The Future Of Travel: “The amenities and service of a hotel with the space and convenience of a rental home” With Garrett Kenny, CEO of the Feltrim Group & Candice Georgiadis
…appeal to guests who want a resort experience in a rental house, without the hassles and limitations normally associated with each. Hotel rooms don’t work for everyone, particularly families or multi-generational groups traveling together: they each want their own room and bathroom so they aren’t on top of each other all the time, and they want a kitchen to cook in, so they don’t have to dine out every day. And typical rental homes don’t work for everyone either — you’re never 100% sure that the photos are accurate, and you may find that your house has dirty floors or a leaky pipe, but the owner is slow to fix it or just plain unresponsive. You’ll never have that with us. You get your own clean, spacious house with sheets and towels, plus the peace of mind from knowing that if there’s an issue it will get fixed, or if you have a special request, the concierge can take care of it.
As part of my series about “exciting developments in the travel industry over the next five years”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Garrett Kenny, who originally hails from Dublin, Ireland, is one of the most well-known names in Central Florida real estate. He is the founder and CEO of the Feltrim Group, which was founded in 1996 as a property management firm focused on assisting international buyers and investors, and later expanded into property development and resorts. To date the company has sold over $900 million worth of property in Central Florida, much of it vacation rental real estate. Feltrim also developed and manages the innovative Balmoral Resort in Haines City. Kenny’s vision is not limited to real estate and resorts, however. Feltrim is currently developing a private international high school, as well as an ambitious sports academy. A classic entrepreneur, Kenny brings unbounded energy and creativity to all aspects of his business. He has developed a great reputation for integrity among his peers, and has been officially recognized for his achievements by former Florida Governor Rick Scott. The author of the book “Buying and Owning Property in Central Florida,” Kenny regularly appears on television and radio in the US, UK, China and Brazil, and actively supports charitable causes in his local community.”
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Back in 1996, when I was 34, I flew from my home country of Ireland to Orlando, Florida with the intention of buying a home there and renting it out to vacationers. I had been to Orlando before and loved it, and I knew that it was a prime spot for real estate investment. After looking at many homes over the course of several days, I settled on a 4-bedroom home with a swimming pool for $150,000. I was very excited about the purchase, and when I returned to Ireland, I told colleagues of mine about what I had done. My enthusiasm must have been infectious, because within 12 months 20 of my friends in Ireland also purchased homes through me.
This was the beginning of the Feltrim Group, the American subsidiary of my Irish company, Feltrim Developments Ltd., based in Dublin. The Feltrim Group is now a major player in Central Florida real estate, having built and sold over $900 million worth of property over the last 20 years.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
In December 2013 I went on a trade mission to three cities in China with a small group of business professionals. That trip opened my eyes to the fact that China was a huge market, and I became determined to crack it. I went back to China a few times over the succeeding seven months until I got my first deal. It’s now seven years later, and I have sold over 400 vacation properties to Chinese buyers.
It tickles me that an Irish man living in America who speaks no more than three words of Chinese has managed to be so successful with Chinese investors. In addition to selling lots of homes, Feltrim has won awards from agencies and organizations in China recognizing Balmoral’ excellence. I have also spoken on panels about doing business in China, and I am a member of my local Asian Real Estate Association of America.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
The first time I went to Vietnam for business, I met with a potential business partner who seemed incredibly positive in the early stages of our conversation. His answer to everything was “yes, yes, yes.” But after a while I realized that was the ONLY word he was saying… so I asked him if he understood English well. He said “yes” again, but I knew it wasn’t true — he was clearly trying to impress me by pretending to understand. So, I slowed WAY down, which made it easier for him to follow what I was saying — and the next day I hired a translator.
The lesson I learned: never to assume anything.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Having a single, continuous supply chain results in much better service and value for clients — the alternative is a supply chain with multiple unconnected parts that are much more likely to break. Feltrim buys land, develops residential communities and vacation resorts, manages the properties, looks after the rental income, performs maintenance, and even resells properties through our resale division.
This concept has made my business very successful, and a standout in the industry.
My “lightbulb” moment came back in 1998, when I was trying to make a deal with a potential home buyer. I knew he was talking to other sales agents, so I gave it my best shot. But he didn’t buy from me — he went with a competitor who owned a group of companies that gave the perception of size and end-to-end service. This taught me a valuable lesson about consumer perception, and also motivated me to do everything possible for a client, in order to keep them from going elsewhere. It led me to turn the Feltrim Group into a true one-stop-shop.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”? Can you share a story about that?
Knowing your own limitations is key to not overextending yourself and not getting in over your head, two factors that can lead to burnout. I never finished school in Ireland, and I’m aware that I don’t know everything about everything. I’m never afraid to say “sorry, I don’t understand that, please explain it to me,” and I’m never afraid to hire people who are smarter than me. Those smart people make me look good! The number of times I have seen leaders who are afraid to ask questions, or think they know everything really shocks me. My business is also great because of my team members. I surround myself with good people and let them do their jobs, while I helm the ship. The proof is in the pudding: I awake every morning to see 4- and 5-star reviews of Balmoral on Google. Consumers like our product and think positively about the staff. It is a team effort, and that gives me great satisfaction.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
There are actually two people who have been instrumental in my success: my CFO and my wife. My CFO, who is based in my Irish office, has worked alongside me for more than 20 years. He originally worked for the accounting firm that prepared my tax returns, and I liked him so much that I asked him to join my team. But he’s not just an accountant who crunches numbers — he is capable of running the entire business. Our trust and rapport, along with his excellent financial acumen, have helped propel the business forward over the years.
The only person I talk to more often than my CFO is my wife. I know it sounds cheesy, but I could not have been a success without her. She looks after our family and holds down the fort while I’m out traveling to various countries around the world promoting our vacation resort.
Let’s jump to the core of our discussion. Can you share with our readers about the innovations that you are bringing to the travel and hospitality industries?
I think my latest project, Balmoral Resort, is a game-changer in the hospitality industry. It could revolutionize the family vacation. Opened in 2017 in Haines City, Florida, Balmoral combines the amenities and service of a hotel with the space and convenience of a rental home — and improves upon both concepts. This “horizontal hotel” comprises 230 individually owned vacation homes ranging in size from 3 to 8 bedrooms (that’s more rooms than in a 1000-room hotel). All the homes, which are furnished in a modern yet luxurious style, offer at least twice the space of a hotel room plus perks such as full kitchens, laundry rooms, free wi-fi, and in some homes, private pools.
We run Balmoral like a hotel: booking is centralized (either direct or through the big OTA’S such as Booking.com, Expedia.com, etc.), management is on-site, and the community offers a full range of on-site amenities including concierge service, a large pool area, a water park, a games room, a gym, mini putt-putt golf, sand volleyball courts and a bar and grill.
Balmoral is not only a fantastic concept for travelers, but also for investors. We manage the homes for all of our buyers, who come mainly from China, the UK, Vietnam, South America, South Africa, Ireland and the U.S. Buyers get a beautiful, modern home that provides a great return on investment and does not require them to lift a finger to maintain, and travelers know exactly what they are getting when they book, so it’s a win-win for everyone.
Which “pain point” are you trying to address by introducing this innovation?
We appeal to guests who want a resort experience in a rental house, without the hassles and limitations normally associated with each. Hotel rooms don’t work for everyone, particularly families or multi-generational groups traveling together: they each want their own room and bathroom so they aren’t on top of each other all the time, and they want a kitchen to cook in, so they don’t have to dine out every day. And typical rental homes don’t work for everyone either — you’re never 100% sure that the photos are accurate, and you may find that your house has dirty floors or a leaky pipe, but the owner is slow to fix it or just plain unresponsive. You’ll never have that with Balmoral. You get your own clean, spacious house with sheets and towels, plus the peace of mind from knowing that if there’s an issue it will get fixed, or if you have a special request, the concierge can take care of it.
How do you envision that this might disrupt the status quo?
It’s a fact that the lines between hotels, resorts, hostels, rental homes and timeshares are getting blurred, because travelers don’t fit in neat boxes anymore. I recognized this and positioned Balmoral at the forefront of this evolution. Now, as more and more travelers opt for “hybrid” resorts like Balmoral, both the traditional hotel and rental home sectors are getting squeezed. They will have to adapt to travelers’ changing needs, or fail.
Some hotel companies are already adapting by getting into the vacation home rental business: I sold two resorts in the last five years to Aston Hotels (based in Hawaii), as they started to invest in the Florida market. Choice Hotels now has a vacation home rental division, and Wyndham recently launched its Trademark Collection, which promotes vacation rental homes and condos. They are actually talking to me at the moment about branding Balmoral with the Wyndham flag!
Can you share 5 examples of how travel and hospitality companies will be adjusting over the next five years to the new ways that consumers like to travel?
I think that many of the things Balmoral is doing reflect the changes happening in the wider market, such as the increase in travelers choosing private accommodation over traditional hotels, and increased reliance on technology.
1 — Giving better value for money for families or groups traveling together — Airbnb and VRBO revolutionized the market by allowing groups to book an entire private house for a relatively affordable rate, instead of paying through the nose for multiple rooms in a hotel. We are taking that to the next level by offering a standardized home experience with loads of space, a private pool, and all the bells and whistles, for at least half the price of a hotel room. And we’re locating it in a full-service resort.
2 — Using technology to expedite service — Guests are increasingly accustomed to using their phones or tablets to accomplish almost everything, which is why we are experimenting with ways to integrate more tech into Balmoral’s homes. For example, I am hoping that things like maintenance requests can be done electronically just by saying “Alexa, our toilet is blocked, please alert maintenance.” Millennials in particular would rather spend time enjoying their vacation home than talking to resort employees.
3 — Flexible booking policies — Rental homes often have rigid advance booking and minimum stay requirements, but Balmoral doesn’t: we recently dropped our 2-day minimum stay requirement and also introduced same-day check in. We did this because we recognized that for various reasons people sometimes book vacation homes at the last minute, and we wanted to make it easy for them to do that. This makes us competitive with traditional hotels, and more flexible than typical rental homes.
4 — Greater use of artificial intelligence: We recently installed a chat function on our website so that potential guests can talk with “virtual” (and real) reservations agents. We felt this was a must, as guests increasingly expect it — that’s the way the industry is headed. It’s working extremely well for us: the chat bots help answer basic questions about what the resort does and does not offer, and the live agents handle the rest.
5 — Sports and activity travel: More and more travelers are visiting locations not just for beaches or theme parks, but for specific events such as comic conventions and sports events. We are taking that to the next level by opening a Ronaldo youth soccer academy onsite and offering vacation packages around local events like baseball spring training.
You are a “travel insider”. How would you describe your “perfect vacation experience”?
Since I normally operate at 100 miles per hour when I’m working, I enjoy a vacation full of peace and relaxation, where I’m able to read my book and enjoy time with the family: We’ve had some great vacations at all-inclusive resorts in Mexico, and we also enjoy the tranquility of Hawaii. Cruising is great too, because it gets me away from the day-to-day craziness of my business and allows me to dedicate time to my family, read, and watch my favorite movies. Now that the kids are getting older we are doing more active vacations — for example in 2018 we explored Alaska, which was a great experience.
Can you share with our readers how have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I believe that giving back is important, so over the years we have given to various charities. For example, when I learned from the Red Cross that a large number of kids were drowning in community pools in the Orlando area, we decided to donate $150 to them for every home sold at Balmoral. This money is used to educate children about the dangers of drowning. We also donated $35,000 to help train kids in the area to become lifeguards.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I feel that improving America’s education system is the best way to uplift communities. That’s why one of my next projects is to build a charter school in my area that will serve 500 kids. I hope in my own way to be able to influence the quality of education kids in Polk County receive. My company is also building a 70,000-sq-ft sports facility that will encourage kids in the area to participate in basketball and indoor volleyball. The skills kids learn through sports — teamwork, strategy, overcoming obstacles — are equally important as intellectual skills in preparing them for adulthood.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
My Twitter handle: @garrettkenny
My LinkedIn page: https://www.linkedin.com/in/garrettkennyfeltrim/
Balmoral Resort on Instagram: @balmoralflorida
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!