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Helping Others Live & Travel: How HOLT Became a Modern Luxury Travel Company Thanks to Benjamin Earley and Ioana Holt

With travel now back on the table, people from around the world are looking for the best ways to experience their dream holidays. Benjamin Earley and Ioana Holt have a passion for helping people holiday in style and have developed their business HOLT to deliver unmatched accommodation for travelers. With large, stylish properties in several locations, HOLT boasts impeccable customer service and unforgettable holiday experiences.

Hi Benjamin & Ioana! Can you begin by introducing yourselves?

We are the owners of HOLT, a global hospitality brand committed to Helping Others Live and Travel. When we met, Ben was working at JPMorgan and running an online luxury Italian shoe company. Ioana had just opened her first restaurant in the East Village called Rose & Basil. Ioana was taking in the outdoor seating during closing time, and Ben just happened to be walking by and offered to help. The rest, as they say, is history!

From the beginning, we were both obviously the entrepreneurial type. We were both already hosting guests on Airbnb on the side as well, so in addition to the handful of other businesses and jobs we had, we were already both hosts.

How did you become interested in short term rentals?

Hospitality is definitely in our blood. Ioana lives to take care of others, and Ben has an innate feeling for the needs and wants of others. Ioana is a chef at heart, and the idea of bringing people together for a meal is similar to the concept of hosting people for their travel, whether business or pleasure. Ben left JPMorgan and the shoe company because he never felt like the customer was appreciated enough. Businesses will succeed or fail solely on the basis of how they take care of their potential, current and past customers. Having a great product – which we certainly do – is a big plus, but fulfilling people’s emotional needs will take you furthest.

We are also workaholics and incredible operators. Ioana has a ruthless eye for detail and is an absolute assassin. Ben is a big dreamer who pushes his own employees’ boundaries, and thus our company’s, constantly. We make a formidable team for operating a very high-touch, high-stakes business like short term rentals.

We know that families have only a few vacation weeks a year. We know the traveling business partners need certain amenities to close that piece of business. We appreciate and are humbled by the idea that our guests entrust us with that responsibility.

Tell us about how you developed HOLT when you were already busy with other jobs and businesses.

We were both running other businesses while also hosting on a smaller scale. But we knew short term rental was our bread and butter, philosophically and also financially. Ben’s background at JPMorgan Asset Management and being intrigued with how businesses enter and grow in markets was screaming at him the future of travel was short term rentals and even further than that, the future of housing was flexible. The mix of real estate and hospitality in a world with barriers to travel coming down (funny to say that now in 2021) was too good an opportunity for us to pass up.

We gave up our other businesses in 2017 and 2018 to build something together, and we think we’ve built something incredible. You had asked as well what you think makes our business unique, and I think how we’ve built our team from the beginning is an important piece of that. We know that short term property management never stops. Someone will always need something. When you throw in the fact that we operate in three time zones with three native languages, then you have a real receipt for all-hours-of-the-day type business. We have always been a Work From Home business, and we leveraged that from the beginning to find professionals in the time zones for which we needed coverage. But it’s not just that we stopped at making sure we could answer emails in an hour or two, we built a Guest Experience team that can handle a call, text, email, message, DM at any hour of the day, seven days a week. And everyone at HOLT speaks at least two languages.

Going even further, we have built our operations, what we call our HOLT Product Team, to also work around the clock. So that systems are set up and problems are troubleshot around the globe as the sun travels and hopefully, by the time people wake up for their shifts, the problem is solved, since there’s been two shifts working on the solution since she or he logged off. It’s incredible the talent we are able to find to work for us and with us when you aren’t constrained by geography or time zone.

While on the topic of our team, we know our people are the engine of our team. Ben’s dad is a neurologist at Johns Hopkins with a specialty in sleep disorders. We knew we couldn’t take people out of their regular live’s schedules and have a happy and healthy organization. Even though HOLT is operating all hours of the day, everyone works their regular day-light times. No one is dragged through the night. Additionally, as a company, we have no time-off policy, and employees are empowered to live and travel as our guests do.

Give us the ‘elevator pitch’ on exactly what HOLT does.

Put simply, we host short term stays at our luxury properties. Essentially, there are three ways hosts can operate: Buy-to-rent, rent-to-rent which is also called rent arbitrage, and then manage properties for the benefit of other owners. We do very little management. We buy some properties, mostly in Romania and Mexico. But most often, we take long-term commercial-style leases on residential properties. Most hosts around the world simply manage properties for the benefit of other owners, which don’t give them as much skin in the game, or control over curating their properties exactly how they should.

What do you think sets you apart from the average Airbnb host?

There are a few parts of our business that set us apart.

First, HOLT renovates all our properties… like full construction. We have two in-house architects and also have contracted architects and designers in each market. We are a design and development company as much as a property manager.

Once leased, we will do high-end renovations and furnish for the purpose of short term rental. We basically qualify our renovations into four categories, the lowest tier being newer or very good condition properties that just need some touch ups and updated finishing. On the other end of the scale is category four, which is the Cadillac package of full renovation: custom furniture, commissioned art, you name it. We usually seek out a mix of these categories, as some are more time consuming than others. So in each market or city, we could have 1-2 full renovations at one time while we are busy furnishing a handful of properties that we leased in better condition.

Second, HOLT offers luxury. As I mentioned above, custom furniture, commissioned art and pieces from the nicest boutiques in each city often adorn our spaces. We order wallpapers from England, terrazzo from Italy, electronics from the US and Sweden. We’ve driven hours through hilly Mexican countryside to find the perfect rugs and vases. We find local artists to come and paint our murals. A lot of businesses these days claim luxury, but don’t deliver. We deliver in the product and the service.

Third, as a business, we prefer to offer larger properties, so three bedrooms and up. We have a villa in Oaxaca that sleeps 20 and all of our apartments purchased in Romania are at least three bedrooms. We think group travel, again, aside from pandemic years, is a much more interesting space. You’re able to create more unique experiences, connect more with your guests and impact more people per booking. Hotels can’t compete with us when you’re talking about 6 or more people that want to spend time together.

Fourth, and most importantly, HOLT customer service is 24/7/365. We pick up the phone every minute of every day, because that’s the responsibility we have to our hundreds of guests that are eating, hanging, working and sleeping in our properties at all hours of the day. You can always reach us. The security, safety and trust of our guests is squarely in our hands and we take that very seriously.

You say you prefer larger properties and group travel, but visiting your website, we can also see a mix of one bedrooms and hotel rooms. Walk us through your mix of places.

If you see HOLT offering suites or one bedrooms, it’s usually because the opportunity was too great for us to pass up. We seek out real estate development projects that are near completion, small to mid-size multifamily, or even a building that had plans to be an office. We approach the owner and developer, show them what we do, and take full master leases on the building. We really love those projects, since we are able to make the buildings unapologetically ours, like our contactless boutique hotel in the heart of Bucharest called HOLT Old Town.

It sounds like there is a B2B component to your business as well?

For sure. You could call it another service we offer, and this is on the business to business side, is the opportunity for every owner and property developer to maximize the value of their assets. We are getting big enough that we are fielding more inbound requests from owners and developers to work with us. We give owners worldwide every reason to work with us. Their property will look amazing, they will get a paying and steady tenant in HOLT, full insurance coverage for their assets on top of their own insurance, and potentially capital investment in their asset from us. If you have a family heirloom property you want to look better, or to pass along to your heirs, or you’re a developer looking to fill rooms in a new project or find a master tenant for a full takeover, HOLT can help you!

Where can potential guests find you? And are you expanding your offering to guests beyond just accommodation?

HOLT currently hosts guests in Aspen, Colorado, in Mexico, in Oaxaca de Juárez and San Miguel de Allende and in Bucharest, Romania. In 2022, HOLT will enter Spain and Dubai and likely another city in Mexico and the US.

We have a HOLT concierge always available to our guests. Want the usual help: tickets, drivers, reservations? We can do that. Want something extra? In-home mezcal tastings, massages, bodyguards, we have it all.

What can people expect when they stay at one of your properties?

HOLT offers a modern, luxury experience. We are technology forward. Everything can be managed from your phone. We have rental agreements and insurance portals that can be handled with a few swipes. We provide guests, free of charge, liability and medical insurance coverage while they are in our spaces. Guests have unique coded access to all our properties, and never have to hassle with keys.

Technology certainly powers what we do behind the scenes too. The STR business is a fast growing, but very new vertical. The technology stacks are lagging the demand a little, but we work with the best of the best across the spectrum to create 5 star guest experiences, working with companies like Guesty and Minut, and using Slack to power our communications.

Finally, what are your plans for the future? Will HOLT continue to expand?

Like I mentioned before, HOLT is always expanding. We took the quiet months of 2020 to improve on our process. We are able to take a home from purchase or lease signing to renovation to hosting a guest in 2-4 months. We can’t wait to enter Spain and Dubai, expand in Mexico and find another city or town in the US to open. In the future, we think HOLT will be synonymous with global travel in the same way Marriott is today.

The DailyScanner editorial team would like to thank Benjamin Earley and Ioana Holt for taking the time to do this interview and share their knowledge and experience with our readers.

If you would like to get in touch with Benjamin Earley and Ioana Holt or their company, you can do it through their website: www.helloholt.com or emailing [email protected]