BI Case Study: Hospitality Firm Cleans Up with BI

A small vacation property-management company in the famed Outer Banks of North Carolina brings in analytics software to maintain its high standard of customer service -- and to stay competitive against national chains.

You planned your vacation way back last winter. You've rented a home on North Carolina's famed Outer Banks for a week this summer, and you've been looking forward to getting away. As the thermometer in the city climbs, you load up the family and head for the beach-front home that looked so idyllic on the Web site, but when you arrive, the air conditioner is on the fritz and the pool is dirty. So much for your stress-free vacation getaway.

Using high-end analytics software, family-owned Twiddy & Company is working to make sure that's never your vacation experience when renting from them. The Outer Banks is home to the owners, who have been renting privately owned vacation homes in the area for over 30 years. Continuing to maintain a long-time focus on customer service was imperative for the siblings who work at the company, even as their business grew and as competitors sprang up around them.

With some 90 full-time employees and seasonal help, the company rents primarily to families for a week at a time, managing homes ranging from simple two-bedroom residences to huge estates. "In a given summer," says marketing director Ross Twiddy, "we clean up 94,000 bathrooms and make 100,000 beds."

Like many small businesses, Twiddy & Company has an extraordinary amount of disparate data to keep track of -- not just rental properties, homeowners, and potential guests, but maintenance and upkeep details that include relationships with hundreds of plumbers, electricians, pool, and spa cleaning and repair companies, and other maintenance personnel throughout the area.

Competition for managing vacation rental homes in the Outer Banks has grown over the years, from other small companies and from large national chains wanting a slice of the vacation rental business in a popular area with incredible natural beauty. Technology like that offered by SAS, whose analytic software is greatly enhancing staff efficiency and effectiveness at Twiddy & Company, is key to remaining competitive.

When the company first began searching for a solution, finding information was often a challenge. When repairs on a home were needed, staff typically searched through software records by hand to locate the right vendor, a time-consuming, labor-intensive process at best. "If a guest had a broken air-conditioning system," Operations Manager Clark Twiddy says, "we would rely on [staff] to comb through our software system and try to link a demand ... to a resource." In addition to excess time spent on the search, the process didn't necessarily unearth the best or most cost-effective resource.

Much of the data was stored in a SQL database, using software specific to the vacation home rental industry, with some custom Microsoft Access reports. To get at needed information, data would be exported into Excel, manipulated, and a report printed. That was fine, except that, as chief technology officer Laura Carver describes it, "the next time we had to run [the report,] it would take a ten-step process again to get that information."

Realizing it needed to increase its efficiency around information retrieval and analysis, Twiddy began looking for ways to automate data searches, and to give employees timely access to pieces of information already stored in the system but difficult to find.

An Appealing Solution

The company began a search for an analytics software package in 2010, looking at a number of vendors. Twiddy's location made SAS, which has its headquarters in Cary, North Carolina, a natural fit from the start. "We were also aware through our own reading that SAS has a great reputation for customer service," Clark Twiddy says -- something that naturally appealed to them. As Ross Twiddy notes, "That was a soft spot for us. We're in the hospitality business, so when we see good customer service, we respect that."

To get the SAS business analytics system that Twiddy chose installed and operational on their server, the company worked with a local firm recommended by SAS, Pinnacle Consulting. With their help, the installation and setup process was completed within days; Pinnacle continues to offer ideas and guidelines as needed to Twiddy's three technical staff members. However, in-house staff has largely been able to create the reports they need in SAS themselves. "We know our data really well," Carver says. "That's one of our strong points. ... We know what's in there. We just want to be able to get it out in different formats and in a timely fashion."

The vast majority of the company's day-to-day operations data -- information on service and repair companies throughout the region, for example -- remains in the company's data warehouse, accessed by SAS. From the operations side, Clark Twiddy explains, the SAS system enables him to delve into transactions quickly and at a level of detail that wasn't possible before.

Over a holiday week this spring, the company dealt with 1,000-plus work orders, each requiring a call to a vendor. With a single report, he can streamline and summarize that workload by grouping transactions by expense, by location, by vendor, or by category of work. "I can list work orders that aren't completed. Did a guest have something broken that we didn't get a chance to fix? I can get a good idea of what we were supposed to do over the past 24 hours, and I can do that in ten minutes."

The new software package also benefits homeowners, something that the company hopes will keep them as customers well into the future. For example, the software lets office staff break down an invoice for homeowners to show what portion of repair work pertained to plumbing versus air conditioning system work. The software can also show owners what market segments are booking their homes, broken down also by ZIP code and state of origin. "In the past," Clark says, "that kind of report would have taken us days of manual cutting and pasting, clicking and dragging." Now, a staff member can prepare the report in minutes.

As an example of labor savings, most of the homes Twiddy rents have a pool, spa, or both, and the company works with at least a hundred different vendors to clean and service them. In the past, one staff member would manually manage the process, making sure pools were cleaned and serviced appropriately. Formerly, a seasoned staff member would print a huge stack of work orders home-by-home, then fax each to an individual vendor. With SAS, that process has been automated. With the press of a button, work orders can be e-mailed to individual vendors -- even to a mobile device. That employee is ecstatic, freed to focus on more important items. "That's a great example of a process and a tool being able to literally invent hours out of the day," Clark Twiddy says.

Savings and ROI

Just six months into the installation, the most immediate savings have been lower labor costs because the software has immediately made data more accessible and has eliminated endless manual searches. There have also been savings, though less tangible, through a clear reduction in the sorts of human errors that occur when data is input and manipulated by hand.

Twiddy has big ideas on doing much more with its analytics software. One idea is to focus on a single service sector and use the software to find the average cost in the competitive marketplace for a service, such as pool cleaning or a basic plumbing repair job. The company can then know to drill down on any service charge it incurs outside that range and find out the reason for the difference. Also, the company envisions asking vendors to complete online forms to break down costs for labor, parts, and taxes. That, too, would make for an excellent overview of the service sectors and costs in a given geographic area. It would also replace the current system of paper invoices arriving daily via mail.

The overall goal, the siblings agree, is cost efficiency without sacrificing service or hospitality. "We're a small company, but SAS allows us to play with some of the big boys," Clark Twiddy explains. "If we were just doing things the way we've always done it, that's not good enough." Instead, he says, the company is fighting to preserve the competitive advantage of 30-plus years in business in an area that is home to the owners and its employees. Using advanced analytics software to drive efficiencies can keep vacationing families -- and homeowners -- happy with Twiddy for a long time to come.

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