Navigating Safety and Incident Management in Vacation Rentals with Eric Thibodeaux

Navigating Safety and Incident Management in Vacation Rentals with Eric Thibodeaux

Recently, Inhaven sat down with Eric Thibodeaux from Safer VRs to discuss Incident Management in the vacation rental industry. Eric Thibodeaux is a Health, Safety, and Environmental expert with over 30 years of experience. He is a seasoned real estate investor, CEO and Co-Owner of Current Tides Vacation Rentals & Sales, a property management company in Gulf Shores, Orange Beach, and Fort Morgan, AL., and the Founder and CEO of Safer VRs, in addition to the owner. His company assists clients in establishing safety and loss prevention protocols and controls, ensuring their vacation rental portfolios remain safe and profitable.

“Safety isn’t expensive, it’s priceless”

The discussion focused on an Incident Management presentation that Eric Thibodeaux uses in the vacation rental safety courses offered through his company, Safer VRs. This presentation begins with a quote from James R. Schlesinger: “We operate in two modes. Complacency and panic. We address symptoms and not the cause.” This quote from the former Secretary of Defense illustrates the core challenges professional property managers face while simultaneously presaging the value system at the heart of Thibodeaux’s work with Safer VRs. As Eric puts it, “Safety isn’t expensive, it’s priceless.” He explains that people are often guided by their experience of cause-and-effect relationships. Concerning the vacation rental industry, Thibodeaux explains that a common goal of those in the vacation rental industry is to create great guest experiences and maximize profits. He sees this as the effect or result of how one invests their time and resources to realize greater profits from their business. For Thibodeaux, this same basic relationship dynamic is at the heart of achieving better safety results. As such, safety and loss prevention starts with a mindset focused on prioritizing guest safety. This approach not only ensures a safer stay for guests but also contributes to a more stable profit model over the long term. This is not as intuitive as it first appears.

Eric Thibodeaux points out that property owners and professional property managers often rely to a worrying degree on experience of no, or few events, which can be misleading. He suggests that too often owners and managers are lulled into a false sense of security by the good fortune of not having experienced a safety event, leaving them ill-prepared to handle such events effectively when they do happen. This complacency can leave them in a state of panic when addressing the aftermath, a situation vividly captured in Schlesinger’s quote. Thibodeaux explains, “When we run a business, and we take care of other people, some of [it] isn’t intuitive, yet we believe it’s intuitive because that’s what our brains want us to think.” He goes on to point out that, as a result, we only focus on the effect, focusing more on the circumstances of an event, rather than its precursor variables and the role they play in its advent, which can be costly.

Do We Have to Learn Every Lesson the Hard Way?

The idiom, “being penny-wise and pound-foolish” comes to mind. Thibodeaux explains that a commitment to proactive safety can aid in avoiding settlements, maintaining lower insurance costs and decreasing the amount of time a rental spends off the market as a result of unprepared responses to safety events when they occur. At the core of the decision to adopt proactive safety measures is the issue of being overly reliant on experience. This raises a crucial question: Do we have to learn every lesson the hard way? This is the crux of Eric’s work.

A major element of Thibodeaux’s incident management protocols lies in the latter stages of the process. For Thibodeaux’s team, the debrief after a safety event is arguably one of the most important phases of the safety cycle because it presupposes that though one event has occurred, it will not be the last, and as such provides a valuable opportunity to reflect on and optimize vital safety processes. “What happened?” is a powerful question for Eric’s team for many reasons. It refocuses their efforts away from questions like “Why did this happen?” towards more productive discussions about the context of a safety event. In other words, a productive debrief examines the efficacy of the existing safety controls or the context of their failure rather than assigning blame for the event. A debrief begins at the very beginning.

To facilitate a comprehensive debrief, Eric recommends asking your team the following questions:

  • How did we know this was an issue?
  • How did we respond?
  • How did we help stabilize the incident?
  • What was your role?
  • How did you feel?
  • How do you think you performed to stabilize the situation?

These questions help the team delve into the incident's specifics, identify areas for improvement, and ensure they are better prepared for future events.

Managing Safety Events Is “Not a Spectator’s Sport”

Thibodeaux explains that the first question in his team debriefs often centers around how the call came in and how the team responded. This typically involves a careful review of the first tenet of Thibodeaux’s incident management protocols: over-responding. Eric believes it is vital to send more resources than the situation might initially seem to require, as it is easier and more time-effective to "pull back or stop resources en route rather than send them later." The team also analyzes the discrepancies between the information given to the responding team members at the initial report of the safety event and the actual circumstances they encounter upon responding. Thibodeaux points out that, based on his experience, he can reliably assume that “only 20% of what [they are initially told] is factual.” With this in mind, it becomes abundantly clear that how a team responds to the initial call regarding a safety event is crucial and therefore worthy of studious review. This axiom undergirds the necessity of his first tenet. In other words, understanding that the initial call often lacks the context necessary for a proportional response to a safety event clarifies why it is important to over-respond. However, because each situation is dynamic and unique, it is important to understand that a static system of response, such as a systems and procedures manual, is only the beginning.

The value of Thibodeaux’s approach lies in his many years of experience in the field. His 5-step incident management protocol is confidence-inspiring. It has the potential to lend to a property manager a sense of unearned ease, allowing one to arrogate much. Thibodeaux is quick to point out that managing safety events is “not a spectator’s sport.” He insists that as important as understanding the protocols may be, it is vital to practice one’s response to safety events and to be vigilant of complacency. According to Thibodeaux, “It’s really about a general framework, and then adapting based upon the information that you have.” To this point, Thibodeaux encourages his teams to think about how they feel during the initial stages of a safety event and to carefully consider the appropriate steps that the event necessitates. Thibodeaux’s emphasis on preparedness is partly driven by a dearth of incident data that could help conceptualize the necessity of these safety protocols in the vacation rental industry.

Eric’s 5-step safety incident management protocol when an event occurs includes:

  1. Over-Respond: Send more resources to the incident than initially thought necessary. This is crucial because you are only receiving 20% of the facts when you receive the first call.
  2. Cooperate and Stabilize: Take immediate action to bring the event under control. This may involve cooperating with other key stakeholders such as the fire department, police, EMS, the HOA, the owner, and utility companies. Provide the owner with a factual update on the event and the status of their property, and safeguard the property to prevent further damage. Conduct a debrief at the end of this phase, gathering information and notes from the team who responded to the incident.
  3. Recover: Provide the owner with an update on their property and the necessary actions to be taken. Address the needs of your guests, and contact your insurance company and/or attorney to inform them of the incident and prepare the necessary documentation.
  4. Support: Check in with your team to see how they are doing and determine if further actions are needed. Manage any impacts on your current and future guests regarding the property schedule. Set up regular updates with the owners on repairs and the availability of the property.
  5. Learn, Share, and Grow: Reflect on what happened and determine what went well and what didn’t for your property management business. Implement actions to improve your business quickly, considering if the incident could happen at another property. Train personnel if needed and share the learnings with your entire business and key principals. Some information may not be able to be shared, but use what you can to make improvements.

Safety Is a Value, Not a Priority

Incident data from emergency response services isn't detailed enough to pinpoint the frequency of safety events specific to vacation rentals. Although safety incidents are recorded, determining their number and type specific to the vacation rental industry is nearly impossible. Thibodeaux explains that from a safety perspective the vacation rental industry “is one of the worst at capturing any data around safety and loss prevention.” Thibodeaux points to a reticence to produce data that, while useful for contextualizing and perhaps slowing the rate of safety event occurrences, creates anxiety around liability. Thibodeaux suggests that vacation rental owners and property managers should prioritize implementing and verifying adequate safety measures to manage potential hazards. Without a way to discuss safety incidents at vacation rentals without fearing legal repercussions, owners and managers lack the data needed to make informed safety decisions. This makes it challenging to know which areas to prioritize. To address this issue, Eric created the Life Saving Rules for Vacation Rentals, providing a framework for ensuring safety and making data-driven decisions. Therefore, taking proactive steps to ensure safety is the most responsible choice for property owners and property managers.This reality underpins how Eric thinks about safety. Thibodeaux points out that ensuring safety involves much more than just inspecting a property. He explains that “safety is a value, not a priority.”

To Thibodeaux’s way of thinking, a value is something that is intrinsic to a person’s character, or who they are at their core identity, whereas a priority is something that changes to accommodate the necessities of the day. While a priority can be adjusted, a value must necessarily persist. Eric poses the question: "Are we treating safety as a value?"

Embrace Safety as a Value with Eric Thibodeaux and Stay Informed with Inhaven

Eric Thibodeaux's insightful perspectives on incident management underscore the crucial need for prioritizing safety as a foundational value, not just a temporary priority. His extensive experience and innovative approaches offer invaluable lessons for those managing vacation rentals. For a deeper dive into Thibodeaux's safety strategies and more expert advice, we encourage you to visit Eric’s Safer VRs Blog and to listen to his podcast, “Vacation Rental Business In Today’s World, with Eric Tibodeaux” which can be found on Apple Podcasts and on Spotify. Additionally, stay informed and engaged by regularly visiting Inhaven's blog, "In The Know," where we continue to explore essential topics that impact the vacation rental industry.