Supplier focus: Darin Karp, ReloQuest

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Darin Karp, president and CEO of ReloQuest, talks to SAN about the evolution of the corporate housing sector and how technology is restructuring the travel and hospitality industries.

• How have corporate housing needs in the Americas changed over the last five years, in terms of product type, length of stay, customer demographic etc, and how do you see this changing over the next five years? 
"Corporate housing is a people-focused industry; this remains the same. What has changed is the popularity of short-term rentals and a diverse selection of temporary accommodations. The vacation rental companies have brought vast exposure, which has expanded the way serviced apartments and temporary accommodations are perceived by the general public. The attention has made them aware they have options. Many business and leisure travelers that will be away for ten plus days are now opting to use corporate apartments and other alternative accommodations vs. hotels."

"Millennials frequently seek a travel experience that emulates the way local residents live when they are on a work assignment. Corporate apartments provide this home-like environment more so than a hotel. I believe employers will have to cater to a mobile workforce that wants flexibility and hands-on involvement with planning their travel needs. The Millennial demographic, which is the majority of today’s workforce, has a different set of expectations than their predecessors. Their life has always involved connectivity--it’s their norm. When it comes to corporate housing, they wish to comply with employer guidelines but also want to be involved in the decision making of where they will be living. They want instantly accessible, customised options."
 
"In today’s competitive market, companies need to find a way to drive usage of self-service tools that offer choice and savings. This is a key focus right now with most all companies, as is preventing leakage. The demand will continue for diverse inventory that is book now-featuring instant results which offer price ranges; as well as request and reply capabilities. I see the momentum of growth continuing over the next five years, with different types of temporary accommodations becoming popular and requested by employees on a work assignment. I believe the length of stay will increase. In the development of ReloQuest features, we felt direct communication between all users was essential, so everyone can collaborate-clients, suppliers, and employees, supporting continuity of workflow. Diverse options are available in real-time to be compared and booked. The solution is also compliance conscious, so employees utilising self-service can remain within their company guidelines."

• As employment trends shift and the gig economy expands, what effect has this had on project work and demand for temporary housing? 
"The gig economy is not a new concept; it has been referred to as freelance, contract-based, or self-employment and, more recently--called the sharing economy, even the platform economy. What is new is the popularity of this style of work. Some believe in enables people to acquire skills and move forward, and some use it to supplement their income. Skilled people who are willing to travel for work opportunities remain in demand. I attribute this expansion to the convenience of technology, making communication simple; job search becomes immediate and seamless. Zoom and Skype facilitate collaboration and continuity. As long as there is internet access opportunities are accessible."
 
"With demand for skilled talent growing increasingly competitive, the need for temporary housing for a global workforce will also continue to grow. Some people are comfortable with this style of work as they relish the freedom, flexibility, and travel it offers. It has increased opportunities for Corporate Housing, especially where contract work is concerned. Skilled workers are in high demand believed to enhance organisational performance. Tapping into this talent pool is considered mainstream by many corporations. Temporary housing can be impacted in that individuals will be searching and booking on their own without regard to policy. This method is contrary to how organisations work. The self-service model is here to stay (our B2E) employee platform called Direct Connect allows assignees to compare and book the accommodations while remaining compliant."
 
"Moving forward, giving individuals an experience that easily allows them the ability to find multiple types of inventory will be essential. Providing a service level will be key; however, we believe that the key to service will be a highly integrated and automated solution, further allowing individuals to go about their day in the way they choose. Waiting for phone calls and emails is a thing of the past. Service being done manually will be outnumbered and measured by technology and further AI solutions preventing issues from occurring. A complete end-to-end experience for individuals is upon us, and the solutions with the largest selection of inventory (hotels, corporate housing, serviced apartments, vacation rental, and even unfurnished apartments) that provide unique guest experiences will climb to the top."

• What impact has the shared economy had on corporate housing and business travel, and do you see that impact getting bigger? 
"I believe the biggest impact that we are seeing is in the travel space. TMCs are experiencing an incredible demand to provide something different than a hotel. The vacation rental product is too unreliable and not flexible enough for travellers. I believe this will grow very quickly over the next two to three years and ultimately will steal revenue from hotels."

"Technology has restructured the travel and hospitality industries providing an interface between the consumer and the resource needed. Due to digital innovation, the Shared Economy, AKA Gig Economy, is one of the fastest-growing trends in history, igniting transformational growth. Both the hotel and corporate housing sectors have been impacted on different levels. However, along with the economics of this rapid growth comes regulatory and policy issues encompassing the United States and Europe. The sharing economy offers a popular alternative to hotels, especially with the millennial generation. The highest percent of shared accommodation users, such as Airbnb, are said to be those between 21 and 34 years of age. What began as an age group preference has fast become an accepted norm in modern society. Shared accommodations have grown into a multi-billion-dollar industry, although not without drawbacks."

"Many factors within this style of accommodation cannot be consistently counted on; factors such as the quality and cleanliness of the accommodation and what recourse is available if an appliance, the air conditioning, or heating system should breakdown. The time required to resolve maintenance issues varies depending on the host’s responsiveness. Airbnb does have a customer service department but suggests you contact your host. Your host may reside in another state, or country so response and repair times will likely vary. Another consideration is the possibility that you may be faced with a lack of safety. Additionally, shared accommodations are not frequently nearby to business locations so that commuting can be more challenging. Any risks whatsoever are not conducive to business travel. It is a personal choice to roll the dice with reliability or opt to save a few dollars in light of the variables you face upon arrival in a shared hosted rental."
 
"Shared accommodations are not the same as corporate housing. A diverse selection of alternative accommodations may appeal to some travelers because it is different than hotels. Room letting scenarios may solve budget criteria. Although, many would agree budget before safety or service is not a good trade-off. This is one of many reasons why corporate housing is a smart choice for the business traveller. ReloQuest can source hotels and corporate housing options for less making it the better alternative accommodation than an Airbnb or vacation rental product for the business traveller. When corporate housing is booked on the ReloQuest platform, you can select from the largest global marketplace of Verified Suppliers. The product is more versatile and delivers a higher level of service. Should service issues arise, they can be repaired by 24/7 service. If needed, guests can move to another unit in the same building or very close or even be moved into a hotel until the service issue has been resolved."
 
"While shared housing may be suitable for leisure travel, it falls short for business travel considerations, lacking travel policy compliance, duty of care, and risk management protocols, which are easily managed when staying at a hotel, in corporate housing, or a serviced apartment. Many have been shining a light on the shared economy and the different types of inventory that’s available. This global attention can make the growth of the shared accommodation appear more omnipresent than it truly is. I believe at the end of the day; companies want their employees in safe, desirable accommodations to remain productive. These diverse shared accommodations options need to be handled with extra care rather than letting employees go rogue. Here lies the challenge. It should be more about how to incorporate policy into alternative accommodations rather than the focus on the types of alternative accommodations. Hotels are currently used for remaining in policy. The key is looking outside of the hotel inventory and realising how to accomplish this with other products. Working with quality organisations and suppliers driving policy all the way to the bottom line will ultimately make everyone happy. Employees don’t have to live out of a suitcase, and they gain the comfort of knowing their policies are adhered to. Otherwise, the flip side is a free-for-all making for counterproductive employees and potential lawsuits."

"What is the bigger picture that should be ascertained? The concern should be to solve the policy incorporated solutions quickly before everything becomes unmanageable."

• How has ReloQuest’s offer evolved to meet these trends? 
"We have done our best to focus on user experience and deliver exceptional customer service. Not only have we developed custom solutions to solve client challenges, we offer live support, a hotel desk, training, we send consistent updates on enhancements, and the platform features client, employee and supplier portals. There are several new enhancements, one which allows changes to the existing reservations that are then sent for approval. Throughout the process, all users can monitor the approval process through their dashboards, email and SMS text notifications."

"ReloQuest technology allows us to quickly introduce new features and functionality based on the feedback we receive. ReloQuest consistently adapts to solve unique client challenges. An example of this is Group Move, which allows the on-boarding of hundreds of employees as easily as one. Our Split Pay feature is a refinement where the employee can opt to contribute to upgrade his accommodation, or to facilitate the popular extended 'bleisure' trend. Assignees can be involved with their relocation and enjoy input as they self-service reservations while remaining compliant. They can Search, Compare and Book on their own reservation and still adhere to corporate guidelines. ReloQuest provides a complete mobile experience with B2E (employee) Direct Connect, and the new Service Tracker, which is patent pending innovation. This enhancement documents all aspects of service delivery every step of the way to cure service issues. Employees can directly communicate with suppliers and receive 24-7 live support."

"Clients and employees alike can access the largest global marketplace delivering global reach to corporate housing, serviced apartments and hotels around the world. ReloQuest connects a network of verified suppliers in 92 plus countries including North America, South America, Europe, Asia, and Africa. The platform enables users to access a broader supply chain--extend their reach into the marketplace and realise cost savings that were not previously possible. Once a request is entered into the system, the system will automate the entire process, allowing the user to share options and interact with clients, assignee's, and suppliers. ReloQuest streamlines the guest experience, employees can view the details of their reservation, welcome information, submit service tickets, notice to vacate and property reviews - all from their mobile device. 
The technology notifies travel managers and guests of next steps, streamlining administrative tasks, and increasing process accuracy."

• What are your plans for growing the company and its services in the future? 
"The company has enjoyed phenomenal growth. We have welcomed many new clients and suppliers and continue to do so at an impressive rate. At this time ReloQuest is on track and continues to work with organisations and their programs; as well as policies needed for individual travelers. ReloQuest is rapidly becoming to the corporate housing industry what American Express, or CWT is to the Travel industry. We will be bringing diverse types of rental inventory inclusive of vacation rentals which will be coming soon. 
We will continue to innovate, drive efficiencies, and drive the most cost-effective solutions for all parties which include clients, suppliers and assignees. We strive to become the Expedia of our industry."

• What do you see as the biggest challenges and opportunities facing your company and the serviced apartment/corporate housing sector today and in the next five years? 
"Our biggest challenge is educating in the differences between supplier technology and ReloQuest. We are unbiased and 100 per cent transparent we reduce the need for the middle man and provide extreme cost reductions-moving the industry forward with real time bookings. We expect the suppliers to evolve over the next few years and ReloQuest will be their engine."

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