Talking agency: Simon Morrison, Select Apartments

George Sell By George Sell
Uploaded 31 January 2017

SAN talks to Simon Morrison, managing director of Select Apartments and one of the first agents in the UK serviced apartment sector.

• You have been involved in the serviced apartment sector since 1998 - can you give us a brief career history and tell us how you first discovered serviced apartments?

"From 1990 to 1992 I was a regional sales manager for Best Western Hotels, before going on to work for Harewood Hotel, Montague Park Hotel, and Browns Hotels. and then Euracom, where I was sales and marketing manager. I first came across the serviced apartment sector in the mid 1990s when I was working as a sales manager for Euracom, a small company that specialised in the leisure and academic markets. I saw there was a gap in the market and an amazing opportunity to provide this service to the corporate sector."

• Why and when was Select Apartments launched?

"I launched Select Apartments from my home on 7th July 1998. With the industry being in its infancy and so much misunderstanding from corporate clients of what exactly a serviced apartment was and what the benefits to their companies are, I identified a need to provide an impartial free service to support, educate and guide them through the different providers, the benefits and options available to them."

• How has the company grown since launch, and can you tell us how the company operates, and what services you now provide?

"We've grown from a single employee to a staff of ten in 18 years. Over the last 12 months we have booked over 60,000 room nights. We have coverage in more than 230 cities with access to a stock of 90,000 apartments worldwide."

"We believe that the one size fits all approach doesn't really work in our industry, so in 2015 we developed our own rating system that allows our customers to clearly understand the level of service and amenities that are provided for each of the apartments we offer. This is especially important if you are booking accommodation for someone you may not know. It helps identify the right level of accommodation whether you are booking for someone in middle management or a senior VP. Getting it wrong can not only be very embarrassing but also a very costly mistake."

"Our rating system clearly sets out the services guests can expect across four levels, Bronze, Silver, Gold and Platinum, covering items such as self-check-in, weekly maid service, communal laundry facilities, 24-hour reception/concierge, daily maid service, gym, on-site swimming pool, restaurant and bar etc.

"Our clients also benefit from a free VIP global chauffeur service (a cost we incur not passed on to the client) that we introduced a couple of years ago which has been a resounding success, as well as offering a free Tastecard and our Select Rewards programme. We have kept it simple with the Select Rewards programme, it is free to join and we offer gift vouchers for well-known high street stores in exchange for points."

"Last year we teamed up with Office Space in Town to offer free access to three of OSIT's six London business lounges, including its newest venue in Monument, as well as its office buildings in Waterloo and Liverpool Street, for up to five hours per week. OSIT also offers our clients a 20 per cent discount on meeting room hire. We hope to roll this out to more of OSIT sites over the coming year."

• What makes you different from other agents in the space?

"We believe we are innovative and have introduced new and unique services - at no extra cost to our clients - to enhance their booking experience and add value to what we offer. We've always lead the sector in creativity and product development. Other companies have plagiarised or copied the services that we provide, which can only mean that our ideas are worth imitating!"
"In a fast paced technological age where people want instant responses to their enquiries we know that the less time it takes to respond to an enquiry, the more satisfied the customer is. That is why we offer a two-hour guaranteed reply to initial enquiries. If for any reason the deadline is not met the company pledges to take £100 off the next booking. We have also developed our Solid Gold Guarantee, which we offer to all our corporate clients. If an occupant reports an issue to us during their stay which is affecting their use of the apartment and which is not resolved within 48 hours, we'll issue a refund equivalent to one night's stay. If the apartment doesn't match the specification requested, we'll arrange for the occupant to be moved to an apartment of an equivalent standard. Implementing these simple pledges are just some of the ways we demonstrate to our customers that we will do the best for them. We also have a 24 hour on-call - free - service. We don't use answering services so our clients will always have one of the team at the end of the phone whatever the time or where they are in the world."

"Last February we re-launched our website which has put us out in front of our competitors. We carried out a piece of research with our clients and when the results came in, an overwhelming 89 per cent said that although they like to do their research online they still want to talk to an account manager. Only 11 per cent said they would prefer to book online. So we made searching quicker and easier as well as offering some great new functionality. Our clients cannot book online as most stays are usually for a minimum of 30 days and involve more logistics and have to be tailored. And for this reason, our clients are quite clear that for longer stays they want to talk to someone.  This insight is interesting and opposite to what the GDS apartment suppliers are saying.  In fact, as a small independent business we aim to provide our clients with a seamless service, making every booking experience as easy and straightforward as possible and we feel that our website ticks all of these boxes."

"The website also allows our clients not only to search by destination but they can narrow the search for nearby entertainment such as theatres, bars and restaurants.  Searching by tourist attractions is also a new option so if they want to stay right in the heart of the city centre and enjoy all the attractions they can search by 'Big Ben' for instance and the system will bring up the closest apartments available."

"The website now also offers a private client login area where clients can see all their offers, which apartments are located near their offices as well as being able to send a booking enquiry directly from their login page which is then picked up by the team and followed up by phone.  Once a booking has been made over the phone, the client can then go back on line and pay by credit card. There is a new blog with regular updates from the team including city guides, industry news as well as a special offers page. All our latest newsletters are all easily accessible too."

• How do you choose your operator partners, and new regions to do business in?

"We choose our partners extremely carefully. We try and inspect every new partner/providers wherever possible. We were one of the first companies to introduce standard terms of business and minimum safety standards 18 years ago in order to reassure our clients that all the suppliers that we contract with operate apartments that are safe, have the necessary insurance cover in place and will be suitable for their employees."
• How do you think the role of the agent will evolve as serviced apartment operators use a growing number of distribution channels?

"There'll always be a need for good independent agents in the corporate sector. Currently, it's almost impossible to book an apartment for 30 nights online, despite the claims made by several apartment operators. Most operators will only accept this type of booking on a request basis or will ask that you send them an e-mail for a stay of this length. Using our knowledge and experience, we're able to contact the most appropriate suppliers and negotiate the best deal available and pass the cost savings on to the client.  You can't do that with GDS or a website."

• How do businesses such as yours counter the threat posed by Airbnb and similar platforms?

"We don't see Airbnb as a threat. It's been great for raising the public's awareness that there is as an alternative to staying in hotels, which can be expensive. If you're going away on holiday for a few nights and you don't mind taking a chance on where you're staying, or if the accommodation has smoke detectors, fire exits, public liability insurance etc. then Airbnb may be ok. However, for corporate travellers who are staying for extended periods of time, where the employer must demonstrate a duty of care that the accommodation they've arranged is safe, confirms to safety standards, has public liability insurance and has been vetted for potential hazards, it's the equivalent of playing Russian roulette."

• What do you think will be the main changes in the serviced apartment industry and the wider business travel sector over the next five years?

"I believe that there will be a growth in brand awareness during the next five years. The serviced apartment sector has until recent times been extremely fragmented with numerous small and medium sized operators and a lack of industry standardisation. During the last year, there has been a period of consolidation with several large players and venture capitalists buying into existing companies and creating new apartment brands. This inward investment will undoubtedly continue, and can only help raise the awareness of our sector further and provide greater confidence to the wider public."

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