One of my favorite parts of attending conferences like VRMA, is the opportunity to talk with a wide array of people who are involved in shaping the vacation rental management industry. One of my conversations was with the accessible Brent Bellm, COO of HomeAway.com. Brent is responsible for leading the daily operations of HomeAway’s online vacation rental marketplaces in the United States, Europe and Brazil, as well as its HomeAwayRealEstate.com and BedandBreakfast.com websites.
During lunch together, I took the opportunity to ask Brent about the new secure messaging feature that has been launched. It had been mentioned to me in a previous conversation as another attempt on HomeAway’s part to “control” more data. Brent agreed to respond to this rumor using a question and answer format, which follows here:
Claiborne: There have been some rumors about the new email policy that HomeAway has enacted. First, can you tell me about the specific change to the policy?
Brent: In order to protect user privacy and reduce incidents of email phishing, we launched a secure messaging feature. This feature anonymizes the email addresses of in-coming inquiries and out-going responses, thereby preventing fraudsters from knowing the email identity of owners and managers.
Owners and property managers may still obtain the actual email address of inquirers by logging into their dashboard; those email addresses are only anonymized in the emails themselves. In addition, it checks for viruses and malware in attachments, and it redacts any email address present in the body of a message, to prevent users from accidentally exposing their email addresses in their signatures and templates.
It is critical to note that, while this feature handles many different business communication processes, it does not handle everyone's special needs. For this reason, the secure messaging feature is not enabled for integrated property manager today and integrated property managers (including Barefoot customers) continue to receive and respond to inquiries as before, using their software with no email addresses anonymized.
Any property manager who uses our web-based management platform, rather than integrated software, but who requires a full email address to be present in the inquiry to power their CRM systems, may opt out of this program, with the acknowledgement that their communications are less secure. We are exploring ways to make this secure messaging feature compatible with more property manager communication models, and until we do, we will always provide the option to opt-out (by contacting HomeAway customer service).
Claiborne: What was the purpose of making this change?
Brent: Our primary objective was to combat email phishing, which this secure messaging feature accomplishes by preventing fraudsters from learning, and thereafter targeting, the email accounts of owners and property managers. Phishing attacks have grown significantly in our industry over the past two years, and property managers have been victimized every bit as much as owners. Some of the phishing attacks have resulted in significant traveler losses and negative news coverage, which ultimately hurts everyone: travelers (who lose money or shy away from the category), suppliers (who lose the trust of travelers and, therefore, business), and the HomeAway marketplace (which also loses reputational trust). We hope to eradicate phishing, and so far, this feature has made a major dent in it.
Our secondary objective with this secure messaging feature is to begin tracking and rewarding owner and property manager response behavior. Response scores were introduced to look at the speed and consistency of responding to traveler inquiries; it is the number one problem in our marketplace today, as rated by travelers. Both travelers and our internal data suggest that approximately 30% of inquiries don’t get a response at all, and when travelers experience this, their likelihood of leaving our site and the vacation rental market skyrockets. The negative impact is enormous on traveler likelihood to book, loyalty, and likelihood to recommend. Inquiry responses for customers who have the secure messaging feature go through a messaging system that allow us to measure, to the second, the elapsed time between inquiry and response (or lack thereof). For suppliers with this secure messaging feature, response time is being incorporated into their listing quality scores which help determine where properties appear in search results within their subscription level. We reward owners and property managers who respond to more than 80% of inquiries within 24 hours. Those who do not will find their listing quality scores reduced. As mentioned above, there are many property managers who cannot utilize this secure messaging feature. For them, we are developing alternate ways to measure or self-report how quickly and frequently they respond to inquiries. Until those methods are live, response scores will not be counted as a component of their listing quality scores, and therefore they will not be penalized for their inability to be measured.
Claiborne: How does this impact the vacation rental management company?
Brent: As mentioned above, some property managers are challenged to utilize this feature without changing their internal processes. We are working on solutions that make it compatible with the various property manager communication models, whether they use integrated software or HomeAway websites. Until we do, property managers should consider this feature optional. We strongly encourage using the secure messaging feature, as well as following our security best practices.
Claiborne: If you are working with a software company that has an integration to HomeAway for Professional, will the information about the prospect in those transactions be affected?
Brent: Integrated property managers, whether using HomeAway Software for Professionals or any other integrated partner software, will always have access to prospect information. Our goal is to keep this information away from the fraudsters, not from you or any of our trusted partners.
Claiborne: What are some other measures that HomeAway takes to provide security that add to your value proposition?
Brent: I could talk for days about this. On the risk-management side, we have an industry-leading fraud detection engine that scores listings and all actors accessing our site on a wide array of variables. We have dedicated models and processes that oversee the integrity of new listings, account changes, inquiries, and payments. We are actively testing two-factor authentication to secure supplier account access, and thereby eliminate (for the most part) fraudulent account takeovers.
When it comes to traveler protections, we offer a host of options that range from our basic rental guarantee (that covers all listings against fraud) to more comprehensive offerings covering customers who pay through HomeAway Payments (this includes credit card payments to integrated property managers) or who purchase the optional Carefree Rental Guarantee.
Ultimately we aspire for our marketplace to be the most trusted everywhere around the world, and earning that trust depends on a combination of fraud prevention, traveler protection, and third-party trust recognition.
I would like to thank Brent for his replies and I would like to suggest that if you have any questions or comments that you would like to post here, it is very likely that Brent will be happy to respond to any legitimate posts.
For those of you who are interested in learning more about the integration opportunities between Barefoot and Homeway, please click here.