Originally, it wasn’t hard to succeed as a smart person with a mediocre vacation rental in a big vacation market. It was so easy that our industry drew professionals from all walks of life. A lot of dining room table conversations turned into real vacation rental businesses.
But today the landscape has evolved. It has never been cheaper to start a VR business, but it has also never been harder to grow one properly.
One big change in the landscape is the listing sites. They've become so popular amongst travelers that using them (as an owner or manager) requires a major shift in thinking from before. Today's vacation rental professionals must make a move beyond the conventional marketing playbook and build NEW frameworks that take these channels into account.
Just "Book Direct"
This mantra started by our colleagues several years back has exactly the right goal: help small businesses retain their independence. Direct bookings are like the magnetic north for hosts. VRMB has spent the better part of the last ten years fine-tuning the Listing Site Independence framework: it is the only methodology that uses collective wisdom to determine the best path to a strong online VR brand.
"Just Book Direct" is also great advice for former guests: offering special benefits in exchange for loyalty is core to hospitality DNA. And by removing intermediaries, a VR business can offer products at a lower cost: those that own their supply chains always have the upper hand.
But "book direct" is not easy advice for first-time travelers.
When I travel somewhere new (where I don't have contacts) I often find myself experiencing the same reality that mainstream travelers do on their first stay: finding and booking directly with an owner or manager is way more time consuming and unpredictable than booking through one of the major listing sites.
As a vacation rental nerd, I typically put in the extra effort to book direct, but most of my non-vacation rental friends do not (and I don't blame them, it is a crapshoot.) This will change as we educate guests over time. But it is a very slow process.
That said, what makes a vacation rental business successful is not its lack of intermediaries. Instead, it is the way the hosts have built a relationship between themselves and their guests.
This is where there are countless discoveries to be made.
6 Principles for Using OTAs Wisely
Here are some important ideas I have settled on when determining where Online Travel Agencies (OTAs) fit into your greater marketing portfolio and more importantly, your mind. After all, how we think about listing sites shapes how we use them.
1. Avoid binary thinking
Don't ask whether OTAs are good or bad, all or nothing, right or wrong. OTAs are huge, complex machines (like the internet) so using binary language has the tendency to over-simplify. Is the internet good or bad? Is it right or wrong? In emerging markets, binary thinking leaves no room for the multitude of potential combinations in between.
2. Stop the victimization
Not unlike social media, OTAs are addictive: they influence the way you see the industry and your business. Like any potentially toxic relationship, be careful not to wander too far down the slippery slope of victimization. Be careful pointing fingers and heaping blame on OTAs claiming you are the victim — it's typically a sign of dependence (your own shortcoming). And the amount of energy one wastes can be fatal. It won't get you anywhere.
3. OTAs are using you, so you should use the OTAs
The opposite of the victim is the protagonist. Your goal is to build a visual style and communicate your mission to your guests. But remember, OTAs are not really a home for brands (I have tried endlessly to lobby this with most of the major OTAs but to no avail) -- why? Because their goal is to sell products. And they are a more powerful tool (at doing this) than has even been available to the independent entrepreneur. We must utilize that power!
Since our success depends on differentiation, when you do use listing sites try to pack your listings with your visual brand (name, colors, look/feel..etc). Make full use of the 'About Us' area. Make your description limited edition. This 'billboard effect' is real.
4. Four common models
To determine how you will use the OTAs, four models seem to be the most popular among vacation rental managers:
- Some don't list on OTAs at all (relying 100% on their own web presence)
- Others use OTAs as the only way to book their properties (no own web presence)
- Some list all their properties on OTAs (in addition to their own web presence)
- Others list some properties on OTAs (in addition to their own web presence) and only do so with a particular strategy in mind. This last way is my favorite. It makes OTAs less a scary beast and more a tool in your greater business.
5. Invest in Offline aka. “The Last Mile”
How do you help a user of the listing site to become a supporter of your small business? Going to the only place the OTAs can not: offline. When securing a booking through an OTA, place extra emphasis on your offline efforts that encourage long-term guest relationships, that drive referrals, and that increase retention. Here are a few examples.
- Preparing personal welcome cards (handwritten notes perform great)
- Investing in special welcome gifts (this should be a cost of doing business, not an added expense)
- Forging 'intimate' one-on-one relationships with guests in person or on phone/SMS
6. Use OTAs to buy time to diversify
If the goal is quick bookings that boost cash flow, using listing sites will do the trick. But it won’t necessarily lead to long-term growth and profitability. Split your focus between the tried and the new. The mere act of thinking about generating direct bookings AWAY FROM the listing sites will move you in that direction.
Warning: this process is not easy -- it takes time!
OTAs will forever be seductive low-hanging fruit. But I think the best brands will eventually pull their inventory. If you offer a great vacation rental experience and learn how to package it over time, customers will find you wherever you sell. Oppositely, if you don't have a great product and have not worked to package it over time, no, guests will never find you so the OTAs are indeed your best bet.
The Book Direct sentiment has exactly the right idea: to increase awareness about the virtues of directly supporting small businesses independent of major corporations. This is the magnetic north for hosts around the world. I watch hosts work towards it daily: it's possible, it's real, and it works.
But at the same time, be careful not overlook the other half of the equation: the traveler who, on average, is more likely to use a listing site for their first vacation rental stay due to ease, confidence, and familiarity. Most of them are not patient or convinced enough to apply for the book direct risk, at least right now. But they are ready to do so the second time around (if you are impressive enough).
The best strategy?
Don't fight against listing sites: incorporate them into your momentum. Be ready to draw the line if their actions or values are threatening your business (or sanctity). And recognize they are so powerful that you need a plan -- with this kind of influence, any third party has the potential to do more harm than good to your psyche.