In this first interview of a series, James Foice of ASAP outlines some of his intentions for the Association over the next months and years, and how it plans to support Members and the wider sector in making greater inroads into consumer awareness.
You’ve said the Association has got plans for the coming year and for the next five years. Can you share any of that now?
We’ve actually started putting those plans into motion – we’re already a few months down the line. But, interestingly, it’s all starting to form a more cohesive strategy as we’re going along.
We started with a bullet-point list, a lot of which was simply aims and figures – this many new Members, launching so many new chapters, bringing on board lots of new partners, growing the global Alliance – and there I go again, all the high-level aims.
Laudable, and we’re sure all achievable – but now we’re starting to drill into the real ‘why’.
What is it that Members are buying into when they join us? What can we do to support them, and to grow this part of the hospitality industry, to make it totally understood by the consumer, the travel buyer?
I think we’re all been so close to this for so long we’ve forgotten that there are vast swathes of people out there who really don’t know what we’re offering – as a sector, as much as a trade body.
Only once we’ve defined all that can we start to put numbers and timescales on everything.
So how do you start that process?
We’ve started by getting to the bottom of what we’re trying to achieve.
At first we thought it was about becoming part of the furniture; being a term people bandied around. I have recently written a blog about a friend of mine who isn’t someone comfortable with booking her own independent travel. But who has just done exactly that for the first time, surprising even herself. She feels secure in this, she says, because ‘everything is ABTA’.
It would be great to be so readily understood in that way, and have consumers’ confidence placed as firmly in us. Although of course we’re not guaranteeing people will get their money back if something should go wrong! But we want them to be confident in the safety and due diligence our Members offer. And that they understand what it is they’re booking.
And then we thought it might be about becoming the Simon Calder, the travel writer, of serviced apartments. The trade body journalists and politicians went to for a quote about the alternative accommodations sector, or to provide some insight to back up their policy. And maybe there’s some of that in our plans as well.
But more than anything, we realised what we’re wanting to offer is that the consumer – the leisure traveller, the corporate travel buyer, the incoming tourist – will understand, differentiate, seek out, and book with, our Members – those we represent – over and above any other accommodation options.
As simple as that! Although we’re certainly not going to underestimate it – that’s a tall order.
So we’ve set ourselves various achievable milestones. We’ve got additional communications resource at the moment (more about that in the next interview!) to help with our messaging, to clarify some thinking around terminology and tone of voice.
And we’re taking a step back, putting ourselves in the position of the consumer, who isn’t so steeped in this ecosystem and who’s eager to find out more in simple, engaging terms, about just what our sector is offering.
Only once we’ve got some genuine feedback, some reaction on what we’re doing, can we start to broadcast that message wider afield.
Does the rise of new, alternative accommodation offerings pose a challenge or an opportunity?
It wasn’t so long ago that the whole sector was just waking up to the burgeoning threat of the sharing economy.
At first it didn’t seem such a big thing – people renting out a spare bed, a room in their own house, their whole property while they themselves were out of town. Friends of mine in the Cotswolds had been doing it for years – heading out during the Cheltenham Festival, for instance, taking a holiday somewhere, paid for by someone else renting their house for a week in March.
And most people have been doing something similar for years, overseas – renting a holiday apartment in Spain or a villa in Italy. Enjoying the convenience of self-catering and coming and going at will – especially families, or groups.
Travellers began enjoying the experience of ‘living like a local’ – because they really were living the life of a resident, in regular housing in a real neighbourhood, surrounded by other local people going about their daily lives.
But what began making the difference was when investors and multiple-property managers started getting in on the act, and threatening the very economic and social make-up of residential areas, reducing the availability of housing stock and pricing out local residents – as has been so well reported in the press. What had begun as a short-term solution for homeowners to make some extra cash has grown into a genuine threat in some cities, which have become party-central at the weekend and ghost towns during the week or in the off-season.
The serviced apartment sector, then, must embrace this change, and turn it to our advantage.
In days gone by, when we were perhaps less-travelled, there was some comfort in knowing that a Holiday Inn, or a Hilton, might offer the same decor, room service and overall experience in Barcelona as in Bangkok. Now, the consumer has been awoken to the variety of experiences across a wide range of accommodation offerings. Template hotel rooms have become less appealing to those looking to exercise their more adventurous spirit.
So if you want to take your chance, and see life as a student in Valencia or a millionaire in Monaco, you will probably find something online to meet that need. Where our industry comes in, though, is having the ability to provide something as flexible, as individual, as relaxed, as any homestay; but with the added bonus of professional hotel-style management, a duty of care to rival any hotel chain, and offering any add-ons available that a guest might like to enjoy.
Best of all for me is that nobody is going to chuck you out of your room at 10am to make your bed and re-fold your towels. A friend of mine summed it up as ‘being able to leave your socks on the bathroom floor’. Nice!
And the threats?
One of the biggest threats also comes from one of the biggest opportunities.
Both hotels and Airbnb are now upping their game, in response to the changing hospitality environment. Airbnb now lists a certain number of hotel rooms on its platform. The stated aim is to feature only boutique and quirky properties, in line with its corporate personality. But truth be told, it is just another route to market. And some hotels are now being encouraged to list unsold rooms at a reduced rate on homesharing platforms just to ensure some occupancy in fallow periods.
Meanwhile, many major hotel chains are entering the apartment space, realising that guests are enjoying the freedom, the flexibility of catering for themselves and settling into undisturbed stays – but are still captive audiences to whom they might cross-sell other services – restaurant meals, spa facilities or entertainment.
The time is right to show those consumers, the somewhere-betweens, those enjoying dancing to their own tune but bound by corporate travel policies or seeking some assurance of quality – even that their homestay accommodation exists at all, in the most extreme cases! – that serviced apartments and aparthotels offer the perfect solution.
And that our accredited Members offer the very best of all worlds.
Speaking of which, what is the future for Accreditation for the sector?
We genuinely believe our Accreditation is the future – offering consumers the confidence that they will receive a consistent standard of safe, comfortable, well-managed accommodation.
But in line with many of our other plans, we have some changes in the works for our processes.
We will outline these at length over the next couple of weeks. But briefly, you may have seen already, the launch of the new ISAAP branding.
This is the harbinger of our new programme, and is in response to points raised by our existing and potential Members.
In order to keep our Accreditation accessible to all providers, we are rolling out some new levels of compliance – in fact, our entry level grade is exactly that. The International Serviced Accommodation Accreditation Process starts with ISAAP Compliance, which is performed remotely, and which is still rigorous but not onerous for Operators.
Once a provider is deemed to meet our standards for Health and Safety management, we can issue the Compliant Marque.
In addition, there will be different levels of Quality to be awarded, right up to Platinum level – more to follow. If we say ‘Five Star’ it might give some idea!
But again, it’s a major differentiator. Airbnb and the like have nothing as rigorous – the closest to quality assurance is listings from ‘Superhosts’, while some properties are labelled ‘Plus’, aiming at the corporate market and those more concerned about quality than cost.
Even Booking.com has no quality assurance. It’s one thing that really sets us apart.
So to conclude this first interview, how would you summarise the challenge and how the sector can make this work?
Briefly, and simplifying something that’s actually complex and embedded, we’ve got ourselves into a cycle that must be broken – agents are saying corporate travel buyers are requesting our Accredited apartments, but some Operators aren’t seeing that demand. Members must believe in us. The demand is there. We need now to band together to make this a real ‘thing’, sector-wide
Make no mistake. The serviced apartment sector needs this! It is this quality assurance that legitimises our offering and future-proofs us against the threats from the wider industry.
The coming few weeks will see us rolling out all sorts of changes and challenges. We’re on the cusp of something really good. I’ll soon be sharing our strategy for communications and how we can market the sector, rather than leaving individual operators simply marketing their own properties.
Most of all, we need the consumer to understand and recognise this as something both new and established – both adventurous and reliable. And it’s really, really important.
I’m calling on the sector for its support. Together, we can really make this happen!