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How One Board is Helping Members Differentiate Themselves
Disruption comes in many forms. In the case of the Vacation Rental Management Association (VRMA), it emerged as a byproduct of the sharing economy. With the rise of services that made it possible for just about anyone to rent out their home or vacation property, the VRMA board was compelled to revisit its strategic plan. Many of these new sharing economy “hosts” had little to no property management skills or experience, yet they were greatly impacting the general public’s perception of the rental operations run by VRMA members — professionals from vacation rental businesses that have in many instances contributed to their local community and economy for decades.

To address this disruption, the VRMA board wanted to highlight and promote the capabilities and knowledge of its members. To do so, it decided to begin a journey through which it has first created a certificate program for rental managers. Like all certificate programs, this one is designed to provide additional training and knowledge, but doesn’t carry a credential like a certification would. The certificate program is being announced at VRMA’s annual conference in October 2017 and will be rolled out later this year.

Then, the association plans to launch an accreditation program for vacation rental companies in 2018, one that would recognize organizations that meet pre-determined industry standards of excellence. Beyond that, the board has also discussed launching a certification program, which assesses a professional’s knowledge, skills, and competencies. Those who pass would earn a credential and then must meet ongoing requirements to maintain it. Here is the path that VRMA has followed to get to this point.

The Why and the How

As Executive Director of VRMA Mike Copps explains, VRMA first sought to address the rise of the new type of rental property through advocacy by reaching out to various state lawmakers to urge reasonable legislation to regulate vacation rentals to meet certain standards. While more and more states and municipalities were pushing back on the short-term rental component of the sharing economy, advocacy alone was not enough. So, the VRMA board decided that it was important to help differentiate its professional members from others.

The idea had been around for several years; in fact, the association launched a certificate program in 2009, but VRMA didn’t have the resources needed to make it work, so it was discontinued with only a handful of people completing the program. “To ensure the result will be different this time, we put a lot of effort and energy into this and it started at that board level, figuring out the why first and then the how,” said Copps.

Cost Analysis

For any association looking to launch such programs, the process typically starts with determining whether your stakeholders will support them. The VRMA board did its due diligence by surveying members to learn what they thought of the concept. Would they want to participate if such programs were available? The overwhelming response was yes.

Next, the board had to consider the financial ramifications. Could VRMA afford to do this right? They conducted a financial analysis of launching a certificate program, projecting the costs required to ramp it up and then calculating the anticipated revenue it would generate. “The quantitative data supported what we wanted to do,” said Copps. “It became clear that this was a real opportunity for us.”

The cost analysis showed that the program would become net positive in year three, and continue to generate revenue thereafter. “It’s not something that you're going to start and then six months later you're going to be making money. It takes time,” said Copps. The first two years would be net negative as the association would have to make a sizable investment in startup costs. But beyond that, the ongoing costs will be minimal—primarily maintenance of the software, staff time and marketing. “We know we're going to make a big investment in year one, but come year three we'd like for the project to be net positive.”

Based on past experience he has serving other associations, Copps knows that well-run programs like these can become major revenue generators. Copps helped launch the National Association of Healthcare Access Management’s National Commission for Certifying Agency-accredited certification program several years ago. To date more than 8,000 people have earned that credential. In addition, the program is now the association’s second largest source of revenue.

Building Out the Content

Once the VRMA certificate program was approved, the next step was to build out the content. The board appointed a task force consisting mostly of subject matter experts, along with a few board members, to lead the initiative. “We’re not practitioners,” said Copps, referring to staff. “We don't know the fine details of what a vacation rental manager does on a day-to-day basis, so we brought together a group that does.” The task force, which began meeting in October of 2016, first determined what areas the program needed to address. This was done through a job-task analysis, which looked at what’s required of professionals to do their job effectively. The group met in person multiple times during multi-day workshops. During these meetings, they agreed on those essential tasks and from there they created a content outline.

After that, the plan was to turn that outline into educational offerings. The task force created modules out of each of the job tasks, and then it generated a comprehensive assessment that tests on the knowledge gained from the modules. Participants must pass the test — which is available on the VRMA website through a third-party provider — to earn the VRMA certificate.

Looking ahead, focus groups will be conducted at the annual conference in October to generate qualitative data to support the initiative to accredit vacation rental management companies. While all the details haven’t yet been worked out, the certificate program will serve as one of the core components of the accreditation plan. Accrediting vacation rental management companies will also be a major step toward differentiating professional management companies from amateurs, said Copps. Beyond that, the board has discussed looking at implementing a full-scale certification program for vacation rental managers.

Major Benefits

“First and foremost, the primary focus of the certificate program is to provide value to members by bringing heightened professionalism to the industry,” said Copps. But Copps noted that there are benefits for VRMA as well, as it will generate non-dues revenue and could result in membership growth.

Copps said he believes the program will attract practitioners that aren’t currently members, including some of those sharing-economy hosts that spurred the launch of the program in the first place. After all, they may be looking to increase the professionalism of their own operations and establish themselves in this space.

“Some of these small players don’t even realize there is a profession, let alone an association representing the industry,” said Copps. “The challenge will be reaching those folks and to do so we are planning robust, targeted marketing campaigns, as well as partnerships with other organizations.”

Ultimately, the practitioners, both large and small, are all part of the vacation rental management industry. By establishing professional standards, VRMA’s new programs will help customers differentiate between professionals and amateurs.
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OCTOBER 2017 EDITION
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Board Forward is published 10 times a year by SmithBucklin, the association management and services company more organizations turn to than any other. SmithBucklin has served volunteer board members for more than 60 years.

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