Invest in Your Rental: Just as in real estate, curb appeal and smart household upgrades really do impact value. Consider higher quality furniture, free of wear and tear; upgrade to nicer finishes; and never underestimate what a fresh coat of paint can do for a space.
As a part of my series about “5 Things You Need to Become a Successful Vacation Rental Host”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Brian Egan.
Brian is the Co-Founder and CEO of Evolve Vacation Rental, a hospitality company providing top-tier management services to homeowners and vacation rental experiences guests can trust.
Prior to starting Evolve, Brian helped build Exclusive Resorts, LLC from a startup into the world’s leading destination club. He focused on driving revenue growth through the design, launch, and management of a broad variety of initiatives encompassing business development, marketing, international expansion and sales. Brian began his career as a corporate and securities attorney at Gunderson Dettmer in Silicon Valley where he represented startups, angel investors, and leading venture capital firms. Brian has a B.A. from Boston College and a J.D. from the University of Virginia School of Law. He lives in Denver with his wife and twin boys.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”?
Growing up, I got my first taste for the hospitality industry working in restaurants where I did every job there is from dishwashing to serving. I didn’t know it then but I was hooked; there’s something so rewarding about connecting people with experiences that create lasting memories. I went on to law school and ultimately fulfilled my goal of becoming a startup and venture capital lawyer in the Bay Area; however, something was missing, it felt like I was “at the right table but in the wrong chair.” It was then I realized I wanted to be a part of building a startup, not just advising from the outside. I left my law career to join Exclusive Resorts, a startup destination club that had just launched three months prior, as one of their first 10 employees. This move brought me back to my hospitality roots, and eventually to Denver. I knew right away I was home on both fronts.
After seven years working for the co-founders of a start-up, I was eager to become one myself. I partnered with Adam Sherry (Exclusive Resorts’ first employee and a good friend) to pursue what we believed was a huge opportunity. The vacation rental industry, while decades old, was still early in its development as a mainstream travel category. Owners were forced to choose between expensive local management or spending countless hours handling everything on their own, and guest experiences were inconsistent. We decided to launch Evolve in 2011 with the vision of becoming the most trusted hospitality brand in vacation rental.
Why should homeowners consider joining the vacation rental industry?
Not only are vacation rentals one of the fastest growing segments in the travel industry — a trend that actually accelerated during the pandemic — they’re also a good investment thanks to strong property appreciation and low mortgage rates.
Generating rental income also makes it easier for owners to afford a second or even third home; many of the homeowners we work with start with one property and end up with multiple. That said, the work involved in managing and marketing a vacation rental property can be daunting in this increasingly competitive market. We handle all the elements of generating rental income, including listing on sites like Airbnb and Vrbo and setting rates via our proprietary SmartRates algorithm, to simplify the process and help maximize revenue. It’s a hassle-free way to get into the industry, especially if you’re unsure where to start.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started this?
Fairly early in our journey, one of our homeowners from Texas was planning to be in Denver on business and asked if he could come by our headquarters. We turned it into an opportunity for him to do a Q&A with our whole team — we were probably just 50 Evolvers or so at that time.
He had started by bringing one home on our platform and was able to cash flow that property to buy two additional vacation rentals. We were exploring what these properties and our partnership meant to him when he got bit choked up, looked at our team and said, “I can’t tell you how much our partnership means to me and my family…I’ve worked so hard for over 30 years to be in this position and I’m trusting you with my retirement. These properties and the rental income you are producing for me are my entire nest egg.” You could hear a pin drop after that.
Reflecting back years later I believe that was a crucial moment for us and one that will stick with me for the rest of my career. We knew that our work mattered to our owners and guests, but in a fast-growing, tech-enabled business it’s easy to let that notion become abstract. That was a moment where it all hit home — the owners counting on us to deliver the rental income they rely on, the guests using one of our homes to bring generations together for the first, or perhaps last, time and trusting that the home will be just like the pictures online. We’re not curing cancer, but people are depending on us in important ways and it’s a responsibility we don’t take lightly.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
In the early days of Evolve, before we provided professional photos, we would ask owners to send us photography of their home as part of the onboarding process. As you can imagine, we received some really creative attempts at photography, with some owners even going so far as to hire models to pose in every room of their home.
Despite our best efforts to coach owners on what works best, I admit there were moments you could catch me saying, “is that your cat in every, single picture… including sitting on top of the toilet?” or “do you think we could get a photo of the hot tub without the couple in it toasting champagne glasses and kissing?” You get the picture, literally.
We quickly learned the value of having professional, high quality photos that have a consistent style and decided to provide a professional photoshoot as an included benefit for all Evolve owners. It’s been a game changer; when a guest clicks on a listing we only have seconds to engage them before they move along to the next property, and they are spending most of that time looking at photos. And ultimately, we learned a bigger lesson — always adapt your business model and value proposition to your customer’s needs, not the other way around.
What is the most common mistake you see from vacation rental homeowners who aren’t working with Evolve?
One of the biggest mistakes we see people make is simply forgetting to focus on hospitality. I can’t stress how important it is to put the guest first. Sure, this means thinking through smaller details like in-home amenities, updated décor and responding quickly to inquiries, but it also needs to come through in the way every interaction is handled.
Many owners think it’s about them instead of their guests. It’s an understandable assumption — when it’s your property, capital investment, risk, hopes and dreams it’s easy to make every decision about profits. It’s also easy to get defensive about questions and concerns from guests (how dare you say my dishwasher is outdated!). But in today’s world, consumers can spot instantly when they are being prioritized and if they’re not, they’re gone. Worse yet, some owners wind up with low review scores that can in turn limit their future earning power. The investment in putting the guest first will always pay off over the long run.
What are some of the things that can be done to avoid these errors?
Think about what you expect when you visit a hotel as a guest. What stands out and what sours the experience? For me personally, having exceptional service can make or break an experience. If I were to run into an issue at a hotel — maybe my WIFI isn’t working or I’m unhappy with the level of cleanliness — there is an expectation that a hotel will quickly remedy the situation to the best of their ability. A vacation rental should be no different. Providing quick responses and immediate assistance to guests is one of the main reasons homeowners partner with Evolve. If you provide the level of service and hospitality you expect when you travel, your guests will have a higher quality experience overall.
In your opinion, what makes Evolve different from Airbnb?
Evolve is a hospitality company, whereas Airbnb is a marketplace. Our role is to create exclusive partnerships with homeowners to represent their properties under our brand and to deliver 5-star experiences to guests who book our homes. Marketplaces such as Airbnb exist to match supply (homes) with demand (consumers). Fortunately, our respective roles in the industry are quite complementary as we are able to advertise our homes under the Evolve brand on all the major marketplace sites, including Airbnb, Vrbo and Booking.com, in addition to our direct booking site at Evolve.com.
It’s worth noting that this dynamic has existed in the hotel world for a long time. For example, consumers who know Marriott understand that they can book on Marriott’s website or find a Marriott hotel room while searching on a broader marketplace such as Expedia. It’s no different with Evolve and Airbnb — you can find all Evolve homes on the big marketplaces or book direct. That said, it’s not as widely understood because hotel industry brands existed long before the marketplaces, whereas in vacation rental, the marketplaces gained popularity before any large, well-recognized brands were established.
Wonderful. Here is the main question of our discussion. Can you share “5 Things You Need To Become A Highly Successful Vacation Rental Host”? Please share a story or example for each.
- Invest in Your Rental: Just as in real estate, curb appeal and smart household upgrades really do impact value. Consider higher quality furniture, free of wear and tear; upgrade to nicer finishes; and never underestimate what a fresh coat of paint can do for a space.
- Design for a Broader Audience: Whereas floor-to-ceiling floral everything might be your happy place, for others it might be a turn-off. It’s best to stick with neutral colors and simple, clutter-free decor that attract a wider audience with a variety of tastes.
- Small Touches Provide Big Impact: Some of the most memorable stays I’ve had start with simple gestures such as a personalized handwritten note or amenities that make my stay more comfortable.
- Price for Year-Round Success: Price too high and you might lose out to cheaper rentals nearby, price too low and you might miss out on revenue. A dynamic pricing strategy — one based on seasonality, demand, current trends and similar properties — is critical for maximizing revenue.
- Enlist Professional Help: While doing everything yourself may seem like a profitable move, it can actually cost you in the long run. It takes a lot of time and expertise to properly manage a rental from responding to timely guest inquiries to monitoring and setting dynamic rates. This is exactly why Evolve was created, to streamline the vacation rental process while adding a trusted hospitality aspect to each property in a cost-effective way.
You are a “travel insider”. How would you describe your “perfect vacation experience”?
My “perfect vacation experience” starts with family. My wife and I both have pretty intense and challenging careers, so we really value the time we are able to get away together with our twin boys. First and foremost, that means having confidence in where we are staying. There is nothing worse than being disappointed in your accommodations. After a day of travel and all the prep work required to get there and feel like you made a mistake — it gets everything off on the wrong foot and introduces doubt about the rest of the trip. Second, my family and I enjoy a blend of structure and spontaneous activities. We like to have at least one unique activity planned each day that we know will provide a great experience and memories, but we also like to leave room for spontaneity. It’s amazing how often the stories we tell years later are about the things we didn’t plan, the random places we went after doing our scheduled activity. That said, in my opinion it’s really the balance that matters here; these serendipitous moments only come about when the foundation pieces of the accommodations and activities are working well. When those are off, the whole thing breaks down.
Can you share with our readers how you’ve used your success to bring goodness to the world?
For me, creating a company culture where we motivate, inspire and truly care about each other’s well-being is the key to spreading good on a broader scale. A company’s team is its most valuable asset; it’s where everything starts. Investing in the growth, development and connection of the Evolver team — a culture where every team member is able to equally contribute ideas and authentically be themselves — empowers each of them to do great things together and on their own. I personally get in front of our new hires every month to make this point: you’re here to be you, to bring yourself to this equation, not to try to assimilate. Part of the joy of travel is learning from experience and seeing the world through each other’s unique lens — that’s what I strive for in our company culture through daily interactions and company philanthropic efforts, such as our CARE Week and volunteer work.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I would love to work on empowering future entrepreneurs to realize their visions, bring their companies to life and grow them in a durable, lasting way. More specifically, I’d focus on founders who are traditionally underrepresented (e.g., women, people of color, all those whose backgrounds and ages don’t fit the typical mold for a “startup founder”). I’m a big believer that businesses can double as an incredible platform for change. As a society, we are missing out on a tremendous amount of positive change by typecasting entrepreneurship as something done by certain types of people, in certain places, trying to scale their business according to the same playbooks. There’s actually an incredibly diverse array of ways to go about building a large, lasting and impactful business; however, most of them don’t have access to the enormous amount of capital that is chasing the few that fit the mold.
How can our readers further follow you on social media?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!