Thomas Cremona of CasaRooms talks to Monique Chambers in he latest episode of the Entrepreneur Interviews. He also shared the 7 steps to listing on Airbnb:
Get licensed by your local authorities
2. Create your Airbnb profile by keeping in mind the main travel search criteria being:
* Number of guests
* Other specific options
* Can you charge extra for?
* City centre location
* Hot tub
* Special festivities taking place in an area close to you
* Is your competition under cutting you?
* Provide a discount for lack of reviews?
Place beautiful pictures of your property by requesting the free Airbnb photographer
Keep the calendar continually updated
6. House rules
Include house rules… maybe you don’t want your guests lighting up your ornamental candles or leaving their wet clothes on your furniture
Reply to every mail that comes in! Every mail!
Airbnb is a continually evolving platform and it is important that the property operator continually reviews the current Airbnb best practices in order to achieve the best ranking for the listing.
A full transcript of the podcast is below:
Monique: Welcome to this week’s edition of entrepreneur series. This is Monique chambers. And this week, I’m talking to Thomas Cremona.
Now you have an interesting business that was born out of sort of Airbnb and short lets you have Casa rooms.
Monique: So tell us a bit about casa rooms. And when it started and how it started?
Thomas: Okay, it’s been about four years now. And the main concept was that I had a second bedroom at my house and I was renting it and I seeing it was doing really well. And I wanted to spread that concept and see if I could take on more properties and do it for other people. I’m an accountant by profession.
Monique: Ooh [Laughs] Thomas: [Laughs] In this case, it helps me to sell the idea to property owners that they can make
more money by doing the short let model and ourselves handling all their problems.
Monique: Because in short-let you imagine new people coming and going at different times of day, needing things that you just might not have considered. What sort of things do you get to deal with?
Thomas: It’s that and a lot more, like I would say, dealing with the cleaners, dealing with the maintenance, if there’s like no electricity at midnight, so you have to have a whole pool of contacts to come and sort it out for you. Some guests can be very demanding and have extremely high expectations. Well, that’s a whole many stories to themselves.
Monique: You could write a book actually probably on that. [Laughs]
Thomas: But it’s fun. It’s a challenging job because there’s a lot of social interaction, trying to keep the owners happy, trying to keep your guests happy and tenants happy and trying to keep your team happy as well. So it’s all sort of striving together to get that wanted five star review by the guest.
Monique: So you started with one bedroom, how many kind of rooms, apartments, flats, houses do you deal with today?
Thomas: Today we are managing around hundred apartments. Monique: Wow. okay.
Thomas: And also two boutique hotels. So it’s quite something. Monique: That really is something. [Laughs]
So you have a serious address book and team?
Thomas: Yes. I employed about six people. But then we rely a lot on contractors since it’s a very dynamic business, it’s very seasonal especially when you go to Sliema St. Julian’s area. While Valletta is such a nice culture and capital. I enjoy a part of the job is we are part of the change of Valletta like you know gentrifying it and bringing people back to Valletta and it’s nice being there it’s fun.
Monique: I’ve a house in Valletta and whenever I ask anybody to go into a job there they are Oh Valletta you know they dread it and I’m like yeah there were people who don’t even know their way around I’m impressed you get people to come and help you over there.
Thomas: Yes well that’s customer experience because there are taxi drivers that are dropping people off at Castille and then telling the guests you sort it out. So nowadays, from experience we tell them like which taxis to hire and which ones not or sometimes I’ve also been there Porter, I remember with one is very special Indian family. And they just wanted me to carry their luggage for their family of eight. So I was like, making round trips up and down
Monique: And they would have had a lot of luggage.
Thomas: They had a lot of luggage, they were on a European tour so yeah. Monique: So you had to carry everything upstairs and things like that as well.
Thomas: Yes in that case. Well, usually we try to sell ourselves as in like, a no physical accommodation. Sometimes their expectations were more of our hotel concept. So you’re sort of trying to tone down their expectation, still trying to get a very good review and trying to make it work altogether.
Monique: So what are the things you really find are important to guests and therefore it developed your business from being, you know, this one room concept to 100 places, what’s the one thing that you think that we absolutely have to keep on top of?
Thomas: We are trying to be there for the guests, because like, you can have some amazing properties which sell themselves, then you can have some very difficult properties, which being Malta, they would be humid, they would have expo stone, which for us is a natural authentic Maltese experience but for the tourists, it could be maybe too authentic. So what we try to do is like be very good in communications, trying to set the tone before they come to Malta. So you’d like to explain Valletta is on the archipelago so it can be very humid and these sort of tricks.
Monique: So literally the whole relationship, the booking, the arrival, their problems while they’re here or anything else while they do sort of do a bit of concierge, we want tickets for the opera, we want tickets to do this, do you get involved with that kind of thing?
Thomas: Really, we try not to get involved in booking things for them at this point in time. Because it adds a lot of extra communication when we quite literally selling zone offers coming even with self check ins etc.. So as much as possible we try to keep the actual physical human interaction to a minimum. But then we are always on call on standby. So if they need us, we can send someone there usually within 45 minutes.
Monique: So what’s the percentage because I have little Airbnb in the south. And I have this you know, what time will they call me to let me know the Wifi is not working? [Laughs] It’s like, get over it. You’re on a holiday you know. Put the Wifi down [Laughs] Surely your family know that your plane arrived safely. [Laughs]
It drives me insane. Do you get lots of those?
Thomas: [Laughs] Well you picked on the Wifi. Very often we’re actually doing a check in so we’re meeting them outside. They would ask us at the door what is the Wifi code and we’re like just wait we are calling to the kitchen number show it to you we haven’t written down. So yeah Wi Fi nowadays is a huge issue. And this is part of the fun of being a large company.
But I keep backups they have WiFi I can just go and give them our sparebox and that sorts it out for them. But yeah, Wi Fi is really important. Like sometimes, there would be guests and say we’re really enjoying it. Thank you. And then in the review they’d write Wifi didn’t work for 20 minutes. And we are like come on guys. [Laughs]
Monique: Yeah, that one drives me insane. Do you get some really unusual requests from guests?
Thomas: No, I wouldn’t say it’s the case, or maybe I do get but I don’t know I’m used to them. [Laughs]
Monique: You’re like a bingo card.
Thomas: [Laughs] Now there’s, again, sort of read them before they come to us asking us way too many questions before they’re here. We’re like, okay, they’re going to be very special so when they arrive and we try to tone it down like Listen, you’ll be on a self catering apartment, there’s the shop next door we try to sort it out before they arrive. But in terms of special requests, we just try to guide them as much as possible.
Monique: And what about the actual owners of the properties because I imagine they all think there are five star hotels as well when they might have you know, I’ve picked up people from the place in Fgura before. No disrespect to Fgura, but they said it was Valletta which is a little unfair on the guests that arrives [Laughs] and they were on their honeymoon from Poland. So how do you manage the expectations of somebody who’s renting their property and thinking they’re going to make it big because Airbnb or short lets are the things to make money in Malta at the moment.
Thomas: Very often you do make more money as it’s marginally more because also when you do short lets the expenses increase tremendously, because you have to keep the cleaning you have the maintenance you have to pay usually to a property manager so we are 24 hours on call So that’s something you have to bear in mind.
Usually very often you have to just show the owner listen this is your property based on our portfolio and our experience you’d be priced around this range. We show them images of what their competitors are doing and how they can improve but ultimately the place like we have owners now they’ve been with us for about since we started about four years and every year they do with improvement so when they buy a sofa the next year they buy an air conditioner all obviously we’re guiding them along the way but all small improvements on cost money.
Monique: You do have to remember that somebody is saving up for a year to come on their holiday for that week what we call a few days and it’s not fair to have them sitting on garden furniture in the living room.
I’ve seen some of the images you know, really and I have to say I’ve stayed in Airbnb overseas. And every time it’s been an absolute disaster. We went to one where we arrived at midnight and there was no toilet rolls. And we were literally there as a stopover for another flight. And I’ve been to one more where I ended up in the red light district of Catania thinking I knew Catania really well the red light district in Catania is not like ours. Not quite as jolly. Yeah, so I’ve kind of almost given up myself.[Laughs] But like I said, I’m an Airbnb host here and I sort of enjoy the thing. But you do get some strange request people turning up with their dogs and babies, and you say it’s not child friendly and they still turn up. So do you have to manage that as well, if they do something that they don’t mean to do?
Thomas: Yes, it happens. We have a number of properties in the St. Julien’s Sliema area, which is a very very different market to Valletta where they tend to come here for the sun and fun experience. Whereas in Valleta person will come for the cultural experience. They’re there to have fun, they want to drink and sometimes they can be too rowdy for the neighbors. Because then another part of our management is dealing with neighborhoods relationships, and it’s not always easy, because they are here for a short stay. So six nights, seven nights, and they’re very excited, they want to have fun. So you do need to remind them to tone it down. And then another reality of situations can be the ‘garbage’. Very often you have one person in the block, and they’re not happy that you’re leaving the garbage on that side of the door.
Monique: Oh my goodness. I have to say this whole thing with the new garbage rules, a whole recycling. That freaks me out, let alone you have tourists coming. And you say this day, this bag, this day, this bag.
Thomas: Yes, it’s very difficult. Because also you have to see like, we can only go into the property let’s say they’re here for one week stay. That means we’re going to the property one time in that week, so if the rubbish is not collected on that day, you can’t even depart so it needs to be taken away. So even the type of cleaning companies we use, one of the requirement is that they can dispose quickly the garbage which is not something so easy and it’s unfortunate to eliminates using that’s traditional Marta die. Oh, that’s you wanted to have a side job here. So it’s something like when since the business grew, because we’re always using different types of people as in like, which one level and we have to change our supplier or they can review some of the properties and it’s fun and as well as challenging. But yes, this of the rubbish we’re not the only ones facing it. And we have to see if the government’s going to put tour zones and special collections.
Monique: Bins on the streets where you can actually dispose of on your way in and out, they have to appreciate that the model has changed. And we’re not all in hotels anymore. And they’re encouraging the short lets so they have to cater for it, they can’t just leave it there, you know,
Thomas: It’s the biggest growth area, the short lets, so they need to do something about it because it goes in tangent with the government’s policy of having low fare airlines, low cost airlines coming to Malta, and these people, they are traveling more frequently. So in the past, as a child, obviously my parents were taking us on a holiday for one week or two weeks. And that was very exciting. But the reality of today is that people to go away for a weekend break or three or four nights, and they’re looking for lower costs accommodations because they want to experience the way the locals live. And it’s not that easy. It’s trying to make everything work. Some neighbors don’t like it. And some properties are not designed for it either.
Monique: Yeah, and that’s if you’ve got one flat in a block of eight and one of them is tourists and seven of them are people who live there, varying ages, go to work, etc. And also I find it funny when people don’t realize how small Malta is? [Laughs] and they really think that this end to that is really far, do you do no research? should get a guidebook but, quite fun.
So starting the business at what point did you realize you had to hire another person?
Thomas: Well, the first two years were very difficult. That wasn’t easy. It was a point like, basically, I was working about 20 hours a day, I did that for six weeks of summer, then someone sent me an email and said listen there is this woman, she’s looking for a job. And she then cleared the interview. I took her on board then it just turns out that since we’re starting up, like what some very good let’s put this way, Market friendly rates and Case in point which was making more money than me, I’m working a quarter of the hour. That was part of the fun of it growing and without taking that step I couldn’t have come to this position.
Monique: So she was doing the essentially the same job?
Thomas: Yes, she was with another company of one of our competitors, and she just slid across.
Monique: And then from there, what position did you hire after that, or all of the people that are employed, are they all sort of relationship managers with your clients?
Thomas: No, no, the way the company works is that everyone’s very specialized in there role so we have a full time bookkeeper who’s doing all the accounts for each property. We have someone just handling guest relations. Someone handling the long let side of the business, I guess what we do is in some certain areas of the island, we switch from short lets to long lets just to maximize the money they can make, then again, you have new tenant relations, dealing with estate agents.
Monique: Ooh [Laughs] Leaving an estate agent and an account in the ring. [Laughs]
Thomas: [Laughs] Yeah so it’s not easy because the estate agents are very sales driven voice whereas we are looking for a good tenant who’s going to provide a regular stream of income, there are so many stories out there so we have to be careful and keep things going.
Monique: Definitely, a few of my own. [Laughs]
And what’s the biggest challenge you’re finding today after being in business for years? I mean, hundred properties is quite something, is it sort of finding staff, finding contractors? Is it still wanting to do every day? What’s your biggest challenge that you find?
Thomas: Probably at the moment we’re sort of in two lines. Staff, everyone has that problem at the moment, as it’s not easy finding the right person. In fact, my team out of the six or seven persons I employ, it’s myself is Maltese, another person from Nepal, Brazil and Hungary, Macedonia and Germany.
Thomas: It’s quite an international team, it’s fun as well. So everyone has their own area. And I like that. Then the next thing is obviously the scale of the market. When I compare ourselves to what my competitors are doing overseas. We are growing, but they can grow a lot more and a lot more easy. And our business works very much with economies of scale. So our next step has to be whether we’re going to stay in Malta or we might start another arm overseas. So you have to look at that aspect. And probably one of the more exciting lines is obviously new innovation, new technology all the time. So there is a lot to look at, look into government grants and keep things going.
Monique: So you’re not standing still and just doing what you’ve been doing. You’re still looking to improve and change.
Thomas: Yes it’s difficult to stand still in a business because there’s a lot going on, there’s a lot of interaction. We are trying always to streamline it. Like the way I look at it the first two years I was working on average a hundred or a hundred and twenty hours a week and now it’s come down like ninety to hundred hours a week which is still a lot.
Monique: It’s still a lot yes.
And that’s all year that’s not just in the peak season or is the peak season really the killer?
Thomas: The peak season is the killer but again it comes down to the team understanding at peak season so obviously one thing we do is like stop leave so that there’s a full team for those two months of the season and everyone has obviously prepared and they’re like Okay, we’ve got to make the club This is when we were going to justify our salaries basically. So it’s good.
Monique: Okay. So did you have your own business before they saw you were an account working in an accountancy firm?
Thomas: Yes. Yes, I was an account in the accountancy firm of KPMG
Monique: Oh Okay. [Laughs]
Thomas: But before that I was at the gaming company which was at a startup went from 11 employees to 75 so it was fun seeing the two types of business structures because at the startup everything is haphazard let’s go let’s go let’s go whereas the KPMG is very structured has been there from multiple years and you kind of compare and get the best of both worlds.
Monique: That’s what you’ve done I’m guessing.
Thomas: It’s right to think so, we’re getting there we’re getting there.
Monique: I just don’t understand numbers I’ve a real problem so accountancy is terrifying. [Laughs] If they calculate percentage and I’m like how did they just do that like that like really struggle. What are the most fun parts of your company similar job but they can be what’s the bit you’re most proud of
Thomas: Proud of my team and it’s so nice to have such an active team they all care about the guests they care about the clients, the profit, the product, the properties and they’re all like pulling the same rope and it’s very nice atmosphere they go through.
Monique: It must be quite interesting with all the nationalities so loads of languages but also there’s lunch boxes must be really interesting. [Laughs] It all goes back to the food. [Laughs]
Thomas: [Laughs] No no but it’s true. Even the conversation types like about their country and why they are in Malta it’s a very nice team and we are all similar age, I mean there are elder and younger ones but it’s smooth and nice average age.
Monique: And you get any downtime at all like all together or is it like know there’s always one of because 100 properties there’s never going to be one that’s not booked I’m guessing
Thomas: From a company perspective there is always someone on call and that’s 24 hours a day. The office is manned seven days a week and then it works out that what’s it called icon we always stick to 40 hours a week so then we’re just see in terms of mine so I don’t have to drive them crazy.
Monique: So you’re the only one that does like three times the work. It’s always the case with the owner. Yeah people think you just like swarned off but you’d be working until two o’clock in the morning.[Laughs]
It sort of seems to be running itself-ish now? Are you ready to do something else or you’re just gonna you’re focusing with casa rooms you’re going to just keep building it like same potentially going overseas stream?
Thomas: We have brushed off a bit. We started with boutique hotels now and for that I took a different path. I didn’t do it just on my own, this time Inbrought in a partner straightaway and we’re doing it again really, managing two small boutique hotels 20 rooms each
Monique: In Valletta I’m guessing
Thomas: One is in Valletta and one is in chapter five cinema theatre Monique: Okay, haven’t heard of that one.
Thomas: Its trademark is twenty to twenty five years old. Even the type of design it has and it’s a good vibe. And what’s nice about Boutique hotels is that the structure is different because you always have that receptionist there so the reception in tangent with the property is giving up its own vibe whereas for the apartment it’s quite a hands off approach so it’s like your key is in that corner you can check yourself and was this a bit more fun obviously when you go for that hotels people are always ready to pay more as well so that’s part of fun because the rise of the short let
apartments came because as the hotels are already well booked and people just want cheap accommodation to experience the island.
Monique: Are you seeing any change because you know a couple of years ago all the hotels were given this permanent permit to build an extra two floors and that seems everybody is doing Airbnb or whatever now. Are you seeing any downward trend or you think the numbers are actually still staying, still growing whatever.
Thomas: No, tourism is growing. So we’re not too worried about more hotels coming online at this point in time. But the apartments are always at the bottom of that either. So like if someone can afford going to the hotel, they would go to a hotel in comparison to an apartment.
Monique: That’s true actually, I think. Yeah, I think because you want all those extra facilities sometimes you want the pool.
Thomas: Yes. Even the fact like with a hotel, you have multiple rooms. So let’s say you have a block taken and you’re in your room. And for some reason, the maintenance person can’t fix it there and then which Okay, sweetheart, but at least they have the luxury of upgrading the person or moving into another room whereas with an apartment. You have to tell them listen, are you ready to move two streets away or an apartment totally different to this one.
Monique: So you manage that kind of thing as well. If there is a problem, you can switch people’s apartment, I guess because you have so many on your books.
Thomas: Yes. Yes, it happens quite a bit unfortunately. [Laughs] It’s fun. Monique: It’s fun? [Laughs]
Thomas: [Laughs] It’s part of the fun. It comes down to guest relations and trying to make the most out of it. Like what’s nice is sometimes, with recent trends, if you have to move a guest what’s nicely they say, okay, it was a challenging situation but the guys made the best out of it. They told us to another person, they handled it well. And that’s very rewarding because it’s the closest you can get to a five star in those circumstances.
Monique: And I always think I remember once I did a food review and I was working on a paper and I was wearing all white and the waiter got really nervous for some reason. And he knocked over a bottle of red wine on to me, and he immediately ran to get a bottle of white wine
to throw over me to get rid of the red wine stain. [Laughs] But he was so apologetic and they offered to be like, dry clean my clothes and go and buy me something to wear. This thing is so brilliant through it wasn’t the best burger I’ve had in my life. But actually I went back and back and back because they just handled it so well.
Thomas: That’s true.
Monique: So I do think handling is a huge part of it actually. Thomas: Most guests appreciate them.
Monique: There are people you always hear, you know, when you’re leaving Malta as well. They’ll be bitching in the queue, Oh for goodness sake why didn’t you check the weather or the 300 days of sunshine is a myth. It used to be global warming.[Laughs]
Thomas: That’s true, and then that’s another thing. Each apartment is reviewed individually whereas in hotel you’re reviewing the whole block. So there’s just sometimes a bad day, like I don’t know if they’re here on business and the business deal didn’t go as they wanted. Unfortunately, they take it out on the apartments review, just because they were grumpy.
Monique: How does that help you with your, I suppose you said the property gets reviewed? Not your company.
Thomas: No it’s the property Monique: Oh what a shame.
Thomas: Yeah it all helps. People see it and like having good reviews, you can push up the price and then because people want to stay there more. So it’s like a knock on effect.
Monique: Yeah you’ve learned with your accounting, there’s an accountant in you, you just can’t hide it, you can’t hide it. What advice would you give people not necessarily obviously starting up the same business, but do you think having your accountancy background is the key part of your success?
Thomas: At the beginning it was because one of the main things I used to sell the product so it was about property management which was that we are optimizing their property from a financial point of view.
Nowadays obviously, the structures are in place and we’re optimizing it from many other aspects as well. But yes, having a solid foundation in finance does help quite a lot. You can see the numbers, you can see where you’re stronger at. Infact, even being an accountant myself by profession, one of the first things I had done was, when I could afford it was to employ an accountant.
Monique: Because you knew it was a boring job. [Laughs]
Thomas: [Laughs] I find accountancy a bit challenging yes. And especially for a startup I always believe that a good accountant will make you more money than he will cost you. So what I mean by that is that he would know how to get tax credits, how to get grants, and it helps a lot too when you’re starting out, every cent matters.
Monique: So do you do any marketing at all? How do you get more properties to people sort of approach you directly because they see your reviews and things like that, or how do people get to know about you?
Thomas: The majority is through the word of mouth. But then it’s still sounds like a knock on effect because we also do a number of postings and publications once a year. We hold the seminars as well where we’re inviting the owners and we discuss our train of thought in terms of management of properties and how the market is doing and all this helps even just being nice and helpful to people like sometimes someone will call us off and say like I have this guest what will you do in the situation and it’s free advice to my competitor but yeah.
Monique: Because sometimes you never know when you’re going to need some doc or whatever they might be able to provide.
Thomas: It’s true it’s true. [Laughs] Monique: There’s got to be you know, like that onlyinmalta.com there’s got to be
onlyinshortlets.com. There’s a whole bunch of stories. Thomas: Especially in the Sliema St.Julian’s area.
Monique: I think, on that note, we’ll wrap up. Thank you so much for talking to me Thomas Cremona from Casa rooms.
Thomas: Thank you. Monique: It’s been great fun.
Thomas: Yes. Thank you.