Brian Schwimmer is the CEO and co-owner of Rental Escapes and Travel Rental Network, the world’s largest travel agent resource for vacation rentals. Brian has worked in the travel industry and in international real estate for the past 15 years, experience that he brings to the vacation rental industry. Travel Rental Network places travel agents in direct contact with property owners, each of whom pay commissions on their vacation rental properties. Travel Rental Network also has a full reservations department that are happy to assist Travel Agents in finding the perfect properties for their clients.
TRO: What aspect of travel inspired you to work in the travel industry?
BS: Growing up in Montreal, travel is a way of life. It’s the only way to escape the cold, especially when you have winters like this one that stretch into the end of April.
As you can imagine then, I’m a big fan of the Caribbean, and it was the first time I booked a private villa in Jamaica that really changed how I looked at travel. I loved the unique look of the place, the extra space, the private pool, the private chef… I haven’t been back to a hotel for a vacation since. When I got home, I did some research and saw that the vacation rental industry was growing in all price ranges, and I decided to become a part of it.
TRO: Tell me about Travel Rental Network. How does it differ from other companies offering vacation rental properties?
BS: When Travel Rental Network began, we knew we didn’t want to be just another “vacation rental by owner” site, since there were already way too many sites out there trying to be the next HomeAway or VRBO. We realized that we had to focus on a niche market that was attractive to owners, and whose needs weren’t being met by the current market leaders. My experience in international real estate and vacation rentals made me think of travel agents right away, since I realized that there was tremendous opportunity for a homeowner to develop a relationship with a travel agent and have their home constantly recommended. After all, there are many travelers out there who are not internet savvy and who appreciate the value in having an expert travel agent plan their vacations, who will not surf the web to find a vacation rental.
From the travel agent’s perspective, the vacation rental industry is booming and more and more travelers are asking for vacation rentals since they realize all the advantages to renting a property instead of staying in a hotel. The challenge for the agent is that not all homeowners are willing to pay a commission, so the agent can waste a lot of time not only looking for the right property for their client, but also one that pays a commission. The first thing we wanted to do, then, was make sure that our network was going to be the most agent-friendly online, since we recognized that a free, comprehensive and detailed listing site with properties that wanted to work with agents on commission was really lacking in the industry.
We knew that our listings had to meet travel agent’s needs, so in addition to making sure the homeowners and property managers wanted to work with agents, we made sure to only recommend rentals that were going to offer great value and great customer service, which we ensure by having personal relationships with homeowners and property management companies (PMCs) that have a positive rental history. We also make sure that all the properties on the site abide by their homeowner’s association and condo board rules. And with 24 photos being standard on each listing, we lastly made sure that our listings are as detailed as possible, so agents know exactly where they are sending their guests. Because we offer our listings for free to travel agents, we are also able to attract independent travelers, and as it turns out, regular travelers have come to appreciate these aspects of our listings as well. For both the traveler and the agent, our goal is to eliminate the skepticism and uncertainty about vacation rentals by offering them qualified properties with service that will exceed their expectations, which is why we’re so judicious about the properties we allow on the site.
TRO: When we last spoke in 2010, you mentioned you had over 1500 handpicked properties around the world – how has that figure changed or evolved?
BS: Wow, it seems like yesterday. Travel Rental Network has experienced huge growth, and today is the largest vacation rental website dedicated to travel agents with over 50,000 vacation homes around the world under contract that all pay travel agent commissions. We have partnered with some of the word’s most well-known property management companies, as well as reputable home owners worldwide.
We’ve also strengthened our relationship with travel agents, and have become the primary vacation rental supplier to many of the world’s biggest travel agencies.
We also developed a luxury division, Rental Escapes, that offers the most beautiful and unique high-end properties around the world, with full concierge service, staff, and private chefs. Rental Escapes is, of course, travel agent friendly as well.
TRO: Travel Rental Network has a great longstanding relationship with travel agents, how have you seen your relationship change (good or bad) since the shift to ‘digital’ and the age of online booking?
BS: Well, first of all, it’s important to note that that a lot of what makes us successful, and a lot of what makes a good travel agent successful, is still that person-to-person connection. Whether it’s by email or on the phone, travel agents love that they can speak to our reservations department and have them put together options for their clients, while travelers love that they can speak to the agent and rely on their expertise on properties, regions, travel options, and other services. In the end the traveler pays the same whether booking with an agent or booking themselves, so why not take advantage of that extra peace of mind?
This is especially true with vacation rentals. No matter how travel savvy someone might be, there is still unfortunately the risk of running into problems when one arrives at the property itself, such as rentals that don’t match their listings. Travel agents are better able to avoid these sorts of problems, especially if they’re working with the pre-approved properties on Travel Rental Network, or handle them should they occur. So in that sense, an agent is a great way of taking advantage of the best the online world has to offer while staying protected.
On that note, TRN also gives travel agents an easy and convenient way of browsing properties from around the world that are being rented out by owners who are willing to work with them. So rather than call our reservations department, agents can work directly with our homeowners. It’s really an amazing tool, and if anything it has strengthened our connection to travel agents in a way that we could not have previously imagined.
TRO: What should agents understand to properly represent your offerings?
BS: Agents should know that they can work with all the properties on our site, and that our homeowners and PMCs are all friendly, helpful, and looking to go the extra mile for their guests. They should know that rentals offer their clients unparalleled luxury, privacy, and value, and that a rental is the perfect way to make someone’s dream vacation come true. Lastly, they should know that the days of uncertainty in the vacation rental industry are over, because Travel Rental Network is finally offering them and their clients the kind of qualified rentals they need.
TRO: What types of marketing strategies have proved to be most successful in reaching travel agents?
BS: One of our most effective strategies has been email marketing, which allows us to let agents know about which destinations are hot and feature new agent-friendly rentals for them to browse. The response to these campaigns is very positive, and we hear back that we’ve either introduced the concept to some agents who have never heard of agent-friendly rentals before, or reminded others who may have fallen back on their old habits of only booking resorts and hotels.
Another exciting marketing method has been trade shows. These are great because they allow us to meet travel agents face-to-face and develop that interpersonal connection you really only get when you’ve met someone in person.
Recently, we’ve also been offering private label websites to travel agents, where all of our properties appear on their travel agency’s website. This is a great way for travel agents to present our product to their clients, and to enhance their current website with vacation rentals. As you can expect, the response to this has been phenomenal, so we’re excited to see how it grows.
TRO: Is there anything on the horizon in for Travel Rental Network?
BS: Travel Rental Network has recently launched its luxury brand, Rental Escapes, which is a full-service villa rental agency that provides agents and their guests with a selection of the most amazing properties around the world, as well as full concierge services, including private chefs, yachts, rental cars and activities. We’ve found the luxury segment of the vacation rental market was the fastest growing market for us, and that luxury travelers wanted to work with an agency that would put together amazing luxury villa vacations from A to Z, so the fit for us was just perfect.