James Foice is the CEO of ASAP and in order to get to the core of the issues impacting the serviced apartment sector of short-term rentals, we asked him to share his thoughts on the current and future challenges.
This interview was originally published by Abode PR as part of the Thought Leader Spotlight series
What businesses, organisations and enterprises are you currently involved with, in the industry?
I am the CEO of the Association of Serviced Apartment Providers (ASAP) and we represent 160 member organisations who operate in 24 countries.
This involves a complete understanding of the differing challenges faced by our members; on the one hand, by a global branded aparthotel product with thousands of multi-unit buildings; on the other, those facing a small start-up with just 2 apartments.
What do you consider to be the key to your success?
I have been fortunate to have spent my career in the hospitality industry working with, and for, some extraordinary brands, including British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and VisitEngland. Any successes I have enjoyed have been as a result of a deep belief in the objective, alongside the tenacity to see it through, and the ability to minimise and control the impact of opposing opinions on that belief.
Leading a membership organisation is one of the biggest challenges I have faced professionally; and this is essentially down to the vast range of expectations and requirements of the members.
Finding a common objective and then agreeing it is often impossible – but essential to realising success. Valuing people, recognising efforts and embracing challenges are all vital elements of success.
Oh yes, and bags and bags of energy!
In your view, what are the biggest challenges and or threats to the short-term rental industry?
This is interesting! Who is the guest, who is the target audience? Is it business travellers who haven’t arranged their own trip, or a digital nomad seeking authentic experiences, or a relocating family looking for the temporary homelike experience outside a hotel room?
And what is the short-term rental industry anyway? Is it a catch-all category covering every organisation not fitting into a conventional bucket? Is it an opportunity for organisations who don’t care to be legitimised?
At the Association we talk all the time about threats, and from many different directions; the sharing economy, the pop-up travel agent, the online booking aggregators, the rigid corporate travel policy. But the real threat is actually from those in the space who are doing it badly.
For me the bottom line is simple; it should be all about confidence. Confidence in the product a guest will receive when he or she arrives.
I speak at a lot of events about the damage that the market leaders and ‘popup’ agents are having on the reputation of the accommodation industry.
My team and I get contacted weekly by guests who have travelled thousands of miles and paid thousands of pounds to an online booking agent, only to find that the property is already occupied, or isn’t anything like they expected, or in many cases, does not even exist!
They are distraught and can find no one to help. So in desperation, they contact us.
The same thing has happened to me. I booked a Barcelona penthouse apartment some years ago, on the top floor of a block, ‘with stunning views over the city’. And arrived at a damp basement flat with one external window and cleaning chemicals stored under the bed. How can this be ok? How can this be safe? Who cares?
Well I care, and deeply! My family were profoundly impacted by the experience.
How long will it take for the organisations who made it so simple for me to part with my money, to wake up and take responsibility for rogue operators who do not care?
What counter measures would you suggest to minimise these risks?
I sound like a broken record… But I make no apology for that. Our industry is about human interaction, empathy and experience. It’s the hospitality industry. Hospitality.
And it’s all about the most human of things – a person, getting a night’s sleep.
I firmly believe that de-skilling and de-humanising our industry will, in the short term, inflate profits and ultimately increase business net worth; but that is short sighted. The longer-term impact will be to disengage the consumer who will lose trust in the process, as more and more rogue operators will be incentivised to make a quick buck – and take little responsibility for the product.
The hospitality industry must embrace these challenges now, step up to the plate. It must find a way of meeting guests’ expectations, and better still, exceed them. Most importantly it must do all it can to make it as safe as it possibly can be.
If I could sum it up succinctly, I would say our industry needs to take responsibility.
In your opinion, what are the greatest opportunities for both individual property management businesses, and the industry as a whole, both now and in the short to medium-term future?
Without doubt, differentiation is the greatest opportunity for our industry. And that differentiation can come in many different forms and opens a complex and colourful debate.
Whatever else, the guest must have confidence in what they are booking, they must arrive and be satisfied that ‘it does what it says on the tin’. Parts of the sharing economy suggest during the booking process that guests might consider taking their own fire alarm, since the property owner hasn’t installed one.
It’s hardly ideal! But if the guest knows that up-front, and can compare that with a professionally-managed part of the industry where their safety is a priority, at least they can see the differentiation and are in a position to make an informed decision.
We have to get to a place where guests understand what they are being offered, transparently, and where their expectations are met, every time.
As part of our ASAP Membership, we have pioneered a number of initiatives to ensure our members do exactly that. Our operators have met a stringent set of quality standards and levels of customer service as an absolute minimum.
I urge the rest of the short-term rental industry to take responsibility and do the same.
If you were to start over again in the short-term rental industry, what would you do differently?
Nothing! I have made many mistakes and have challenged myself on the decisions I have made, or things I have supported. But our industry is not a science, it’s far more than that.
People are all individuals, complex, and have a complete spectrum of requirements. Without making those mistakes and without learning from them, both I as a professional, and we as an Association, would not be where we are.
And finally….. what and where would your perfect serviced apartment or vacation rental be, and who would you invite to share it with you?
I couldn’t possibly choose between all the amazing places I’ve travelled during my long career, nor between the amazing properties offered by our friends across the industry. And I just might get in trouble at home if I didn’t take my family on this trip!
The bottom line is that, wherever I book and whoever is with me, I want to arrive for a stay that offers me exactly what I was expecting – and absolutely nothing less!