Sustainable Strategies For Scaling Your Hospitality Business

Sustainable Strategies for Scaling your Hospitality Business

Welcome to Boostly Podcast Episode 579.

In this Boostly podcast episode, Mark speaks to Jon Lawry, the founder of Urban Butler and director of Astra based in New Zealand, about scaling a business sustainably.

Jon describes how he founded Urban Butler after staying in European Airbnbs and experiencing exceptional guest experiences.

Urban Butler started with two apartments and grew to 65 properties by the end of 2019.

Jon explains how he changed and pivoted the business during the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns, downsizing to 50 properties but focusing on higher-end properties and offering services like in-house chefs, event planning and private tours.

Jon also discusses the challenges of hiring, training and retaining staff, the importance of customer experience and the benefits of partnering with other businesses.

He advises businesses to focus on their core values and to remain agile and adaptable to changing market conditions.

The interview provides valuable insights for anyone looking to scale their business, whether from one to ten or from 30 to 80 properties, as Lawry's experience demonstrates the struggles and successes involved in scaling sustainably.

Here's the video for this episode:

Timestamps (audio)

00:00 – Intro
01:18 – Jon Intro
03:39 – How does the business look?
06:43 – What powers the business?
08:58 – What has been your biggest learning lesson?
10:27 – Outro

Whilst you’re here

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Audio – Boostly Podcast





Transcript from the Episode


[00:00:00] Mark: One of the biggest problems in a business journey is scaling and growing, and today's Boostly podcast episode is all about scaling. Sustainably, that's hard for me to say. I've been practicing that five times. Scaling sustainably. We have got, uh, probably I think our very first ever New Zealand host. I may have got that wrong.

[00:00:22] We may have had somebody on before, but this one is gonna live out in, in time. So this is such a good episode. Uh, Jon, uh, Lawry is the founder of Urban Butler. He's also part of the directors of the Astra, uh, which is based in Australasia. Uh, he is in New Zealand. He was in Auckland. Uh, we, we did some time travel magic here.

[00:00:42] I spoke late on a Wednesday evening, which was very early his Thursday. Um, really interesting podcast and I feel like anybody who scaled their business, whether it's scaling from like one to 10 or gone from 10 to 20, or from him where he went from 30 to 80, uh, you'll be able to sort of relate to the struggles that, that he had, first and foremost.

[00:01:03] Uh, John, thank you very much for being part. Of the podcast. Uh, can you just please give a little bit of background about yourself, how you came to, uh, creating and founding, uh, urban Butler, and then just yeah, let us know a little bit more about yourself and where you are in the world, please. Yeah.

Jon Intro

[00:01:18] Jon: Fantastic. Thanks, mark. Hey, um, Yes, so the Urban Butler was, um, born, so to speak. Um, in 2016 I was living in Australia, um, moving to New Zealand and, and took a few months off to travel in Europe. And the thing that stood out to us, um, you know, we were probably staying 80%, um, Airbnb type properties and, and, and 20% hotels.

[00:01:45] And the, the thing that really stuck out. Was, um, the additional level of guest experience that we were receiving, you know, at those Airbnbs in, in Europe. And, um, one, one night in particular really stands out. We were checking in, um, around 10:00 PM. Place in Barcelona and the, the host came to meet us there, showed us through the apartment and um, you know, lovely, lovely apartment right in the middle of town.

[00:02:13] And, um, on his way out he just sort of said, look, here's um, lonely planet's, list of of recommendations and here's ours. Um, this is where you get the best, um, the peri. This is where you get the best tappers. This is where you get the best coffee. Make sure you go here, et cetera, et cetera. Um, you know, please contact us if you've got any, any questions or anything.

[00:02:32] And, you know, at, at 10:00 PM in, in, in, uh, Spain, that's dinner time. So, uh, my partner and I at the time, you know, she said, where, where, where should we go for dinner? And I said, well, clearly we're gonna go to that tapper's place downstairs that he is just recommended. You know? And that was really the sort of start of that, um, I guess live like a local or, or whatever you want to call it, that sort of, that personal touch that.

[00:02:57] I think it's really, it really resonates in what we do and, uh, is a really, uh, a great add-on for guest experience. So from

[00:03:04] Mark: 2017, end of 2017, moving into 2018, 2019, what was the growth in the trajectory like?

[00:03:12] Jon: Yeah, so we started off, um, with just a couple of apartments, my own one, and, um, one and a friend. And just from there we started doing some advertising and, and, you know, beating the streets in terms of meeting as many real estate agents and, and, and referral type partners that we could.

[00:03:30] Um, and by the end of 2019, we had around 65 properties.

How does the business look?

[00:03:39] Mark: Wow. And then from 2019, moving on into 2023, how does the business look? Obviously, we've gone through, um, so many things, lockdown, shutdowns, covid, et cetera. I, how, how from those 2019 to 2023. First question is how many properties are you on now? And second question, which you can elaborate on as much as you like.

[00:04:00] Like how have you sort of changed and pivoted the business through what has been like the biggest sort of lockdown shutdown that Australasia has probably ever seen?

[00:04:08] Jon: Yeah. Yeah, that's right. Um, look, we are currently, we currently have 50 properties. Um, but it's a very different looking portfolio. So, uh, beginning of 2020, when, when everything started to, to shut down, um, we did lose a lot of, of properties, a lot of sort of mom and dad investors that couldn't afford, you know, the, the, the, the cash flow fluctuations, um, and the uncertainty.

[00:04:32] Um, so a lot of those. Ended up getting, you know, long-term, uh, tenants in or, or selling their properties. The, the reality of it is, I think that, uh, at the end of 2019, early 2020, we had scaled far too quickly. And in a, in a, in a hindsight, uh, you know, a weird kind of way, COVID was a really good reset for us, uh, during, during, uh, the early part of Covid.

[00:05:06] Something that we hadn't had to do before was, you know, market the properties per se. You know, putting 'em on Airbnb and the other channels did all that for, for us. Um, and all we needed to do was, you know, advertise to new owners and, and bring the properties in and, and that was a real sort of wake up call for us.

[00:05:26] Our, our previous website was a very simple, um, Uh, you know, off the shelf type website, uh, that was targeting owners basically. And it talked about all the services that we provided for as a, as a short-term rental professional management host. And, um, that was, yes. So like I said, that, that was the sort of trigger point where we decided, well, we really need to have a booking site as well, and we need to be advertising, we need to be, we need to be advertising.

[00:05:56] New and existing guests. Um, and, and, and that's kind of where we got to. So we, we invested heavily during that first part of Covid. Um, we didn't quite realize how long it was gonna go off for, as nobody did at the time. But, um, yeah, that, that was, that was an absolute game changer for us. And, you know, the, the, the website is predominantly now a booking channel.

[00:06:18] There is a page for. Host saw, or owners, uh, which describes all of our, you know, all of our services, et cetera. But the, the idea being that if you are an owner and you look at the Urban Butler website, you can see how well presented the properties are and, and, and, and, and what that sort of looks like from the front end.

[00:06:37] Uh, and that's kind of, um, it, it, it sort of sells itself and.

What powers the business?

[00:06:42] Mark: Um, so what powers the business? Like what, what's the tech stack that you, you have property management software, like dynamic pricing. What are you using behind the scenes that help powers the urban butler?

[00:06:54] Jon: Yeah, so we have Guestie, which is the engine room of the, of the business.

[00:06:58] So, as you know, property management and channel management, um, software we use beyond pricing for our dynamic pricing. We use Aperto for our guest app, um, guest experience app. And so all of that obviously links together with, with, um, with Guesty. So it's quite, quite a seamless, um, operation. We use, uh, noise monitors in the apartments.

[00:07:28] Um, what else do we use? Yeah, we obviously, you know, all the different OTAs and a few boutique ones as well that we've built APIs to, to. To connect to all that sort of stuff. So yeah, that's the, that's the main tech stack. Yeah.

[00:07:42] Mark: And, and what does the team look like? Like the team makeup, obviously visit yourself.

[00:07:47] Um, like how many members of staff are, are running, like the, the operations and, and the day-to-day in the marketing now with, with Urban Butler. And how has that changed from 2019? Cause it sounds like a lot has happened within the business structurally since, since then.

[00:08:00] Jon: Yeah, that's right. I mean, casting back to 2019 when we scaled too quickly, you know, we only.

[00:08:07] Three staff members then, um, 65 properties, and then we lost a staff member just before Christmas going into the summer, busy period. And so that was a, you know, a a a testing time. And, you know, we learnt a lot, um, a around that. So there are five, uh, full-time staff members now, including myself, so myself.

[00:08:29] Um, we have an operations manager who is very experienced. She's come from another large. Short-term rental company here in New Zealand and underneath, uh, underneath her are three other staff members. One is, uh, guest experience manager. One is an owner experience manager, and the other one is a marketing specialist.

[00:08:51] So that's kind of, we, we've kind of siloed the business into those main areas that we want to concentrate.

What has been your biggest learning lesson?

[00:08:58] Mark: Fantastic. And, and what would you say over the last sort of three years has been your biggest, like, sort of learning lesson, so to speak? Like what's that one thing that you wish you had known, like beforehand and, and, and, and what, and what have you gathered from that and taken on your side?

[00:09:14] Jon: Yeah. I, I, I really think it is that sort of growing sustainably, scaling sustainably, it's. You know, when, when, when, you know, you've got 10, 10 or 20 properties is a very different prospect to when you've got 50 plus properties. And in order to manage that expectation of the owners, manage the guest experience, keep the reviews up, all that stuff, you really need to be, um, what do we say?

[00:09:38] We sort of, um, planning to grow. So we, we, you know, growing, growing before we get to that, to that state. So making sure that we've got the staff in place and all of the. Requirements before we get to that point.

[00:09:52] Mark: Scaling sustainably. I like that. That's a, that's a nice saying. Scaling sustainably. So it's so easy when you're growing as well, when when you feel like you're on that rollercoaster and when you're growing, it's so easy just to keep saying yes to every opportunity that comes your way.

[00:10:08] Um, and I feel like over time the trick is to say no saying. Is some is better than a yes. Cause it can open up a really good yes sometimes. And thank you for doing this, uh, fast approach in 600 episodes now of the podcast. So thank you being part of that and, um, yeah. Fantastic. And thank you everybody for tuning in.


[00:10:27] As always, if this is the first time that you are listening or watching this podcast, please make sure you stick around, hit the subscribe button and hit the light button, share it with a, a hoster. That you know, that we maybe en enjoy this interview. And with that being said, we'll be back in a couple of days time with our next podcast.

[00:10:42] So thank you very much everybody. Thank you, mark. Thank you. Thanks for having me. Take care everybody. Cheers.

[00:10:47] Jon: Having a blast. Gonna get it on the Bruce Lee podcast. Bruce Lee led Bruce Lee cuz it's so hard on the teas loose leaf. Making up those rhymes. Don't write it, just do it loosely.

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