The Secret Sauce of Sykes
DISCLAIMER: Sykes is not a property manager client of Rentals United. However, some of the brands bought by Sykes were using Rentals United Channel Manager. // Sykes offers 15,500 of personally inspected holiday cottages to rent across the UK and Ireland, and another 2000 in New Zealand via a recent acquisition. The company has been sustaining an incredible growth over the last 3 years and aggressively fueling this growth today via M&A and organic growth. 80% of their bookings come from their direct channels and they have 47% repeat guests. Read the interview with CEO Graham Donoghue below.
|N of properties connected||+17500|
|Headquarter Location||Chester, UK|
Tracking 21 million properties globally to double the business over the next three years.
Creating a price & yielding system that can efficiently make 2.5M price changes a year.
Using OTAs in a very controlled way, not for the volume but for international customers.
How to use technology and people to deliver EBITDA
Graham Donoghue, the CEO of Sykes Holiday Cottages took over the business in 2016 and in 3 years grew it from 5,500 to 17,500 rentals. The secret sauce was to use data insights to gain more stock, and good stock in key locations is crucial. Data is used to rank properties that come in organically and for mapping and monitoring potential property management companies globally. Sykes is indeed a tech-driven business. They have built their own PMS, revenue management system, daily re-forecasting, a CRO and testing platform running thousands of A/B tests across the website daily and a tool called “Market IQ” that tracks every single property in the UK that could be an opportunity. Read the full interview of Graham Donoghue below.
Full Interview with Graham Donoghue - CEO of Sykes
Vanessa: Can you please tell us briefly what you were doing before Sykes Holiday Cottages and about your current position.
Graham: Just before I joined Sykes I was mowing the lawn, so I had a year where I took time out. Prior to that, I used to run a business in the UK as the Managing Director called “Money Super Market”, a large, publicly traded, price comparison business. Prior to that, which is when I fell in love with travel, I used to run TUI’s digital businesses all over Europe.
Today, I’m the CEO of Sykes and I mostly spend my time unblocking blockages to allow us to grow, to be big and successful. I spend a lot of time working with investors and a lot of time thinking about the business three to five years from now.
15,500 PROPERTIES IN THE UK, 2000 IN NEW ZEALAND
Vanessa: Can you tell us about the brand, what you stand for and who your customers are?
Graham: We’re predominantly a UK-based business, so we have 15.5K properties in the UK that we exclusively manage, and we have 2000 properties in New Zealand through a business we have acquired called “Bachcare”.
Although I don’t like that term, we’re a property management service business. What we do for owners is to provide them with lots of bookings and take the hassle away. We do everything from full PMS through to cleaning, maintenance, marketing services etc. and typically we fill a property better than most of our core competitors in the UK.
So we often say it’s about more bookings, less hassle and with exceptional service from a property owner’s point of view. And from a guest point of view, clearly it’s having all the best accommodation, that is looked after in the best locations across the UK and New Zealand.
We obsess over Net Promoter Score (NPS) here, matching owners and guests together to make them both very happy through the lens of NPS.
When I started 3 years ago we had 5500 properties. So it gives you an idea of the growth that we’ve gone through, mostly through organic but also M&A has been important to us.
What you can see on my wall here: every one of those little cards, Vanessa, is a business we’re tracking. We’re tracking, haven’t yet bought but we’re tracking. (watch the video to see the wall!)
TRACKING 21 MILLION PROPERTIES GLOBALLY
Vanessa: Can we safely say that you are the largest property manager in Europe?
Graham: No, not yet, but we’re getting there… exclusivity is really important to us. So there are larger property managers that may not necessarily have all the properties on exclusive. It’s important to us to make sure that we have the property exclusive and that we fill it as best as we possibly can.
Vanessa: So we have some very big property managers in the US right now, and I’ve heard that they’re eyeing up Europe. Is that a threat to Sykes?
Graham: We’re tracking a lot of what’s happening, in fact, we’re tracking 21 million properties globally that are interesting to us. We look at the US, Europe… We’re very different in the way we behave and operate, and we’re an 85% direct business.
I’m equally as interested in acquiring and moving into the US, given the size of the market and the opportunity. We think what we do here is a bit of a secret sauce of magic. We think we can deploy that into other geographies, that’s what we’re testing with New Zealand and soon Australia and equally we think it’ll work in the U.S. So I guess, well, let’s see what happens!
ACQUIRING IN A CONTROLLED WAY
Vanessa: So all of these post-its you have at the back there, there’s only one flag… are all these in the UK?
Graham: Haha! You can’t see the whole wall (watch the video!). We’ve done a lot of work mapping out all geographies trying to understand what the landscape looks like and where we can add value. And we look at it through the lens of: Is there an interesting business to acquire? Can we deploy our technology, our thinking and our way of operating?
Because when you look at what we do here, it’s the combination of technology but also service, people and operational rigour. That’s how we want to add value to other organisations and other geographies. So you can’t see the whole wall but it carries on to other geographies, other flags.
However, we’re doing this in a controlled way. There are tons of businesses that have extended themselves too fast, too quickly and haven’t done it in a controlled way. We’re growing very fast, but we also make a lot of money and we’re very profitable as a business with high operating margins as well.
We’re private equity-owned and we have to deliver a return for our investors, so it’s important to make sure we do acquisition in a controlled and measured way.
HOLDING ONTO BRANDS & PEOPLE, PROVIDING TECH & CUSTOMERS
Vanessa: So about these property management companies that you’re acquiring. Are they their own entities and do they remain their own entities? Are they able to tap into tech? Tap into people? Tap into all your knowledge?
Graham: The fuel for our business is stock of great accommodation in great locations and that’s why we want it exclusively and why we must make sure we protect it. There’s a reason why property owners have decided to use a local property manager and that’s quite often different from using a large national scale player.
So, we hold onto the brand, and quite often we hold onto the people that are facing out to the owners. But what we do is to provide them with all of our technology. So, we provide them with our property management application called “Enterprise”. We provide them with a revenue management application called “Prism”. We provide them with a leveraged customer base that we have. So, we over-index on the demand side.
As a property owner, your property still remains on the existing website. We just build a new one and it’s hopefully better. But you also appear on Sykes, and it’s all controlled from a single engine. If you wanted to go down to your local office and meet the individual who you’ve spoken to for twenty-odd years, that person typically will still be there and will look after you.
We’ve done that eleven times in the last 18 months and every single acquisition that we’ve made we have significantly increased bookings for the individual owners. Now, not all owners want more bookings, believe it or not. Some owners just want more service or some owners want more rates from less bookings and we can do both. So it’s important that we understand that.
22,000 ORGANIC LEADS A YEAR
Vanessa: Is there also a proposition on the side for getting owners directly into Sykes?
Graham: Originally this wasn’t about M&A growth. It was about organic growth. We’re growing actually faster organically then we are through M&A. We deal with about 22,000 leads a year, coming organically into the business. We then score those leads and inspect around 10,000 properties to check whether they are right. Then we put a lot of them live.
BRAND SUCCESS IS MEASURED BY REPEAT CUSTOMERS
Vanessa: So with all these acquisitions and all these different cottages, how does brand and consistency work between all of these properties? Is it important for a brand like yours to have a strong brand for the guests? If a guest comes in, will he/she recognize it being a Sykes cottage?
Graham: That’s a good question, I’d say it’s a work in progress. I think the consistency of experience is really important, but all these properties are unique and individual and it’s quite difficult to control it. Part of the character sometimes is the fact that they are all different, all unique… I think every property should be well-maintained and well-cleaned. And every property should have a minimum standard or facilities. We do rate our properties in terms of grading. The higher the grading of the property, the more facilities.
So if you go to a five-graded property in Cornwall, you should expect that when you go to a five-graded property in Scotland, it will have similar features. And so we spend a lot of time working with our owners to make sure they understand that.
Every single guest that goes on holiday with us, we ask them to complete a feedback form, typically the day they come home, and we get about 100,000 responses a year. Just to give you an idea of the scale! Every single piece of feedback is followed up whether you’re a promoter or whether you are a detractor.
We follow up to understand how we can learn from it and how to make it better. And we focus very much on the detractors because that’s about working with the property owners themselves.
To me, the measure of whether a brand is trusted and respected is the number of repeat booking rates. So 47% of our guests have travelled with us before. And that’s been growing about 13 to 15 percent every year for the last three years. For me, that’s one of the best measures of brand and brand loyalty.
I would love for every single property to have a Sykes plaque outside of the property but it’s really hard to do that at scale.
NOT COMPETING WITH LARGE OTAs IN BIG CITIES
Vanessa: Is Sykes mainly a leisure business? Is there also a bit of business in there? Do you do cover cities?
Graham: We call them cottages but we have everything from castles to lighthouses, to one-bedroom apartments and large homes. We very much focus on the rural destinations, you know, I don’t want to go head-to-head and compete in London, Manchester, and other big cities with Airbnb, Booking.com or whoever. Because actually they are probably better at it. That’s not the core to what we do.
So we’re very much leisure-focused. We focus on historic cities as well, but our average length of stay is 6 nights, that gives you an idea. And 45% of every booking we do, there’s a pet involved. So these are people going on holidays. But what people are doing in the UK – and I think this is happening all over – is that people are taking more short breaks. So, the length of stay actually has come down over the years.
FROM A PRICING BROCHURE TO MAKING 2.5M PRICE CHANGES A YEAR
Vanessa: So how is your base reacting to that trend?
Graham: We do probably two and a half million+ price changes a year. The way that our systems are set up is about trying to maximize the opportunity for the owner but also balance that with what the guests are looking for in terms of fair value and price. So we do have a minimum two-nights stay. We don’t like one night, but I won’t go into the ins and outs of how we price, it’s not straightforward.
Three years ago we had a brochure and it was 52 weeks pricing, it was printed out and very vanilla. Now, basically, pricing is completely dynamic. So whether you go on a Friday to a Monday or Monday to Friday the price alters all the time. And what we do is we take all of our properties and we build it into 250 different pace curves for occupancy and rate. And then we track against each individual property and look for deviations from that through pricing and yield optimization.
So, we have a pricing & yielding team of 14 people who every day are nudging the pricing accordingly. It’s a balance because you know if you have two short breaks in a week, you have two changeovers. There’s a cost, so we have to be able to cover that.
It’s all quite sophisticated and we’ve built that model ourselves over the last two or three years.
MAKING COMPANY CULTURE “PHENOMENAL”
Vanessa: You’ve been made one of the top 100 companies to work for in the UK. Congratulations!! 500 people in HQ… is it difficult to employ for a property manager like you? And do most of them have a hotel background? How do you employ to get the type of talent you need?
Graham: Well, first of all, thank you. It is one of those awards that we’re delighted to pick up. We spend an obscene amount of time making sure this is a phenomenal company to work for.
So we actually have 650 people in the group. Five hundred are in this building here now, and then we have about 200 people on top of that, that are self-employed. We’ve become an employer of choice which is great, so people want to come and work for us.
There’s a job we’re recruiting for at the moment and we have 34 CVs for this one job. People are coming directly to us and if you follow us on LinkedIn or other networks you’ll see it’s pretty good fun here. There are beer trolleys on Friday, there’s yoga, pilates, reflexology… We really do look after the employees.
If you look at the makeup of the people we have here, we are very much a tech-driven business. So we have almost 100 engineers and I would say most of the growth that we have in our business is actually coming from data and engineering roles.
I often find that if it’s cool and interesting environment, people want to work for you.
AN ANALYST IN EACH DEPARTMENT
Vanessa: You mentioned that you build a PMS, your own proprietary PMS and your own yield manager. And what else have you built? And what are you outsourcing?
Graham: Office 365 :D. I am very fortunate here that the team really are very much data-driven, technology-focused. And it’s about how the technology enables an awesome service and make it easy for people to do the job.
So we think of this business in four quadrants:
- Portfolio optimization
- Marketing optimization
- Income optimization
- Guest Experience optimization
I think of this business like a big flywheel. We’re just pulling all of the above in the right direction. The question is: How can we use technology and people to deliver EBITDA?
So we built our own PMS. We built our own revenue management system. We built our own daily re-forecasting system as well, so every day we re-forecast the business to develop the curves for rate of sale. And then the team visually has an app where they can look at whether they’re on track or off track by the hour. We can then choose to pull that out of the pricing lever or the paid performance lever or the conversion rate optimisation lever.
We built our own CRO platform and our test platform where we’re running thousands of A/B tests across the website daily and looking to improve the conversion. This works across our app or smartphone or tablet, desktop, projects or even search.
We have built a tool called “Market IQ” and that’s where we track every single property in the UK that we think is interesting to us as an opportunity. Because we have fifteen and a half thousand properties in the UK, but there’s a lot more than fifteen and a half thousand properties we would like.
We look at: what do we know about those properties? Are we talking to the owner? Who are they with today? And how could we nudge them? Are they going directly as an RBO or through a PMS? And more…
One of the other things we developed is this tool called “net contribution”. So what we do is every time we spend money on marketing, we give it a cost through the digital experience online as it’s taking an eyeball and an opportunity. And then we net that off against a conversion at a property level.
Every single property has its own net margin and then we’re trying to identify the ones that make us more money and feed that into a toolkit for ongoing property recruitment. Because every property of the 22,000 leads that come into the business, we score them to see how attractive they are, because not all properties are equal and we look at that for the net margin and the opportunity as well, I mean the list goes on and on.
It’s all data-driven and that’s the thing. It’s all about how we use data into insight then how we take action. Each one of our departments has analysts embedded within it. Be it the finance team, the marketing team, the operational team, the property recruitment team.
THOUGHTS ON OTAs AND U.S. BASED MANAGERS
Vanessa: You said that 85% of your bookings come from the direct channel. Correct? So the other 15%, where do they come from?
Graham: So we have about 750 partners that we work with and they represent that proportion. At the moment it’s actually closer to about 20% of the volume.
We break it down into two groups:
- Partnership, where we power the website or we have affiliate deals. For example, we work with 15 national parks in the UK.
- OTAs, we also use aggregators and OTAs in a controlled way.
So Booking.com is the single biggest partner we work with. We don’t really work with Airbnb much (it’s maybe one percent of our sales, if that). Booking.com we work with slightly more aggressively, because we find it very good for bringing in international customers. In the UK and New Zealand, 90% of our bookings are domestic. So we use Booking.com to bring in international customers because to me, they’re incremental.
But we do this in a controlled way, we call it a switchboard here, you know, not all properties appear all the time on all the channels.
And if I’m honest, it’s my inherent fear of disintermediation in the future. Some of these businesses are phenomenal, they’re big monsters in terms of how they behave and operate. So we work with them, in a very controlled way. We’re very fortunate that we don’t need that volume.
Most of the large PM in the U.S. in particular, their volume comes from Airbnb or VRBO or whatever it may be. And that works for them, but you know, it’s a different model we have here.
Vanessa: But you think this approach is sustainable then, given that these giants have been growing more and more powerful?
Graham: Yeah I mean who knows in the future. I think the models are all evolving, as I’m sure you know, commission rates are also evolving. Guest fees are being blended out. Actually, if you look at our cost per acquisition, despite doing over 400,000 plus bookings this year, our cost per acquisition has actually dropped. So I would say, if anything, we’re getting better at how we think of all the marketing acquisition channels and how we control that. Clearly, if you deliver great service, you have great rates, you have a really good CRM tool, you have loyalty programs… then people will come and book direct.
I think it’s also about how you control the stock because we have the properties exclusively and they’re only available here, direct. We’re controlling that lever. If we let every property available everywhere, you may lose control. I wouldn’t call them evil I, think that’s disrespectful but we use them in a controlled way.
Vanessa: Okay, so you’re not eyeing up any niche channels that you want to work with?
Graham: No, not at the moment. However, let’s just say that if we did some work in the US… how do we enter the U.S.? You could go and buy something but that’s quite challenging in the U.S., to buy and scale. Because, well, for a couple of reasons.
One, none of them make any money, as far as I’m aware. I mean they can correct me. How they value, I think is quite challenging as well, understanding their top-line growth (revenue) versus bottom line growth (profit). Also, the way consumers behave and operate in the US and how they search for the product is very different.
I think every country has a different entry strategy. Even in the UK, we do have some challenges if you look at Scotland for example. So we only have 850 properties in Scotland but we have huge amounts of demand that we’re generating organically through our platforms.
I think there are opportunities for us to work with other property managers or some middleware organisations to syndicate in some non-exclusive content in regions where we have huge amounts of demand. Because at the moment it’s almost a waste… we’re letting our customers down when they come to the website, because we haven’t got the stock.
Vanessa: So, I was going to ask you why you’re not working with Rentals United yet, but now I see that maybe it’s not quite on the cards to deter management.
Graham: You know, if you have one to two thousand properties in Scotland that we think are interesting, then that’s the type of thing that we would look at with a platform like yourselves.
We do work with some channel managers to help us in various different ways and I know some of our regional brands that were acquired have actually worked with you guys and you have a very good reputation, but it’s purely because at the moment we don’t need to. We’re at a different scale from most people.
Vanessa: What are your predictions and where is your business is going to be in the next three to five years?
Graham: I think there’s going to be lots of consolidation happening across our sector. It’s already happening. We’re private equity-owned business, so what does that mean? That means eventually there’ll be other investors that are required. So we’re on that journey and for us, it’s really about making sure we work with the right partners moving forward.
We will drive some of that consolidation and we are looking for good quality businesses across the world that we can fold into our platform.
Businesses that we can add value to as well. So that’s a big part of our agenda and as I said you can’t see every flag on my wall here but it doesn’t just stop at the UK, Australia and New Zealand. It’s all going to be about stock, it’s all going to be about properties.
I tend to look at our business through the lense of: how many properties do we need by when? Where can we get most properties? And then where can we add value? So I would predict (and I’m not a gambling man) that we will probably double our business over the next three years. And we’ll double the business through the lens of stock and so that means that we’ll have somewhere between 35k and 45k properties.
That means we will be taking about three million people on holiday and probably employing about 1,100 to 1,200 people. And hopefully, be doing it very profitably as well.
CONSOLIDATION AND GUEST EXPERIENCE
Vanessa: So with consolidation, as the market is maturing it means that smaller players will have a much harder time to get in… Do you see that as a negative that smaller players can’t get in? Is it bad for the guests, that there’s so much consolidation?
Graham: I mean most of the businesses we are acquiring are family-owned businesses that have been trading for 25 to 30 years and it is getting tougher.
At the moment if you look at the price that is being paid for a good quality business it’s high. It can be a nice exit strategy for some of these businesses. Quite often we will either hold onto a founder or certainly we will hold on to most of the employees. Because most of these businesses are run on you know, 10 people, 15 people maybe even slightly larger. So the synergies don’t come from the people. They really come from delivering more bookings and leveraging what they have.
Vanessa: Is it a good thing or a bad thing for the guest?
Graham: I think ultimately, it’s a good thing because providing it’s done in a sympathetic way and that the services are maintained and in some cases professionalized. Because here we can do things that other people can’t do. We have a team of 40 people that are constantly talking to guests, talking to owners and they’re trying to do the right thing.
We always look at EBITDA and profit secondary. We always believe that if we do the right thing to deliver exceptional service but maintain that local brand then it’s a good outcome. But that’s just that, not every business behaves and operates in the same way. But I do think it is inevitable that the larger players are going to get larger and the smaller players are going to get smaller.
Vanessa: Thanks so much. You shared a lot of information that I hope will help our listeners and our viewers to grow their own businesses. So thank you so much.
Graham: Okay thank you, it has been a pleasure.