my advice, and being very good at doing marketing. And then I have the right partners to make other types of decisions I wouldn’t be comfortable with, or wouldn’t come as naturally to me as does my current mold. I think maybe potentially the advice there would be to really find out what you’re really good at and then finding the right partners to do the other side. 

GH
Ah, that’s great. I love that notion of confidence. Because I think that each one of us here are very confident in what we do, but it takes a while to get to that point. So I kind of see it as a spectrum from uncertainty to confidence. And then, on the other end, maybe you could fall into that hubris category. How do you make sure you stay confident and don’t slip into another territory, which might cloud your judgment because you’re no longer confident – you’ve moved beyond that to something that’s not healthy, mentally. 

VdSL
That’s a very good point. And I would hate to sound arrogant at all. What I do to keep myself on my toes, because at the end of the day, I’m on top of our company and I don’t have a mentor such as I’ve had in the past. So my mentors are my peers, basically. I educate myself a lot. So I spend a lot of time reading, taking courses, anything I can get my teeth in, I would be reading books about the subject. I’m constantly learning without having a mentor next to me. And I think it does keep me on my toes and I always want to, I don’t want to have just a facility…is that a word, no, it’s not word, is it?

SW
Yes, it is.

VdSL
The idea is to keep educating yourself in order to not start being complacent. And then, you know, my stats are always also my mirror. Say, I know that some months I’m doing okay and other months I’m not doing so great. Then, you know,…”come on, come on, Vanessa! Find another good idea.”

SW
That’s transparency. I’m hearing that a great entrepreneur is being transparent. Here’s my good stuff, and here’s the metrics for everybody to see so that you’re holding yourself to account just like others. 

VdSL
Absolutely. And also knowing what you’re good at. If you put CMOs, there’s probably a few categories of CMOs that you can find. I’m a highly creative CMO. I’m not so much the analytical, XL sheet type CMO, right? I’m very much about finding good ideas that are going to bring the brand forward. And as a result, bringing leads and recognition, etc. I’m not so much on the analyzing. I don’t even know what they do. 

GH
I’ve got a question. If you’re creative and you’re dealing with the analytical people, those are two different languages. There’s got to be, sometimes more of a challenge to communicate your side and the same possibly for them. How do you find that middle ground so that you can find success together with both of those points of view? 

VdSL
What I found out with analytical people, with my team, is that I attempt to over-complicate the stats and I get so many, many, many stats that I don’t think are absolutely necessary. What I do is I really focus on the stuff that I need to bring out. I’m not asking for anything else. Then these are my metrics personally, metrics for the team. 

SW
Vanessa, could you add some color to that? As to what you think are your five KPIs or four KPIs that you say, this is the anchor of this business? 

VdSL
So obviously it’s a lead generation science, how many leads I bring in and, going down from that is the quality of the leads daily. I’m after certain segments within our vertical. It’s very important to me to make sure that I get the very good leads to bring to the sales team. It’s also PR; a huge one for us because we address a lot of enterprise-type clients, you know, houses, two thousand rentals all over the world. And the way to get to get their interest is awareness marketing. So the number of PR pieces we get, obviously the number of small to medium size leads, how much we spend. And, you know, they’re very basic KPIs, but they give me my mirror saying, okay, am I doing well? Is this good enough? Or, are there areas that I need to improve? But I don’t need to go into hundreds of millions of Excel sheets to try and find that golden nugget that’s at the end. I’m dealing in the B2B very niche environments. You know what I mean?  I just need to know that we’re giving enough at least to the salespeople and our brand is recognized. 

SW
So without leading the witness, Glenn and I have asked many people this question and we feel very passionate about this. So we’ll just hover here for a second. We’re trying desperately to understand why it’s been so difficult for us to talk to female leaders in the broader travel and hospitality space. We are scratching our heads. Do you have a view on that? Glenn? Before Vanessa answers do you want to add any other comments?

GH
I think there seems to be a chicken and an egg scenario that that’s going on, especially for me from the journalism side where it’s my job and duty a lot of times to talk to the people with the best titles in a company. But I also want to make sure that there’s great female representation, but they don’t necessarily have those jobs in the company. So then I wind up not interviewing as many women as I’d like, and it seems to be like a vicious cycle. How do you see this particular issue? 

VdSL
Of course I have an issue with it. But as an entrepreneur, as a female entrepreneur, I don’t have the same barriers nor experience of what it must be like in a bigger corporation and working up the ranks as a woman. So I don’t know about these side of things. All I can see is that, my peers and my female friends saying, you know, it’s hard. But I don’t have personal experience with it. From my experience, were I have, I don’t want to say “suffered” because, you know, I’m a fighter. But where I see challenges because of my sex is having a board. There are very few women on boards, I found out. And it’s true for my board, which is pretty male. And also in terms of investment because, you know, I’m part of going to find investment when we do, and I’ve actually never met a female investor that I was able to talk to a pitch to. 

GH
What about these women in Silicon Valley? Maybe you should pitch something to them on that TV show. That’s like literally the only time I’ve ever seen female representation with what you’re talking about. 

VdSL
That to me, that’s a shame. It shouldn’t be a closed door for me in order to find investment or feel comfortable with my board. It’s just an inequality and I’m wondering why as much as you guys do. I’m wondering why that is. And there shouldn’t be any inequality, you know? 

GH
As a co-founder of your organization that has staff, I suppose you feel it’s incumbent on you to make sure there’s diversity within your workforce with female representation and other non-white male groups out there. How do you approach that within your organization to make sure that it’s equitable and fair and giving everybody a chance?

VdSL
Quite honestly, we haven’t really even approached this because it’s never been an issue. We’re not giving somebody a job because they’re male or they’re female.  I don’t really understand how that works in other companies that you would prefer one gender over another. So for us, we’re actually 60/40 at the moment. We’re 60% female and 40% male. It’s never been even a topic, as such, and nor for my co-founders and I. Maybe it’s our generation, I don’t know. Maybe it’s the fight that we’re start-ups now. There’s no question about it. None at all.

SW
It’s interesting that you’re speaking about investors. I recently heard an interview regarding – and it’s very topical – about investment in startups and you might have seen, heard some stuff about the Andreessen funds and other stuff going on, but the context of the question, why is it that you think, or are you, just based on your responses, why do you think that Silicon Valley hasn’t got behind  venture funds that are indiscriminate to sex, type, creed and just invest with the best products? Why do you think investors or investment centers, bankers, VCs tend to invest in start-ups by white males?  That’s a big generalization, but this just came up…

VdSL
I know. I have been talking to investors about this topic and I’ve heard some, you know, horrible sentences like “we don’t invest in women because they can’t make tough decisions.” What? “We don’t invest in women because they want children.” What? I remember making websites and selling online and I was breastfeeding. Don’t give me that! Straight out of the hospital, I was back at work. And on the contrary, you’re able to stay with your baby while working from home. I don’t know. It makes a lot of sense to invest in platforms for women during maternity. So it feels like maybe there’s a misunderstanding from the white male VC community as to what female entrepreneurs want and are and maybe we need to educate them better, so they give us more of a chance. 

Maybe also we need more female entrepreneurs. One thing that I noticed is that many of my peers don’t have the, maybe the kind of courage to launch themselves in an entrepreneur world…they don’t have the courage to go on stage. So this is one thing that I was highlighting last year and starting this movement called #TieonStage, because I realized that all these events I was going to and presenting there was no women on that stage, I was the only one for the full day. Everyone else was white and male. And how can this be? Maybe women also need to get out there and not being scared of being rejected because, you do get rejected, but also as a man, you get rejected. So, you know, they’ll be scared of being booed, uh, of the stage, which hopefully won’t happen.

SW
(laughs) That’s actually a good sign. You actually got them awake. That’s a compliment!

VdSL
But yeah, so I think, on one side, maybe there’s not as many women who are trying it, but on the other, I think we also need to educate the VC community. And the board situation, there is nothing good I can say about that. I think it needs to be equal. It needs to be male, female. It makes no sense because we do act differently in business. I really don’t want to generalize, but we have different ways of thinking about business. We have different approaches of dealing with people. Without generalizing, but I know from experience, I treat subjects completely differently than my partners. We just react in different ways. And so it would be great to have boards that have this diversity.

GH
So back to your business building prowess and stuff like that. When you’re creating a company, what are the three to five things that you need to consider in order to grab consumer attention and to get them to be interested in your brand as opposed to a competitor’s brand? 

VdSL
Well, if you don’t have money or you have money? It makes a huge difference.

GH
Assuming you have money.

VdSL
When we started off, we had no money for marketing for Rentals United. I’m a huge believer in creating really good content. So I went out there, created really good content online. And what happened is I didn’t write about us. I wrote about other people in the industry. I started making Top 10 lists of housekeeping tools, Top 10 property managers around the world, etc. I got the attention of the industry that way. I was writing about that. And, as a result, they started saying, I’m an expert and inviting me to events. That’s how we built our profile. And quite honestly, even with money, I would probably do the same, you know, that was to be recognized in the industry with this helpful content that we still keep on producing, that we’re very proud of.

I guess it’s a respect for the industry because, you know, we give stuff for free. We’re there to help.

GH
Who doesn’t like that, right? So once you are capitalized and stuff like that, does your approach change at all to grabbing consumer attention? Are you able to do more or have you found perhaps that keeping it simple works best? 

VdSL
This a big debate, always has been with my co founders. People have this idea that if you have budget, you have online software, you put it into AdWords and then you’re going to scale, automatically. Well, sadly, that is not the case. Budget has made a difference because we’re able to support some of the activities with paid advertising. But, sadly, being a niche B2B software in a niche vertical, it’s not the answer. We have a mix; we do a lot. I mean, we do some paid marketing but I invest most of my budget actually in people because they create great quality content for me. Then I have a sales team behind it, which is fairly large, I think… sometimes I think maybe too large, but then follow up on these leads and nurturing. The money, it’s not because you have tons of money that you can scale a business like mine…sadly. You know, it’d be great to just put it [money] in and then forget about it. You know, just go on holiday. 

GH
How do you maintain the stamina required to keep doing what you’re doing? 

 

VdSL
That’s an easy one. It’s the people. I am a servant, in a way. Ah, “servant” is a very bad word?

GH
No, we talk a lot about servant leadership. 

VdSL
I’m a servant to my employees. I’m serving them. I’m making sure that they have a job and if I look back, it’s what I’m proud of, is I give a hundred people jobs. I’m part of society in that sense. And it makes society move forward. So that keeps me going, because you have to pay them. 

SW
So one of the greatest struggles of most managers is how do you do that? How do you give like that? And how do you receive from that? But what are the tips talking to others that say, here’s some things to do to motivate a team to perform at the highest levels?

VdSL
And this is not self motivational you’re talking about?  It’s motivating your team?

SW
You to your team. How do you make it work? Your advice to everybody who’s a manager in the Adapter series. Do these things. Don’t do that. 

VdSL
I don’t know if I’ve lessons. I just think it’s part of my personality. I’m quite bubbly. We have a lot of fun. I connect to them on a personal level and I know that they respect me in a sense. I know that they don’t always come to me to moan about their personal situation. I know that, so they do that with other managers, but I feel like I give them a boost just by being so passionate. So, passionate. Yeah. I think it rubs off on them. When you have someone who’s like, Hey, what are we going to do this week? And it’s just going to be amazing!

GH
You’re imbuing them with your passion and getting them to be motivated in that way. 

SW
So you’ve got your top performers, you know, like everybody does. You’ve got your, A players. Then you’ve got maybe those that aren’t performing at the highest level, but still pretty okay. How do you blend or bend your communication to find some way you’re in the middle? 

VdSL
For those who don’t do so well, I spend more time basically. I dedicate time and it’s not like you always do this. It’s just like children, right? You have one child doing very well one time and the other one not doing so well. And then you have your ups and downs. As a manager, you’re here to feel that and to hear it and to understand that it’s not going well and then provide help. I mean, there’s nothing else you can do, right. Unless obviously, you reach that stage.

SW
Do you do that one-on-one? Do you do it in meetings? How do you do that? 

VdSL
I do it one-on-one, but you have to remember I’m in a lucky position in that sense. I don’t manage  hundreds and hundreds of people. We’re a small company still, so you’re able to hear this. And so I wouldn’t have advice for larger corporations. I wouldn’t just know how to do them. I’m a start-up person.

SW
Being that you’re a startup, and you think of yourself in that way, even though the business has been around a while, right? 

GH
You should call yourself a “started up.

SW
A “started-up.” Yeah, exactly. Fully ignited, fully ignited.

VdSL
Sounds cool.

SW
We have no idea what the talent market will be and the availability of talent moving forward. Let’s say that there’s going to be more people available. How are you thinking about your team today versus the ability to possibly select from a wider group of employees in the very near future. How do you think as a startup versus the competition that was before in startups for talent? 

VdSL
It really excites me, you know, when you say that, because obviously this is one of the huge challenges that every entrepreneur has – how to find the right people. So it really excites me that there will be more people in the market to choose from. But on the other hand, we are not going to be employing more in the near future. I wish I was not positioned to say that COVID hasn’t affected me at all. That’s not true. We also need to make sure we’re going to be okay. So sadly there won’t be any employment at the moment. So I haven’t started thinking about that next stage of the marketing team and how it’s going to look like. But people can wait till next year. I’ll be there.

SW
As you look forward, and I’m sure Glenn and I will just pepper you with some questions as we get towards the tail end of the interview, what is your view on what the next three months, six months, nine months look like? Three tranches. And from your perspective, ‘cause you have a lot of data in front of you, business perspective, what does business look like? What does the world, your world look like three, six, nine months into the future? 

VdSL
We had a bit of a scare, obviously, seeing lots of apartments going long-term, which we read in the news, not so much for my customers. But we thought, okay, is our product just going to crumble down? Are the OTAs going to be able to survive it? I mean, you go to this nightmare scenario as you’re thinking, Oh, my God, what if one goes down? But I got to say, you know, now we are not talking about COVID anymore. We’re talking about recovery. That’s the new word of the day. We’re talking recovery. What are we doing for recovery? And all the numbers show that is going up. So for us, we still expect to make our budget for this year. We’re not thinking that we’re not going to, we’re still going strong and going for it because we have a very good advantage in this scenario, which is you can’t actually do it without us. You know, we’re kind of one of the core pieces of the industry. So you need someone like us to go ahead. And especially when so many people have got problems with cancellations from large OTAs on the product side, on the inventory side, and you are thinking, I really need to increase my marketing mix. 

So how are you going to do that? You know, you have to come to me. So this is my message that I’m bringing across now. It’s like your marketing mix was important before, but now it’s crucial that you get your listings, your brand out there as much as possible. So I started in a very good position and I think our market is definitely not being affected as badly as others.

GH
How do you change your messaging around this new reality then to appeal towards that – that you got to do more mix of business. 

VdSL
Everything is around either how big OTA is, how we should connect to the big OTAs with us. We make better reservations. It’s bringing out stats. Then it’s bringing up niche sites that are doing very well in specific locations and sending that out to different segments. And, you know, it’s all around the marketing mix. What is a good marketing mix? What should you do? What should you do in terms of pricing? To me, it’s all around this idea that the marketing mix is good. And how we do it? We do it with blogs. We do it with our social messaging. We do it with AdWords, as well. I bring new banners out for AdWords every single week. We don’t let things dormant. It’s like a constant moving thing to answer the right messages all the time. 

GH
It sounds to me then what you’re really talking about is now is a great opportunity to reassess everything and get back to basics. So you can move forward with this new reality. 

VdSL
Definitely in what we saw – and we still made sales during the crisis – even though it’s worse – because people thought, okay, I’m going to close my business for a little while and during this time I’m going to take the time to make some really good changes that I’ve been wanting to make any way. Things like operational things, putting a lock that you can self check in, changing the bedding. I mean, all sorts of stuff. People have taken the time to improve their business. And tech is a huge part of that because it takes time to research the right tech to implement it, etc. So, yeah, all good. Can’t complain for now.

SW
If you were putting on your insight that you have, who do you think are going to be the winners and losers over the next year in your broader space, travel, hospitality, just looking at it across the horizon. Who’s the winners and losers?

VdSL
You know, it’s tough for me to say that because I’m connected to literally everyone, right? Whether master leasing, or not. 

SW
Maybe market share going up, someone’s market share going down, maybe it’s a geographical zone, you know, not limiting it to predicting companies, but it could be countries. It could be types of experiences. Where do you see the winners and losers? Early thoughts?

VdSL
I don’t know. Hopefully there will be no losers.

SW
I’ll probe a little bit on that. We don’t want any losers, but there’s categories, right? So, you know, if you look at the hotel groups, mid market hotel groups with a lot of space versus… a webinar I was on last week, the travel director of a major investment firm said that trips are going to be longer with multiple stops. So if you’re doing a tour around Asia, we’re going to send you to Hong Kong, then you go into Shanghai, then you’re going to Sydney. Then you can come home; not individual trips to those three locations. Trips are definitely changing. We know that. The length of those trips are changing and it was very clear that short term rentals in the medium term are favorable over hotels. 

VdSL
I would agree with that. What we see is a much longer booking length of stay. We see lots of midterm rentals being booked by digital nomads, so the guys that live and work. I think that’s a definite growing trend. Our vertical is perfectly adapted to that. And then there’s another segment that I think will do well. I don’t want to talk about the loser systems, but to be in terms of doing well, I think we’re going see a surge of the agents coming back, travel agents.

SW
The OTAs or store fronts? Physical travel agents?

VdSL
Not actual physical storefront. No, I think there’s going to be new ways, because people are going to want this reassurance. Can I cancel?  What if this happens? Are you going to repatriate me? And, you know, insurance, etc. I think more and more people are going to want to speak to actually someone. That’s a feeling. I don’t actually have stats on that, but that’s a feeling that I get that this is going to happen more and more. So we’re definitely working on a GDS connection. 

GH
That’s interesting, because I see travel agents are calling themselves travel advisors in a lot of cases now. And I think that meshes up nicely. 

VdSL
Travel Advisors. That’s right. That’s the new word for it. 

GH
Any final thoughts Vanessa? 

VdSL
No, it’s been absolutely lovely talking to you guys. I hope I was somewhat useful to others and yeah, I love your project. It’s great. Thanks for having me. 

GH
I guess it’s probably a great place to end. I want to thank Vanessa De Sousa Lage for being here today and joining us for our Adapters and how the travel and hospitality industry is making the world connect. Boy, I hope you liked this latest conversation we had with another gutsy genius thinker helping drive the fourth age one experience at a time. So for Vanessa, Sean, and myself, Glenn, thanks and we’ll see you next time. 

THE CATCH-UP: Living Through an Extraordinary Year

Stepping back to March 2020. When did you think C-19 would end and we would be back to normal?
We gave it until the end of 2020 and made a budget accordingly. A month after the crisis started, we were already presenting the 3 plans to the board—good, not-so-good, bad.

What are the three biggest issues you have had to face so far because of C-19? What happened?
Cash-flow management, people motivation, forecasting. What happened? We got a forced crash course in all three aspects! I think we’ve learned a lot from it, though, and if being cashflow positive was always a goal, it is now more than ever. Forecasting is now a multiple of “IF, THEN,” and people’s motivation; well, we thought that would be an issue, but in fact, productivity is at an all-time high. 

What have you changed in your business/role/university to get through this crisis? Tell us how you Adapted/Innovated and scaled (up or down) your business/role/university.
We have adopted a flexible, remote-working policy. We restructured internally so that customer-facing employees have more time to focus on customers. We set up a contingency scheme to help out clients in financial difficulty. 

What worked and what failed? Why for both?
It’s all been for the better.

How did you personally deal with the stress? Tips for others?
One day at a time. The importance of a good night’s sleep to deal with the stress and be able to cope with what a start-up throws at you every day! Taking at least one day off a week.

What surprised you the most about your Family or business response/reaction to this difficult time?
The team was so incredibly supportive of how we decided to handle the situation. It brought us together even more than before.

How would you describe your outlook for the next 12 months? Expand as much as possible. What is influencing your views?
Outlook is positive! We’re putting an extra focus on collaboration with partners…We really believe that now more than ever, we need to help each other grow! So, we created a white label for them, and we’re also opening our code to allow others to write to it.

We also see a lot of convergence happening between the real estate and hospitality sector, so we’re planning for that. This year has given our strategy meetings a whole new level of creativity as we’re determined to get this company to grow today and beyond the pandemic.