Welcome to VRMB's "5 Vacation Rental Trends" Course
Watch why this isn't just another predictions piece and how to capitalize on the collective wisdom below >>
For the past few years, VRMB has done some kind of "predictions" piece for the coming year, calling on experts and thought-leaders to give the rest of us a heads-up on what's coming next, what to watch out for...etc.
And some of those predictions have been truly soothsayerish! Just last year, Dennis Schaal of Skift predicted the acquisition of HomeAway. And two years prior, Shawn Convery (then CEO of Kigo) predicted the rise of the channel manager ecosystem that would emerge soon thereafter. These predictions pieces are always fun and I'm sure you'll see a handful of great ones for 2017.
But this year at VRMB, we've decided to mix things up a bit. As much as we love ourselves a good guru, we also believe that there is wisdom in the crowd: the idea that a group of people is oftentimes smarter than an elite few at solving problems, coming to conclusions and, perhaps most importantly, predicting the future.
So what you have below are five major trends -- distilled from the VRMB community -- that we believe will be coming to their apex in 2017. Stay ahead of these trends to maximize returns and sustainability in your vacation rental business.
What do you want from your VR business?
Watch why we must hit the reset button to pick a battle we know we can win >>
As more momentum flows into the vacation rental industry, 2017 is likely to be one of our most polarizing years and one of its most pronounced trends will be vacation rental properties self-identifying into one of two buckets -- professionally managed (PM) and rent by owner (RBO) -- each with their own challenges.
PM properties will enter a commodity war with companies like Vacasa (and now Airbnb) openly accepting strength-versus-strength battles and Airbnb commoditizing inventory. And RBO properties will be asked to be more independent, more limited edition, and more self-confident than ever before.
The good news is that limited edition products and commodity goods compete less against one another, and more directly among themselves. So owners should enter a fight they believe they can win.
But it will also be an interesting year for the big travel companies like Booking.com and Expedia who will need to understand the nuances of the vacation rental segment better before trying to ram it through their conveyor belt.
Sinya: The limited edition prototype
Sometimes it takes a trip around the world to appreciate the beauty of our own backyard. For Lynn Gallimore, it took a journey to Tanzania to shift her mindset. After going on a safari to Africa, she came home and opened Sinya, a luxury safari-tent-inspired vacation rental overlooking Lone Man Creek, just outside of Wimberley.
Guests at are provided with specially selected shampoo soaps to support honey bee and sustainable pollination research. Fresh flowering plants, spa bathrobes, S’mores fixins, and firewood are included in the rental rate. Lynn meets every guest upon arrival, doesn’t use listing sites anymore, and is booked through 2017 -- a great testament to the strategy's potential.
Lynn Gallimore's Sinya is the prototypical limited edition vacation rental product, providing a more compelling experience than some of the best boutique hotels in the world.
The Houses on Manzanita Beach: Personality as the new luxury
Kim Bergstrom knew that her personality was one of the biggest "value-adds" for guests looking for an alternative to the traditional hotel experience in Oregon. But she knew she couldn't distinguish herself under the constraints of listing sites alone.
So she doubled-down on that uniqueness by working her story and the vibrant stories of her rentals into the marketing itself.
Guests who watch the video (above) immediately latch onto the fact that Houses on Manzanita Beach are not commodity properties, but limited edition ones: this woman Kim gets me, they think to themselves. Kim's personality and story distinguish her from other properties down the road...and they are unique facets that no big corporation could replicate.
What To Do
Decide What You Want From Your VR Business
1. Choose Yourself
If you’re a little guy, double down on your personality and property quirks and fight the urge to go generic or play by the big guys’ terms. This independent identity becomes your holy grail.
Choose to write personalized emails (over an automated ones) whenever you can, keep making that batch of fresh cookies for each guest, do special stuff that big companies simply cannot afford to do.
Refuse to lower your nightly rate and avoid being suckered into pricing wars. Instead, do the opposite by investing in better amenities, increasing your prices, and upping your game.
Work smarter, not harder
Increased competition means we need to get more analytical with our marketing investments. Watch here >>
Up until recently, independent owners and managers have done just fine by eyeballing their marketing results and going with their gut on which lead sources work and which ones don’t...a fine strategy, until you need to lift up the hood of your vacation rental business and make more intelligent marketing decisions.
We’re starting to see vacation rental “testers” take a much more pronounced lead over their “guesser” competition down the street. Perhaps even more vitally, guessers who fail to document their growth for much longer will lost in the woods without a map or a compass. It will be key to remember that not just any testing is good testing. In a way, any test that is done correctly will produce a successful outcome.
Considering the boutique nature of most independent vacation rental inventory, combined with the relative ease for a host to nurture the same guest back year after year, even the tiniest improvements when it comes to testing are starting to have unusually sustainable results.
Caragh Lake House: Simple, but smart A/B testing
Jens Bachem owns Caragh Lake House, a large lakefront house in County Kerry, Ireland. But when he noticed he wasn’t getting optimal pageviews on HomeAway, Flipkey, and Airbnb, he decided to get analytical.
Using Facebook’s advertising platform, Jens created the quintessential "A/B Test" -- two advertisement banners using the same text yet different featured images. Jens ran the two ads for three days costing a sum total of £15! He wasn't too bothered about conversions as much as which ad got more people to click -- isolating one photo as the winner. The audience he selected was exactly the same as was the copy BUT he used two separate photos.
The results were massive: Image 1 earned a 2.35% click through rate versus 1.34% for Image 2. That’s a 75% better conversion for Image 1, which Jens promptly installed on all listing sites. "I have hard empirical feedback on which of my thumbnails is more 'click friendly' and will ultimately deliver more bookings," Jens reflected. "Next challenge is same pic but different headline copy."
What To Do
Hold Yourself Accountable To Tracking
Keep a notepad beside your computer and keep tabs on which channel is delivering the most leads, which inquiry response email template generates the most bookings, which property headline is most popular...etc. Be deliberate with your tracking or it's worthless.
At the end of every month or quarter, assess your results, then double down on what’s working and eliminate what’s not. If you are testing simply and consistently, your improvement is guaranteed. If you are not tracking but not assessing, it's all for not.
Are you sitting on mounds of data that can be used as your control? Export .csv reports from major listing sites and determine historical average monthly pageviews, inquiries, booking conversion rates...etc. Now, when you test something new, beat you've got a baseline.
Attention spans are prohibitively short
No matter how great you are, if you cannot hold "online attention" you're losing bookings.
In 2013, the average attention span of a human was 8 seconds, one second less than that of a goldfish. That number is down from 12 seconds in 2000 (when the mobile revolution started) and is not reversing pace anytime soon. In fact, 2016 was the official year that mobile usage crossed desktop usage.
Taking this trend into account, most vacation rental marketing (from listing sites to email responses to website homepages) uses far too many words packed far too closely together. Big walls of text and run-on sentences are increasingly off-putting to today’s potential guests. So supplementing verbosity in 2017 will be visuals: both stunning photographs and the integration of video. Any rental without beautiful photos will be at a serious disadvantage. And with Youtube as now the world's second biggest search engine, any rental without some element of video is slowly losing grip.
This trend away from text and towards visuals is one the online marketing and hotel industries have been observing for years. However, because the vacation rental industry is so new, those adhering to them have historically only been the more advanced hosts. 2017 will be one of the "last calls" for limited edition owners and managers to upgrade with the times -- based on photo and video's increased accessibility, it will also be a sweet spot for leaders to gain market share.
The Enchanted Lookout: Photos that "do a property justice"
Tamara Shure's "The Enchanted Lookout" is a historic cabin that was originally built as a lookout cabin for volunteer firemen overlooking the forest and Volcan Mountain, which was sacred to the Native Americans for thousands of years. And since the feeling of the view looking out from Tamara's property is a complex, and textured one, she felt the need to capture it effectively.
But the only thing she had was iPhone photos that were uploaded on the fly. Which didn't do her property justice -- in fact, in hindsight, the amateur photos were turning a lot of people off.
"I Googled Architectural Photographers in the San Diego area, found that Thumbtack had a link that listed the Top 10," Tamara says. "I then posted my info on the link and within minutes I had ten fantastic architectural photographers contacting me. It's like the world is suddenly at my fingertips! I simply picked the one whose work embodied what I hope to capture."
Oster Golf Houses: Video as authority
As the owner of Oster Golf Houses, Rick Oster is a great example of someone who effectively blends business and pleasure, in this particular case, through the use of video in his vacation rental marketing.
Rick knew that his ideal clients were golfers looking to take advantage of the local Robert Trent Jones courses in the area. So he flew a drone video camera over each hole on the course, overlaid some simple graphics, and recorded his voice in the form of tips and insider advice on how to conquer each hole. Golfers coming to the area can't help but take advantage of Rick's tips and they're now playing the videos in realtime -- while they are standing with their driver preparing to tee off.
The result was been so successful that Rick replicated it for every hole on this course and several others, drawing the attention of the Robert Trent Jones marketing executives themselves. Rick now works closely with that very team to promote the courses and tourism to the area in an innovation and visual way.
What To Do
Optimize Text and Splurge On Visuals
Go through all your listings, web pages, and email templates, and optimize that text. Use line breaks, bullet points, bold and more colorful language when possible. Write with "skimmers" (not readers) in mind.
Consider a professional vacation rental copywriting company like GuestHook to re-do your descriptions, email responses, or even blog posts on a regular basis so your potential goldfish don't go belly-up.
Begin acquiring visual assets. Hire the best professional photographer you can find to take photos around town, of you/your staff, inside the property (you can never have enough). Splurge on the best you can possibly get.
Whether implementing a digital handshake on the cheap or hiring a videographer to do a mini bio about you and your destination, commit to integrating some element of business professional video into your portfolio.
Strengthening individual, group, and community levels
Watch how teamwork may just be the new survival tactic for independent owners and managers >>
Vacation rental businesses have not been historically known to work closely together, mostly because in a gold rush it’s more like every man for himself. However, as vacation rentals continue to come under attack in municipalities around the world, it’s looking like 2017 will be a do-or-die year for getting closer to our challenges, competitors, guests and perhaps most importantly, one another.
The immediate version of this trend is based on geographics: vacation rental owners and managers who used to ignore one another will need to unite against regulatory and community adversity. The more universal version is that vacation rental professionals the world over need to find in each other a support network. Both for our individual well-being, and the well-being of the greater whole.
2017's unification theme was foreshadowed in a speech by Tracy Lotz at the LiveRez Partner Conference when he proclaimed, If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.
"If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together." #2017VRGoals
No one independent can go at it alone
Short term rental advocates in Seattle, Washington, got proximity to their problems when a proposed law to shut down all rentals required true teamwork. One of Seattle's community leaders, Darik Eaton of Seattle Oasis (above center) reflects, "I've learned that Tee-shirt politics really works. We spent $1800 on 200 shirts that allowed us to simply see we were all on the same team. Well worth the investment." The fight is still pending, but Darik attributes coming together with local "competitors" Sea To Sky as the key to their survival thus far.
Another example came after more than five hours of public comment, when the Lightner proposal to ban home-sharing & rentals in San Diego was shot down by a vote of 7 to 2. The community was encouraged by the Council's level-headedness, and their sincere desire to bring about a future fair ordinance to regulate Short Term Rentals for all San Diegans, a direct result of the efforts by the Short Term Rental Alliance of San Diego.
Proof that an independent’s loyalty to a listing site can end up biting them in the ass, after suing New York City in October, Airbnb eventually dropped and settled their suit in November. But the irony wasn’t lost on Assembly member Linda B. Rosenthal, who stated: “The law as written was careful to abide by the CDA, which says the platforms cannot be fined. Airbnb, I guess, wanted to be extra sure that it wouldn’t be fined, which is kind of ironic because they keep promoting what they say are hosts’ interests — middle-class families — but they wanted to make sure hosts would be fined, not them.”
What To Do
Admit "I Cannot Do This On My Own"
Envelop yourself with role model vacation rental professionals. Not celebrities or experts: just people like you who have done it before and are willing to work together to help one another grow.
Start in your local community, with an open-invite to all stakeholders (friends and foes) to a delicious breakfast to begin a dialogue. Get close to your problems by facilitating real conversations.
Attend conferences that encourage progressive thinking. Commit to attending one great event each year. If you cannot afford it, ask the host if you can volunteer in exchange for a ticket.
Document, articulate, then share best practices that you have discovered and warn others about pitfalls or costly mistakes. Be generous and thoughtful to attract similar-minded colleagues.
Build "giving back" into your business model
Watch why playing out your vacation rental business over the next 5-10 years matters >>
As vacation rental professionals continue our crusade to stand out, we begin to develop more and more empathy for the system that sustains us but will collapse if we don't keep some balance. I have learned this process the intimate way with Esperanza Social Venture Club, a foundation that invests in the future of former gang leaders. It has helped both my neighborhood and my business grow.
More and more independent vacation rental owners and managers are starting to play out the consequences of their endeavors beyond the next fiscal quarter and one of the trends that will emerge in 2017 (and something that is very close to my heart) is vacation rental models with philanthropic components “baked into the bread.”
Instead of discounting the idea of giving back as something for big corporations or postponing it until a more profitable date, the most progressive vacation rental professionals are beginning community investments with tremendous ROI for tomorrow.
To take it a step further, the savviest vacation rental professionals are weaving philanthropy into their for-profit business models as support mechanisms for long-term success. [For some ideas, read The Quadruple Bottom Line approach to business]
Treasure Rome: Socially responsible hosting
Henrietta Kiss is a Hungarian (living with her vacation rentals in Rome) who decided to give back to the community of her origin by supporting Real Pearl Foundation, which helps children living in deep poverty through artistic education. Each piece of art is as beautiful as the story behind it.
More specifically, Henrietta donates $5/night on every direct reservation to the foundation. She’s also curating an art exhibition for the Foundation's Mentee children and she equips her property with artwork from the beneficiaries. The nature of this relationship has become a win-win-win for the foundation, Henrietta, and her guests.
Yosemite Stay: Giving time gives meaning
Holly and Jeff Webb own Yosemite Stay, the closest rental to the ski area in Yosemite National Park. They invest in their community by teaching skiing to kids with disabilities with assisted skiing devices. Being an expert skier, Jeff can ski off the chair while helping a child and a heavy device off the lift.
This style of giving back to their community using a particular expertise is a philanthropic initiative some of the world's most cutting edge hotel brands are trying to figure out.
And their way of giving back became a great reason to visit the property many times during the slow season, keep an eye on things, and participate in the community (even though the couple lives four hours from their rental).
What To Do
Do Good (It's Good for Business.) But Do It Now
Start small by donating a percentage of all profits or simply the leftover food or gently-used items from a guest’s stay to a local shelter, take a photo of the delivery, and share it with the guests as a follow-up.
Offer to pay for “volunteer time” so employees can sink their teeth into a local foundation they’re passionate about and watch their productivity and motivation increase. Donating proceeds in the name of your staff works too.
Hire locals who might not have gotten a fair chance elsewhere. Donate a week at your rental to the most wonderful silent auction in town. Target giving opportunities that make cents in more ways than ways than one.
Conclusion & Requests
This was a really fun course to create, mainly because it involved reading so many incredible success stories and pulling from them common denominators of success.
One trend that was not mentioned but definitely at the core of each success story was the concept of fulfilment -- how during increasingly competitive stages of growth, independent owners and managers need to stay appreciative and gratified...factors that the vacation rental industry is predicated upon...factors without which no level of success really matters in the end.
Another pervasive theme that did not make it into this summary was empathy: the idea that the most successful vacation rental professionals in 2017 will be those who are able to empathize with the people, places, and things that sustain us, yet will collapse if we don't give them some balance. Self interest is fine, but these folks are playing the consequences of their decisions out over the next 5-10 years.
Lastly, we are always keen to welcome newcomers to our community. What have you noticed about the industry as we head into 2017? What are some of the struggles that you feel? What are some of the areas you've felt yourself and your vacation rental business start to grow? Feel free to email matt [at] vrmb.com with your thoughts -- I respond to everything 🙂