Interviews

We’re not Airbnb: How one home rental business is differentiating in a crowded market

6 min read

16 November 2015

Since Airbnb exploded onto both the travel and tech scenes just a few years ago, millions of people have used it to start renting out their homes to strangers.

Meanwhile, similar numbers have found what they believe is a great alternative to a hotel or serviced apartment while travelling abroad.

So where does this leave a smaller company that has already been in this business for some time? Unique Home Stays, which offers over 120 luxury homes of all sizes and types from coastal cottages and impressive manor houses for rent from around the world, has positioned itself upmarket as a way of differentiating itself from the newly arrived and now well-known market disruptor.

Managing director Sarah Stanley got the idea for her business while travelling the world and living in Australia just over 10 years ago. She started it in her cottage with an advertisement in her local paper and one simple Cornish cob-walled cottage on her books. She can still remember the excitement of getting the first call for that first property. 

She launched Unique Home Stays with an investment of just £500 from her mother and has, since then, grown the company by investing the profits. The company now handles bookings worth more than £6m annually on behalf of a number of owners.

Stanley cited three main reasons for starting her own business: security, independence and the ability to make choices. “Becoming a mother to three meant that I wanted to find a vocation that fitted with the demands of parenting, but I also had a mind literally over-flowing with ideas of how to provide uniquely different ways to provide luxury accommodation to travellers the world over,” she said.

She admitted that initially she didn’t even know how to use a computer, but found a young developer locally and quickly learnt about search engine optimisation (SEO), something that is essential for a small business in a competitive sector such as travel and accommodation.

“My best business decision was to ignore the business advisor who told me that I would never make money and that I should give the business up and find something else to do with my time,” she said. “A key turning point which helped to shape Unique Home Stays into a successful business was when I introduced a ‘no upfront fee’. Instead of taking a membership fee, I worked on a commission basis whereby the property owners’ income was generated directly on the business that the company procured for them. By doing everything myself – all the marketing, bookings and customer service – I had creative and quality control.”

Establishing and scaling up a business that rents out properties presents its own particular challenges – in order to accept credit cards Stanley was told that she would have to put up a £650,000 security deposit as well as her own house, cash from the bank and other securities. In the end improved performance by the company enabled her to negotiate a better position with the provider.

Stanley is clear that she is not in competition with Airbnb. “We’re a niche marketing agency that specialises in marketing unique and luxurious private homes, the quintessential hallmarks of a Unique Home Stay home being that they’re exclusive privately owned, and personally visited,” she said. “We pride ourselves on having personally visited each and every property on our portfolio.”

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Currently she is struggling with the supply of properties. “Our homes book up so quickly so we aim to strengthen and grow the portfolio to meet demand,” Stanley explained. “By offering additional locations we aim to continue to lead the way in the luxury self-catering market to ensure our guests are inspired and delighted every step of the way.”

Maintaining its niche positioning and stressing the uniqueness of the properties on its books is another way in which the company will continue differentiate itself in a market that is becoming increasingly crowded with Airbnb and other providers. “Unique Home Stays holds the key to beautiful private homes which are truly unique and breath-taking,” said Stanley. “We don’t class ourselves as holiday home providers, but luxury private home custodians – key holders to homes with heart.”

She advised others thinking of developing companies in the luxury travel market to “just do it”, and more specifically to “specialise, personalise and surprise your clients by continuing to exceed their expectations”. According to Stanley, the business has given her exactly what she wrote down as her three goals when she set up about establishing it.

“In addition to this, my three children have lived the trials and tribulations and now see the positive results of hard work and delayed gratification,” she said. “The cottage was not just a home it was a place of business with the lounge full of computers with staff and phones going day and night. The end result and ultimate success I feel will be to have confident children who have the choice to ‘just do it’ on their own.”