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STAA’s Merilee Karr on Association and Accreditation

In the first part of our two-part interview, we discuss STAA, Scottish regulations, and the benefits of accreditation schemes.

Chair of UK STAA and CEO of UnderTheDoormat Merilee Karr is one of the most well-known leaders in the short-term rental industry - so it’s hardly surprising that given the chance to interview her about all things STR, we took it. We ask her what the STAA (Short-term Accommodation Association) is, how it’s involved in Scottish regulations and why every host and property manager should get accredited.

Minut: Thanks for joining us, Merilee! To start us off, how would you describe what UK STAA is and who its members are?

Merilee: The Short-term Accommodation Association was set up 4 years ago in the UK. The founding members included organizations like Expedia, VRBO, Airbnb, Onefinestay, and my company UnderTheDoormat.

We've now grown to over a hundred members, representing the vast majority of the short-term rental sector in the UK. So to give an example, Sykes Cottages has joined, who has more than 20,000 properties across the UK and is focused on holiday homes destinations across the UK, and we have an ever-increasing number of host members who have between 1-10 properties too.

We also have a lot of affiliate members, which are companies that sell into the industry. So that's everyone from linens providers to technology providers, to insurance providers, and everything else that you can imagine.

So it's been great to see how we've grown, and of course the larger the organization is, and the more diversity we have, the more that we can speak with a unified voice, in particular to governments and other stakeholders.

Minut: Speaking about talking to governments, I know that STAA was involved in discussions on the new regulations in Scotland. Could you talk a bit about that process?

Merilee: So there are two different elements to that regulation. Part of it has been postponed, which is the licensing scheme. The planning regulation got voted in.

Obviously, STAA's been calling heavily for this regulation to be relooked at, both because of the economic impact of COVID, but also because in many cases it is like taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut. We believe there are better ways of achieving the regulations’ objectives without creating complex regulations.

Minut: The Scottish regulation introduces short-term let control zones and special planning permissions within those zones. It seems like a particularly harsh way to regulate the sector.

Merilee: In many ways, the Scottish approach has taken stringent regulations from various different places in the world and put them together. Scotland is a country that depends on tourism and it depends on tourism across the whole country. We hope that as the detailed guidance gets worked out in the working group, the guidelines will become a bit more balanced, so that they do not have unintended consequences of dampening tourism just when the economy needs it most.

While in some places like the Square Mile and Edinburgh there might be a need for reasonable data-based restrictions (nightly caps for instance), our belief as an association is that accreditation is the best way to provide the right health, safety, and consumer protection standards rather than putting heavy-handed licensing schemes in place.

Government licensing schemes are run by local councils who don't have the resources or the knowledge of our sector, so you end up with regulations that are a bit immovable - it's harder to flex them over time. Whereas things like the Quality in Tourism and STAA accreditationis something we're constantly improving on. Every year, we’re implementing new best practices and helping businesses to make sure that they are following the regulations. We believe that this kind of independent third-party accreditation is a far better solution than council-driven licensing schemes.

Minut: You mentioned the accreditation scheme that STAA has put in place with Quality in Tourism. Could you tell us a bit more about it and why property managers and hosts should get accredited?

Merilee: Yes, it's really simple. In the past, people often thought that accreditation is just something extra and that they don't really need it. But more and more consumers are looking at these things, especially in a COVID world. They want to know that you meet the right cleaning standards. They want to know that you as a business have the right consumer protection. Having a third party that says you're accredited and you meet all these standards can really help you.

Even if you're just advertising on Airbnb and booking.com as an individual host, being able to put that badge up and say: “I'm accredited by this third party who has inspected and checked that we do things properly” is the kind of thing that can make the difference between a guest booking with you or booking with someone else.

In a world where bookings are getting more competitive and consumers have lots of choice, it's probably the best marketing spend that you could do. For a typical host, it will cost £100-200 a year to get accredited. That's a very small amount of money, it takes just one booking to pay for that. Similarly for companies, you're talking about £1,000 roughly to get accredited. It doesn't take many bookings before that pays for itself.

Minut: What does the accreditation process look like?

Merilee: What's great about Quality in Tourism, having been through that accreditation ourselves as UnderTheDoormat, is that it's actually great consulting for your team. They come out and they tell you what you're doing well and where you're stronger than others in the industry. That's great for benchmarking.

They can tell you which things you’re great at and which you missed as it comes to cleaning for example. Then you can train your cleaners just to focus on those two extra things so that you don't end up getting a complaint.

They also review your processes and look at things like client money protection and other practices that can help you ensure that your business is in a good place and that you're able to operate as effectively as possible.

Minut: So it’s not just a pass/fail kind of thing?

Merilee: No, it isn't like you passed or failed an exam. It's more that they come in and coach you. They want you to get accredited. They want you to implement the things that are going to make your business better. It's a really friendly process, and something that I think every business and host can benefit from.

Guests will complain about certain things, but they don't always tell you what they're thinking. And these guys have years and years of experience in what guests care about. Therefore they're able to help you prioritize where to spend your energy as a business to get the best guest reviews and the best return rates.

Whether we like it or not, some people leave and they don't leave a review. They simply just walk with their feet, they don't come back. We all need those repeat guests and we all need as many bookings as we can get over the coming years. And accreditation is just a great tool to help you win every time the customer is making a choice based on whether they think you have the right standards or not.

Minut: Seems like the accreditation is also a great way to learn more about the industry and customer expectation. I’m assuming STAA plays a similar role for a lot of people?

Merilee: We get a combination of industry veterans who contribute to the policies of the future as well as a lot of industry newbies who are starting with a blank sheet of paper and join thinking: "Oh, great. I don't have to go and figure this all out on my own, because if I join this association, I'll get a lot of the information I need to get off the ground."

In general, we find that our members are able to speak to their customers with authority, knowing all the regulations and compliance elements. This legal information may not always seem that interesting, but customers actually trust you more when you know your business and your market really, really well. So we feel that the association tools people up to be able to have those discussions and to feel confident about how they run their business in our sector.

Also, most companies and hosts that are our members find that opportunities come along for their business just because they're members and therefore have a broader awareness of what's going on around them. As an organization, we have conferences, webinars, and we interact with the government on a regular basis, so there are also opportunities to represent the industry and come along to those meetings. It's a great way for people to learn about the industry they're a part of.

Minut: And one last really important bit of information - who can become a member?

Merilee: The industry body is open to anyone who participates in the sector, whether you're a company that does short-term rentals or a host. So individual hosts can become members, as well as industry affiliates - we’ve got a mix of all of that within the association.

Obviously, there are different membership tiers, but you can find that information on the UKSTAA website.

Some individual hosts find that what they actually want is access to all the information about regulations and the different companies that can support them in running their business. So just going for a host membership makes sense.

Most companies who operate in the sector obviously join either as a property manager or as an affiliate, depending on what type of company they are. Then they also attend membership meetings and share best practices, data on the sector through initiatives like the STR benchmarking, and build partnerships that help business grow, like the Trusted Stays initiative for professional property managers.

Our team is always happy to speak about the different membership options and what would be most suitable.

This is part one of a two-part interview. Read the other part here