VRBO has garnered some negative press ever since Expedia acquired the company late last year. The company has instituted a guest fee, changed the subscription model and the sort methodology which determine what order listings appear on the site. But, the biggest misstep made by the company, is the lack of communication to owners and property managers before the changes were made. Property owners have expressed their anger on several sites and have become quite vocal. Some have even begun a class action lawsuit.
Property Managers should not react out of fear to the potential threat posed by VRBO, Airbnb and their like. Now is the time to use the owner and guest dis-satisfaction to your company’s competitive advantage. Your property management company has the local advantage and balances the interest of both owners and guests to benefit both. Remember what business you are in. You are selling an experience.
Is your company’s website optimized for the search engines? Most people only think of optimizing for Google because they have more traffic. Having potential guests find your website is the important first step. On page optimization examines page URLs, titles, descriptions, headings, keywords and links. Off page optimization strategically drives traffic to the site through social media networks like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, Pinterest and others. Engage past guests, potential guest, potential owners and owners with emails, newsletters and helpful blog posts. In many markets, property management companies outrank VRBO listings by successfully using these strategies.
The guest experience begins when they interact with your website. Many companies do not invest in frequent website updates and therefore they can become dated and cumbersome to manage. Even worse, the websites are confusing for guests to find what they are looking for.
When a guest goes to book, is your website secure and their information protected? With cybersecurity increasingly grabbing headlines from break-ins at large companies, consumers are more wary about providing their payment information online. Property management companies must take site security seriously! Just ask yourself, how many bookings go uncompleted on your site?
Studies show most people have 8-second attention spans. How long do guests stay on your site and where do they go? Your website must be easy to navigate. Guest should be able to perform an advanced search to locate a rental with all the amenities desired.
Is your website optimized so the guest can find all the information needed to find and book the perfect house? Does it create a sense of urgency to book before the home gets snatched up by another guest? Is it secure or do guest drop the shopping cart right before booking? Do you continue to build excitement after booking with helpful information for the guest on attractions, restaurant and special events?
Other advantages your property management team has are reservationist and customer service reps who know the area and know the properties your company manages. While technology continues to change and is easier than ever to use, there is a percentage of the population that needs to speak to a human being. Provide that option with the phone or a live chat on your site. While VRBO owners are evaluated against a 24-hour call back to potential guests, it has been proven the quickest response is the one that will usually secure the booking.
What happens when the guests arrive to the vacation rental and there is an emergency? VRBO has no ability to provide assistance. Property owners may be located a distance away and not immediately reachable. Property management companies have staff on call to react and respond to guests immediately in the event of an emergency.
What Services Differentiates Your Company
Every employee should know what your company stands for and be able to express it to guests and owners. Some property management companies will go that extra mile to make sure the guest is satisfied. I have seen this include delivery of a new ironing board cover after 5pm (where traffic was bumper to bumper). Many people would think this was not that important that it couldn’t wait until the next day. This company believed in providing exemplary customer service and followed through. As a result, they continue to have a loyal following of repeat guests. On the other hand, I know of property management companies that strive to minimize expenses to the owner. Items that frequently break are maintained in an inventory to be used while a replacement can be located. This eliminates high cost replacements and allows the owner an opportunity to get involved. The property management company employees are an asset that VRBO cannot duplicate; VRBO is a platform listing site and serves neither guests nor owners interests.
To effectively compete with VRBO and other local companies, you must have a content strategy for each step in the buying process. This used to be a competitive advantage of local companies, However HomeAway & VRBO recently announced through its affiliate partner, gogobot.com, homeowners can now customize and create “Insiders Guides” linked to their home listing. These guides capitalize on both the homeowners’ advice and Gogobot’s editorial content and reviews from members. Potentially, these reviews could be deemed more reliable as objective content rather than a one-sided view provided by a vacation rental company.
Some guests may only be “kicking tires” when they visit your site. They may be day dreaming about a vacation but might not be ready to commit. Remember, you are selling an experience. Use different channels to highlight the many attractions to your area. Perhaps, a YouTube video of a guest Hang Gliding for the first time. How about a blog posts for all the hidden locations to “go antiquing” in your area? Get guests thinking about all the attractions and what they want to do when they arrive.
Alternatively, writing about how your company handles things when they don’t go as expected can be quite revealing and convincing to a guest who has never rented a vacation home before. Show the advantages of having a property management company representing the guest and homeowners interest on your site. How did your company respond to the guest when the house got struck by lightning and the guest had to be moved? A VRBO owner would not have many options. One local company I know of had the guests moved to an alternative rental within a few hours.
Make use of social media channels
Encourage guests and potential guests to follow your company on social media. This allows you to remain in front of the guest throughout the year. These posts should not be “strong arm” tactics for the sale but can range from scenic pictures of the area, current events, newsworthy happenings, or special offers. Each social media channel has a different flavor and each can play a role in your strategy. Make a calendar and assign responsibilities for postings to each channel on a regular basis.
Transparency & Trust
Homeowners who list through VRBO wanted to maintain some control over their investment and be involved in the rental process. The contact with the guest prior to booking allows them to do some screening of the guest and set expectations. Unfortunately, VRBO’s recent policy changes are reducing this control or penalizing owners who still want to exercise it. Property management companies can reduce this burden on owners and most importantly are local so if something should happen where a tenant must be evicted, they can act quickly before property damage occurs.
Travel scams, where guest thought they booked a house, only to find other renters there upon their arrival make guest more cautious. Property management companies are in the position to make both sides of the transactions more secure.
Disclosure of additional fees or bottom line pricing will improve guest confidence in the process. Increasingly travelers are resenting the additional fees imposed for what seems to be every little thing. Airline baggage fees as an example. Vacation rental booking fees, pet fees, security deposits or property damage protection insurance and vacation insurance should be disclosed early in the process, with the ability of the guest to opt out where appropriate.
Pay Per Click
Generally, it is better to get organic clicks to your website. This can be easily done by creating content your renters and owners are looking for in their searches for each stage in their buyers’ journeys. However, if you have not been consistently writing blogs, posting to social media and creating useful content, then advertising with Google Adwords and targeted Facebook ads can help to generate additional traffic to your site. Don’t throw away your advertising dollars. Develop clear goals of your advertising campaign. Perform some research on keywords that are likely to bring in traffic that will convert at a cost that will provide a positive ROI.
Testimonials and reviews on the company website may be helpful to some potential guests. FlipKey and VRBO actively encourage guest reviews. Unfortunately, many rental companies only show positive reviews. In this day and age, this may not be the most effective strategy. Nobody can be perfect all the time and showing how the company responds to a complaint is one of the best ways a property management company can distinguish itself and its service. Guest will discount the value of reviews that are only glowing. Recent Studies have shown 90% of customers buying decisions are influenced by online reviews.
Reviews posted by guests on dedicated review sites, like Yelp, are perceived as being more objective. Property management companies must monitor these review sites and respond in a timely matter. A reputation can be shattered by a disgruntled guest. There are tools to help manage this, like reputation.com. At minimum, set up a Google alert on your company name to have notifications emailed to you every day and assign someone to professionally respond to every review; both positive and negative.
A troubling trend recently is guests using these review sites as a form of blackmail or to obtain additional discounts from the owner or property management company. Providing great customer service and promptly responding to complaints will legitimately solve most complaints. Unfortunately, a blackmailer does not have a legitimate complaint. Giving into the blackmailer will only encourage the activity. One way of fight back is to maintain an internal list of blackmail attempts and it would be even better if it was industry wide. I predict it won’t take long for things to catch up with this unethical behavior.
Airbnb allows owners to review guest and provides owners a million dollar host guarantee against property damage. VRBO recently announced they were adding a similar guest review function.
Contact Prior to Visit
Many guests book a vacation home a year or more in advance of their stay. This provides your property management a unique opportunity to engage with them over this period. Creating the sense of excitement and anticipation while also providing helpful information and practical advice. While a packing for vacation check list may be useful; it is not unique. Ask the reservation staff or maintenance crew for suggestions based on real customer questions or actual maintenance calls.
Contact After the Sale
Offer the guest an exclusive right to rent the same home for the same week next year. Of course, this should expire about a week after their stay. Ask for guest reviews about your company or the specific home. Most importantly, keep up regular contact with a newsletters or invitation for upcoming events. It is far less expensive to keep a customer than to acquire a new customer.
Customer Relationship Management software will allow you to maintain a profile on each customer, keep track of social media that engages them and their engagement with your content. If you know your customer attended a food event; a special invitation or discount for future food events will encourage them to book another trip. Everyone likes to feel special. Going that extra step to recognize individual likes and interests will put your management company far ahead of the completion.
Now is the time to canvass VRBO owners who may be looking at alternatives. Starting the conversation now will position your company in the owners mind when they are ready to make a move. Depending on where you are in your “season”; they may not be willing to make a change today, but perhaps before the next rental season. Most vacation rental companies do not do a good job of attracting owners. In the past, they didn’t have to – owners came to them. The marketplace and alternatives are becoming more competitive.
Most property management company websites are focused on attracting renters. This is no surprise since that is the bread and butter. However, having an attractive inventory of homes to offer makes the job much easier. Take the time now to produce content addressing property owners’ pain points who were using VRBO and what your property management company can provide to provide better services to their guest while still involving the owner in the process. Seek out LinkedIn groups to post blogs helpful to homeowners to. There are even dedicated Facebook pages. Including content for your owners to keep your pipeline full of quality inventory.
The vacation rental market is rapidly changing. We, at Paveya have been intimately involved in the market for over a decade and have witnessed changes first hand. We keep track of trends, not fads, to position our clients on the cutting edge of website design practices, effective content creation, and social media strategy to attract visitors who will convert to bookings. If your company would like help in any or all of the areas above, contact Paveya today. Turn your threats into opportunities to grow.