In 2000, a young Danish traveller, qualified in IT, decided to look for work in southern Europe to get away from the cold weather in Scandinavia. He was offered a job sooner than he expected, with an estate agency in Fuengirola, to design a website to advertise the properties it had for sale. He soon realised that many of the houses were being bought by foreigners, who were only going to spend a couple of months a year in them.
“I thought: these properties are going to be empty for ten or eleven months at a time. I need to do something about this. So I did,” says Claus Sorensen, who is now the founder and CEO of Spain- Holiday.com, which is based in Malaga and has been established for 15 years. “For me it was easy, because in Denmark people had been renting houses for holidays since the 1950s. I knew there was a future in this, but at first it wasn't so easy because Spanish people were very reluctant to rent out their properties. Now, though, they have embraced the idea with a passion,” he explains.
He started with around 100 properties owned by foreigners, offering to advertise them free of charge on a website. It only cost him 100 euros to set up his project: a website for holiday lets. This predecessor to the now gigantic Airbnb, which started small in 2002, now offers over 11,700 properties all over Spain, including villas in Marbella which rent for 28,000 euros a week in high season.
“For the first 14 months the owners of the properties didn't pay anything. Then, when there were 500 properties on the website, I started to charge 125 euros a year to advertise. I knew it would work,” he says. And it certainly did: The turnover this year is expected to be 1.9 million euros, rising to three million in 2018 after it starts to charge a commission for bookings. This is what the big platforms do, the ones which have transformed the tourism industry and revolutionised the idea of holiday accommodation to the extent that there is now more self-catering accommodation on offer on the Costa del Sol than hotel places.
This pioneer in holiday rentals has no fear of competition from the major companies. He insists that the future lies in specialisation, which is something he envisaged right from the start.
“We only offer properties in Spain, with international clients in mind so they can enjoy the destination to the full. That is something unique. That's why I'm not worried. There is an active market and we have the advantage that we live here and we know the essence of the product and the destination. We are constantly updating our content and information,” he says. He started off with one employee, Helea de Vlieguer, who is Dutch. She still looks after foreign clients who want to rent out their properties. Helea translated the initial website into Dutch, while Claus Sorensen did the same into Danish. Today the portal has versions in 13 languages, ranging from the traditional English and German to Swedish, Polish, Russian, Portuguese and Finnish. These same languages can be heard in the office, where there are now around 20 employees, all of whom speak at least two languages . This is appreciated by the owners, as well as would-be clients.
“In Denmark we have a philosophy of work in which everyone is at the same level. Responsibility is delegated, we listen to the employees and accept that mistakes are part of learning. The idea is that the staff are happy because they feel part of the company and nobody has to control the hours they work or what they do. That gives the best results,” explains Jannich Petersen, the general manager. Most of the staff are aged about 30, and the majority are foreigners who are living on the Costa del Sol.
“We have published more than 200 articles about the city of Malaga and 78 videos in 13 languages. In the past year, the portal received 852,000 visits to properties which are for rent and 933,000 visits overall,” says Kaajal Mansukhani, the head of Communication.
From the time the business started, it is estimated that over two million tourists have stayed in a property rented through Spain-Holiday.com, which since last May has insisted that owners in Andalucía comply with the new regulations and register with the tourism authorities in order to be able to advertise their property.
Sorensen says it is a myth that tourists choose the cheapest properties for holidays. He says 80 per cent of clients are prepared to spend money; they are mainly families who want the comfort that they can't find in a hotel, or groups of friends who want privacy. Most are British.
One of the most expensive villas, which has room for 20 people, is already booked for 40 days next summer. The clients will be paying 50,000 euros. “That's why hotels, no matter how much they transform themselves, will never be able to offer the privacy which tourists are looking for these days, and that's why holiday properties are so successful,” he insists.