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December 22, 2008

Rentvillas.com shows how to be a human

by Josh Bernoff

Kevin_and_suzanne_smallLast week I lamented that so many marketers have forgotten how to be a human. Now I'd like to introduce you to one who hasn't.

Rentvillas.com rents houses and apartments to Euroepan travelers, about 2,000 rentals every year. I interviewed Suzanne, the founder. Kevin, her son is the CEO and Web wizard.

I am a Rentvillas customer. Traveling to another country where everything is different -- the power outlets, the language, the time they eat lunch -- is scary and intimidating, especially if you vacation with your children. In this frame of mind, I found Rentvillas four years ago, when planning a trip to France. I used them again for my trip to Italy this September. And I have to say, this is a company that acts like a human, and treats me like a human, in ways that surprised and pleased me.

Can this be done electronically? Definitely. I've already written about their incredible marketing email. Here's an excerpt:Villa

As I wander through the picturesque main street of tiny Castellina-in-Chianti, I find myself a bit dismayed. It's 2 PM, and I'm famished. In America this wouldn't be a problem, but here in Italy I'm faced with empty streets and closed doors. That's right: lunch is over, and everyone is fast asleep.

Where was I at noon? I was photographing Podere Cristina, the most family-friendly accommodation I've ever seen. Younger guests are welcome to play with the outdoor toys and splash in the pool, while adults will appreciate the window screens (rare in Italy) and terrace views. Everyone who visits raves, which is why I was assigned to bring back some better shots. Check out Earth, Air, Fire, and Water-- believe it or not, there's still some availability for this year.

Rentvillascom Visit the Web site, enter your requirements, and sort through sites with photos that are hard to resist. There are plenty of quirks in these little cottages, and the extensive customer-generated reviews help you figure out just what inconveniences you can live with (more on the reviews later).

After you sign up, you're assigned a travel advisor (one of 13 employees at Rentvillas) who will answer anything. I asked mine where the local Internet cafes where, and got back a listing and a couple of links. A nice packet arrives in the mail with a booklet of practical advice on stuff like mobile phones and when things are closed, along with an actual Michelin map of the area you'll be inhabiting.

The reviews make the site work, so Suzanne and her team work hard at them. A week or so after you get back (enough time to get over the jet lag) you get the email asking you to submit a review. If you ignore it, they'll gently remind you again, and remind you that you could win a free rental. If you ignore that, you'll get a phone call from Suzanne. This is persistent, but not in an annoying way, since they're not selling you anything. Suzanne proudly informs me they get more than 80% of customers to complete a review survey (and 99% say they will use the company again).

But Rentvillas doesn't stop with reviews on its site. Once you fill out that review, you'll get a personal email from Suzanne. Here's the one she sent me:

Dear Joshua,

I have just read your reviews of Ca’ Muraro and Il Canale Grande.  I am delighted that you had such positive experiences, and that you took the time to share your comments.  With regard to Ca’ Muraro, I will let the owner know about the refrigerator needing to be replaced – but that you loved the location and the wonderful garden.  It sounds as though your Venice apartment needs some updating – and was a little far from the major sites.  I’m glad that you found it quiet and a good place to “crash”, however!

Now that you've given us your reviews, might you be willing to take a few moments to share your experience with other travelers beyond Rentvillas.com?  The Rick Steves web site is a good resource for travelers, and we'd love to see your review on their site.  Just click on the following link (check the Posting Guidelines listed to the right) and enter your comments in the box.  Here's the link:

http://www.ricksteves.com/graffiti/graffiti23.html

Whether you decide to contribute a review to the Rick Steves web site or not, I want to thank you most sincerely for the review that you submitted to our site.

Reading property reviews like yours is the best part of my job.  Thank you!  You are now registered in our end-of-year drawing for a free vacation rental for 2009!

This knocked my socks off. Suzanne sends at least 5 of these notes a day, all with personal touches like mine. The result is a series of positive reviews on sites like Ricksteves and Slowtravel.comSlowtrav.com. Yes, that takes work. Yes, it's inefficient. Yes, it's effective.

Those who read the Groundswell blog regularly know I concentrate on results. So I persuaded Suzanne and Kevin to share some results with me:

  • 20% of Rentvillas customers rent again with three years (this is a big-ticket item, after all)
  • 40-50% of customers come from referrals. I bet their net promoter score would be sky-high!
  • Their email click-through rate is 3 to 4%.

I'll close with some final words from Suzanne. Remember, this woman writes 1700 personal emails a year, just to generate reviews. Here's what she says:

I still am having a good time. I love that I’ve made all these great friendships with people. We have such good relationships, it just makes such a difference.

Is that how you feel about your job? Why not? Being a human isn't just good business, it's a lot more enjoyable, too.

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Comments

Mathew Sanders

Wow! That's an amazing review, thanks for bringing them up, I think they are a positive role model for so many service oriented businesses in the world.

I used to work for an airline, and something that I tried to encourage when working on a project with the contact center booking staff was to allow workers to focus less on bookings (as the channel shift was heavily moving to online anyway) and instead into developing more personal relationships with customers by providing advice.

I felt that this would be a huge selling point for the company, and also make working in the contact center a really enjoyable job (rather than quite a stressful job).

To be fair, 2,000 rentals a year isn't a huge number. What do people think about this scaling to larger organisations, for instance a major airline or travel agency?

Kim

Josh, I'm happy you've had such a great experience with Rentvillas. We have dozens of reviews on our site for them and have heard nothing but good stories. They've been a SlowTrav favorite for a while.

It may interest you though to know that it's www.slowtrav.com (aka SlowTrav) that has been gathering thousands of Vacation Rental Reviews since 2000 not slowtravel.com. We'd love for you to stop by and add your voice if you haven't already done so, and perhaps check out our community forums at www.slowtalk.com.

Josh Bernoff

@Matthew The challenge of scaling while still acting like a human is perhaps the central issue here. Why must big be impersonal? We'll be talking about that a lot.

@Kim Thanks for contributing; I changed the reference to your site, www.slowtrav.com

Kim

Thanks Josh! :)

Eamon

I like, in particular: "Being a human isn't just good business, it's a lot more enjoyable, too."

mweisb

Josh,

I just read your BCBS post, and this post on rentvillas and human marketers. I don't think anyone would disagree with your sentiments regarding these disparate cases.

One thing I would add is that rentvillas, as you've noted, is marketing high ticket items to a small market. It's a fantastic business model and by all accounts they succeed fabulously. But isn't it the small scale that allows them to be human? Mathew above touched on this briefly with respect to the airline industry. How can the rentvilla success be replicated without employing an army of emailers and blog posters?

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