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Getting smart about short-stay rentals
Hennen (pictured) arrived in Brussels from Liège to practice European competition law in 2007 but soon decided to take a break and start his own business. He launched Smartflats with business partner (and fellow Liège native) Alexandre Szmaj in 2012. They began with one apartment in the happening Saint-Géry district of Brussels. They now manage 18 flats across the capital and in their hometown.
Smartflats clients come from all over Europe and the world. Some of them stay in Brussels for months, although the typical guest is a business traveller or city-tripper whose stay lasts a week on average. Smartflats also make ideal interim homes for Brussels residents who find themselves in-between permanent addresses.
Technology is central to the Smartflats business model. The service is at the cutting edge of what Hennen describes as the second generation of e-commerce. “In the past you could buy a product on Amazon or eBay,” he says. “Now the internet gives you access to services as well. So you can hire a chef online, or rent a flat.”
Hennen and Szmaj found that many peer-to-peer services existed in cyberspace but that travellers couldn’t expect a common level of service from them in the real world. Smartflats aims to give its guests the best of both: the convenience and quality control of a hotel as well as the warmth and personality of the peer-to-peer experience.
Not surprisingly, Smartflats’ website is the key to the whole operation. First, it is optimized for mobile browsing so guests have full access wherever they are. You can browse flats and book online, of course, but that’s par for the course. The real innovation here is the online concierge, which caters to guests’ needs. These include local tips, taxi and room service (the latter provided in partnership with local delivery service Take Eat Easy).
If guests need that human touch, it’s only a phone call away. Smartflats staff is on call 24 hours a day via a telephone support line. “In today's world, having a concierge sleeping behind the counter doesn't make sense,” Hennen says. “Having the same services on your mobile device and someone to answer the phone anytime is far more useful.”
The model has proven successful so far. Hennen and Szmaj plan to continue growing their business while maintaining their standards. Indeed, Hennen, with his background in European law, is consciously positioning Smartflats as an example of how to do e-commerce responsibly. This is especially important now that the European hotel lobby is putting pressure on legislators to curb what they describe as a Wild West of unregulated peer-to-peer networks.
Photo credit: Ralitza Photography