Last week I caught up with Mike Volpe of Lola.com to hear how the travel management service was able to leverage their strong customer relationships to survive a 97% drop in revenue and roll out a brand new offering in the middle of the pandemic.
And the theme of relying on strong customer relationships built pre-Covid to keep afloat as we enter into the second wave of the pandemic carried over Twiddy & Company, a family-owned vacation rental business managing over a thousand properties in the Outer Banks area.
Interview with Clark Twiddy
Earlier this week I spoke with Clark Twiddy, president Twiddy and Company, to hear how they used the SAS data analytics platform and Clark’s military background with intelligence to bring data science to his family-owned small business. And how that helped the company to “digitize their southern hospitality” and create new opportunities even in the heart of a pandemic that is crushing the travel and leisure industry at large.
Clark Twiddy: I’m paraphrasing Churchill when I say that the travel and tourism industry broadly sailed right into an economic steel curtain. If your business, no matter the business, is impacted, or it works, rather, in travel and tourism, as we do, and is deeply rooted in personal interactions, as ours is, it is an incredibly disruptive period of time. Although I will say, there are some proverbial green shoots in this. Larger travel and tourism, obviously airfare, obviously the air destinations, the Bahamas, the Disneys, the cruises, Europe, if you’re in the United States, have continued to see huge disruptions. In the vacation rental business, certain elements of that have remained very resilient, and in fact, some have actually done okay. Drive to destinations that were close to major metropolitan areas, Airbnb’s SEC filing yesterday echoed that.
So here on the Outer Banks, we were able to be pretty resilient in the face of that. And after the initial shock of some access and travel restrictions, the single family home market just south of the DC metro area was remarkably resilient, by some measures one of the most vibrant vacation rental markets in the country this year. And we’re fortunate to say that, but obviously the recovery in travel and tourism broadly continues to be a tale of two cities. The urban areas, the business travel, large functions, continue, I think, to be virtually non-existent. And now to your point, with the second phase, those headwinds only grow stronger.
Small Business Trends: Why don’t you talk a little bit about your stint in the military and what that did in terms of giving you the insight into how important analytics were, and then why you were able to bring that into Twiddy?
Clark Twiddy: So I was fortunate to join the service not long before 9/11, and then I worked in the intelligence community. And it sounds glamorous, but what we really do is try to sift through an enormous amount of transactional data of various levels of quality and confidence, and distill that data into actionable insight so that people can make better and more credible decisions with the best probability of strong outcomes. So we do that everywhere in the military. And when I got out of the service, I came back home and Twiddy and Company is a family business, and we said, we had the very same problem on a much smaller scale, obviously, with a different mission, we had literally, like so many I’m sure of your listeners, just mountains of transactional spreadsheet data about hundreds of thousands of customers interacting across decades of time, and it became very problematic for us to distill actionable insights to allow better decisions.
Long story short, one day we got in the car and drove, literally, up about three hours into Raleigh-Durham, and actually knocked on the guard gate of the SAS complex. And I brought, this is a true story, I brought a bunch of seafood with me, and I knocked and said, “Well, I’m here to visit SAS.” And the guy said, “Well, do you have an appointment?” And I said, “No, but I do have a fresh tuna, and if there’s a business development guy here, I’ll trade fresh tuna for 15 minutes.” And he told me to wait and called, and about two minutes later, gave me a pass and said, “Go to Building B.” And somebody came out and said, “I’ve never seen a pitch like this, but if you’ve got fresh tuna, we’ve got 15 minutes.” And a little more than a decade after that, we, I think have grown by leaps and bounds because of what we have been able to learn in that partnership.
Small Business Trends: A lot of folks, when they think of using data analytics and data science, data scientists, they think you have a huge operation. What’s the size of Twiddy and Company in terms of people?
Clark Twiddy: Twiddy is probably one of the smaller businesses out there to use that SAS product. It’s globally famous, and here we are, we’ve got about 125 full-time staff, and we manage a little over a billion dollars of private investment. That makes it sound big, but from a relative scale standpoint, our data science team is four folks. And we sit around all day with homeowners and our own team and try to come up with what the future is and try to not achieve average results, obviously, within the industry, we say superior results, no matter the market cycle.
Small Business Trends: All right, so you said, yeah, four data scientists-
Clark Twiddy: Yes.
Small Business Trends: … but I saw on one of these videos that you partnered up with SAS-
Clark Twiddy: Oh, thank you.
Small Business Trends: … like 80% of your company actually leverages the data science or the data, or even works within SAS.
Clark Twiddy: Absolutely. That’s one of the things we learned from the time in the military, data analytics that reside in an ivory tower and in the end, aren’t accessible to the folks on the front line, have greatly reduced value. So one of our hallmarks, particularly in the pandemic crisis, has been a commitment with our team that problems and challenges are best identified on the frontline, and then that makes sense that correspondingly the decisions to fix those problems are also best identified on the frontline. So it becomes the responsibility of folks like me to make sure that front line decision makers have access to the insights and outcomes they need to make their decision-making as good as it can possibly be. So if five people in the organization have data analytics at their fingertips, I would say that’s absolutely opposite of what it needs to be. It needs to be 95 people who are making frontline human engagement decisions with the support of data analytics.
Small Business Trends: And if I’m not mistaken, you also have a regular meeting of your data science team-
Clark Twiddy: We do.
Small Business Trends: … and so that was going on pre-COVID, right?
Clark Twiddy: So one of the challenges that we had, particularly as a family business that has been in operation for more than 40 years, is a culture change. So how did we go about changing the culture, and long story short, we made sure that we had a regular rhythm and that we prioritized the use of data in our decision making, not only today, but in our scenarios for the future. We have a weekly, what now we call research and development meeting that combines some of our customer facing teams, some of our sales teams, and now also our analytics team to make sure that we are surfacing challenges and opportunities as rapidly as we can from the front line, and then our analytics team works to fill those challenges and opportunities with the right information at the right time, at the right medium, to make that decision, that customer facing decision, as good as it can possibly be.
And speed is a component for that, particularly in a crisis. So the faster we can do that, the faster we can maintain what are inevitably fleeting, competitive advantages.
Small Business Trends: How did having this type of data science culture already in place pre-pandemic help you deal with COVID-19?
Clark Twiddy: You know, what a great question that is, and I’ll throw out a couple words. If you boiled our business down to one or two words, the first word is trust, and the second word is probably listening. That’s our core competency as a organization. So to your point, we had gone about doing that for all those years, and when the pandemic hit, we trusted the information we had, and we trusted our ability to listen to our stakeholders and reflect back what was most important in a very fast way, and also minimize the risk of emotional decision-making, particularly in the pandemic. We were all dealing with more stress, more anxiety than we ever had, and if you’re a human being, that influences your thinking, it certainly did mine.
But we trusted our ability to make data-driven decisions. And at the same time, we didn’t necessarily seek credit for that. We didn’t toot our horn and say, look what we have, but credit is related to the word credible. So when we reach out to our stakeholders and we talk about what our strategy will be navigating this economic steel curtain and these uncharted waters of the pandemic, our approach was very credible, because I think we had proven we were willing to use and invest in data analytics that our decision-making would always be informed by information and insights we were able to coalesce based on customer feedback.
So as we reached out, for example, to our guests, our traveling guests, we’re very much a DC metro core market, as you can expect that traveling population was dramatically impacted by COVID, it was critical that we were able to maintain credibility in the face of the unknown. And when I say the unknown, they want to know if they’re going to be able to come on vacation, and if not, get their money back. And not only that, but the homeowners who are operating their home not as a home, but as an operating company, and are worried about, frankly, the ability to pay bills and to continue to operate a profitable business, the credibility we had in that, I think, is one of the things that gave us a leap ahead, if you will, in plotting our strategy and communicating that strategy.
Small Business Trends: Talk about the importance of the relationship you had with customers pre-COVID that has allowed you to weather the storm and, and even do better than weather the storm in the midst of this.
Clark Twiddy: What a great story that is. That’s a wonderful example, I think, of the proverbial thinking outside the box and listening to customers. I think one of the things we realized right up front, particularly going back to that notion, this defining characteristic we had about being rooted in personal interactions is we realized that we needed to digitize our personal interactions. We had to digitize, in effect, Southern hospitality. But the “aha,” moment, it’s not a fear-based component where you say, “Oh my gosh, we are going to be irrelevant shortly.” We recognized that this was a time for empathy, and this was a time for consideration, and we recognized that our stakeholders needed empathy and Southern hospitality in a way that they hadn’t before. It’s not just limited to the Outer Banks.
Which is to say, we reached out, we decided we would stay in touch with our customers along every step of their pandemic journey. Not just their time here on the Outer Banks, but giving them the peace of mind to communicate what we’re seeing, how we can give them something to look forward to. One of our covenants with guests has always been, we hope the Outer Banks is one of the best weeks of their lives. And I will say, from a personal lesson learned, we were able in a time of incredible uncertainty to generate, I think, a lot of trust and credibility through one specific behavior. And it was a personal lesson learned from me, we acknowledged what we didn’t know. We acknowledged and owned our own mistakes as we inevitably stubbed our toe along this journey. We held, for example, town halls with our homeowner community, over a thousand homeowners, and as they would submit questions and answers, you can imagine not all of them are positive about what we’re doing, there is some very rational disagreement.
We read the dissenting opinions and the disagreeing opinions. We acknowledged our mistakes when we had too long of a wait. And I think by acknowledging and owning our mistakes, we rapidly created some trust and credibility. Had we gone about it normally, we probably wouldn’t have necessarily talked about bad experiences, we would have focused on good only, but, I’m disappointed that we had bad experiences, but when we did, we acknowledged it, and then I think built better bridges of trust to our communities so that as travel confidence slowly returned in the summer, we were able to be top of mind and top of wallet, to use a credit card analogy, for folks’ vacation spending.
Small Business Trends: So let’s look forward a bit.
Clark Twiddy: Okay.
Small Business Trends: You learned some lessons, I’m sure, through the first phase of this pandemic.
Clark Twiddy: Absolutely.
Small Business Trends: What are those lessons that you’re going to take, good, bad, the other, whatever, what are you going to use, leverage, this time around that you took out of the first time around?
Clark Twiddy: You know, I could talk big picture, but let me start first with an example that I think is almost counter-intuitive. So, largely speaking, the vacation rental industry along the Outer Banks had a record year, no matter the company, and we have 15 very worthy competitors, even locally along the Outer Banks. And the reason for that is not because we were the greatest companies ever. A lot of that reason is because so many of our guests this summer were here as their second choice. They couldn’t go to Disney, they couldn’t go to Europe.
So now our challenge becomes, how do we turn a bunch of guests who were here as their second choice and create the Outer Banks as their first choice moving forward? And the way to do that, obviously, is to listen very well through feedback mechanisms, it’s also to stay in touch with them routinely. General Jim Mattis, the Marine Secretary of Defense, had that great saying, “the speed of relevance,” which to me is a wonderful saying, make sure you are staying in touch with your customers at the speed of relevance. And now I think we’re using a lot of data analytics to understand that demand for next year relative to second choicers and first choicers, how to price next year in a radically uncertain environment, which as we know continues to be problematic there, but we have to also bring credibility to that. But then even more importantly, how do we continue to stay in touch with guests in a way that’s valuable to them in the end.
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This is part of the One-on-One Interview series with thought leaders. The transcript has been edited for publication. If it's an audio or video interview, click on the embedded player above, or subscribe via iTunes or via Stitcher.