VRS470 – eCommerce, Google Analytics and how Hidden Data can Boost an STR Business, with Evan Dolgow?


This episode of the Vacation Rental Success Podcast is sponsored by Hostfully
An All-In-One property management platform that allows Vacation Rental Owners & Property Managers to handle all aspects of their business in one easy-to-use space.


Data can be a dry topic, but when the information provider can tell a good story and inspire curiosity, it comes alive.  Evan Dolgow, Head of Predictive Hospitality at Aidaptive (formerly Jarvis ML) did just that at the Book Direct Show in Miami in October. 

After a couple of predictably dry presentations on data, his session, titled, ‘OTA’s Are Your Employee And Not Your Friend', galvanized the room.

In what seemed a very short 40 minutes we learned about the future of cookies, the hidden goldmine of data in our own systems, and multiple ways to grow direct bookings out of that data.  It was one of the best presentations I’ve attended in a while.

In this episode, Evan shares his knowledge of the world of short-term rental data in a way we can all understand.  You’ll hear about:

  • How direct bookings are a form of eCommerce
  • What we can learn from Amazon
  • The key foundational tools to have in your toolbox
  • Best practice for a data-driven home page
  • How to keep visitors on your page and not let them click away
  • What to put at the foot of each property page
  • How to build trust in direct bookings
  • Why you must learn Google Analytics
  • The importance of understanding guest intent
  • Cookie obsolescence and why this is important to us
  • The valuable data hidden within home automation systems
  • 3 steps you can take today to make your data work for you

Links

Aidaptive (formerly Jarvis ML)

Revyoos

Google Analytics Academy (free online courses)

Heather Bayer

Today I'm talking to Evan Dolgow from Adaptive, formerly Jarvis ML, MLstanding for machine learning. So this is something a little bit new, a little bit different. We're going to be talking about data today, and the reason is that I sat through Evan's presentation at the Book Direct Show in Miami, and it was one of the best presentations I have seen in a long time. And if somebody talking about data can get me excited, then they're doing something really, really right. So I invited Evan to join us and to talk about all things data and eventually machine learning.

Heather Bayer

So I'm recording this the day before Thanksgiving, and it's a beautiful, sunny day here in Gulf Shores. There's a lot of people around going to be celebrating the holidays tomorrow, and I am really pleased that I got to speak to my guest before he heads off to his Thanksgiving celebrations.

Heather Bayer

So, a little bit of background. I went to the Book Direct Show in Miami about six weeks ago. Is it six weeks ago? Yes, something like that. Five or six weeks ago. And there were some really, really great presentations. It was a super summit because it was just one-track. I didn't have to decide whether I would go see one presentation over another and then do that FOMO thing. You know, I missed out on the one that I should be sitting in on, and I don't want to leave the one I am sitting in on, you know how it goes. Anyhow, there were several sessions on Data. Now, in a couple of them, the information did go right over the top of my head. It was a struggle to keep up with it. But then on the stage came Evan Dolgow, and I was mesmerized from the moment he started talking, he told stories, and he made what could have been a very dull subject into something that was super inspiring and motivating.

Heather Bayer

So I thought from then, I had to have Evan come along and talk about all these things as if he was talking to somebody who had never done property management in a direct booking format before. So let's move straight on over to this great discussion with Evan, and I'm sure you're going to find it just as interesting as I did when I saw him speaking live.

Heather Bayer

Well, I am super delighted to have with me today Evan Dolgow from Adaptive, formerly Jarvis ML. Is that right?

Evan Dolgow

You nailed it. Thanks, Heather. I'm very grateful to be here.

Heather Bayer

Well, we didn't actually meet in Miami. We may have done in passing, and I'm sorry that we didn't because it was your presentation in Miami that has really kicked off, or rekindled my interest in all things data, or data, however you want to say it. And I have to say it was probably one of the most inspiring presentations I've seen in a long time. So I wanted to thank you for that, and also thank you for joining me and to share some of that wisdom I learned with the rest of my audience. So I'm super delighted to have you with me today. Could you give me a little bit of background on how you got to that stage at Miami?

Evan Dolgow

Absolutely. And yeah, a lot of blood, sweat and tears went into that presentation because when hospitality professionals hear the word data, no one wants to hear the D-word, so you have to tell that story. You have to make it interesting, but you also have to make it relatable. So it's really an honor to get on that stage, and I'm very thankful to Damien Sheridan. He took a gamble on me about eight months ago back in Barcelona when he held the Scale-up Rentals Conference. He liked a lot of the things I was saying, and he took a gamble and fortunately, we came out on top. It was very, very impactful. And we started this trend that direct bookings are a form of eCommerce, and I think that's extraordinarily important for every vacation rental company that wants to focus on direct bookings to understand and just drive forward.

Heather Bayer

Well, this is where we're going to start. Okay, I want you to imagine that I'm sitting in your audience. Now, I'm a property manager who has probably spent a lot of time on the OTAs. I've advertised all my properties on Airbnb and Vrbo and perhaps Booking.com as well, and now I'm looking towards direct booking. I knew a lot about the business when I was sat in that particular audience in Miami, but I want to come at this from a slightly different direction. I want you to sort of tell me what I need to do to build a solid direct booking strategy, and I know from having listened to you, that we have to do a bit of groundwork in what direct booking is all about. So,  I'm just going back on that presentation. The title of it was, “OTAs are your employee and not your friend”. So maybe we should just start there.

Evan Dolgow

Correct, and I think for a long time, vacation rental managers just accepted that OTAs are doing their job, they're their partner in the business, that they're going to work with the OTAs hand-in-hand to succeed. But in reality, the OTAs don't see it like that, so neither should the VRMs. They should just treat it like it is, they're business partners and business is business. So let's say you're a small property manager with 20-30 properties and you're starting to want to drive direct bookings. You got to start with a website and look at the website as your storefront – it's your digital storefront. Anyone that lands on your website, you're inviting them to go into your digital storefront, so you have to make it appealing and you have to follow the intent of each guest. So before I go into that, I think we should set the foundation with, I guess, what type of foundational tools you need in order to make this all useful. Because if you just start building a website and you're not tracking things correctly, there's not going to be much value. How does that sound?

Heather Bayer

That sounds perfect. I want to make sure – you say, follow the intent of each guest in order to find out – well, how do we know what the intent of each guest actually is?

Evan Dolgow

Exactly, and we don't, but we have a lot of research on it and we know how to best guess for the majority of guest intent, which I will dive into in a bit. So, it starts with your foundational tools like your PMS, your CRM, your marketing cloud, but in this case, specifically your Google Analytics. Google Analytics is an extraordinarily powerful tool. It shows you how's your website working, how is the storefront performing. Imagine you had an analytics on every single employee in your retail storefront. That's what Google Analytics is. So it shows you what's working, what's not, how are guests using your website, what paths are they taking to get to direct booking? That's extremely important if you want to continuously optimize and improve. Because if you don't have that data, you're just going to have a website and you're not going to know what's working and what's not. And in your head you're going to think it's all good when it's potentially not all good. So any questions regarding that?

Heather Bayer

Well, yes, the pretty basic ones. So do you apply Google Analytics from the moment you start your website?

Evan Dolgow

Yes, and it starts as free. So use the free version of Google Analytics. Google wants you to use it and the best way to start is actually just Google. Google Analytics Academy, GA4 academy. So right now they're going through a change. They used to have a basic version of Google Analytics, which is essentially being replaced, what they call GA4, Google Analytics 4. So take the academy, I think it's about 4 or 5 hours of just training modules, and that will show you everything you need to know about running your virtual storefront, your eCommerce store, or your direct booking operation.

Heather Bayer

Okay, you've mentioned eCommerce store a couple of times. Can you give me that relationship between an eCommerce store and what we're trying to do with vacation rentals?

Evan Dolgow

Sure, and it really starts with Amazon. Amazon has trained our brains to use a website in a certain way. They've set the expectation on how a website is optimally effective, so I've been saying on stage for the last year that direct bookings are a form of eCommerce. Instead of the package arriving at your front door, the guest arrives at your front door. But the process of purchasing is virtually the same. Think about it. You go on the website, you click on a bunch of pretty photos that intrigue you, and you press buy. So in order for direct bookings to be efficient, we need to just, instead of reinvent the wheel, learn from our sister industry, which I believe is eCommerce, and take the best practices that they've already learned, and that way we can hit the ground running.

Heather Bayer

Okay, so give me some of these best practices.

Evan Dolgow

Yes. This is regarding the general intent of any guest. Okay, so you land on the website, usually at the top. You see that menu bar with the ‘about' section. That's fine, no one really clicks that off the bat, but first we see the search bar. The search bar is for a time, date, place. It's for the most high intent web visitor, or guest that you could possibly imagine. They know where they're going, they know when they're traveling, and they're ready to put a time and date in and press BUY. So you have that at the top, because you're capturing the most high intent guest. Let's say, for example, 30-40% of your web visitors are just doing research, because as we've learned, usually it takes around two to three weeks for a guest to book a property. They have to do research. They're looking at a variety of websites, variety of OTAs, so they're going to come back and forth multiple times. But let's say they're not ready to put in a time and date.

Evan Dolgow

The next best widget or tool is to have a featured property section, a recommended property section, you call it whatever you want. Your newest property section, that could be a row of three, four, maybe even two rows of three. Just have something to click. The idea here is that Amazon has trained us to click on shiny things. So right now, a lot of VRM websites have a block, like 10-12 sentences, talking about their business. That is the most ineffective way to capture a guest's attention. Social media has caused this instant gratification, where our attention span is so fast that we have to accept that cognitive load is real. So by having a bunch of properties in the row of three or two rows of three, or three rows of three, you're essentially doing what Airbnb is doing, you're doing what Booking.com is doing, you're doing what Amazon is doing. You're putting shiny things in front of them, so that way they can click and they're going to learn about you by clicking their way through your website. So essentially, that is how your home page should look. Anything below that, less than 10% of visitors are going to scroll down to that point. So you really want to capture their intent the second they land on the page.

Evan Dolgow

Search bar at the top for highest intent, and a bunch of shiny things to click on the bottom, and if you had to do one other option, I really like how Airbnb has amenities. They have these pretty icons with each amenity, and you can filter properties by amenities. So have an entire toolbar of amenities that they can start to search by as well.

Heather Bayer

Okay, so we've been talking about property managers with multiple properties that they could use as ‘featured'. What about an independent owner, somebody who just has one or two of their own properties? What would you recommend that they put on that front page?

Evan Dolgow

So this is where direct bookings are very interesting, because if you have 2-10, or even 20-30 properties, you're actually at an advantage with a direct booking site. And that's because a human brain can handle going through a dozen properties. The second you start to have 100, 200, a thousand properties, that's when it becomes very overwhelming, and that's when the OTAs make it very easy, the way they set up the reviews, their information. But if you have ten properties, just off the bat, have all your properties on the home page right below the search bar. So search bar, property, property, property, property, property. Let them just start clicking their way through the website. Another very important thing, which I noticed a lot of websites don't do, when you click on a property, make sure it opens a new tab. Don't let the website keep going deeper and deeper because a lot of times when the guest goes to a property page and they don't like it, they just ‘x' out. So if you keep the same tab open, and the flow is that it stays on one tab and they ‘x' out, the only other tab they have open is the OTA that they came from and Google View from.

Evan Dolgow

Okay, another good point, because I just mentioned the property page, one thing that we like to do as well is at the end of each property page, now you've landed on a property that you're exploring. You scroll down, you look at the amenities, you look at the photos, you look at some information, maybe a review at the bottom of that page. Have another set of recommendations. Doesn't matter if it's featured or newest or random, it doesn't matter. Have another set of recommendations to captivate the web visitor. Because we've all been trained that when we hit a dead-end, we leave. So don't let the guests hit a dead-end constantly. Have something else to click, and that's how you get them in this booking loop where they're just researching your website through clicks.

Heather Bayer

Yes, you've really brought to mind Amazon, and I've been searching around on Amazon. Obviously, I'm recording this the day before Thanksgiving, black Friday is coming up, everybody's on Amazon researching what's out there, and you're absolutely right. You click around lots of nice shiny pictures, and then when you get to the bottom, “you might also be interested in…”, and this array of alternatives.

Heather Bayer

I'm just going to go back a sec to this operator that only has a couple of properties. They don't have 20, so their options are a little bit more limited to help people stay on the site. What can they do?

Evan Dolgow

Yes, so I guess the disadvantage that a property manager with a handful of property has is that it's trust, it's while they're new. Do they know what they're doing? Is my credit card going to get hacked? Have other people stayed here? So let's answer those questions. What I would do is immediately have the search bar, even though there's only two properties, but it will show the open dates. But for each property you have to cover a few bases here. Have reviews, and I think the stat that I saw is 90% of guests will not book a property without a review, and I think I read this morning that 70% of guests trust a review more than their friends' recommendation. That's shocking, so have reviews. Our good friend Christophe Salmon of revyoos.com, I don't work for them, but his product is brilliant. It's so easy to use, it takes all your reviews from OTAs and it puts them on your website, Amazon-style. And I just think that is so simple and it goes such a long way in building trust. So reviews.

Evan Dolgow

Another one is, let's say you get them to the checkout process. Use common checkout methods like whether it's Google Pay or it's Stripe, don't have these lengthy, ‘blocky' forms that are from the 90s that creates mistrust. On top of it, make sure you have all the insurance logos, like if up to a million dollars we'll pay you back if something gets hacked or whatever it is. Have all those insurance logos right there on that page to show them that your credit card is protected, your payment is protected, and if things go horribly wrong, we have your back. And I think if you do those two things, it shows that you really care about your business and how much more so when they arrive, that they're going to enjoy the hospitality experience. Because if you care about the digital side of things, you're really going to care about the hospitality side of things, because that's the bread and butter of the VRM.

Heather Bayer

Okay, that's brilliant. That whole issue of trust, of course, is so important, and certainly for smaller operators to engage a direct booking client, they've got to generate the trust and confidence.

Heather Bayer

I'm glad you mentioned reviews, Christophe has been on the show, and when I was running my property management company, we used Revyoos because we were 95% book direct. So reviews were coming in different places, and we wanted to bring them in and make them look all standardized and consistent, and Revyoos did that. So I will put a link to Revyoos, and that is r-e-v-y-o-o-s, on the show notes so you can go check that out, and I thoroughly recommend it.

Heather Bayer

Okay, what next?

Evan Dolgow

I think it's important to talk about what is a click, because I say engagement is important to make sure there's always something to click, but what really is behind the click. That's where things get interesting, and that's where Google Analytics comes into play. So a click tells you a lot of things, tells you how your website's working, but it also tells you the intent of a guest. With the basic Google Analytics, you're only going to be able to figure out so much, it's not going to show you everything. But first, let's talk about your website. So one thing that's really important is what we call the clickthrough rate. So your website has a bunch of things to click and engage with, but how do you know what's working? So, for example, the search bar has a clickthrough rate. Each property module has a clickthrough rate. The about section has a clickthrough rate. The idea here is that if you can start to track the clickthrough rate of every possible clickable item on your website, you will know what's working, and things that aren't working – don't fight it, get rid of it.

Evan Dolgow

Things that are working, you double-down on. And that's how you make your website engaging, and that's essentially feedback, because the guest on your website is clicking and engaging with something. They're inadvertently telling you, hey, I like clicking. We, as a group like clicking this give us more of this to click on. So that's the supply side. Any questions on that end?

Heather Bayer

Well, I just think you made a really good point. We'll often build a website and we build it according to what we think looks good and the content that we think is right for the audience without doing that analysis, and that's what Google Analytics is all about, isn't it? It's analyzing whether that great content you thought everybody was going to love is being even looked at.

Evan Dolgow

Yes, and I think the best example of this, and it kills me every time I see it, is how some websites have a video as the entire home page when you land on it. So let's say you're going to a rural town in all of America and they have a video of the lake activities. In reality, that's useless because you're not getting any feedback and it's likely that the guest is not even going to scroll down to where you have something to click on. So yes, it looks good and you like it, and it's sentimental for you, but what's the point if you can't get any feedback if it's working? So have that video, but maybe drag the search bar above it, maybe put recommendations on it. No one's going to your website to watch a video. Let's be real. So I think that's a really good example of why clicking is important as a form of feedback that's really useful.

Heather Bayer

Because you do see a lot of these, and people, I think, spend huge amounts of money on the videos, and really to what end?

Evan Dolgow

Save your money.

Heather Bayer

Okay, so we talked about clickthrough rates. What other information can we get?

Evan Dolgow

Yes. So the next side is the intense side, and this comes later down the line when you start to use more advanced technologies. But I guess just to give a hint as to why setting up these foundational blocks is important, because then you can improve to the point where you can start to adopt these more advanced technologies. So once you're at the point where your website is optimized, you've learned your clickthrough rates and what's working, you double-down on what's working, then you could start to have more advanced technologies such as tracking. You have these heat maps on your website and these essentially show where the guests are hovering, where do they spend the most time, are they looking at pictures mostly, and where are they not looking? So it's like a step beyond click and it's showing that each guest is looking at something specific. This comes back into Google Analytics, where everyone that lands on your website gets a specific Google Analytics ID. So every visitor has a unique ID and their sessions are tracked to some extent, so you have to deploy more software to find these things. But Google Analytics already has the IDs, so by setting it up in advance, you can now adopt these technologies that will track each user and enrich their profile.

Evan Dolgow

This comes into play when you start to use machine learning, which is very common in the eCommerce world and is now slowly being adopted in the vacation rental world. The idea of machine learning is it learns what the web visitors are doing and how to improve their experience automatically. So when you go on Amazon, you go on Google, there's not a person behind the screen pulling the strings for everyone's customer journey. They have an advanced machine learning engine that is understanding how everyone engages with the website with the app. Just like social media. There's a movie called Social Dilemma that essentially shows that everyone's social media is building this profile on them, on what they like, how much can they spend, what are their preferences, what are their affinities. That way, every time they open up the social media app, they can essentially start being served recommendations, photos, videos tailored to them. So eCommerce is using that same technology to reduce the friction and spoon-feed the customers what they want to see. And by essentially deploying all these foundational tools, you're now going to collect all that data.

Evan Dolgow

What has been clicked on?  What is each trend of each visitor now? What are the aggregate trends like? And from there we built lookalike models, but we'll save that for later because it gets very complex. But long story short, by collecting all this data, having Google Analytics tracking everything, and optimizing your website continually, you can essentially begin to personalize each booking journey, but with more advanced technology.

Heather Bayer

I'm sure it can get very complex. Coming back a little on this, what do we do with this information? What does a normal, ordinary property manager, who does not have a big team behind them and they get interested in Google Analytics?  They do the Academy, and I have to say I did that a few years ago before the new one – I must probably do the revived version – but it was just a great course to do and I certainly recommend that everybody does it, because it's free. But I still got stuck on, okay, I've got this information, what do I actually do with it, what's it telling me, how can I apply it?

Evan Dolgow

Yes. So at the highest level, these are frontline insights. So once you have all the dots connected, you can learn what is your cost per acquisition? If you are spending money on advertisements, what's your return on ad spend? How efficient is your website? And these are decisions that affect your bottom line. So a lot of the time, these vacation rental companies set a budget for the website, but there are no KPIs, there's no key performance indicators that they're looking for. So instead of just setting a budget, how about you set a budget with goals? And the only way to get those goals is by understanding what is all of this data. Another really important aspect of this is why is this data valuable? Beyond the media action you can take, like figuring out what is your customer lifetime value, the cost per acquisition and things like that, what is the residual value in the long run? And this is something I've been exploring with several brokers in the space that have been brokering VRM deals. What I'm learning is that come 2024, data cultivation is going to get extraordinarily more difficult. Cookies are becoming obsolete.

Evan Dolgow

There's going to be significantly more data regulation. So being able to drive direct traffic is going to get much more expensive, because the only way to do it is through advertising. So let's say a vacation rental company ends up building up their book of business to 10, 20, 30,000 previous guests. And, they have a couple dozen properties, they have 30,000 stays under their belt, they have all the emails, they have the Google Analytics IDs traced to each one. They have all this data on all these guest booking journeys. The roll-up company that comes in and looks at your company is going to see, WOW, these are 30,000 previous guests that we have all this super rich guest data on that we can eventually personalize marketing to and get them to come back for basically free. So by building this book of business, essentially is your chance to get repeat direct bookings, increase the customer lifetime value, and that should be the goal for any business that wants to drive direct bookings, but also remain autonomous for the near future and the long future.

Heather Bayer

I'm going to take a quick break from the interview right now to go across to the President and Co-Founder of Hostfully. Our sponsor, David, is answering one of the most common questions we hear from property managers when they consider switching to a new property management system or they're starting up for the first time.

Heather Bayer

So David, you seem to work with many other software providers in the industry and in previous segments you've come up with so many that I've heard of and a lot that I haven't heard of and need to go researching. But tell us about your API and integrations in a little more detail.

David Jacoby

Yes, you bet. When we started Hostfully, our focus was always being a tech-centric company and having a great API that makes it easy to utilize the data and work with other systems, and that can be done in two ways. One, if you're tech-savvy, you can actually use the API and pull the information and build your own integrations.  We've seen some really cool integrations, some beautiful websites, Survey Monkey-type form integrations that have a really cool pre-arrival form that has information such as – Dear Heather, I'm excited for your stay on October 12. Please respond to these questions.

David Jacoby

But also on the integration side with other software vendors, we have a huge integration zone that's kind of like an app store. And we have dynamic pricing companies, cleaning and turnover management companies, background check, accounting, insurance, digital signatures, website partners, really everything you need. So our focus is on doing the core really well, having great channel connections, having awesome email templates and triggers to streamline your communications, having great guidebooks and then being the glue to all these other amazing companies out there.

David Jacoby

So we're not going to try to build a better dynamic pricing software than Price Labs or Wheelhouse or Rented.com or Beyond. Instead, we're going to integrate with all of them and have a really strong integration. So we pride ourselves on being that glue and having really strong relationships with other vendors in the industry.

Heather Bayer

Thank you. That was a really good explanation.

Heather Bayer

Okay, I'm back with Evan. Evan, I just want to back up a little bit. You talked about cookies, and I know I really enjoyed that part of your presentation because I liked the graphics. You had some really good Cookie Monster type graphics, and that sparked my interest. So could you tell us this cookie story in a nutshell?

Evan Dolgow

Yes. It's really the data story on how big technology, big eCommerce companies, big business has been profiting off our data for decades. We all know what cookies are, because every time we go on a website, we have this thing pop up – it says cookies, you press okay, who cares?

Evan Dolgow

What a cookie is, is essentially this opportunity for whoever's placing the cookie on your device to stalk you. A cookie is a file. It's a small, small piece of data that gets stored on your device. And it tracks your web usage across a variety of things, whether it's bouncing from website to website, app to app. It essentially learns about what you're looking at, what you're doing, how do you look at things. And depending on how complex the cookie is, they could just unlock a wealth of data on who you are and how you do things. So cookies in Europe have been obsolete for over a year now. They've been outlawed by the GDPR, essentially, and that's coming to America by 2024. Google will no longer provide cookie services, so essentially, websites will no longer be able to track your cross-website usage, your device usage, and that data point is going to disappear.

Evan Dolgow

Another important data point which has existed for a long time is that a lot of these devices like Apple used to pass through your user behavior to customers like Facebook, Amazon, and any company, essentially. Apple was an open book when it came to customer data and their behaviors, their intent, their affinities and preferences. But last year, they announced that they are no longer going to be providing that, and as we've seen with Facebook stock, they've taken a massive hit; their stock is down 80% for precisely this reason. They no longer are able to predict exactly what we want, because Apple is no longer sharing that data. So now that's going to set a whole domino effect for every big tech company. They're now all going to silo the data because data now has significant value, and everyone's going to use the data they have and not share it with each other. There's no more playing nice. So that's the foundational idea as to why individual businesses also need to start building their own data sets, because, if big tech is doing this, how much more so the little guys need to be doing this because that is the key to long term autonomy. And the key to doing that, by the way, is just driving direct bookings. How's that?

Heather Bayer

That takes me to another question.  You talk about we should be building our own data sets. Now often when you're thinking about data, the only data that you think of is what might come out from key data or Transparent or Rented.com or whatever, these companies that provide you with data on occupancy and what's happening in your area. But that's not all. That's just a very, very small part of the data that we actually have already, and you call it our own gold.

Evan Dolgow

Yes. So all the data you have is already incredible and keep building that, that's gold. That is absolutely gold, and I think there's probably, at a minimum, five types of data like the PMS, the CRM, marketing, home automation. The reason home automation data is important is because it shows you how guests use your properties. Not only can you learn from that, but eventually as technology gets better, that might be an opportunity to upsell or cross-sell things. You're going to know when they go to dinner, you're going to know when they do certain things. So even the home automation devices are collecting useful data. So my suggestion here is go back to all your vendors that have any type of guest data or guest usage from your WiFi cultivation tools, to your home automation devices, to your PMS. Sit down with a rep and understand what data is being collected and what data can they also collect that maybe they haven't because you haven't asked the right questions, and that's the best place to start learning what data your business is collecting.

Evan Dolgow

I wish I could tell everyone what they're collecting, but in reality it's so nuanced. Every business is unique and the best way to start is to go ask questions. You're already paying the money, they're going to answer your questions.

Heather Bayer

Yeah, I'm really interested in the home automation data. Can you go a little bit deeper into that and the type of data you can collect from that?

Evan Dolgow

Sure. So home automation is extraordinarily interesting. It's part of this Internet of things trend, where all these devices are connected through the Internet, through WiFi, and home automation devices can be anything from your front door lock to your thermostats, to your refrigerator, to your WiFi cultivation tools, to just anything in your house that a guest uses that connects to WiFi and collecting data. The reason that's important is several-fold. But first it shows you how the guest is using your property, that can give you insights. Maybe your thermostats are too low and if you increase it by two degrees, you can save thousands of dollars. So just that type of data will start to allow you to make, I guess, operating decisions. But then it really comes to down the line where you introduce machine learning again. And you start to have, let's say, an iPad in your house and your iPad suggests this guidebook. It's just local restaurants and events, but every engagement with the iPad, every engagement with all the home automation tools allows for the machine learning engine to learn, and that way can then improve their experience. So instead of suggesting 1000 restaurants, we now know you like Sushi and you like Italian, we're only going to show you those ones.

Evan Dolgow

We also know that you like to go to music festivals and we're going to show you the best music festivals in town. So again, cognitive overload, the guidebooks, are there endless things to click on? At the end of the day, you're only going to get a few seconds, maybe a couple of minutes of their engagement. You'd better show them the most optimal things at any given moment. What that does is it not only reduces friction and gets them to play around with things, but it genuinely blurs the line between a vacation rental and a hotel concierge. You are creating this incredible guest experience because you're predicting what they want to do and you're just making it easy. No one wants to fight on vacation. No one wants to grapple with all these tools. They just want to be served and told what to do and enjoy every moment of it, and that's the goal with machine learning and all these home automation tools and guest data cultivation tools.

Heather Bayer

This is all fascinating, and I hope you guys out there are still with us, because we said we didn't want to get complex. To me, perhaps there's a lot of detail in here that needs to be teased apart. If you had to say, okay, here's five things, five things that you can just do right now, actions that you could take, what would you suggest that people do?

Evan Dolgow

Yes, and I will preface this that, ironically, it gets easier once you do all these foundational steps and you set up the infrastructure for your digital business. Plugging in a machine learning engine is the easiest part, because the idea of a machine learning engine will allow you to personalize everything at scale. So the hard part is making sure everything is in place, driving more direct business so that you can get to that point. I think I could actually even simplify it to three things that need to be done off the bat. First, Google Analytics Academy (GA4), take that six course module – I think a couple of hours, that will go such a long way. An example I gave, which might be relatable to a lot of VR owners, is back in the day when we used to get magazines.  The magazine companies used to essentially say, we are this profitable because this is the revenue we made per catalog – RPC,  revenue per catalog.  Now it's revenue per visitor. So what is your revenue per visitor on your website? So that's the new way of looking at how efficient is your website? And that's all in your Google Analytics.

Evan Dolgow

Second, go back to your vendors and ask tons of questions such as, what are we collecting? Where is it being stored? What else can you collect that maybe we're not collecting yet? Is there a price for that? Is it worth paying for it and so on? All of this data that is being collected will carry residual value. So yes, it may be a headache in the beginning, but it will carry residual value when a VR roll-up one day, comes and knocks on your door and says, okay, your operating business is great. Now show us your digital site. And if you show them this entire portfolio of all your guest analytics, your lifetime value per visitor, you'll be able to calculate your business at a much more precise point, and it's definitely going to be higher than if you weren't doing this to begin with. Go ask questions. Learn what you're doing.

Heather Bayer

I just want to jump in there because I was a property manager for 20 years, and we had lots and lots of vendors over those years. And I know for a fact that we bought into so much or so many platforms and did not realize the depth of these platforms and what they could bring us. We sort of bought into the bullet points at the start without doing exactly that and asking those questions. So I think that is super important and I love that you brought that one up.

Evan Dolgow

Yes, and now that you said that, the final point is start by doing it yourself, but trend towards the direction of hiring someone, whether it's a director of eCommerce, it's someone who understands digital marketing. At the end of the day, a well run optimized website and marketing system drives more money, drives guest retention, drives lifetime value. So I understand that right now it may not be clear how investing in your website, investing in marketing may not drive money, may not drive revenue, but at the end of the day, it does. It's proven across the entire digital spectrum, and that needs to be accepted by the VRMs. And at the end of the day, a business owner is not going to have time to run every single point of their digital operation. So they should get to the point where they understand what's happening and they can start to build a roadmap as to, okay, we want to get to here, and then hire someone to get to that point. And when you hire someone, they'll continue to build out that strategic digital roadmap. They'll continue to come back and say, here are the KPIs that we want to have for this quarter. We want to get this amount of web visitors. We want to spend $5,000 in marketing per month on ad spends, and in return, we want to get 10-20X that and here's how we're going to do that by doing that, by hiring someone to wrap it all together.

Evan Dolgow

That's how you drive predictable revenue, and that's how you drive more guest data, and that's how you increase lifetime value, guest retention, it just improves everything. So, in a sense, what I'm trying to do here is show that your digital operation is that bridge between the hospitality, the pre-stay, the post-stay, the during-stay, and you just need to make the effort to connect the dots and bridge the gaps.

Heather Bayer

That is brilliant. Evan, thank you so much. I'm sure people have found that super interesting. We have talked about doing a second episode, like the second part of this series, and bringing in one of your colleagues to go a little bit deeper. Could you just share your thoughts on where you think that episode should go to excite people as to what's going to be coming?

Evan Dolgow

Yes. So today really exactly what you just said. I wanted to excite people because this is exciting. This is another path to more revenue. It's not just adjusting prices that drive more dollars. This is another tangible path to add more revenue to your bottom line, so today I wanted to excite people with –  OK, it's very easy.  The barrier to entry is very low, you can start doing it with all the tools you have. And I wanted to, sort of, tease what is to come, which is the machine learning. It's the advanced technologies that will essentially allow you to scale double in revenue without having to double your teams or to double your inventory.

Evan Dolgow

So I think the next one, where I bring my colleague Braden Flaherty, who was the Chief Product Officer at Blue Tent.  He's seen thousands of websites. He knows what works and he knows what doesn't work. So I think the next step is to maybe get a little more advanced into which metrics are important, and even start to point to, how do you find that in your Google Analytics? Some tips and tricks as to make that easier and the reporting easier, so that way you can have these reports, print them out, look at them however you want, and you can say, okay, this is our benchmark, how do we improve from here? Then on top of that, we can start to connect the dots with the other advanced technologies out there. Once you have a foundation, once you have that infrastructure, how do you take the next step to turn your website into one of the key revenue drivers of your business?

Heather Bayer

This is super exciting. I'm looking forward to talking to you and Braden over the next couple of weeks and bringing Part 2 of this series, so for now I think we can go away and digest what you brought us today. Those three points that you made, three actions that people can actually go and take right now are super useful, and I said before, go do that Google Analytics Academy. Did they used to call it University? Google University?

Evan Dolgow

Maybe. It's G4 Academy now.

Heather Bayer

Okay, well, there'll be a link to that on the show notes as well. So until we meet next time, Evan, thank you very, very much. Enjoy Thanksgiving. Enjoy the cool of New York.

Evan Dolgow

Absolutely, and I have a challenge for both of us, Heather, how about we both try to take that Google Analytics Academy, so that way we can even make it more actionable for the listeners – we can struggle together.

Heather Bayer

Well I will go back and revisit that, because it's been a number of years since I did that. So that's a good task for me and we will talk about that next time.

Evan Dolgow

Great plan. I'm excited.

Heather Bayer

Thank you so much for joining me.

Evan Dolgow

Thanks.

Heather Bayer

Thank you so much, Evan Dolgow, that was really, really interesting. Just as interesting as I recall from the Book Direct Show in Miami. Yes, I'm quite inspired to go back and learn more about Google Analytics again, and I particularly love that point about going to your vendors and asking the questions, what data do you have? Because every PMS has a ton of data that you can get in the form of reports, and I know with the PMS that we were using, there was a string of reports that we never even looked at and every single one of them had data within them. Now the other one, of course, which I think is super important, is your customer relations management system. That's where you're going to keep that data on the minutiae of customer emails and texts and phone calls. So don't forget that data is not just numbers, it's qualitative. Qualitative data is so useful in determining the intent of your guests and helping you to define how you're going to promote to them in the future. So you're going to get that stuff from your CRM, your marketing system, I also like the idea of home automation, and I know companies like StayFi, Noise Aware and other automation systems also collect data on the people that occupy your properties, and every little piece of information is helpful, so don't lose out on it.

Heather Bayer

OK, I hope you enjoyed that, and I will be bringing you Part 2, in a few more weeks as I want to spend some time talking to Evan and Braden beforehand to make sure we're bringing you the right information. Also, if you have questions about how you collect data, how you use data, machine learning, or anything like this, please let me have your questions so that I can pass them on to Evan and Braden and we can ask the questions during the interview.  I really encourage you to send the questions over to me. You can send them to heather@cottageblogger.com, you can put your questions on the show notes, however you'd like to do it. It would be quite good to actually record a couple of questions, so I can make a phone call to you and we can actually record your question and then play that question to Evan and Braden in the show. So you get your chance to get your voice on the podcast and have your questions answered as well.  Don't be shy.  I'd love to hear from you.

Heather Bayer

So that's it for another week. I've loved being with you once again.  I really quite like my little studio here in the RV in Gulf Shores, Alabama. I look out, I've got this fabulous view with the water and the lake behind me, and then I just take a half-hour walk and I'm on the beach. That could be where I'm heading right now, so whatever you're doing, whether you are driving, hiking, working out, maybe you're doing a changeover in your property, thank you for listening and I just hope you continue to listen and to learn from all these wonderful people who give up their time to come on the show. So thank you. And thank you to them.

Michael Bayer

Thanks for listening and don't forget to check out Hostfully, our podcast sponsor. Head on over to the Virtual Vendor Showcase where you can find out more about this incredible company. And don't forget to use the promo code VRF100 to save $100. We look forward to you joining us on our next episode.