Talking Business: Nico Nicholas, RentalsCombined
Posted on Wednesday, March 1, 2017
SAN talks to Nico Nicholas, CEO and co-founder of RentalsCombined.net
• Can you give us a brief career history?
"I've always been happiest when I'm my own boss, which is why my career path to date has been strongly entrepreneurial. I've launched and grown a number of B2C ventures, the first of which I founded when I was just 22. Although the companies I started were in a variety of sectors, the experience gleaned was invaluable ahead of creating RentalsCombined in 2012 with my wife and co-founder Elkie."
"Since launching, we've won a number of accolades including Best Online Travel App of 2015 at the Travel Technology Exchange Dallas, and we were a finalist in the Travolution Awards Start Up of the Year 2016. We also recently closed a considerable funding round, all of which has validated our initial gut feeling that the rental market was crying out for a solution that could take it forward into the next stage in its development."
• When did you get the idea for RentalsCombined and what was the thinking and inspiration behind it?
"As is usually the case with start ups, the light bulb moment came out of the frustration we felt when trying to rent out our own property. We have a beautiful place in the south of France in a fantastic location, and yet there didn't seem to be any real platform to effectively market it."
"The demand is definitely there but unless you know where to search or what to look for, prospective guests need to spend hours searching online. The internet has made all the information we need available at our fingertips, but therein lies the problem - it's information overload and customers need a comprehensive platform that brings everything together under one roof."
"With this in mind, Airbnb was rising to prominence but given the horror stories you hear when things go wrong, we thought there must be a more reliable alternative where rentals for the vacation and business market could be marketed. Plus when you consider that there are more than six million vacation homes in Europe and the US, we could see how lucrative the potential market opportunity was, which we are continuing to recognise first hand as the site grows in popularity and the number of partners we work with sharply increases."
"Ultimately, the platform has been designed to empower travel agents and simplify the process of booking rental accommodation. Agents benefit by accessing the rentals market for both leisure and business guests with 100 per cent confidence, while clients gain another route to market that is managed and qualified. And consumers who have fallen in love with the idea of alternative accommodation in unique locations can experience the colourful variety the sharing economy offers, but with the added peace of mind that the booking is professionally managed, financially protected and competitively priced. This peace of mind is particularly important for the business market where an employer has a duty of care to meet, as well as other considerations when booking accommodation. Not only do we offer immediate booking, but the assistance a travel agent can provide, and the benefit of having a local person on the ground to take care of any issues are key USPs."
• When did you first become aware of the serviced apartment sector?
"We actually started out with a focus on the vacation rental market under our previous incarnation as VillasDirect. But when we signed our global distribution agreement with Sabre (for our award winning RedApp), and were asked if we could also do business rentals we needed to widen the offering, which is when we rebranded to RentalsCombined. We also became aware of the sector as we searched for city dwellings suitable for our corporate travellers. Our membership with the Association of Serviced Apartment Providers (ASAP) also proved invaluable in developing our network."
• Can you explain how you work with serviced apartment companies via the site?
"We've partnered with a number of channel managers, which include Dhisco, SynXis, SiteMinder, Aaxsys, Oscar and many more. We build to their management software requirements and provide them with distribution through our unique partnerships. Every property we work with is verified and credit checked and we also handle all of the payment. After we have insured the funds to offer 100 per cent financial protection and often within a few days of the booking, payment is released to our partners. We also work with serviced apartment providers directly."
• On your site, you use the strapline 'business and vacation rental properties' - what are your approximate percentages of business v leisure customers and are you seeing changes (and a rise in customers using properties to mix both uses)?
"The split is roughly 63 per cent business to 37 per cent consumer. Traditionally business users were slower to embrace short-term rental accommodation, even though they are the ones most likely to benefit. Who wouldn't want a home away from home when you spend most of your working life living out of a suitcase? But this mind-set is changing and we are helping to educate procurement managers that there is an alternative to hotels, which can also save them upwards of 20 per cent on traditional hotel costs."
"Concerns about fraud with other rental accommodation sites, double booking, the inability to book in real-time, and poorly maintained properties with no one to turn to when things have gone wrong, have also been barriers to the growth of the business market in rentals. This is why addressing these challenges is a core part of our offering and why we see greater success with the corporate market than some of our sharing-economy competitors."
• How do you see business use of property rental platforms in general developing and growing over the next few years?
"There is the potential for it to grow exponentially. Limited hotel supply, particularly in popular destinations and at peak times of the year, will encourage business travellers to look for alternatives. A good example would be well-established expos like CES in Las Vegas. It grows each year, not only from a visitor perspective but also from an exhibitor point of view. These visitors all need rooms and when a company sends multiple members of staff, a rental makes much better financial sense."
"A number of our partners have also told us that they are seeing increased interest from the corporate market. This is supported by a report from Morgan Stanley which highlighted that although only 18 per cent of business travellers surveyed used Airbnb in the past, they predicted that this number would jump to 23 per cent this year. There's no reason why other rental providers such as ourselves won't also see the same patterns."
• What can serviced apartment companies do to increase b2c consumer awareness and leisure use?
"Collaboration with agents and providers like us is key. The growth of the sharing economy has been seen as a threat by many, but actually, with the right tools the travel sector can adopt and maximise the opportunities that a platform like ours brings. Working with the right software is vital to gaining good distribution. Some companies are open to allowing new distribution channels access to their inventory, while others make it difficult. Distribution is what this is all about, therefore we would strongly advise working with companies who have developed systems which are easy and free for companies to connect to - always head for the path with the lowest resistance. We work with all the best software companies in the sector, so accessing our network is easy and almost immediate."
"Again, education is also important. Consumers need to know that Airbnb isn't the only alternative to hotels and that there are other leading options. Our focus has been to work with travel professionals. Bookings made through travel professionals are known as 'walk-ins' - most people find it surprising to learn that walk-ins accounted for a massive 30 [er cent of bookings in 2015, but this has grown to over 40 per cent in 2016. Ultimately, the more we shout about the benefits that serviced accommodation provides through our collective voice, the bigger the boost will be to all of our businesses."
• What are your growth plans and initiatives for RentalsCombined over the next few years?
"We have agreements with a number of the largest travel management companies and providers and plan to increase our already impressive access to over 800,000 properties to in excess of 1.5 million, over the next five years."
Given the fast growth we've already enjoyed, it's definitely a case of 'watch this space'. We're proud to be playing our part in helping serviced apartment providers find a new route to market, which also benefits the consumer. And given I spend a large part of my working life on the road - I also get the benefit of having an easy to use site to search for my next rental. And the property in France that helped kick start the business idea hasn't been short of guests either, I'm delighted to say!"