A Look Back at RDO9 Conference 2018 – Action Changes Things
This year’s RDO9 Conference was a success, with some world-class speakers, top-industry experts, and a varied mix of excellent conference and breakout sessions which proved to be entertaining, informative and motivational. Our venue for this year’s conference was once again the Pestana Chelsea Bridge Hotel and Spa in London.
It is this ever increasing expectation that travellers have of their holidays, especially in terms of their resort or hotel accomodation and the different memorable experiences they desire while travelling, that made this year’s RDO Conference theme so important.
The travel and tourism industry continues to increase globally, and the timeshare and vacation ownership industry is in an excellent position to capitalise on this. Throughout the decades since the concept of timeshare began, developers have continued to be able to meet the expectations of holidaymakers with ever improving levels of accommodation and amenities within resorts, as highlighted by conference moderator Robin Mills during his conference session, “The way we were”. Because of this, our owners have historically been and are still some of the most satisfied of any travellers.
Demands and expectations are shifting though, including in terms of how consumers research and choose where and how to take their holidays, so it is not the time to reminisce extensively on past success, but instead use the vast levels of data now available to understand what people now want from their vacations.
This year we had two excellent keynote speakers, Ellis Watson and Alex Hunter, each with very different styles, experience and knowledge to convey to the audience at RDO9. Their differences complimented each other very well and presented the delegates at the conference with highly engaging, entertaining and relevant presentations.
Ellis Watson gave an incredibly amusing, impactful and inspiring keynote speech entitled “Do it or Die Trying”. As the name suggests, he talked extensively about developing a strong can-do attitude in which you take on and overcome challenges rather than shying away from them. Although there are significant hurdles now facing the timeshare sector in terms of disruptive brands, brought about by changes in technology, and the shifting ways that people are now choosing to travel, as Ellis strongly argued this is not a time for alarm but rather a huge opportunity to rise to these challenges.
He used entertaining examples from his own life, such as the way he was able to turn around the fortunes of the Greyhound coach company in the US. When he went to reinvigorate the brand, he found a company in a very poor situation in terms of profits, customer satisfaction and employee morale, while also faced with growing competition from domestic flights. Before starting he took a trip across the country on Greyhound coaches and was shocked by the level of service that he found. He documented his trip and presented his findings with photos and videos to the board of directors of the company, many of whom were completely unaware of the real situation that existed because they were detached from the day to day realities of the company. A once famous brand had been reduced to a dire situation because of lack of action.
Through highlighting what customers were really going through when they travelled with Greyhound including poor customer service, cancellations and low-quality coaches which was ultimately leading to the demise of the company, he was able to invigorate the company leaders to take action to bring about important changes. This lead to a significant turnaround in terms of quality of service, customer satisfaction and profitability. As he suggested to the bosses at Greyhound, it is important to be brutally honest with how good you actually are as a company in order to be able to make relevant change, rather than blaming outside forces like the economy or technology.
Ellis showed the RDO9 audience how to take on and overcome huge obstacles, that often seem impossible, such as when he took on his sportier brother’s challenge of running a marathon. Ellis was very honest by saying how unfit and unsporty he is by nature, and how the next day he felt like backing out of taking part. Despite part of him wanting to quit, he didn’t want to back down from the challenged, despite never having run a marathon before, and soon after he found himself running in the London marathon with his brother. Yes, his finishing time was very slow, but the message for audiences to take away is our ability in both personal and professional life to take on and overcome challenges that might seem unbeatable.
He found after completing his first marathon that this re-awakened his passion for trying new things and taking on challenges. He suggested strongly to the audience that the right attitude and passion are some of the most important traits to have if you want to succeed. Greyhound had lost their passion for providing a great service and for innovation and was suffering the consequences, but were able to adapt, survive and thrive. What the timeshare industry needs, as Ellis stated in his highly motivational keynote, is to rediscover its passion for innovation and providing amazing holidays through listening to what people are now looking for.
The second keynote speaker at RDO9 Alex Hunter, had a very different, but no less engaging and important message for conference attendees, during “The Art & Science of WOW!”. Alex, who is an online brand and customer loyalty expert and runs his own YouTube travel channel, Attaché, discussed with RDO9 delegates how the power in the relationship between brands and consumers has shifted extensively in favour of consumers, due to a number of different factors, the most important being the advances in technology that have taken place in the last couple of decades.
With the huge improvements in technology such as smartphones and high speed mobile internet, and the growing importance of digital marketing, social media and sites such as Tripadvisor, consumers, such as those choosing their next vacation are increasingly less gullible to the marketing techniques that many brands have traditionally used, such as clever marketing slogans or stock images and unrealistic photos and videos. Instead, consumers are increasingly savvy and demand trust from the brands that they choose to buy services from. If a brand appears to be using less than trustworthy techniques, then individuals will often Millennials switch to another brand or product, especially if they feel no loyalty to a brand.
In fact, as Alex argued, it is increasingly important to try to achieve brand loyalty in order to stand out from the competition, of which there is now so much including within the travel & tourism sector. To be able to do this you need to be able to create an emotional attachment with your brand from consumers, and providing a service or product is every time not enough to be able to do this. Personalisation is now more important than ever as traveller expectations continue to expand, but as Alex showed, improvements in technology now present a huge opportunity for brands to use the vast amounts of data they now have to offer a personalised service to their customers. This in turn will create the loyalty loop that brands so desperately need in order to survive against all the disruptive brands that continue to enter the market.
It is often the little touches that make so much difference. There were several examples that Alex used, one of which was when a boutique hotel in New York asked him to write on arrival what his favourite snacks are. Then later when he returned to the hotel in the evening he found his favourite snacks, including a fridge full of Diet Coke and a handwritten note from the manager. Now, everytime he is in New York, Alex chooses to stay at this hotel and everytime he receives a handwritten note welcoming him back and his favourite snacks. This is the power of personalisation and treating people as individuals rather than just a transaction.
Guest Speakers and Industry Insiders
José Luis Mella, Resorts Operations Director at VRI Europe, a brand with 25 resorts across Europe and 30,000 members, spoke extensively about how important it is to be constantly innovating and improving rather than staying the same and stagnating. He showed how VRI Europe had been doing this over the decades by taking delegates on a journey through the company history, showing how in the beginning back in the 1980s timeshare guests had been attracted by the allure of apartments that offered an equal, if not better level of comfort and quality to what they were used to back home, with a kind of home away from home experience.
Over the decades though, as people’s standard of living had risen in their own homes, expectations have continued to rise which led to the need to increase the size of apartments, increase their quality and increase the amenities that existed on the resorts. There was a kind of keeping up the Joneses effect, as people didn’t want to be outdone by their resort neighbours. Changes are never brought in across the resorts though, without trials beforehand in order to test whether it is worth rolling them out extensively.
In this sense, the company has been very much focused on listening to what its members want based on extensive data, then taking action and making the relevant changes necessary. What VRI has noticed is a growing desire for personalised, bespoke services, such as chefs coming to guest rooms to cook a meal for them and then housekeeping staff cleaning up after. Due to the busy lives of people these days, they increasingly want to maximise the time they have on holiday enjoying experiences so don’t necessarily want to be doing tasks such as cooking for themselves. The company is also very much in favour of empowering all members of staff to help to implement changes, if they can see that a better level of service can be achieved by making a change, rather than waiting for management to have to make decisions.
Danica Davis, Product Specialist at ReviewPro presented a very important session about the huge importance of consumer and guest data; in fact in today’s business environment data may be even more valuable than oil. Big data is now an extremely big deal for holiday companies to be able to understand changes in the behaviour of their guests and to be able to understand the trends in their properties. Review Pro is a company that is 10 years old and has a system of measurement that is very useful for travel brands: the Global Review Index which is one consolidated review score based on 200 review sources including Tripadvisor, Google and Booking.com.
Danica suggested that it is no longer enough to merely meet customer expectations and instead the battle for brands is won or lost on whether they exceed their customer expectations. In today’s world of modern technology, consumer expectations continue to change and increase all the time, but this can work in brands favour. If brands are able to improve their scores, their guests will have a better stay and will then talk about your brand in a better way, including via social media and with online reviews.
Among the many useful tips that Danica gave during her presentation, one that certainly stood out was the concept of giving not only guest surveys once the guest leaves the hotel or resort, but also in-stay surveys. By doing this, your brand can find, report and fix issues, therefore making it much more likely that your guests enjoy their stay and leave positive reviews on sites such as Tripadvisor, Google and Booking.com.
It is also vital for your management to cut response times to reviews, especially negative reviews so that it shows that your company is listening and responding which will look favourable to those that left the review and potential new guests. Review sites are vital to the success of your brand, especially with 455 million average monthly unique visitors to Tripadvisor alone as people increasingly look to the recommendations of others, rather than just trusting what brands say about themselves. Ultimately it all comes down to listening to your guests and making improvements, thus leading to positive reviews and increased bookings.
Robert Lands, Head of IP and Commercial at Howard Kennedy LLP (who stood in for Elizabeth Morley), discussed the significant importance of brands to be up to speed with GDPR. With the new GDPR laws, it is now more important than ever that companies do everything in their power to protect consumer data and prevent data breaches. If there is a data breach, then a company has just 72 hours to inform the relevant authorities or risk receiving a potentially huge fine.
Historically under the old data protection laws in the UK which came into place back in 1998, fines could be up to £500,000, but now under GDPR there will be two levels of fines. The first is up to 10 million euros or 2% of the company’s annual turnover of the previous financial year, whichever is higher. The second is up to 20 million euros or 4% of the company’s global annual turnover of the previous financial year, whichever is higher. These new levels of fines are substantial and a good reason for companies to ensure compliance with the Regulation.
From John Spence, Chairman and Founder of Karma Group there was an entertaining and lively presentation about how personal fulfilment is the new ultimate luxury. He presented to the audience a look at Karma Group from past to present and how he and his team have grown the brand from the initial one resort to the massive brand expansion that exists today.
One of the biggest overriding themes of the Karma brand is that of entertainment and fun, rather than just accomodation, with a huge number of extras in all of the resorts that really set them apart from the average travel accommodation. It is these extras that really make guests’ stays so memorable and has created significant brand loyalty. These include rooms full of records where guests can go and sit and listen to actual records, or rooms full of books many of which are related to the destination they are staying which can be taken around to be read at their leisure.
The company has also branched out into a number of different lifestyle products and other things such as Karma Wines, Karma Spas, Karma Radio, Karma DJ sessions and much more. All of these products, the high quality of service and incredible locations where Karma resorts are located has created an incredible appeal around the brand. It also sets Karma apart from products such as Airbnb and allows the company to survive and thrive in this era of cheaper competition.
Brian Young, Managing Director at travel adventure company G Adventures, gave a very interesting look at what has lead to G Adventures growing from a one-man show back when Bruce Poon-Tip founded it, to the largest independent adventure travel company in the world with more than 2,200 employees in 28 offices, offering more than 700 different adventures.
Brian discussed how the 18 – 30 demographic are increasingly focused on the importance of experiences in their lives above and beyond just rooms. In this sense, experiences are key for both G-Adventures and timeshare, and younger generations of travellers will be looking at what experiences they can have while staying at resorts and hotels, rather than simply how good the rooms are.
Millennials are fuelling experience travel through social media, by choosing destinations based on what their friends are posting on social networks and sharing their own experiences online for others to see. For Generation X though, cuisine plays a huge factor, and for Baby Boomers they are becoming younger in their outlook, thus fuelling multi-generational holidays. Due to the significant growth in the demand for unique experiences while on vacation, people are looking for resorts that can offer a mix between somewhere to relax by the pool, that also caters for their adventurous side. At G Adventures, giving back is also a huge part of the company ethos and something their customers value highly which is something timeshare companies should also put more emphasis on, as people are increasingly more interested in this from brands.
Howard Nusbaum the President and CEO of ARDA in his session Mythbusters, we heard about the various myths and lies that are being presented by various fraudulent companies and how these couldn’t be further from the truth. Timeshare is often presented as a product only for older generations, but in fact in the US in the last three years 67% of timeshare owners are between the ages of 18 – 54. Another myth is that timeshare owners are uneducated and tricked into buying, when in fact in the US 42% of timeshare owners have a college degree. It is also presented by these companies that people are almost forced into making a decision that they later regret, when instead 7 out of 10 recent purchasers (71%) found their buying experience to be excellent or good. Another big myth is that people want to get out of timeshare, but to the contrary 70% of owners would recommend timeshare ownership and nearly 75% would recommend their own resorts.
As Howard argues it is absolutely vital to take back the narrative from these fraudulent companies which are trying to trick people into unnecessarily fighting to get out of their timeshare contracts. He questioned why aren’t timeshare resorts capitalising on all the positive reviews and feedback that we have. The things that are hurting the industry are companies spreading damaging myths and a lack of transparent exit strategies for those wishing to leave their contracts.
Ultimately it is up to timeshare developers to work together (in a legal way), to overcome these myths and lies that are being spread and stop the claims/exit companies from defining our industry. In the US alone it is a 9 billion dollar industry creating a huge amount of jobs and economic growth, with overwhelmingly positive feedback from those who actually own and use timeshare. The myths from claims companies can be overcome, through showing all the positive effects and features of the timeshare industry.
In the conference session: The top travel trends and what it means for timeshare, Richard Aston, Director Deal Advisory discussed the importance of technology for hotels and resorts, but how this shouldn’t take importance over quality. Instead features like mobile booking, apps and social media should all be utilised to improve the customer experience in order to increase bookings and profits. He also mentioned how new technology such as AI and Chatbots are becoming significantly more advanced and useful in order to make personalisation easier and increase conversion. In addition Richard talked about how the package trip is popular again, as the art of convenience is becoming the new loyalty.
Following on from Richard in that session, Victoria Bacon the Director of Brand and Business Development at ABTA, the Association of British Travel Agents which has 1200 members talked about trends they have noticed. These included the growth in Responsible Tourism which is a huge trend and high on the agenda, as travellers are increasingly looking for brands with a social and environmental responsibility. Alternative Destinations are also proving to be a growing trend as people are looking to head to unique places which offer different experiences from what they are used to. Victoria also mentioned package holidays and said how they provide certainty, with 51% of UK travellers taking one in 2017. It is now more viable to fly to long distance destinations as low-cost long-haul airlines have entered the market in recent years such as Norwegian Airlines, WOW and Eurowings.
Following on from Richard and Victoria’s presentations, Jackie Murphy, Managing Director of Flagship Consulting then led a discussion with both of them and also Hassan Kadbi, CEO of Hapimag and Stefan Mende, Sales Director at Anfi Group. This was a lively discussion in which the different trends that Richard and Victoria had mentioned were discussed with Hassan and Stefan, including the use of technology and sustainability.
Both Stefan and Hassan agreed on the importance of technology in today’s travel world, including the use of social media with both Hapimag and Anfi Group having a presence on all channels. Stefan suggested though, that while technology is certainly very important, it should not take away from the human element of resorts which many guests enjoy. Hassan added that everything must be customer centric and should not be used to cut costs, but rather to enhance the customer experience, by speeding up some processes, so staff could concentrate on more important ways in keeping guests happy.
In terms of sustainability, Stefan talked about various ways that ANFI is working towards becoming more environmentally sustainable such as banning plastic straws and through the use of water purification systems in the apartments to water the golf courses. Hassan talked about how timeshare/vacation ownership is already a sustainable form of business as opposed to other types of hotels, but more can be done. Hapimag is focused on buying and sourcing locally as much as possible and is also energy efficiency within the resorts. As Hassan said, all of these improvements are also worth sharing on social media as this is something consumers are interested in.
Steven Dow, Vice President of Revenue Management Europe at Diamond Resorts introduced an insightful conference session called Standing on the Shoulders of a Giant with Dimitris Manikis who recently became the President & Managing Director EMEA, Wyndham Hotels & Resorts, and Mark Forrester, Chairman and Founder of luxury travel marketing company, 80 Days. Dimitris discussed Wyndham Hotels & Resorts which is the second largest loyalty program in the world and the importance of customer loyalty. The company makes travel possible for all through different levels of affordability and has 58 million members.
This loyalty creates a community amongst its members and for it be effective it must be simple to use as providing a great product. This is an important lesson for timeshare which has continued to add more and more products which has led to it becoming increasingly complicated. Instead it is important to simplify your products so people will find them easier to understand and therefore more inclined to purchase them.
Mark introduced 80 Days and talked about how smaller, independent, hotels and resort brands can stand out from the crowd in the face of competition without the power of a mega brand. He suggested that in many ways smaller brands are at an advantage, as what people care about are unique experiences, individuality and style. Independent brands have less issues with bureaucracy and are more able to swiftly implement changes. If they can successfully differentiate themselves from the competition like how Karma has done with the books and records rooms, then clients will be drawn to your brand and often become loyal.
In the final conference session of RDO9, You are only as good as your last ACT!, industry insiders Darren Ettridge – SVP Resort Sales and Business Development (EMEAA), Interval International, Gordon Gurnik – President, RCI Exchanges, Patrick Ingram – Managing Director, CLC World Resorts & Hotels, Justine Banister Day – Sales Manager, Pearly Grey Ocean Club, Kevin Wash – Partner, VOS (Vacation Ownership Services) offered an interesting discussion on their experiences of change, reflected back on previous sessions and debated what actions could be made to the product and sales approach to bring about positive fundamental change.
Justine talked about how important positivity is going forward and how positive everyone should feel towards the future of timeshare as there is still so much relevance left in the product going forward. The product of timeshare is overall very strong, it just needs to be marketed successfully and properly. At Pearly Grey Ocean Club for example, there is now a strong focus on amazing experiences that guests can try while in Tenerife which are being shared across the Pearly Grey social media channels. Kevin suggested that the whole sales process needs to be brought into the present situation to reflect the huge changes that have taken place in terms of technology and consumer expectations. He also added that consumers can be educated a lot more before they come to buy timeshare. Darren Ettridge argued that we can’t ignore the product and that we need to promote a combination between product and experience, as people are still looking for excellent accommodation. Patrick Ingram talked about how CLC World had been focused over the last 5 years on creating the wow factor among their guests, through investing heavily in their resorts.
There was also an insightful update on RDO’s legal and enforcement activity entitled “We never sleep” from Paul Gardner Bougaard – Chief Executive, RDO Ltd, Eugene Miskelly – General Counsel, CLC World Resorts & Hotels, Jose Miguel Echenagusia – Vice President Legal Services EMEAA, Interval International and Rob Webb – Partner, BakerHostetler. During this session, the panel brought us up to speed on some of the most challenging issues presently facing the industry, and how we are addressing them.
While there is still a long way to go, now there does seem to be a light at the end of the tunnel in terms of the fight against fraudulent claims companies with many of them now being shut down and a number of high profile cases of those running these companies being fined heavily and/or sent to prison. While there had been a surge in spurious claims against the industry which has made life difficult for developers, through working with KwikChex, RDO has been working closely in the UK and also Spain with law enforcement authorities, to tackle the activities of rogue claims companies. With arrests having been made and more enforcement action likely to follow, this should start to turn the tide on these illegal activities and act as a deterrent to those contemplating such activities in the future.
Jose Miguel Echenagusia brought the meeting up to date on the discussion in Spain on moves to redress the issues caused by the Supreme Court rulings in Spain. Progress was slow due to the difficult political situation in Spain, but RDO continued in its efforts and welcomed the support it was receiving from the Spanish hotel industry, whose associations had rallied behind the timeshare industry.
RDO would like to take the opportunity to thank Pestana Chelsea Bridge Hotel and Spa for providing such a fantastic venue for the conference. The accommodation, staff, food and drink and overall atmosphere were all second to none. We would also like to extend our thanks to to the conference working group who once again did an outstanding job.
We would like to offer a big thanks to this year’s Platinum sponsors, Interval International & RCI, and Gold sponsors, DAE, Light Enterprises and Shawbrook Bank. Also, our thanks go to Pestana Hotels & Resorts for the sponsorship of the welcome reception. We are extremely grateful for all the support that our sponsors offer to the event each year which wouldn’t be possible without them.
In closing, we would also like to say a special thanks to Robin Mills, who has dedicated his time over the years to the RDO during his role as the Chairman Communications Council and Conference Working Group. He has also done a fantastic job every year as conference moderator through bringing his wealth of industry knowledge to the conference which he has used superbly to stimulate debate and engage with delegates. While he will remain closely connected to RDO, he will be ending his role as Chairman of the Communications Council and Conference Working Group and we wish him every success in his new role as Vice President of Business Development EMEA at RCI Exchanges.
We do hope that we will see everyone next year at RDO10 11-12th September 2019 at the Don Carlos Leisure Resort & Spa, in Marbella.