I’ve lost count over the years of how many accommodation agencies have sprouted up like weeds online — many of them promoting the same properties (sometimes unbeknownst to the owners) in an identically impersonal way and with cookie-cutter designs (large slideshow image of a beautiful apartment and a big, fat text box that says something direct like “where do you want to go?”). The business model may differ from site to site, but almost all of them that are getting serious press and financial backing, and thus are the ones competing for your eyeballs, have traded in any notion of quality control for scalability. Having witnessed everything that can go wrong in international travel over the last 10 years, the thought of what happens to that 1 or 2% of tourists who fall through the cracks — ie. gets scammed, books a place that doesn’t exist, or has their accommodation canceled by the owner at the last minute — makes me cringe. Large sites find this percentage acceptable, and perhaps when you do millions of revenue, it’s a small price to pay. But when you’re the guy on vacation, with 1 week to spare a year, things look a helluva lot different.
It didn’t used to be like this though. When we started Cross-Pollinate in 2000, it was all much simpler. It was rare that people sought out apartments and spare rooms in the first place, so we had to go and inspect them and make sure they existed before we could promote them. Sites like ours, and NY Habitat, which was founded in 1998, were certainly pioneers in getting these alternative accommodations online so they could be reserved easily. Unfortunately, this model of ours, which works quite well, albeit on a small, manageable scale, has grown into an industry of inexperienced players, flushed with cash and credibility issues.
Talking to Marie-Reine, the founder of NY Habitat, helped reinforce my conviction that the “mom-and-pop / Main Street” version of the travel world is worth preserving.
Originally from a small town in Western France, I actually started my career working in an antique business company. For business purposes, I traveled to New York for a few months in 1981. That was the first time I discovered NYC, and I immediately fell in love with the city! I had to go back to France shortly after but returned to the city later on to settle eventually. Since I was living in the Big Apple, I started having a lot of people asking to stay at my apartment to visit the city: first family, then friends, then friends of friends… I had so many people asking me to host them I even told everyone to stop giving out my contacts! That’s when I realized how much of the big dream New York represented for so many people. Everyone wants to come here! So I decided to turn the loft I was working in into a vacation rental for anyone coming to New York City. It all went fast from then on: I obtained my license, expanded the team, Francois Roux joined up and implemented the website (http://www.nyhabitat.com), and we were on our way to becoming the successful company New York Habitat is today.
2. What’s the New York Habitat model and what do you think distinguishes you from other websites? In other words, why should someone book through you and not stay in a hotel? Why should someone book through you and not another website?
The strength of New York Habitat lies in three factors: cosmopolitanism, expertise and protection. Indeed, you could picture NYH as a bridge between owner and tenant, between two people and between two cultures. We have agents fluent in many languages, including French, Spanish, Italian and German, and we have branches not only in New York but also in Paris, London and in the South of France. Also, we rely on our staff of most professional Real Estate Agents, who make a point of assisting and educating our clientele in their search for an accommodation or housing. Finally, we understand that in a world where it is becoming easier and easier to rent an apartment or a vacation rental, people need a safety net to protect themselves from many of the threats we have seen in the papers lately. This is why we provide guarantees before, during and after the stay of clients through state licenses worldwide and compliance to the latest current laws surrounding housing. We want our clientele to feel safe and fully enjoy their stay in a New York Habitat accommodation.
3. You’ve been in the business long enough to have seen a lot of changes in the online travel industry. What changes do you predict in the next 2-5 years?
Well, first of all, I think that e-booking is definitely going to go mainstream and, with so many things to make it easy for us to rent an apartment, I am certain that within a few years we will be able to rent an apartment just like we book a hotel room. Also, we will attend the development of peer-to-peer in the market, with all of these new websites that allow people to rent apartments directly to each other. This will deeply reshape the housing market and the role of brokers in the future. In order to follow these changes smoothly, we need to think about new concepts and grow towards a more complete expertise and better communication. We need to create tomorrow’s broker.
4. New York Habitat has a stunning amount of fans/followers – you’re like a rock star! What do you think the key to your success is? What is it that you think people identify with about your company?
99% perspiration, 1% inspiration! It’s been a lot of work accumulated throughout the years to become what New York Habitat is today. Our work is very tiring because what we create is something sustainable and strongly built, and I think people can see that: through a constant level of excellence in our service. Our internationality combined with a personalized expertise helped us build our reputation over the years. And all the work behind the scene, like a case-by-case approach and a thorough inspection of each one of our apartments, gives a unique sense of safety to our clientele.
Over the last 2 years, we have started to engage in the social media community and it has been very exciting. Our Facebook fans (30,000 as of today) show us what they are interested via their Likes and comments, and our Twitter followers (12,000 so far) encourage us to find new ideas, new deals. All of them share their experiences with us, which allows us to improve our service and strive for excellence. It is definitely a win-win situation when you take the time to listen!
Our goal is to share and expand our knowledge via articles, to-do lists and videos.
We recently started sharing content on Tumblr (very visual website with lots of pictures and tips), on Flickr, on Foursquare (if you are not sure what to do in New York, Paris, London or even the South of France, check us out!) and on Google+.
We enjoy sharing our knowledge and receiving feedback from our customers and Fans.
5. Do you have a horror story that comes to mind either from the perspective of a guest or owner or agent, or all three?
We did have a few bad stories like you never expect them to happen, but there is one that struck me especially. We had found housing for this woman in a roommate share in a Paris apartment and about a year ago, a huge fire started for an unknown reason and burned down the whole place! There was absolutely nothing left but ashes! But luckily no one got hurt. Of course, since the rental was completely destroyed we relocated her, as well as the landlady that was also living there and had lost her apartment…. Insurance kicked in and helped them out but trust me we got really scared for the people living in the accommodation!
6. Can you tell a story about how NYH has been able to come through for someone and really save the day?
It sounds incredible but we find emergency housing for people almost every week! You have no idea how many people get scammed by Craigslist all the time! We even wrote an article about them on our New York Habitat blog (http://www.nyhabitat.com/blog/2011/02/04/how-to-spot-an-apartment-rental-scam/) People think it is easy and simple to rent an apartment so they just go ahead and reply to an advertisement but they don’t realize how dangerous that can be until it is too late! Hopefully, most of the time we are able to find them another apartment to live in and people are always extremely grateful to us when that happens. It makes me personally proud because that is another proof of the level of service we fight to reach!
7. What are your plans for the future – either for New York Habitat or otherwise?
Work smarter, more efficiently and keep raising our service to the next level. Now more than ever the housing market has grown increasingly competitive with the appearance of a whole series of unfair competitors. Peer-to-peer websites that allow people to rent apartments directly to each other represent a real threat to the traditional real estate model. If this peer-to-peer trend isn’t challenged legally, the whole market of real estate housing will be completely reshaped. A recent law issued by the State of New York and prohibiting rentals for less than 30-days in class-A buildings already modified our entire business structure. We adapted ourselves and do our best to stay afloat while respecting the law but this has to apply to every player in the real estate market. You will find more legal information on this blog dedicated to New York housing laws: http://protect-vacation-rentals.com/. We don’t know what tomorrow will be made of but yet here at New York Habitat, we’re hoping for the best… and long live vacation rentals!
To discover more about New York Habitat, visit our website and find the social media icons like Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, etc.