The big value of big data for vacation ownership

Most timeshare owners or resort guests have a smart phone within easy reach at all times. When owners or guests begin planning a vacation, they typically make one or more visits to the resort website, perhaps to a timeshare exchange site, and to the Facebook pages for the resort itself or the resort brand. At check-in, a tablet, a laptop computer or both will be among the items packed for the trip.

At every step along the way, owners and guests are exchanging data with websites, and a great deal of the information exchanged is with the websites of their vacation ownership company and related timeshare services. Yet until recently, much of the online data that businesses collected (across all types of industries) went unsorted, unparsed and unused. Companies failed to recognize the goldmine they possessed.

Our own company, SellMyTimeshareNOW.com, has been guilty of this type of oversight. When we originally founded our vacation ownership resale website, now a full decade ago, we were so focused on connecting timeshare buyers and renters with timeshare owners that initially we didn’t track the amounts of the offers being presented.

We weren’t offering timeshare brokerage at that time and the offers weren’t part of our revenue; nevertheless they were a highly relevant piece of data we should have been tracking.

Although our website now proudly states that since 2006, our company has delivered more than $2.4 billion in offers to timeshare owners, we don’t (and can’t) make any claims about the dollar value of the offers we facilitated between 2003 and 2006. That data is lost to us forever.

As obvious as it seems in hindsight that we should have collected this information, we are not alone in this type of omission. Just like the error we made in our resale company, developers, brokers, exchange companies and others in the industry have permitted too much golden data to slip through their fingers.

Perhaps we all assumed that by virtue of being the “hospitality” industry we were focused on face-to-face interactions and could leave the business of creating fancy algorithms for data analysis to Google. We couldn’t have been further off base.

Professor Thomas Davenport, Harvard Business School, and author of the study, “At the Big Data Crossroads: Turning Towards a Smarter Travel Experience,” writes, “The travel industry stands at a big data crossroads today, the new technologies and techniques offering the potential to translate increasing volumes of data into higher profits and more efficient operations.”

So what makes “Big Data” distinctive from any other type of data? Partially, it is the scope of the information. Data tends to yield the greatest insights when it represents big numbers – a large volume of respondents. Big Data is also far more correlational than it is causal, so part of the key in reaping the benefit of Big Data comes in recognizing which questions to ask and which answers to ignore.

In finding the big picture of Big Data, you have to be willing to overlook the small detractors that could derail your effective analysis.

Earlier this summer, Shell Vacations made technology industry headlines with its use of Big Data. Working with ZDirect and Arizona State University, Shell Vacations LLC, a Wyndham Vacation Ownership subsidiary, utilized an eight-question survey designed to determine the willingness of consumers, based on demographics, to pay for vacation rental amenities, such as larger timeshare units with additional bedrooms. The study sought to understand how timeshare owners perceive price in relation to value.

Although the concept of asking a few questions in order to gain information sounds simple, there are inherent challenges. Which questions do you ask? Do you ask eight questions, ten, or perhaps only three? How do you get people to respond to your questions, how do you manage the data and most importantly, how do you translate the data you acquire into dollars and cents?

In the Shell Vacations study, called the “Shell Vacations Hospitality 2013 Logit Study,” Arizona State University was involved for the specific purpose of determining whether the traditional survey method used by academia could be made to work by practicing revenue managers. In other words, can the hospitality industry take data collection and turn it into response and revenue?

According to information released by ZDirect, the Shell Vacations study generated $100,000 in room revenues for the company. To put the success of the Shell Vacations study in perspective, the standard click-through return rate in the timeshare industry for questionnaires is only 3 percent, with Shell Vacations projecting their questionnaire would receive only 1,500 respondents. Instead, 10,000 timeshare owners replied.

Shayne Paddock, ZDirect CIO explains, “Shell Vacations Hospitality was able to learn far more than originally intended; they not only understand future booking probabilities, but they know how to structure questionnaires that get big results and drive big revenues.

By asking very real questions, rather than hiding behind a lot of marketing smoke and mirrors, and being honest and upfront as to why they were requesting the information, they produced a huge amount of intelligence.”

We are already living in a Big Data world. Google, eBay and even Facebook were conceptualized with Big Data methodologies in mind, and in many ways, their resources can be there for our benefit and utilization. Cited in the “At the Big Data Crossroads” study is this example of MGM Resorts putting Big Data to work effectively.

Recognizing Facebook with its 1.1 billion customers as clearly being Big Data, MGM Resorts uses Facebook advertising in sophisticated ways. Facebook targets keywords in user profiles and other social signals, utilizes third-party data, and even offers tools such as Custom Audiences, (for advertising to your own client list via Facebook) and Facebook Exchange for real-time bidding on ad placement and retargeting.

By using a refined advertising strategy that takes advantage of these and other Facebook tools, MGM Resorts estimates a return on Facebook advertising that is between three- and fifteen-fold.

Only a few years ago, companies did not have the capability to acquire the scope of information that is available today, nor could they have handled the data flood it would have produced. The technology and systems weren’t in place.

Today the situation is very different. With big picture data, we can make better decisions, we can respond to our markets in more targeted ways and at the same time, implement plans that work faster and return more profits because much guesswork will be eliminated. Big Data doesn’t have to replace traditional data management, but we will be called on to find ways for the old and the new systems to coexist in a hybridized way.

As with other business practices, it seems that vacation ownership is on the brink of playing catch-up before many people even realize the game has started. Yet because of the types of data our industry obtains in order to function and the additional data we could all so easily obtain in order to function better, timeshares, travel and the hospitality industry is an ideal environment for Big Data implementation to thrive.

Big Data offers so many ways for us to get creative, inspire partnerships, and distinguish ourselves as front-runners; we’d be small minded to miss the opportunities it affords.