I had originally named this piece, "5 Things I Hate About The Vacation Rental Industry,” for two reasons. The first reason is selfish. The more eye-catching (or dramatic you could say) a post title is, the more likely its content will be read and digested. Using outrageous titles is a trick up most bloggers' sleeves.
But it became very apparent very quickly that the word “hate” makes people very uneasy. It flusters them. It offends them. When I canvassed the HomeAway community for contributions, the feedback was overwhelmingly uneasy…
“First, I don't "hate" anything about renting my vacation property,” said the user thaxterlane. “The (author) is opening up a bad can of worms with his philosophy in my opinion,” said sodamo. Anja took it further and said, “one of the things that I don't like about "The Industry"....is articles like the one you are about to write. I know it sounds harsh. It's not about you....I'm just not a fan of "The Industry". Writing about owners not being "unified"...writing about "hating things"...writing about "obnoxious guests" and bad management in "The Industry"....in my view, adds to fostering more misunderstanding about our common trade.”
But there was a second reason I wanted to use that particular title and theme.
After working as a travel writer in Costa Rica, I decided to move to Panama City, Panama in 2006. The capital city (and the country as a whole) back then was just on the cusp of what would become the biggest and fastest real estate boom perhaps in the history of modern Central America.
Several stars had aligned for Panama in 2006 and having been fortunate enough to catch all this hoopla mid-coitus, I started a blog, The Panama Report, where I published my daily observations on the very growth that was happening outside my bedroom window.
My blog took on a very objective and at times overtly-critical tone: the kinds of words you might hear from your mother when, as a child, you are playing around carelessly with scissors. “The regulations in building codes are not up to snuff,” I would write. “The amount of pending construction will make this city dangerously congested.”
What became very clear was that most people didn’t like what I had to say. I got plenty of hate mail, I had deep, argumentative meetings with local businessmen, I even received a letter from the Offer Of The Presidency asking (very eloquently, I might add) me to shut up and stop inhibiting the growth of their burgeoning tourism industry (my blog was read mostly by foreigners).
But when the real estate bubble burst and Panama started experiencing all kinds of very serious growing pains (wide-scale corruption, the cost of living increasing too high for most locals, an influx of Mexican and Colombian drug cartel influences), I was amazed to find that many of my critics slowly started to – not necessarily agree with me, but rather – change their perspective and adopt new outlooks.
To have phrased emails to me in such objective and thoughtful ways, showed that influential locals were already growing from Panama’s challenges. They weren’t looking through rose-colored glasses anymore. They faced adversity head on. And they grew from it.
When I speak with those same people today, they usually describe that time of change as a very unpleasant period for them. But they also say that many of the (realistic) visions they have now are products of that adversity.
What I take away from this experience is not just that adversity doesn’t have to be all bad. But also that harsh critique – being the pessimist once in a while – can actually have its benefits in the developing world. To venture even further, I might say that harsh critique is, in an unsettling way, necessary for an industry to grow.
So since I was not terribly surprised to find some negative feedback when making my forum solicitation, I will carry on vaguely as planned. The objective of the following list is to identify the vacation rental industry’s challenges so that we can all (somehow) work to get them creatively and constructively solved.
5 “Sources Of Adversity” In The Vacation Rental Industry (the article formerly known as, 5 Things I Hate About The Vacation Rental Industry)
- Lack of regulation: Because rentals are so new to the word of tourism and hospitality, there exists very little in the regional lawbooks about their operation. This means that all the players operate by different standards and fiascos are bound to occur, which is usually bad for any industry. According to Joelr, a Community Ambassador, “If you get involved in crafting the regulations, you'll have a much better chance of ending up with regulations that are agreeable. In our case we didn't see the threat as real until it was almost too late, and nearly ended up having vacation rentals banned within the city.”
- No unity: A byproduct of a green industry with little regulation comes the fact that vacation rental owners don’t have much of a unified voice. When large hotel lobbyists try to outlaw vacation rentals, they’re succeeding because the VR industry voice is so dispersed. More often than not, what we see in the vacation rental industry today is owners throwing each other under the bus (not joining hands in unison). Take the example Lahainarental gives of “people that don't collect\pay their taxes in order to undercut their competition.” Or the example bend2011 claims about sites like AirBnB: “(Labeling owners with cancellation policies as “strict”) pits owners against each other based on the company’s opinion of your listing rather than letting the guest decide what’s right by speaking with the owner.” Shouldn’t a competitive vacation rental destination benefit all its constituents?
- Unprofessionalism: The vacation rental industry is a weird beast. It’s as if Ma and Paw Kettle’s took their backyard garage sale to 5th Avenue overnight. Which is to say, there are bound to be discrepancies in professionalism when a new homegrown industry (vacation rentals) collides with long-existing mainstream commerce (tourism). It’s a flaw when owners asking tourists to consider their rental as an alternate to traditional hotels, don’t make an effort to play the part of professional host. Things like owners “misrepresenting their properties,” “being lacksidaisical or not really interested in renting their home - lack of response - as hobbyists,” “leaving their stuff lying around the home.”
- Scams: According to one HomeAway Ambassador Carol, “I'm angry about the scams: they are defrauding trusting travelers and scaring many people away from using a VR.” Lahainarental added, “These scammers put a taint on the industry and are scaring people away.” In tandem with lack of regulation, scams like these are as bothersome as they are ever-evolving. The remedy for them is probably technologically beyond me, but they’re certainly a source of adversity that may lead to better or worse.
- Marketing: Many owners express they dislike not knowing how to market their home. This is a natural byproduct of newbies to an industry that has very few marketing resources available. User ttaylor0 said, “I truly don't know what I should be spending to market my VR and where I should be putting those dollars…Also, I know it may be the norm, but I don't want to spend 5%-10% of my income on advertising. I want to do a better job and spend 3% or less. So, I guess I could say what I hate is that I know that I don't know what is the best way to market my home.” Lilyfan adds, “I feel the same way and sometimes at a loss as to what I should be doing better. But everything seems to be evolving so quickly, and it's hard to keep up. My bookings this year are not what they were last year, so is it that everything is just getting more competitive? Is there something specifically I need to be doing that is different? Is it the economy? Is it a fluke? Don't know, and that is what is frustrating.”
In the vacation rental industry, we may very well need setbacks in order to allow us to reach our fullest potential.
“That which does not kill us makes us stronger,” were some famous words of Friedrich Nietzsche not meant to necessarily be taken literally. But even when taken figuratively, most stresses like the ones mentioned above are not fun. Not unlike Panama, they are the signs of serious growth and development taking place (a very good thing). For sources of adversity to benefit the industry, they must be identified by the right people, at the right time, in the right way. There will be no "hating" in this article. But sources of adversity are abound...
Read more of Matt's work on Vacation Rental Marketing Blog...