The sharing economy was one of the worst casualties of the pandemic. But Merilee Karr is confident that responsible short-letting will soon bounce back and flourish
Turning a crisis into an opportunity
Entrepreneurs are wired to look for silver linings and even in the midst of a devastating pandemic, Merilee Kerr was looking for new opportunities.
“Overnight our industry shut down,” recalls the founder of luxury home accommodation business Under the Doormat and chair of the UK Short Term Accommodation Association. “Not only as an entrepreneur, but as chair of an industry body, I realised we had a big problem and lots of businesses were going to struggle.”
But instead of just focusing on their own problems, the industry rallied together to help frontline workers fighting the pandemic.
“We came together as an industry and everyone who was a professional operator who had properties sitting empty offered to provide them to healthcare workers for free,” explains Kerr. “We turned it into a charitable opportunity and that built goodwill with government because they could see our sector was doing something to help in a crisis, despite the fact we were going through a tough time. It also helped educate government around the fact that there are professional operators in our sector; it’s not just peer to peer.”
Over 10,000 nights were hosted for free, saving over £20million for the Uk’s National Health Service and NHS Trusts. From this challenging position, she was able to launch Trusted Stays, an industry platform that offers quality short term home rentals for government staff, key workers and professionals who need to relocate for work.
Such actions typically reflect Kerilee’s agile mindset. Coming from a corporate background, she readily admits she had always wanted to be an entrepreneur but needed the right idea to make the leap.
“I probably never fit into the corporate world, it’s a miracle I managed to stay there for 13-years,” she laughs. “I was always given the entrepreneurial projects and was always doing things that were disruptive. For me, what this business brought together was my love of travel and the experiences you get.”
Model built on trust
What distinguishes Karr’s business model from others is her focus on address the market demand for high levels of professionalism and assurance around standards.
“It’s all about trust,” she admits. “In order for the market to reach its full potential, my belief is it has to be professionalised. We want to get the quality of a hotel combined with the comfort of a home. Nowadays there’s a lot of talk about Airbnb anxiety…you never know if the owner has cleaned the property properly, will you just get a lockbox, is anyone going to be there to greet you? Having a company that professionally manages it provides a level of assurance for both the owners and guests.”
She acknowledges that one of the challenges facing her industry is that there are lots of new people entering the market and having clear standards is key to maintaining consumer confidence.
“This is about the credibility of the whole industry,” she argues. “Some people have not always had the best experiences and they automatically think that this is just a problem with our industry. And then it takes a little while to convince them that if you have the right processes and structures in place, all of this stuff can be well managed.
“This is what I’m really passionate about…having clear standards and helping new entrants into the market. There are lots of great things about our industry and I don’t want them overshadowed when things go wrong because we don’t have good enough standards.”
Established since 2014, Karr now has three parts to her business, Under the Doormat, Trusted Stays and Hospira, a global-first service and technology product that has been designed specifically for property owners, portfolio managers and independent holiday lets owners.
While she acknowledges the pandemic has been a major low, she freely admits there have been plenty of highs on her entrepreneurial journey so far. Winning a government RFP, getting investment and winning last year’s Travolution Best for Staying award are some of her highlights.
And with huge growth predicted for the short stay market in the post-pandemic world (the sharing economy is predicted to increase to $335billion by 2025), she’s positive there will be many more to come.
But what advice would she give to someone else like her former self who’s thinking of giving up their job to set up a business?
“Do it!” she says. “The hardest step to becoming an entrepreneur is the first one. It’s not easy, I gave up a really cushy job in a great company. But If you don’t try and find your first customers and get your product up and running, you’ll never know. My advice would be not to look back.”
With Karr’s sights permanently trained on future opportunities, there’s no danger of that.