Stephanie has worked at Hotwire for five years. Starting her career in Chicago, Stephanie worked as a Hotel Account Manager for various markets, before moving to Dallas, and eventually moving to San Francisco (two years ago) starting a new role on the Car side of the business. Currently, Stephanie is managing all Car Supply accounts in North America as a Senior Global Accounts Manager. Prior to Hotwire, Stephanie worked in a Sales role at the corporate office at Walt Disney World, before eventually following her dream to move to Chicago and pursue a career in Travel. In her free time, she enjoys hopping on a plane to explore a destination every chance she gets, watching sports, and of course, returning to Disney World.
What brought you into the travel industry?
I kind of fell into the travel industry because I was working at Disney during college, and met a lot of international interns around Epcot. I never had a lot of exposure to different cultures and so working with them and developing close friendships, I realized there’s something about travel I wanted to be able to dive in, even though I wasn’t super familiar with it. When I graduated I was at Disney again and I knew that I wanted to be in travel and live in Chicago. To be honest, I just filtered by those two criteria and luckily stumbled upon Hotwire (a channel my dad always used for his corporate travels). I started in Chicago, then moved to Dallas. I was on the hotel side for about three and a half years, and then I had the opportunity to join the car side – a totally different view of the industry – and I moved to our HQ in San Francisco. It’ll be two years in April that I’ve been on the car side.
How is the car rental side different from hotel?
I love that car rentals is a very small industry compared to hotel. There are a few big players here in the United States. It’s really consolidated so I’m able to have really close relationships with each of my partners and they’re all so unique. Maybe I’m a little spoiled because I only have a few companies to work with that make up ~98% of the U.S. car supply. I can really learn the ins and outs of each and every one of them and what makes their company different from a corporate, brand, and also a personality perspective. It keeps me on my toes, and with many of my partners having been in the car rental industry 20+ years, I’ve been able to learn a lot from them and see the legacy parts of the car rental industry, as well as share my hotel knowledge. From a revenue management standpoint, it’s different on the car side versus hotel, and being able to draw parallels and share best practices has been really great.
What’s an area of opportunity for the travel industry you’ve observed?
I like working in travel because it does connect people to places they never thought possible. I feel that many providers whether it’s hotel, car, or air can get very stagnant in their thought processes. Most wait for the first big player to go out there and do something truly innovative and walk the plank. If it tanks, it tanks, but someone has to get out there and be comfortable making that first move. It’s an industry where if you do something right, everyone is going to follow – there just has to be that person who’s going to do something rogue and take that bet.
Travel is obviously a passion – what is another interest of yours?
One of my favorite interests is sports. Specifically soccer and Arsenal (F.C.). I love going to a good soccer bar where there’s a rivalry match on and just talk a lot of…have some friendly banter with people supporting the other team. I went with my little sister last summer staying in hostels across Russia and meeting people from all around the world. We got pretty passionate behind random teams and it was a lot of fun. We saw Croatia versus Nigeria which is crazy because Croatia actually made it into the finals which was great to see.
What do you expect to see this year for the industry?
On the car side RPD (Revenue Per Day — similar to Average Daily Rate on the hotel side) is a lot lower, meaning you are starting at a baseline where there’s only so much lower you can go to remain profitable. Whereas for hotel, if you have a $200 retail rate, there’s a lot of wiggle room before you get to your CPOR (cost per occupied room) to remain profitable even with a 50% off discount for example. That’s the extra level of complexity we see in the car world. We want to generate more business especially when the economy is soft and people are a lot more price-sensitive. There’s only so much lower that companies can price off, make money, and still pass savings to the customer.
Another trend everyone knows about is ride-sharing apps (Uber and Lyft) — the car industry is following that very closely. Another competitor that has attention in this space is peer-to-peer car sharing – like Getaround for example. I think those will become more and more prevalent as people learn about them, and it will be an interesting opportunity for OTAs and car rental companies to see how they can incorporate some of those strategies to accommodate short-term rentals. In San Francisco many people do not have cars so if they need to go to the grocery store for two hours, the cheapest and most convenient way can be peer-to-peer sharing. There’s a huge subset of people who need those short-term rentals. Chicago, San Francisco, and Seattle are a few markets. The opportunity for us to insert ourselves into that space is an exciting unknown right now.
You mentioned RPD adjustment limitations – what other factors come into play?
Yeah, there are quite a few value-adds that can be played with. Upgrades, or Sirius XM Radio – things like that to elevate the value and make it a better experience can make the product stand-out against competitors. If you see Vendor A car with a $15 rate and Vendor B car with a $17 rate – going with the $15 dollar rate might be because there’s nothing really setting those cars apart unless you’re really set on renting from a particular vendor. In 2019 we’re going to see how we can incorporate what some of the car vendors have already started – making it easier at the rental counters.
One of the biggest complaints is how long it takes to actually get in the car. There are programs to skip the lines, where you basically land, get off your airplane, go pick up your car – pick out the car you actually want, you’re not told exactly which car to get – get the keys and drive off the lot. A seamless process where you don’t need human interaction – you go at your own pace to get off the lot. From an OTA standpoint, we will continue to work on how we can better work with those companies to make sure that customers on our side have that privilege as well.
How is loyalty in the world of car versus hotel?
Car definitely has loyal customers. That said, many people view car as more of a commodity to simply transport you from A to B. But if you’re doing it for an experience in the car like a road trip for example, you’ll likely actively think about what type of car that would be most enjoyable in. Some people do prefer certain brands, and there are car rental companies that do a fantastic job setting themselves apart by focusing on the customer experience—friendliness and speed of service make that difference. Corporate travelers who rent a lot are more brand loyal, as they are often looking for efficiency and familiarity, and the rewards are a great perk. If you’re someone who rents a car four times a year, that program might not be as beneficial. For hotel it’s much easier to be invested in where you are going to lay your head at night and be more conscious of where you book.
It also depends on convenience. If I can rent a car from a Hertz location .2 miles from my house, or take an Uber, it might be worth it for me to just walk over and rent a car if it’s similar in cost. There are initiatives being taken to make car rental companies more competitive. For example, on peer-to-peer, it’s on my app, unlocking the car – it’s extremely easy to use and car rental companies are doing that. You’re going to eventually be able to unlock your car rental from your app – making that check-in process even easier than it already can be in some instances. They’re doing everything to ensure if you’re renting a car, whether from Hertz, Avis, Enterprise, or another vendor, they set themselves apart. There are major companies backing the quality of their vehicles and your experience throughout the entire rental process.
What’s the perspective on OTAs vs Direct for car rentals?
Naturally everyone wants to drive traffic for indirect because that leads to more loyal customers, and if you’re not 100% set on a specific brand, like any rational consumer you want options. OTAs provide that ability for the customer to make the best decision and offer car rental companies the chance to capture those new customers, and convert them to a brand-loyal customer. You can make more money from brand-direct but if you want to grow your customer base, OTAs are essential.
Hotwire offers two different competitive sets to allow partners to be differentiated even more. It’s similar to hotels’ star rating/class and type where we take into account variables such as on-airport locations versus off-airport locations. This is huge in increasing customer satisfaction because they can isolate what location would be most convenient. Previously we only had one set so every opaque listing was competing with each other. By shrinking the number of vendors per listing, there’s healthier competition and not just for the race to the bottom, in terms of rate. This results in a higher RPD for our partners. Everyone wins.
How does Hotwire stand out as a partner for car rental companies?
In the car rental industry, cancellations are common. Hotwire offers guaranteed business and a non-refundable base that is vital if you want to optimize your revenue strategy. Not to mention how much easier forecasting is with revenue you can count on. *wink*
What’s something in the customer experience that car rental companies put thought and energy into that the average consumer might not realize?
There’s so many. (laughs) Think about some of your biggest pain points with car rentals and believe it or not, the companies are likely trying to make that as flawless as possible and remove that barrier.
Oh we can think of a few – waiting at the counter, determining whether it’s worth it to fill up the gas tank on our own or through the rental counter.
Yes! To your point, another item is the actual final cost of the rental car. When booking a car, if you see it for $7 a day, you might go through and find out the total price is actually $25. As a customer you feel deceived, but often taxes and fees that are out of the car rental company’s control can be very high (especially at airport locations). Being more transparent about what the final cost of the rental could be would provide a better consumer experience so you don’t feel blindsided whether it’s at checkout or in search results.
International Women’s Day is this month – anything that has stood out to you as a woman in the industry?
The car rental industry has been encouraging to watch. When I started in car, it was definitely a male-dominated industry especially compared to the hotel side. The amount of women in executive meetings today versus two years ago is pretty astonishing and amazing to see. The car rental industry is one that people tend to stay in for years and years and years – so naturally there were a few more men. Over time women have started to join and move up in the industry and I find myself in some meetings now that are more female-dominated. You look at the CEOs, like Hertz and Enterprise both have female CEOs – more and more women are taking those leadership roles. It’s a positive trickle-down effect that’s impacting the industry as a whole.
Advice for aspiring women?
Be bold. Don’t question if you belong in a meeting – you do. You are there for a reason so be confident. Sometimes I observe women gravitating to other women in conversation —whether it’s business talk or small conversation, try to get comfortable communicating with everyone.