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Glossbrenners' VR Owner Secrets

5 Posts tagged with the marketing_techniques tag
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The expression “a picture is worth a thousand words” and other phrases conveying the same idea come up frequently in modern civilization. One source traces it at least as far back as 1862 in Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons (no, we haven’t read it, we Googled it!), in which a character says, “The drawing shows me at one glance what might be spread over ten pages in a book.”

 

Not to put too fine a point on it, this is just common sense. There isn’t a vacation-rental owner on the planet who wouldn’t agree. So why do so many VR owners, especially new ones, fail to heed its obvious accuracy and wisdom? Our guess is that they’ve simply got their hands full with so many other issues and concerns that they just don’t pay attention to what is arguably the most potent sales tool in their online ads. Two mistakes loom particularly large.

Mistake #1

First, a surprising number of VR owners at every level of experience fail to take full advantage of the number of photos they may upload as part of the fee they pay to online advertising sites. You can now post 16 photos on VRBO.com, even if you sign up for the least expensive listing option. HomeAway lets you post 24 photos, and FlipKey offers unlimited photos. 

 

Now, we know what you’re thinking: How can I come up with 16 to 24 pictures and keep each one interesting and informative? The answer is to broaden your scope a bit and think of your property as the setting for a truly memorable vacation. You absolutely must include pictures of the rooms and amenities your place offers: the main living area, the master bedroom, other bedrooms, the kitchen, outdoor decks and terraces, the pool or hot tub if you have one, and so on.

 

But then consider branching out to pictures that convey those one thousand words about what your location offers. Perhaps a picture of a particularly fun local bar or restaurant, with a caption indicating why you included it and how close it is to your property. If a nearby resort is a major attraction, consider getting permission to use one of their photos, which will almost certainly have been taken by a professional photographer. Think about using your collection of photos to present a highly specific travel brochure.

Mistake #2

The second major mistake that many VR owners make is in taking the actual photos. The technology and techniques of photography have changed dramatically since the introduction of digital cameras. For one thing, there are no film costs or developing and printing costs—which means you can take as many shots as you want without worrying about the expense.

For another, today’s digital cameras do most of the work for you. When we bought a Pentax Spotmatic 35mm SLR camera many years ago, we had to think about shutter speed, lens aperture, focus, light, depth-of-field, and so on. Today, the camera’s built-in computer chip handles everything—unless you want to assume control. All of which means that it’s nearly impossible to take a bad picture. 

 

“Bad,” technically, that is. Perfect lighting, focus, and color, etc. But this misses an important point: subject matter. In our many years in this industry, we’ve seen some absolutely appalling pictures: beach homes photographed under gray skies, bathroom shots with the toilet seat up, kitchens with the trash can front and center, outdoor seating areas with a lonely umbrella table and the chairs stacked up nearby. The list goes on. Our consistent reaction is “What in the world were these owners thinking? If only there were a good book or guide of some sort that we could recommend.”

New Guides to Help You Rent More Weeks

Fortunately, we recently discovered one: A new series of beautifully illustrated ebooks on how to photograph vacation rentals by professional photographer Alan Egan. He calls them his “Rent More Weeks Guides,” and you can preview them and buy copies for download at www.rentmoreweeks.com (Alan’s a Brit, married to a Dane, and they live and work on a yacht that cruises the world, so packaging his guides as ebooks makes perfect sense).    

 

Alan said in a recent article that the first thing he (and most travelers) do when planning a vacation is dream—about “things we like to do and things we don’t have too much time for in our normal day-to-day lives, with lots of relaxation, fun, and some good weather thrown in.” If you want more bookings,” he goes on to say, “it’s very important that you show photos that depict dreams instead of photos that only show your property.”

 

Among other things, Alan will tell you how to capture a perfect blue sky by adjusting your camera’s settings. He also presents dozens of great suggestions for “dressing the set”—adding flowers, a colorful beach towel, glasses of wine and other simple props that add interest and help prospective renters more easily visualize their “dream.”

 

What’s really cool about Alan’s “Rent More Weeks Guides” are all the before-and-after pictures, each one of which is definitely worth a thousand words. Whether your vacation rental is a modest little cottage in the woods or a luxurious oceanfront beach house, you’re sure to find ideas that will help you take better photos and boost your bookings. 

 

Happy Renting!
Alfred and Emily Glossbrenner

 

Alfred and Emily Glossbrenner are the founders of FullyBookedRentals (www.fullybookedrentals.com), a website focused on helping new and experienced VR owners advertise, market, manage, and make money from their second homes. They also own and operate a very successful vacation-rental property in Bucks County, Pennsylvania (www.buckscountycottage.com).

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Of all the issues we vacation-rental owners must deal with, the one that gets the least attention is the problem of freeloaders. You know what we’re talking about: relatives, friends, and friends of friends who ask to use your VR property when you’re not in residence, and sometimes even joining you when you are. And, of course, it’s assumed that you won’t be charging them. They’re blood relations and friends, after all.

 

They are also self-centered, inconsiderate boors, in our opinion. We’re sorry, but there’s simply no pleasant way to say it. By asking you to allow them to use your property, they are instantly putting you into an awkward position. If you say “yes,” you will probably be giving up potential income. If you say “no,” no matter how gently, you may risk souring the relationship.

Problems in Paradise

If you doubt the severity of this problem, you need only turn to Englishman Peter Mayle’s classic 1989 book, A Year in Provence. No sooner had the author and former advertising man and his wife bought and renovated a farmhouse in Provence than friends and semi-distant acquaintances began calling to see about “popping in” for a day or two. In the audio-book version, narrated by Peter Mayle himself, the chapter centering on a particularly obnoxious and ungrateful British “guest” is priceless.

 

Much more recently, there was a story published in the Wall Street Journal on October 31, 2011: “When Your Vacation Home Becomes Everybody’s Vacation Home” It was written by freelance writer and frequent contributor, Kathleen A. Hughes, who lives in Rolling Hills, California.

 

Here’s how it begins:

 

“We love our friends dearly. But do we really want them sleeping in our bed? That’s the dilemma faced by many of those who buy second homes… in desirable locales. My husband and I recently learned this the hard way after buying a loft in Manhattan as a future retirement spot.

 

“‘Great! Now we'll have a place to stay in New York!’ was the enthusiastic response of friends, colleagues and even a few distant acquaintances....

 

“But we quickly learned that saying ‘no,’ or just failing to offer hospitality, can be very awkward, creating tensions in friendships that had never known a cross moment.

 

“‘Why can't you just give me the keys?’ asked one friend at a party after explaining that he and his wife were heading to Manhattan to see a play. When my husband politely declined, sputtering something about the strict co-op rules, our friend said, ‘I'm not talking to you anymore!’ and walked away. That left my husband standing next to the wife, weakly suggesting midtown hotels.”

Vacation Home? What Vacation Home?

Ms. Hughes points out that some people try to avoid such situations by simply not telling anyone that they own a second home. However, that doesn’t strike us as a workable solution. After all, what do you then say as you’re telling a friend about your weekend, and he or she asks, “You go there a lot. Where do you usually stay?”

 

It’s far better to be honest, should the subject come up. Just be sure that you have thought through what your response will be when someone asks to use your place.

 

People can be amazingly cheap and inconsiderate. Ms. Hughes cites the case of an Ocean City, Maryland, vacation-home owner who estimates his annual costs to be about $38,000. One of this fellow’s friends used the place and left a $10 bottle of wine in “payment.” Other guests would call up asking, “Have the sheets been changed?”

Pulling Up the Welcome Mat

So what to do? According to Kathleen Hughes, there are two broad categories of second-home owners: the happy ones and the “doormats,” and the doormats are in the majority by far.

 

Her analysis is by no means scientific, but on balance it does sound logical that most people would do anything to avoid unpleasantness and are thus inclined to hand over the keys when asked. Ms. Hughes also points out that a true friend wouldn’t ask. A true friend would be aware of the time, effort, and expense required to prepare your place for guests (not to mention the potential loss of income, we might add).

 

The happy second-home owners, says Ms. Hughes, are the ones who have no problem setting boundaries. The man who was paying $38,000 a year to carry his condo, for example, created a “club” offering memberships to his formerly freeloading guests: $2,000 a year for the right to stay in the condo for three weeks, plus $10 for each night actually spent there, plus cleaning costs. Some who had been using the condo for free turned him down, but 13 friends quickly signed up. The owner is now getting $30,000 a year in income instead of subsidizing everyone.

Our Advice for Handling Requests from Friends and Family

We think that’s a very clever solution to the freeloader problem. But we have an even simpler idea, which may be why we ourselves have never had a freeloader problem. We have made it clear from the moment we began offering our property to guests that it’s a business for us, and that we depend on it to generate part of our annual household income.

 

That shifts the entire perspective from the notion that the property is sitting idle and unoccupied, “So why can’t we stay there?” to “Oh, we didn’t realize it was an important moneymaker for you.” Friends and family members quickly grasp the opportunity cost involved.  Each day we let them use the place is a day we can’t rent to a paying guest. And as our accountant would surely remind us, it may also have tax implications because any days we give away for free will likely fall under the IRS’s definition of “personal use” of the property.

 

Of course, that’s not to say that you can’t give some special considerations to friends and family members who express an interest in visiting your vacation home:

 

  • Offer a small “friends and family” discount (5 or 10 percent). Set this up ahead of time, and then when you’re asked about your property, you can respond by saying, “We’d love for you to you consider booking our place. We even have a special ‘Friends and Family’ rate.”

 

  • Clue them in to the benefits of off-season rentals. Many people aren’t aware that vacation-rental rates often drop dramatically—sometimes 50 percent or more—outside of peak season, when kids are back in school and the demand isn’t as great.

 

  • Shorten your minimum stay. If you usually require a 7-night minimum but find yourself with a few nights open between guests and you’d prefer your place not sit empty, you might give friends or family members the chance to book those nights.

 

  • Waive the damage deposit. Many long-time VR owners reward their repeat guests by not charging a damage deposit, the notion being that they’ve established a relationship with each other and don’t need the damage deposit to ensure that the property will be left in good order. You could extend this same courtesy to friends and family members.
Conclusion

The bottom line is that if you own a second home, you need to be prepared for dealing with would-be freeloaders. You have to set boundaries. And you have to stand firm. Whatever you do, don’t be a doormat. Any “friends” who drop you because you wouldn’t let them stay in your place when you’re not using it were never true friends in the first place.

 

Happy Renting!
Alfred and Emily Glossbrenner

 

Alfred and Emily Glossbrenner are the authors of the book/CD package How to Make Your Vacation Property Work for You! and the founders of FullyBookedRentals (www.fullybookedrentals.com), a website focused on helping new and experienced VR owners advertise, market, manage, and make money from their second homes.

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The person on the other end of the line was beside herself. She’d listed her second home on literally dozens of vacation rental advertising sites and she was getting hardly any bookings. What’s more, when she tried to offer a “special” to encourage vacationers to consider her place, it took her half a day to enter the information at all of those sites.

“Are these free sites?” we asked. “Yes,” she said, and then hesitated, “…most of them.”

We were gentle and kind as we always are, but our caller had clearly made two classic beginner’s mistakes. First, she had created listings for her property on every VR site she could find. Second, she had been taken in by the extravagant and unsubstantiated claims of many free and fee-based VR advertising sites regarding their web traffic numbers and their search rankings.

We eventually got her to understand, we hope, that if you’re a VR owner, you want to spend your advertising dollars and your time wisely. This was not her fault. She just didn’t know.

Quality Not Quantity

The fact is if you own a vacation rental, your goal should be to create listings on as few sites as possible to get all the bookings you need. And you shouldn’t mind paying a reasonable fee to list your property on sites that do a good job for you. The reason so many VR advertising sites offer “free” listings is that their owners are trying to build their inventory of properties in hopes that one day they can start charging an annual fee.

This came as a revelation to our caller. Being a bright woman, however, and knowing that we’ve been following the vacation rental field for over a decade, she asked our opinion on how to pare down her list of sites to a manageable number. What key features should she look for when deciding which sites to keep and which to get rid of?

Here, in compressed form, is what we told her.

Essential Things to Look for in a VR Advertising Site

1. Overall Look and Feel. Is the website attractive and easy to use, for both vacation rental owners and for travelers? Pay particular attention to the listing format and the number of photos displayed. Spend a few minutes looking at sample listings and testing the site’s search features. Pretend you’re planning a trip. Does the site make it easy for you to find the perfect property in the location you want to visit?

 

2. Number of Listings. How many listings does the site have for properties in your area? More is better. It’s a sign that other owners have found the site to be a good source of bookings. Also, travelers like to have multiple properties to choose from when they’re planning a vacation. While it might seem counterintuitive, you want to advertise on sites where you’ll have some competition.

 

3. Site Traffic. How does the website’s monthly traffic compare to other sites you’re considering? You can use a free web analytics tool like Compete (www.compete.com) to compare sites based on the number of unique monthly visitors. If you’re trying to decide between, say, two sites that cater to travelers with pets, go with the one that gets more traffic.

 

4. Cost. What’s the annual cost of a basic listing, and how many photos do you get for that price? Less expensive isn’t necessarily better, and free sites can be a real time-waster. Expect to pay about $150 to $350 per year, a bargain when you consider that if your property rents for $1,000 a week, a single booking will pay for your listing several times over.

 

5. Link Policy. Will the site let you include a link to your own website or to an online photo album with more pictures of your property and the surrounding area? Many long-time vacation rental owners consider this to be so important that they refuse to list with any site that won’t allow it.

 

6. Customer Service. The best VR advertising sites will have gone to the trouble of creating a “Help” or “Frequently Asked Questions” (FAQ) page with answers to most of the questions you may have about how the site works. They also make it easy for you to contact a real person via email and/or phone if you can’t find the answer you’re looking for in the online help.

 

7. Reputation. Is this a company you want to do business with? Read the site’s “About Us” page to get a sense of the people behind the company and their commitment to promoting “best practices” in the vacation rental industry. How long have been in business? Do they seem to understand the issues that are important to VR owners and travelers?

 

You’ll have to devote some time and effort to finding the most productive set of VR advertising sites for your property. And you should review your advertising program once a year and get rid of the sites that aren’t performing for you. The good news is that your efforts will pay off in the greatest number of bookings for the least amount of time, effort and money.

Happy Renting!
Alfred and Emily Glossbrenner

 

P.S. For an annotated, regularly updated list of recommended vacation rental advertising sites, visit FullyBookedRentals (www.fullybookedrentals.com) and click on the link for our free VR Resources Guide.

 

Alfred and Emily Glossbrenner are the authors of the book/CD package How to Make Your Vacation Property Work for You! and the founders of FullyBookedRentals (www.fullybookedrentals.com), a website focused on helping new and experienced VR owners advertise, market, manage and make money from their second homes.

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The first article in this three-part series advised starting your vacation-rental advertising program by developing really good content and pictures for your listings on VRBO.com, HomeAway.com, and other sites that make sense for your property. The second article recommended getting your own Internet domain name for your property and pointing it at one of your listings. In this, the final article in the series, we’re going to offer some guidance on creating a dedicated website for your property should you feel there are still opportunities you are missing. 

Why Create Your Own Website?

There are at least three reasons for creating your own website:

 

1.    Flexibility and freedom would be at the top of that list. With your own website, you can do pretty much anything you want: unlimited photos, unrestricted videos, and even off-the-wall features, like “Grandma Keller’s Famous Lobster Pot Pie” or “My Favorite Day Trips,” all of it designed to project your personality and to set your property apart from the competition.

 

2.    There’s also the fact that someone landing on your website isn’t as likely to quickly click away to see what others are offering in the same location, as is the case on leading vacation rental advertising sites. Here’s just one example of a dedicated website for a vacation rental on Nantucket: www.canopache.com. The basic information and photos presented are very similar, if not identical, to what you might find for this home on VRBO.com, but the presentation and “look and feel” are quite different.

 

3.    Finally, there is the “Wow!” factor. To see what we mean, take a look at www.starfishblue.com, an exceptional site created by the Web design firm Aloha Vacation Rental (www.alohavacationrental.com) for a VR located in Fiji. Another one that’s worth visiting is www.thebaysedge.com, a WordPress-based site created by a company called Dare to Think (www.daretothink.co.uk) for two waterfront apartments on California’s Bodega Bay.

What Will It Cost?

In our opinion, unless you have both graphic design and Web programming skills, you really shouldn’t go the do-it-yourself route. Instead, bite the bullet and spend the money to hire a Web design firm, preferably one with experience creating sites for other VR owners.

 

Prices vary widely—$500 to $3,500 or more for the initial site design. So figure out what you can afford to spend and then find a company that’s willing to work for that amount. Keep in mind, too, that you’ll have ongoing hosting costs of around $8 to $10 per month.

Web Design Firms with VR Experience

Here’s our “short list” of Web design companies whose vacation-rental work we know and admire:

 

•    Aloha Vacation Rental (www.alohavacationrental.com)

•    Blizzard Internet Marketing (www.blizzardinternet.com)

•    Dare to Think (www.daretothink.co.uk)

•    Relevant Arts (www.relevantarts.com)

•    TK’s Web Services (www.tksvacationrental.com)

•    Web Design by Robin (www.web-design-by-robin.com)

•    Websites Hawaii (www.websiteshawaii.com)

Another Amazing and Affordable Website Option

The next best (and less expensive) option to a custom website is undoubtedly Drew Rudman’s VRConnection Standalone Website. In a nutshell: You sign up for a 90-day free trial at www.vrconnection.com and create a listing, following the prompts for entering descriptive text and uploading photos. It’s really just a matter of using similar information found on your VRBO.com or HomeAway.com listing. (Note: It’s important not to use the exact same content for your VRConnection site because in most cases Google is programmed not to show duplicate content on search results and to only highlight the site with a higher authority rank). 

 

Once you’ve done that, you press a button and, Presto! Rudman’s software transforms your listing into a website for your property. If you have your own domain name, you then arrange for it to point to your VRConnection website. The entire process takes less than an hour. Click here to see the site we produced for our own vacation-rental property: www.buckscountycottage.com.

 

VRConnection’s prices after the 90-day trial are very reasonable: $125/year for the basic listing plus $50/year for the standalone website. (To be clear, you get both a VRBO.com /HomeAway.com-style listing and a standalone website.)

Conclusion

In the past few years, the cost of creating a website for your vacation rental has gone down, while the number of options for doing so has gone up. Our advice remains the same, however. Start by creating listings on VRBO.com and HomeAway.com. These sites are the only way to get the search-engine exposure you need. Register your “cocktail-party quick handle” domain name and point it at one of those listings. Then and only then should you consider creating your own website.

 

And when you do, be sure to take full advantage of the flexibility this option offers to project your personality and that of your property. As a final step, point your VR’s domain name at your dedicated website, and use that Internet address everywhere: business cards, brochures and promotional postcards, and email signature files.

 

Happy Renting!

Alfred and Emily Glossbrenner

 

Alfred and Emily Glossbrenner are the authors of the book/CD package How to Make Your Vacation Property Work for You! and the founders of FullyBookedRentals (www.fullybookedrentals.com), a website focused on helping new and experienced VR owners advertise, market, manage, and make money from their second homes.

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In the first article in this three-part series about the most effective way to advertise your vacation rental, we strongly urged owners to start by creating really great listings on VRBO.com and HomeAway.com. These are the two biggest and most popular vacation-rental advertising sites and the ones that will help you get the most exposure for your property in the shortest amount of time.

 

We are all in favor of VR owners creating Web sites for their properties. We just don’t think it should be the first step in a marketing program. It’s not even the second step. The second step is to create what we call the “cocktail party quick handle.”

 

Consider: You’re at a party and someone is interested in learning more about your property. In our case, we could say, “Well, go to HomeAway.com and search for listing number 212757.”

 

But that’s simply a non-starter. No one is going to remember that address. So what we say instead is “Go to Bucks County Cottage dot com.” This is something people are much more likely to remember.

Screen shot 2011-07-21 at 1.51.45 PM.png

And where do our cocktail-party acquaintances end up when they key in that Web address? They can end up at any Web page we want them to visit. It could be our vacation-rental listing on HomeAway.com, or our listing on VRBO.com, or our own dedicated Web site if we have one. (We do, so that's where www.buckscountycottage.com now takes you, as you'll see in the nearby screenshot.) This is the magic of “domain forwarding.”

Domain Forwarding

It sounds complicated, but it’s not. Here are the steps to follow to create your own “cocktail party quick handle”:

 

  • Come up with a catchy, descriptive, or otherwise memorable name. Something like StoweSkiChalet or MauiParadise or ProvenceFarmhouse would fill the bill. This, followed by “.com” or “.net” or some other extension, will be your domain name—your “cocktail party quick handle.” (It’s a good idea to think of several names in case the one you want has already been taken.)

 

  • Next, go to a domain-registrar site to search for and buy your domain name. We use GoDaddy.com because of its low prices and great customer service, but there are many others to choose from. The cost will typically be about $7 to $12 a year. Some domains may cost more. And some will definitely not be available. But in general, domain names can be very inexpensive. We suggest opting for a “.com” domain name—even if it costs a bit more—because it is what most people expect and may even assume when you’re at a party. Non-“.com” domain names (.net, .info, .org, etc.) may be less expensive, but it’s just one more detail you have to communicate.

 

  • After purchasing your domain name, the final step is to tell the registrar the Web address you want to use as your forwarding address. (On GoDaddy.com, be sure you’re logged in and then click on My Products and then Domain Manager.) If you want your domain name to take people to your listing on VRBO.com, for example, just copy and paste the URL for your VRBO.com listing into the domain-forwarding box.

 

You’ll need to allow a day or two for the new domain name and its forwarding address to propagate through the Domain Name Server (DNS) system that serves as the address book for the Internet. Then, all that remains is to test it using your browser.

Marketing Leverage

Once you’ve got a working “cocktail party quick handle” Web address, you’ll be amazed at how many opportunities exist to make use of it: business cards, postcards, email signature files…. The list goes on and on. (We’ve started a forum topic so that Community members can share examples of marketing materials they’ve created to leverage their online listings.)

 

So until you’re good and ready to invest the time and mental energy to create an effective Web site for your vacation-rental property, your “cocktail party quick handle” and domain forwarding will give you a quick and easy way to spread the word about your place and begin generating inquiries and bookings.

 

Happy Renting,

Alfred and Emily Glossbrenner

 

This is the second article in a three-part series. In the next post, we’ll explore the various options available to you for creating a Web site devoted to your vacation rental. And of course, once you do that, you can easily change your domain forwarding so that it points to your new site.

 

Alfred and Emily Glossbrenner are the authors of the book/CD package How to Make Your Vacation Property Work for You! and the founders of FullyBookedRentals (www.fullybookedrentals.com), a website focused on helping new and experienced VR owners advertise, market, manage, and make money from their second homes.