One of the more popular quotes from the self-help movement is “each one of us is the average of the five people we spend the most time with”. Three years ago, when I worked alongside some of the most interesting people you could ever meet, I took for granted the energy and knowledge I received from my colleagues. Now, as a stay-at-home mom / travel writer, my five people are a three-year-old, a five-year-old, a spouse, a sister, and Kion from The Lion Guard. I’m self-aware enough to recognize that I need to broaden my people, but just how to go about it hasn’t been as obvious. So I turned to my best friend who doesn’t know it yet, Elizabeth Gilbert, for some inspiration. And, oh boy, did she deliver. She said, “Julie, come and hear me speak at the Vacation Rental Women’s Summit in New Orleans from February 19–20.” That Liz, she always has the best advice!
The objective of the inaugural Vacation Rental Women’s Summit was clear: “to bring the smartest and most influential women in the vacation rental industry together to inspire and empower attendees, encourage a sense of community, and discuss high-level topics specific to this unique audience….to offer opportunities for creativity, innovation, and discussion that have the potential to dramatically change the trajectory of our businesses; and we will be celebrating the pioneering women who helped build the vacation rental industry into the force that it is today.”
Despite being an enormous endeavor, Amy Hinote, Founder and Editor at VRM Intel, and her team absolutely nailed what they set out to achieve. After spending two days in New Orleans with this incredible gathering of entrepreneurs, leaders, and inspirational speakers, I came home feeling empowered, enlightened, and energized.
Highlights of the summit included a fantastic opening keynote speech from Tina Weyand, HomeAway’s Chief Product Officer. Ms. Weyand delivered a thoughtful and inclusive presentation, highlighting the too-often-underappreciated Emotional Quotient, the qualities that measure a person’s adequacy in areas like empathy, sensitivity, and relatability. Qualities that are the pillars of both outstanding hospitality and an outstanding person….you know, like your mom. Companies like Google are realizing the importance of EQ, and their legendary hiring practices have evolved to seek not just tech-savvy candidates but also great listeners, coaches, and empathetic leaders. If you’ve ever sat in a meeting and had your intelligence questioned because of your emotional capabilities (I have, and I walked out), you know what a shift in thinking like this means for women who, despite a mountain of accomplishments, have struggled to thrive professionally. After all, as Tina pointed out, when it comes to leadership positions, there are more men named John at the top then there are total women.
Between each keynote speaker, attendees had their choice of breakout sessions, hosted by a variety of innovative leaders in the industry. Prior to arrival, I researched the topics and presenters, noting those that best suited my goals for the conference. Here are some takeaways from the sessions I attended:
How to Grow Your Business in a Sustainable Way, led by Talia Lockard and Amber Knight of Rented.com suggested continuously analyzing what you need to start doing, what you need to stop doing, and what you should continue to work on. I know I can definitely cling too long to initiatives that aren’t working, and taking the time to define clear expectations for every new project can eliminate any confusion about what is and isn’t a success. They also recommended Upwork, a great resource to find top skilled freelancers. I’ve been searching for an editor and a graphic designer for some time, and this was a great discovery.
Charla Clifford, founder of Rockies Rentals, hosted From One Woman to the Team: Growing Your Business with Time, Tech, and the Power of Women. Ms. Clifford offered practical advice that could easily be implemented, like how to choose the right PMS (property management system) and what tasks can be easily outsourced to a virtual assistant (she also recommended Upwork and other companies like Get Friday and Brickwork India).
Distribution Channels 201: 3rd Party, Website, and Voice hosted by Michelle Marquis of channel management innovators Lexicon Travel, was a presentation I was particularly excited about, and her informative and lively session did not disappoint. I spent fourteen years at an OTA (for hotels), and I’m familiar with the complexities of distribution and the desire to decrease third party / agency bookings. Michelle did an excellent job of highlighting the pros and cons of the various agencies, like how Airbnb is an opaque model, making your brand essentially invisible, but Booking.com allows for branding and your name, affording the more inquisitive booker the opportunity to find you directly. Ms. Marquis pointed out one of the hard truths about OTAs—when you leave them, that lack of online presence can lead to a decrease in direct bookings, sometimes as much as 30%. She offered key tips to leveraging third party sellers as optimally as possible, allowing hosts to benefit from these bookings without feeling burned by the commission.
Jodi Bourne, a digital marketing strategist, web designer, and content creator, hosted ROI: Measure and Scale Your Marketing. With so many ways to misinterpret marketing initiatives, Ms. Bourne shared how to avoid the pitfalls of vanity metrics. She also clarified what is actually worth measuring, from the number of website visitors to what pages convert best. For new business owners, understanding the metrics of your website can feel overwhelming, but Ms. Bourne laid out a number of KPIs (Key Performance Metrics) that could easily be monitored for accurate insight into just how well your site and marketing initiatives are working.
Each day of the conference featured a prominent keynote speaker; Tuesday was Lady Carnarvon of Highclere Castle in England (known to PBS viewers as Downton Abbey) and Wednesday was bestselling author Elizabeth Gilbert. Lady Carnarvon is many things—a writer, a curator, an interior designer, an archivist, historian, employer, and even short term rental host. Highclere Castle is home to two stunning short term rental properties, Grotto Lodge and London Lodge. As she used the history of Highclere to tell her story, she spoke movingly about the relationship between the United States and England, particularly during the Second World War. She also spoke at length about her team, and most affectionately about several employees who were well past what is typically considered the age of retirement. At a time when long-standing international alliances have been discounted, and the experience of aging met with contempt, her speech was a refreshing force of optimism.
Elizabeth Gilbert gave her keynote address on Wednesday shortly after lunch. With the podium now removed, she spent her time confidently moving about the stage, effortlessly connecting with the audience. She spoke of how she lives a life of creativity by indulging her curiosity instead of her fear. She shared another tale of traveling the world, this time for a book tour, and her attempts to connect with strangers from all walks of life: motel security guards, taxi drivers, makeup artists, book sales reps, German publishers, volunteers who pick up authors at the airport (this is a thing, apparently), and everyone in between. People shared a wide range of passions, ranging from life on Mars to helping a loved one through grief. And while some of the subject matter was heavy, her excellent sense of humor, timing, and humility liftted the audience. Ms. Gilbert is a truly gifted storyteller, both on paper and in person. She naturally shifts from comedian to philosopher, and I can’t help but wonder if a Netflix deal is right around the corner. She is the personification of her book, Big Magic, and as she spoke to us in America’s voodoo capital, we sat in rapture, ready to embrace that curiosity is not an impulse to manage but a path to forge.
Our host for all of this practical advice and inspirational messaging was The Ritz Carlton Hotel, and their team elevated the experience to the next level. Every detail was considered, and as I battled a lingering cough, their coffee and tea stands were a welcome respite. The conference provided a number of meals over the two days—breakfast, a high tea, brunch, and a lunch—and the food was delicious, with a variety of options, making it work for all dietary needs. For a conference geared toward women who take care of people both professionally and personally, I can’t imagine a greater delight than to have all your needs addressed while taking the time to focus on building your business and your brand.
There were a number of highlights throughout the conference, including a tribute to three women who pioneered and shaped the vacation rental industry, Rae Sloane Cox from Sloane Realty Vacations, Sheila Hodges from Gulf Shores - Meyer Vacation Rentals, and Bert Feinman from Sand 'N Sea Properties. A workshop on the significance of vision boards, held on both mornings and led by the utterly delightful Lisa Lelas, was a clever way to begin the day, helping attendees focus on their personal and professional goals. On Tuesday evening, Red Sky Travel Insurance sponsored a cocktail hour at The Red Fish Grill, complete with alligator gumbo, shrimp and grits, and a certain proper English Countess who enjoyed cocktails, oysters, live music, and the great company of about 175 new friends.
The biggest indicator of success for a conference is if attendees will return, and I can say without hesitation that I’ll be at the next Vacation Rental Women’s Summit. For me, the best part of the conference was how I’ve grown my circle of people. Because we were (mostly) all women, there was a comfort level that isn’t typically created at a conference. Stories of failures, successes, losses, and triumphs were easily shared. And as so many of the attendees were independent workers or part of a small business, this experience allowed us to connect as a larger group, creating a community I hope to be a part of for years to come.