Property Management System. Sounds simple, right?
You need to get from A-to-B? Get a car. You need to satisfy your hunger? Get some food. You need to manage your short-term rental? Get a property management system.
If only it were that straightforward.
The term Property Management System (or PMS) has come to encompass many things. How it is understood is largely dependent on who you are and what you’re trying to achieve.
At its broadest level, a PMS is software used to win more bookings, streamline property management processes and stakeholders, and maximize your earning potential.
But as you dig deeper and try determine what you'd like your PMS to do for you, you'll inevitably come to realize that a PMS can be many different things to many different people at many different times.
So how do you find the right one for you?
The Evolutionary Cycle of PMSs
Let's start with a quick look back at how the world of PMSs came into existence.
Historically, PMSs had a principle focus on the operational components of managing a short-term rental. The PMS’ role was to keep the wheels moving and provide a technological backbone to the day-to-day operations of property management.
Over time, PMSs have advanced to incorporate an important marketing component. They no longer just take care of 'running' the booking – they now concern themselves equally with sourcing the booking too. This focus on inventory distribution has elevated the role of channel managers and direct booking websites as core components of many PMSs. These newer features can be thought of as Phase 2 in the PMS evolutionary cycle.
More recently, PMSs have entered a Phase 3 of sorts, which can loosely be thought of as an optimization phase. This phase is much less defined than its Phase 1 operations or Phase 2 marketing older siblings. Nonetheless, the features associated with this phase are novel, exciting, and represent the new gold standard for what a leading PMS should aspire to do. These features frequently leverage advances in cloud-based technologies to offer automation and AI tools that streamline processes and create operational efficiencies. For property managers that manage multiple properties, many of these features represent bread-and-butter dependencies for the roles and responsibilities they’re endlessly called upon to get right each and every day.
Finally, we are also starting to see the beginnings of the PMS branching out into a stakeholder engagement phase. This involves thinking more broadly about the various stakeholders involved throughout the end-to-end hosting process, and ways in which their lives can be improved too. Examples of features include guest and owners’ portals. Up until now, features such as these have traditionally lived as separate and standalone products, but are slowly creeping their way into the integrated feature offerings of best-of-class PMSs.
The Perfect PMS?... It's a Game of Trade-Offs
So enough with the history lesson, and back to our original conundrum: How do you find the PMS that’s right for you?
The answer lies in first recognizing that you’re inevitably playing a game of “trade-offs”. There is no perfect PMS.
Once upon a time, there used to be an arcade game called Daytona USA. The player would need to select their car. Each car had its relative strengths and weaknesses. If Grip was good, Max Speed was likely bad. Or if Max Speed were good, then Acceleration would likely have suffered.
The same applies for PMSs.
Some focus more heavily on their operational features, whilst others focus more so on their marketing features. Some are stronger for managing multiple properties, whereas others are better at getting granular with individual properties. Some have excellent features but no mobile management app, whereas others may be good on-the-go, but be weak on core features. And obviously, the greater the features, the more expensive the PMS is likely to be.
In short, you’ll inevitably need to make some difficult trade-offs.
Some of the key trade-off decisions include:
- Features: First and foremost, you’ll want to feel comfortable that your PMS provides you with the right mix of core features you'll be most dependent upon for your particular circumstances. This involves determining your desired operations vs. marketing vs. optimization vs. stakeholder engagement mix.
- Support: It can’t be forgotten that we’re talking about software here. There will be software updates, customizations and inevitable bugs (even in best of breed options). For some, the on-boarding, training and support they receive will be just as critical as the technical features they require.
- Deployment Options: PMSs were originally locally-stored applications that lived on a host’s computer. Almost all PMSs these days are cloud-based. And some now offer mobile management tools for doing things on-the-go. You’ll want to decide how you wish to access your PMS and the times and places you’re likely to want to do so.
- Stakeholders: Whose lives are you trying to simplify and improve through the use of technology? Do you need to engage with cleaners? How about the owners of properties you might be managing on their behalf? How important is enhancing the guest experience with technology to you or to them? Depending on who you wish to bring under your PMS' umbrella will often determine whether or not a given PMS has all of the features you actually require.
- Cost: It would be remiss not to include price on this list. As a rule of thumb, the better and all-encompassing the features list, the more you’re likely to end of paying. The good news is that there are exceptions to this rule. There are also many more players in the game these days, and cost-competitiveness has become a powerful lever that often favors the customer.
Features to Consider
We’ve summarized the core features you should think about when selecting the right PMS for you. This list is far from exhaustive. It is nonetheless a useful starting point for thinking about the features that are important to you and your circumstances.
We’ve grouped and summarized these core features into five “buckets” of feature categories:
- Distribution: Tools to assist you in marketing your listings and maximizing your bookings. They include things like channel managers and direct booking websites.
- Bookings: Tools to assist you in the management of the bookings you receive. They include things like centralized calendars and mechanisms for team and task management.
- Management: Tools to assist you with the day-to-day operations of property management. They include things like payment processing, trust accounting as well as contact and property data management.
- Performance: Tools to assist in measuring and optimizing the effectiveness and efficiency of operations. They include things like automation and pricing tools, a unified inbox, a mobile management app and analytics and reporting capabilities.
- Experience: Tools to assist in providing an optimal experience for guests and owners. They include things like guest and owners' portals.
Historically, you may have only listed on one or two of the more popular booking channels. This may have included rental listing sites (e.g. Airbnb), OTAs (e.g. Booking.com), travel meta-searches (e.g. TripAdvisor) or travel wholesalers (e.g. GTA).
In doing so, you opened yourself up to a number of potential issues. For example, with additional channels the additional risk of receiving duplicate bookings or making manual errors. Furthermore, the more channels you list on, the more of your time is eaten up servicing each individual channel.
A good channel manager will extend the distribution reach of your listings whilst eliminating these risks and automating the manual upload and management of your listing inventory.
Reliable channel managers will automatically sync updates of key data to each connected channel. Some channel managers also enable channel-specific customization of specific property attributes such as cancellation policies, commissions, discounts and promotions, fees, length of stay and rates.
Whilst channel managers strive to maximize the number of formal integrations they have with the leading channels; many also offer the ability to sync with other channels that they don’t have a formal 2-way integration with. This is commonly achieved by using iCal links.
Bonus Feature: Some channel managers are recognized preferred partners of major listing sites and OTAs. This can represent unique benefits; such as expedited onboarding, priority support and special channel-specific pricing options.
Direct Booking Websites
Having your own direct booking website represents another channel by which you’re able to get found and booked. The principle benefit of receiving direct bookings via your own website (vs. booking sites or OTAs) is that you don’t need to pay commissions on any of the bookings you receive.
A good PMS with this feature will enable you to develop a self-branded website that allows you to share key property details in exactly the same way they’d be shared on any other 3rd party platform.
Some direct booking websites include special marketing tools you’re able to customize, such as deals and coupons. If your website is to promote multiple listings, you can frequently prioritize or promote specific listings according to dynamic customization preferences.
Having your own website also presents a unique opportunity to customize the look and feel according to your personal branding preferences and guidelines. And since it’s your website, you’re also able to setup analytics tools on the backend that measure the channel effectiveness and enable remarketing efforts too.
Not all PMSs offer direct booking websites as a feature, however for many that do, this is only offered as a premium feature that often incurs additional costs. Fortunately, if this is not a feature of your desired PMS, there are a number of other platforms and 3rd party providers that can help set this up independently to your PMS.
Bonus Feature: Many hosts and property managers already have a direct booking website. Where this is the case, some PMSs offer an embeddable widget you’re able to place on your existing website to sync up with the PMS.
If you list on multiple channels or manage multiple properties, it can get incredibly confusing and complicated looking at multiple calendars to understand your past, present and future bookings.
Aside from managing existing and upcoming reservations, having a consolidated multi-listing calendar also enables you to share and recommend alternative proprieties (if you manage more than one) and prevent missing out on potential bookings.
Having a centralized calendar also streamlines the process of searching for bookings and availabilities, which becomes increasingly important if you receive direct booking enquiries.
Since you gain a “birds eye view” of all bookings, you’re also able to better stocktake where your bookings originate from and understand occupancy levels across your entire portfolio. All of this helps you maintain a finger on the pulse for profitability optimization opportunities.
And if you’re managing properties on behalf of owners, placing holds on properties and sharing information about availability and occupancy becomes a whole lot easier too.
Bonus Feature: Some centralized calendars offer the ability to adjust prices directly from the centralized calendar view which will auto-update listing prices across specified or designated channels. When listing across multiple channels, this can become a very handy feature.
Team & Task Management
If you’re managing a single property, it’s not difficult to call your cleaner and schedule housekeeping around the check-in and check-out times of one particular guest. However, when you manage multiple listings in different locations, the challenge of managing cleaning, housekeeping and maintenance teams can become a full-time job in itself. Furthermore, you’re more likely to make mistakes if everything is being managed manually.
Team and task management features fall into one of two categories: Tasks may be generated automatically following a specific “triggering event” (e.g. a booking confirmation or checkout). Alternatively, one-time tasks may also be entered manually.
A PMS with good team and task management features will enable you to specify default time frames that individual tasks are required to be completed by. These can then be mapped onto your calendars as well as shared with staff and relevant team members.
If centralized calendar features are important to you, you’ll likely also be interested in having “push” notifications that go out to relevant team members (in the form of emails and SMSs) to inform them of pending tasks that require completion. These can frequently also be cross-checked against individual and/or team task reports that can also be accessed and shared.
Bonus Feature: Some PMSs also enable you to setup task sequencing, which are a chain of tasks that are triggered only once the prior task in the sequence has been completed. This becomes especially handy when multiple tasks or teams work on different components of a property’s management.
If you don’t plan on taking direct bookings or having your own direct booking website, then having payment processing features as part of your PMS becomes a lot less important. But if you’re excited by the opportunity to take commission-free direct bookings or this is integral to your booking channel mix, then payment processing is likely to sit high on your list of key feature priorities.
Payment processing features are frequently a feature of PMSs that also offer custom branded website features too.
For some PMSs, having a payment processing facility not only allows you to take guest payments, but also allows you to distribute payments to owners too. In both cases, having these features frees up time being spent on administrative tasks and minimizes opportunities for manual error.
In addition to collecting payments for bookings and distributing payments to owners, some PMSs’ payment processing features will enable you to hold security deposits and charge guests for additional products or services you’re able to up-sell. Regardless of what payments are processed and for whom, they typically enable you to automatically send receipts.
Bonus Feature: Some PMSs will display payment-related data on a centralized dashboard, making it quick and easy to check what has and hasn’t already been paid for which will assist with customer service enquiries.
Some PMSs provide tools for bookkeeping, auditing and reporting that ensure trust accounts remain compliant with relevant laws and regulations. This is important from a compliance perspective.
A big challenge is that trust accounting laws and regulations vary from place-to-place, and therefore make having “standard” trust accounting tools that comply with relevant requirements difficult to roll out universally.
Nonetheless, if trust accounting is relevant to you, key trust accounting features should be further understood when selecting your PMS. These include holding deposits, processing cancellations, tracking invoice and payments made, reconciling payments and preparing disbursements to owners.
The trust accounting features that are relevant to you should also be included amongst end-of-month disbursement and bank reconciliation reports.
Bonus Feature: Due to the complexity and specificity of trust accounting procedures and requirements, you’ll want your PMS to automate the input of as many accounting tasks as possible without requiring manual intervention.
Contact Data Management
Some PMSs include a CRM or tools to track and manage inbound leads from creation to conversion, and which enable marketing after the stay.
Effective contact data management will assist in winning repeat bookings, which frequently will come through direct (non-commission) bookings. It is also helpful for simply keeping an accurate stocktake on the guests that have booked with you in the past.
Bonus Feature: Aside from solo travellers, guests tend to travel in parties of two or more. Often, only the booker’s contact details will be captured, representing a missed opportunity for future marketing to other satisfied members of the booker’s party. Sophisticated contact data management includes facilities for capturing the contact details of all other guests too.
Property Data Management
Having tools to keep track of property data in one centralized place is important when you manage multiple properties. Even the best property managers find it difficult to keep stock of all property-relevant information. This is further complicated when different channels display channel-specific property data.
You’ll want to keep track of property information, like photos and captions, fees, amenities, policies, rules, check-in instructions and reviews. Most PMSs that have property data management facilities will work with your channel manager to synchronize this data across your connected distribution channels.
Bonus Feature: Sophisticated property data management tools will enable you to auto-merge property data on file into designated guest communications.
There are many routine operational tasks that a property manager is required to perform on a daily basis. However many of these tasks are consistently performed in a repeated way. Whether providing the same answers to the same questions, setting prices based on known scenarios, or reviewing guests at the end of a stay – many of these routine tasks are able to become automated. These represent efficiency gain wins that will free up your time and allow you to focus on higher value activities that require specific consideration or custom attention.
Most PMSs provide features to boost productivity in the form of automation tools. These typically include tools for message sequencing, responding to guest enquiries, pricing, reviews, payments and key management.
Bonus Feature: Different guests have different communication preferences. Some prefer email, some prefer SMS and some prefer communicating via the platform they booked on. Try find a PMS that intuitively selects the optimal communication medium for different guests.
The price you set for your properties is contingent on a number of factors. Channel, seasonality, demand competition all intersect to influence and determine the optimal price that maximizes bookings, revenue and yield. Having a “one-size-fits-all” approach to your pricing strategy will result in always over or under-charging, with consequences to either your bottom line or guest satisfaction.
Many PMSs have pricing tools that operationalize a bespoke pricing strategy that recognizes the individuality of each of your listings. Good pricing tools will allow you to set your rates based on specific criteria, or manual intervention. They should also enable you to adjust prices by booking channel, in recognition of the different fees and pricing models used by different channels.
Bonus Feature: For PMSs that offer a centralized calendar, you’ll want your prices to display here too to optimize your pricing strategies and better appreciate channel effectiveness.
As a property manager you are in constant contact with your guests. From the initial booking email, through to SMSs letting you know they’re running an hour late for check-in, through to receiving a message on Airbnb asking where the closest pharmacy is – messages come in 24/7, left right and centre. And you too will need to contact them, as well as keep track of the responses you’ve given to their incoming communications.
Some PMSs will consolidate all of these communications into a single, unified inbox. It will include all communications exchanged between you and the guest regardless of the medium used. These typically include booking channel Instant Messaging threads, email and SMS.
Depending on the level of sophistication, these unified inboxes can also offer a range of helpful features beyond just the consolidation of all communications. Some can assign conversation threads to designated personnel, some enable you to save and use template replies, and some allow you to archive messages too.
Bonus Feature: Since unified inboxes assist in streamlining and consolidating the communications surrounding a booking, some also enable you to view and edit details of the reservation directly from the inbox too.
Mobile Management App
Your Porter App
Property management is a dynamic business, and you won’t always have the luxury of being behind a computer to do many of the roles and responsibilities that your PMS is supposed to support you with. The best PMS in the world will be of little value if you’re tethered to your desktop and unable to perform critical tasks. After all, isn’t this why you got the PMS in the first place?
Mobile management apps enable you to access core operational features of the PMS from your mobile device. Most PMSs these days are cloud-based, however this takes things one step further via a native and purpose-built app.
Common features of PMS mobile management apps include managing reservations, managing accounts and listings, displaying price breakdowns, accessing calendars, team and task management, messaging guests and reporting.
Bonus Feature: Native, purpose-built mobile apps are great for doing things on-the-go as you frequently find yourself needing to do. For ultimate benefit, try find a PMS with a mobile management app that offers push notifications for things like guest messages or task updates too.
Analytics & Reporting
Having a 360° perspective of your operations and finances is critical if you are to take things to the next level of short-term rental property management. Retrospective analysis might have cut it with a single listing, but managing a multi-property operation and management team requires a granular awareness of where you’re over and under-performing.
Most PMSs that offer reporting capabilities provide analytics on the property (e.g. occupancy, reservations, etc.), financials and sales (both past and projected) as well as tasks and operations. Some PMSs will also offer reports on team performance too.
Some PMSs enable you to develop your own custom reports from a list of pre-defined parameters. Some will also automatically issue your reports to designated individuals such as team members or owners.
Bonus Feature: Sophisticated PMS analytics and reporting capabilities include the ability to benchmark your performance against a cohort or other industry standards.
Your guests’ experience is paramount to building a sustainable property management venture. Their level of satisfaction informs their reviews, which impacts future bookings and pricing. Many PMSs have developed a guest portal that provides them with tools that enhance their experience, as well as enabling up-selling and creating operational efficiencies for yourself.
Examples of features that enhance or simplify the guest experience include automating check-ins and checkouts, providing booking information and submitting housekeeping and maintenance requests. There are also features that benefit both the guest and yourself, such as sharing real-time communications and providing up-sell opportunities (e.g. added services, amenities, booking enhancements, etc.) and discounts.
Bonus Feature: Some PMSs offer up-sell tools as part of the guest portal. These provide the ability to sell added services, amenities or booking enhancements, and may include the ability to offer discounts too.
When you’re managing properties on behalf of owners, they expect to understand how their properties are performing as well as maintain the ability to place holds on the properties if and when they wish. As a property manager, your interests is not getting bogged down in paper work and reporting so as to simply out-perform in your day job, which already comes with a burdensome list of things to do without needing to add more.
With that being the case, some PMSs provide an owner’s portal that shares reports on the property, financials and operations with owners. Many owner’s portals also act as a repository for documents able to be shared, such as contracts and pictures of the property and maintenance issues.
Most owner’s portals will allow the owner to place a hold on their properties’ calendars too.
Bonus Feature: Some PMSs enable you to customize the information you share on the portal as well as white-label the portal with your own branding.
Some PMSs offer a public API that enables utilization of the PMS' core functionality into other platforms.
Power users with specific requirements are able to utilize the PMS’ tools in either a complementary or integrative way.
Bonus Feature: Some PMS APIs will also enable you to integrate other 3rd party tools and features into the PMS.