Business

Merilee Karr on UnderTheDoormat, Her Luxury Home Hospitality Brand

Merilee Karr discusses UnderTheDoormat, their recent partnership with The Marriott Hotel Group and the rapid changes in consumer behaviour that is drawing the end of an era for the classic hotel stay.

30.12.2019 | by Kezia Parkins
Photo by Evelyn Paris on Unsplash
Photo by Evelyn Paris on Unsplash

Merilee Karr founder of the London-based luxury home rental platform UnderTheDoormat often gets asked what makes her startup different from the market-dominating Airbnb.

“Most people think Airbnb is a company that provides homestays,” says Merilee who originally hails from Ohio, US but has been living in South West London for the past 18 years.

“In actual fact, it is just a booking engine, like Expedia or Booking.com. They are all, Online Travel Agencies or OTA’s and simply channels to market for a company like UnderTheDoormat, just like they are for hotels.” 

Founded in 2014, UnderTheDoormat offers a full-service solution for owners of beautiful, sometimes vacant homes wanting to make an effortless income while knowing that everything is in safe hands. 

UnderTheDoormat, Merilee Karr

Airbnb is just one of the company’s many routes to market alongside; Expedia, Booking.com, HomeAway, Bridgestreet, TripAdvisor, and now Marriott, and about 30+ other smaller platforms and channels.

With their hotelier’s approach to short-term homestays, UnderTheDoormat is solving the problem of Airbnb anxiety by taking away the risk and fear from homeowners and guests.

We have all heard a homestay disaster story,  and these can make people shy away from renting out their homes and guests dubious as to what they might find.

“As a homeowner, I find it astonishing that people would post up their home and rent it out without having someone meet the guests and do all the I.D. verification, but also to have a proper insurance policy in place,” says Merilee. 

“For me, this is really worrying because your home is your most important asset.” 

UnderTheDoormat boasts homes with grand pianos and artwork from famous artists. “They can trust us because we have the insurance in place.”

Merilee Karr,

As well as market-leading insurance, they provide hotel-quality linens and towels, a concierge service for homeowners and guests, personal check-ins, in-stay maintenance and 24/7 guest support.

Currently, they have more than 300 properties signed up to their platform attracting over 5000 visitors a year.

 

Merilee Karr

Merilee Karr, UnderTheDoormat

Merilee Karr, Founder UnderTheDoormat

Being the hugely energetic character that she is, it comes to no surprise that Merilee is a keen triathaloner. It was this passion that actually led her to notice a gap in the short-term rentals market.

“When I started the business, it was because I was travelling regularly with a group of friends for triathlons and we found it really difficult staying in hotels. You’re travelling with your bike and all of your equipment for the race. You also need to get up really early and eat a very specific breakfast, so waiting for the buffet to open and eating that often very unhealthy food isn’t what you want at all.” 

She found it really hard, especially in cities, to find homes that you could rent for groups or families. This is how Airbnb changed the game, as you can now rent a home anywhere in the world. 

“But what’s changing now is that people want a professional experience,” says Merilee.

“They don’t just want a home; they want the comfort of a home with the quality and professionalism of a hotel. And that’s really what UnderTheDoormat delivers.”

UnderTheDoormat, Merilee Karr

Prior to moving into the hospitality sector, Merilee spent 13 years working for Shell holding a variety of senior positions. Her roles meant she travelled extensively with constant hotel stay stints.

“I can remember back in my Shell days I would wake up in the morning and be like, ‘Oh my god, am I in Singapore, Paris or South Africa?’?’ You almost forget where you are because every hotel room looks exactly the same—its kind of soulless and depressing.”

 Merilee often gets people accusing her of being anti-hotels, “but I’m really not,” she laughs. 

“They are great for certain types of travel. If I’m going to a conference, for example, I wouldn’t stay anywhere else.” 

“But, Goldman Sachs did some research and found that once people stay in a home, their preferences change.”  

Merilee, who also chairs the industry body, the Short-Term Accommodation Association (STAA), believes that just as hotels like the Hilton, Hyatt and Marriott have built up brands that have set standards, the same thing needs to happen in the home accommodation sector so that people have a brand they can trust.

“Right now, if you stay in a homestay, people have a range of experiences from great, to not meeting their expectations at all. That’s where UnderTheDoormat is really emerging as one of the brands in home accommodation that can help people have that confidence that they can stay in a home and it will always be amazing.”

UnderTheDoormat, Merilee Karr

UnderTheDoormat recently became one of the first companies in this sector globally to work with Marriott Homes and Villas.

“We’ve gone through an entire due diligence process from our systems, our processes, our insurance, our technology. Absolutely everything has been vetted by Marriott to ensure that it meets Marriott standards. And that gives a lot of people confidence as well.” 

The partnership will provide a new channel for UnderTheDoormat to access a stream of high-quality guests.

In tandem with a rise in branded home accommodation companies, Merilee believes that over the next five years we will see all of the big hotel groups attempting to move into the home rental space. 

Cementing this, speaking at Skift Short-Term Rental Summit on Dec. 5 in New York City, Jennifer Hsieh, vice president of Marriott’s Homes & Villas division, said that in 2017 to 2018, the company found that 27 percent of guests were leaving its portfolio of hotels to rent a home.

 

M&D driving tech

Merilee says that she considers UnderTheDoormat to be a prop-tech company—“We’ve built the technology end to end, which helps people to market, manage and monetise their asset when they’re not using it.”

It is this technology that is helping UnderTheDoormat to push their distribution model, which Merilee says will help the company obtain almost 50 percent of its revenue by 2024.

“Some of the property companies we’re talking to have a building of 350 flats to let, and, with our technology, we can fill the void periods, help them in absorption when the building launches and even allow their tenants to work with us if they going away for periods of time.” 

“It’s really exciting. As we start to grow the marketing and distribution model and our B2B partnerships, we can plug in with those property companies and provide them with the technology to really make the most of the assets that they own.” 

UnderTheDoormat now has three partner companies that are using its technology and doing the on-the-ground operations to its standards.

This allows the enterprise to expand without having to have the operational capability everywhere that they operate.

Merilee Karr, UnderTheDoormat

As well as in London, UnderTheDoormat also has partner companies in the Cotswolds and Luxembourg; Merilee says that Europe will remain the focus for now. 

“But obviously, given my background, I would love to expand the business to the U.S. one day,”  she says.

“With the marketing and distribution model, we can be globalised. There’s no reason why we couldn’t have a partner in Brazil or in Singapore tomorrow because we don’t need to have a physical presence in every location where we operate.” 

“Luxembourg, for example, is a marketing and distribution partnership, so we could launch it very quickly. It shows how we are really leveraging our technology and helping other companies to make more out of the portfolios they have. It’s a way for us to scale and grow much faster, and, from an investor point of view, it’s really interesting because it’s a high margin, low-cost business.” 

Merilee says that this market is projected to be worth $330 billion by 2025 in Europe alone, and it won’t be a winner-takes-all situation. 

“Airbnb will likely be a major player then, as they are now, but other brands will emerge as important companies as consumers realise the market has more to offer them than just peer-to-peer rentals.”

“Our vision is for UnderTheDoormat to be one of those global brands in home hospitality and a go-to partner for hotel brands as they inevitably boost their home accommodation offering over the next few years.”

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Merilee Karr

UnderTheDoormat

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