Host: Christine Karpinski
Guest: Robin Clapp, vacation rental owner and website designer.
Creating a personal website for your vacation property
Finding the right website designer
Creating a newsletter for your vacation rental
Researching for your personal website
Getting in touch with Robin
However, Robin has now taken the vacation rental industry to a new level in her personal life and she started to create personal websites for other people and has been able to turn this into a business.
So today we're going to talk with Robin about personal websites: why you'd want to have one, what it could do for you, whether or not you should stop advertising on some of the websites like VRBO or HomeAway, what you could expect from a personal website and all sorts of other information.
Robin, thank you so much for joining us again.
Robin Clapp: Thank you Christine. I'm glad to be here.
Christine: Well, tell us a little bit more about yourself in case some of the listeners don't remember your very first podcast because it was a couple of years ago.
Robin: Well, I'm a vacation home owner, I've been doing it for seven years. I wrote a website for my vacation home in 2004. I have a background in computer engineering, so that was a logical step but since then I have left my engineering job and decided to do websites from home full time, so this is my new career. Because of my background with the vacation homes I do have a lot of clients who have vacation homes and want me to do their websites.
Christine: That's a really neat thing. Who would have thought that when you bought a vacation home to use for yourself and then you started renting it and who would have thought that this would have ended in a career. I actually have the same experience. I started just by chance renting my vacation homes. Other people heard what I was doing, heard how successful, then I started teaching and the ball started rolling from there and here I sit 10, 15 years later working for HomeAway, teaching thousands of vacation home owners every day and still renting out my vacation homes, which you're still doing as well. You're still renting yours, right?
Robin: I am, yeah.
Christine: OK, so you started creating websites for other people. So, we're going to talk about why you're going to create a website. I know a lot of homeowners who might be listening say, "Well, I just listed on VRBO or HomeAway or Vacation Rentals and I think that's enough and the thought of creating a website for myself...I don't know anything about the computers, I don't know how to do any of that stuff." Is that something that someone like that would even want to talk about? So first of all, let's talk about why you would even want to have a personal website.
Robin: Well, number one I think is credibility. So many of my guests have gone to my website and said, "Oh, I'll rent from you because I love your website. There's so much information there; I feel I know so much about it." So, you're building that credibility by having the personal website, number one. Number two is you're not limited to the number of things you can put on your website: photos and copy. Not only that, there's a lot of functionality you can add to it and make it really useful.
And the third thing is it's just another item in your marketing plan. The more diverse your marketing plan is, the more successful you'll be. It's just one piece of the puzzle that you shouldn't leave out.
Christine: You know, that's really interesting that you said that people actually say, "I loved your website that's why I'm choosing to rent your place." For starters, my husband is a software and computer person and when we first started back in the late '90s he created a website. And I think back on it and I laugh because it took him weeks to create this website, which was three pages long because there were no tools then. And even looking at it today with all the functionality, new tools his website was really cool. And people would call us and say, "I am renting your home because I clicked through VRBO and I saw that you have a very professional, very nice looking website. And if your home is as nice as your website, I'm going to trust that it's a great place to rent."
So you're right about the credibility. It's just sort of one step beyond. So when I go to think about creating a website, of course you don't have to be a computer engineer, what sort of skills do I actually need if I wanted to create one on my own?
Robin: I would actually recommend that you do go out and get a web designer and the reason being is because we as rent by owners, we tend to do everything by ourselves but we learn from experience that certain things we can farm out and leave to somebody else. For instance, when I first started I went up between every rental and I cleaned my own house.
Christine: Oh my goodness.
Robin: Now, with the price of gas it would be foolish to go up there every time. So, it makes sense to have a caretaker and a cleaning staff to go and do things. Same thing with the website. Have somebody just design it professionally, but remember two things: you want to be able to update it yourself and you want to be able to upload your own pictures and you want to be in control of the SEO.
So rather than trying to do one in FrontPage, or write the HTML, have a professional do it on a content management system on top of a database so that you can just log in and [inaudible] and change the words and upload the photos.
You're still in control but you've taken that extra step to have it done professionally.
Christine: It's so true. And someone that has the time could do it really, really quickly as opposed to something like that could take you hours or days or maybe even weeks to create. So turning it over to a professional might be done more efficiently, much easier, much better. It's funny, when I started this podcast there is a program that we use to record the program and it's called "QBase" and it's a pretty complicated program. I got the book, and then I got some lessons in learning how to do it, and then I started doing it. And I realized, "This is insane. It's taking me hours to do it."
I turn it over to an engineer now, and he's able to do it, engineer the thing in less than an hour and get it out and get it done. And I go, "Well, my time is used more efficiently in other ways."
So, I think you're right. Utilizing your time, your skills, but still having control over it, I think, is the key.
Christine: So, when I go to, say, look for a designer, where do I even start? How do I know? Do I go to the colleges? Do I go to Craigslist? I mean, certainly, we'll talk about your services as well.
Robin: You could start with maybe a chamber of commerce. It's always good to find somebody local, although I do websites all over the country. Websites is one thing that you can do, computer based and online with phone calls and email. It's very easy to get one up. I would definitely recommend finding a designer that designs in Joomla. That's an open source content management system. And it works wonders for the GUI interface that you receive from it.
And again, the SEO is an important thing for me, because when I first decided to design it, I had SEO in mind from the very beginning. And unless you went into the underlining code, you couldn't get access to change your keywords, your description, your title. And all these things matter to me because I'm marketing my vacation home to people all over the world, so I wanted to make sure that I was coming up on search engines.
Joomla does a fantastic job of giving you a nice little GUI interface to get at SEO tags. And it's very easy to get to the words on your page and the photos.
Christine: And from SEO, you mean search engine optimization, which is...
Robin: Search engine optimization, meaning, if somebody searched on Google or Yahoo, if they put in "New Hampshire winter vacation," a nice phrase that people do search where my website does come up. And you kind of want to focus on different phrases again, diversity to try to get as many people to your website as you can.
Christine: Can you hold on one second? We just need to take a break for a word from our sponsors.
Christine: And now, back to our show. Now, if I were to hire a designer to create a website for me, what am I looking at to pay? What's a typical vacation rental website run?
Robin: I can tell you, on average, how much the websites that I do rate: anywhere from $500 to $1500. And this depends on the number of pages and what kind of functionality that you want.
OK. So anywhere from $500 to $1500.
Christine: Now, the question that I have is, OK, so you've got a personal website that you're putting up your property, your photos, your rates pretty much anything that you would put onto VRBO or HomeAway. Is what you're saying have a personal website in lieu of having these other sites, or do you think you need to continue to advertise on VRBO or HomeAway?
Robin: I say continue to do what works and add to it. I advertise on all the major sites. I'm also a chamber of commerce member. I also use Craigslist. Craigslist is a huge draw for last minute. And then I also do my personal website with the SEO. Some people may do print. I mean, the more diverse it is, the more successful you will be. This is just one component of your marketing plan, something that if you're willing to take that next step is a great addition, I think.
Christine: Yeah. It certainly makes sense. And it's sort of like, I always describe the personal website as, typically, not your main marketing channel, because it's very difficult. The vacation rental space on the Internet is very competitive. It's very expensive. If you wanted to do pay per click advertising, it's exorbitant, if you wanted to do it and just list one home. We've had people show up to seminars and say, oh, they started with a personal site and did Google AdWords campaigns and stuff like that. And they were spending $1,500 to $3000 a month, and they realized, "Oh, my gosh, I can't afford that." So then they went to use the portal sites, like VRBO and HomeAway, and they found it to be much more effective. However, it doesn't mean you dump your personal website. It's just an extra tool to help sort of close the deal.
So, if I do a personal website, where are some of the places that I could utilize it? If, say, I'm on VRBO, I get an inquiry from somebody on VRBO, how should I expose that personal website to my prospective renters?
Robin: That's the first thing I do when I respond: "Thank you for contacting me about my vacation home. This is my personal website. There's a lot of information here." If they ask any questions about what to do in the area, I say, "Go to my vacation ideas page." Or if they ask me, "How far away is the beach?" go to my family vacation photo page, and I have a photo taken from my front lawn... I mean, that's the first thing. I get my inquiry, wherever I get it from, and then I refer them right to my personal website, because I have so much information on there. People can go through and find what interests them. And it's that comfort level and their first saying, "OK, this is a credible site."
Christine: Got you. Got you.
Robin: But you've got to take advantage of some other things, too. You can have a sign up for your newsletter on your website. You can have online payments. You bring your guest book page in there, and you wrap around your availability calendar. You've got your rental rates, your rental policies. You make it a very useful website so that not only do you go there right before you go on vacation, you come back again to see what's going on in the area. You come back to find out information on things that are going on and it becomes more of just a one time website becomes a very useful website for many people.
Christine: Sure. And as you were talking I was thinking about questions that we get as homeowners in our inquiries. There are always the same questions: how much is it? What are your payment policies? How close are you to the beach? And you are sort of limited on VRBO or HomeAway and sites like that where you have to put in specific information in specific fields. I now have a little script that I cut and paste but I can't tell you how many times I've had to cut and past the script of one of my properties.
What is the view from your balcony? And I have to explain it because I'm on the side of the building but you can see the water but it's not direct beach front, it's a side view.
And how far am I from the water's edge? How far am I from the pools? So I think you're right. Having it on your personal website where people can read all of those things I suppose you could even have a commonly asked questions page as well, right?
Robin: Absolutely. You could almost fill the content of your website with question and answers.
Christine: [laughs] That's probably true. And then how many times do you get this one for, say, a little one bedroom condo: Do you have any more photos? I've got 16 photos on VRBO, it's a one bedroom place how many more photos do you want? However, on a personal website, you can. I mean you can take a picture of inside each cupboard if you wanted to and then that way it's easier to show them, hey, this is where it is.
Christine: So I think that really interesting that you can easily direct them to answer those questions. Now, another thing you talked about, and I know we talked about this in our first podcast but I want to bring it up again, is you said you can sign up for your newsletter. Tell us a little more about the whole newsletter aspect of utilizing your personal website.
Robin: Well, not only can you sign up online, I keep my guest list. They get my newsletter; it's twice a year that I write it. If you fill out the entry form you can check on the bottom "add me to your newsletter" and I'll add you manually. But, I use it more than just for twice a year. Like recently I had asked my guests to send me pictures of them on vacation and I was going to pick two people and send them a $50 Visa Check card or something.
Now, I have a page where I have guests on vacation. So it's just another one of those things where I send out another little blurb using the newsletter: Come visit our guest page with pictures of people on vacation at Lakeside Promise. "Oh yeah, I remember Lakeside Promise, I want to get back there."
And it gets people back in the frame of mind that maybe they do want to come on vacation again. So the more that you can be in touch with guests or people who signed up who said they might have a little bit of interest, the better your marketing Internet campaign will be.
So, that's how I use it. If I have a special coming up I'll just send out something small and say: "Look, this week opened up, is anyone interested?"
Christine: Now, can you just add any person who ever inquired about your property to your newsletter list or do you have to ask for their permission?
Robin: I ask their permission and every newsletter that goes out has an opt out. You can opt out from it.
Christine: Yeah, and I suppose for spam laws and all that kind of stuff you have to.
Robin: I've had people that have been on my guest list for two years decide that they want to opt out. But, people's lives change and they're no longer interested in traveling in this area for whatever reason, they can't have a lot of emails. So, you have to have the opt out, definitely.
Christine: And you can't get offended when somebody wants to opt out.
Robin: No. It grows. You lose and few and you add a few more and that's just doing business.
Christine: Yeah, it absolutely is. OK, so Robin, is there anything else that you would like to add if somebody wants to think about doing a website? Any sort of last bits advice that you would have?
Robin: I would tell them that if they're serious about doing website, to take lots of pictures, write lots of copy and go on the web. Search around on a search engine, find all kinds of vacation websites that they like and research the different styles. Go out there and see what you're looking for so that when you do go to your web designer you have a good idea in mind. When you sign that contract to get them going, you give them everything they need and they're going to have a great job ahead of them, and that takes time. I know a lot of people sign up for me and they go off and it takes time to get to your vacation home and to take these pictures and to sit down and think about what you want to write.
So any of that that you can do in advance would greatly help the process go forward once you do sign up for a web design.
Christine: Absolutely, great advice. Now, a couple of things: first of all, what is your website? [laughs]
Robin: My vacation home first: lakesidepromise.com. Love My Vacation Home is my first personal business. Web Design By Robin, that's web-design-by-robin.com. A great SEO name. And then I also have a vacation home owner that wanted me to showcase the vacation home that I did for them. So, if you're interested in going to the chronicle of big island Hawaii, you can visit: yourkohnagetaway.com and that is a vacation home condo website that I did recently.
Christine: OK, we will have the links to all these websites on the owner community but I just do want to give you, Robin's, web design website address again, it is: www.web design by robin.com.
Robin, thanks again for joining. I really enjoyed having you as a second guest and I wish you continued success in both your vacation rental business and you web design business.
Robin: Thank you very much Christine, it was nice to talk to you again.
Well, that wraps up this episode of the How to Rent Vacation Properties By Owner podcast. I'd love to hear your feedback. Thanks to homeaway.com, our producers Leah Carroll and Kristin Dorsett, our announcer Amy Ashcroft Greener and our sound engineer Larry Seyer.
Happy renting by owner! And don't forget to take some time to enjoy your vacation home yourself.
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