Skift Take

The CEOs of short-term rental managers Evolve and Portoro want high-tech businesses without losing human-led hospitality.

Tech is vital to the future of successful vacation-rental businesses, but it won’t solve everything. 

“It’s not going to vacuum a rug,” said Brian Egan, co-founder and CEO of Evolve, a short-term rental property management company with 35,000 properties. 

The key will be to leverage tech where needed and continue to focus on human-led service elsewhere, said Egan, who spoke on Wednesday at the Skift Short-Term Rental Summit in New York City.

He shared thoughts on the tech topic alongside Dustin Abney, CEO of Portoro, a similar company with roughly 300 properties in Texas, Florida, Virginia, and Oregon

Evolve and Portoro are property managers with a consumer-facing brands and a tech platform where guests can book stays. Competitors include companies like Vacasa and Sonder. 

Where Tech is Vital

To help a property manager scale properly, tech is important for the basics of distribution, pricing, and making sure the listings are showing up on the right channels. 

“It’s not the sexy stuff, but it is absolutely critical. When we started the business over 10 years ago, none of that existed,” Egan said. 

“We’re making hundreds of millions of rate changes a year — 30,000-plus rate changes a year per property — and it used to be that we had to log into an extranet and manually change prices on Vrbo.” 

Where Tech Has Its Limits 

Some of Evolve’s competitors have struggled to grow profitably even though they have strong tech platforms.

“Technology scales very nicely; I would say it’s not going to help with profitability if you’re in a business that is incredibly operationally intensive and more capital intensive,” Egan said. “If you have to buy properties and master lease properties; buy furniture, fixtures, and equipment; employ thousands of housekeepers — tech isn’t going to solve those problems.”

He emphasized that Evolve partners with local companies for cleaning and other on-site tasks, similar to the business model of some big-name hotel brands.

That type of model is even more important for a company like Evolve because no two properties are alike. 

“There’s no way to apply enough tech to figure out how to clean 35,000 kitchens that are totally unique,” he said.

Don’t Force Too Much Tech Upon Customers

Consumer-facing tech can be useful, but sometimes guests just don’t want to download an app, Abney said. Sometimes, they just want pertinent information sent directly via text. 

“I think there’s use cases where, yes, too much tech — or forcing guests or consumers down a path they don’t want to go down — is damaging,” Abney said. “I think there are touch points that make it a really great experience — think of the turnkey app in the home.”

AI in Vacation Rentals 

Abney and Egan both believe it’ll be important to integrate AI into operations to automate repetitive tasks, whether they’re back-of-house or consumer-facing. 

“Everything that’s software-led in your business is going to be something that AI touches, or it should be — it will be for us,” Egan said. 

That could cover pricing algorithms, scheduling housekeepers, and guest communication. 

“We’re thinking about how we implement it, but we have no technology around AI today,” Abney said.

Gaps in Tech for Homeowners 

Portoro has gained most of its homeowner customers by acquiring smaller property management companies. The company is working on building an app that gives owners more insight into how their properties are performing, Abney said. 

“I truly believe that homeowners are left on the sidelines most of the time in this industry, and they’re left in the dark about what’s happening at the property,” Abney said.

That type of tech isn’t really available for purchase from a vendor, he said.

“It’s a huge gap, and nobody’s focusing on it. And I think it’s core to our technology strategy,” Abney said.

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Tags: artificial intelligence, dwell, evolve, skift live, startups, the prompt

Photo credit: From left: Portoro CEO Dustin Abney, Evolve CEO Brian Egan, and head of Skift Research Seth Borko Skift

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