When HomeAway wanted to develop a deeper understanding of vacation rental homeowners, in order to understand drivers and barriers to renting a vacation home to travelers or listing it online, ethnography-based research seemed like the perfect fit. 

In the past 10-15 years there has been increasing use of ethnographic techniques in market research.  Ethnography is the science of contextualization and ethnographic research, which collects data through participant observation, interviews, questionnaires, etc., allows market researchers to collect insights about customers in context – where that context is broadly defined as when, where and how customers make purchase decisions and use products.  After all, Jane Goodall did not send surveys to chimpanzees in Tanzania, but spent years observing their behavior in their natural environment.

HomeAway ethnographic research process

A total of 55 vacation homeowners were recruited, representing 4 categories:

  • Homeowners who were currently considering renting their vacation home for the first time
  • Homeowners who were currently renting a home, but were not listing it online
  • Homeowners who recently decided to list their home online with HomeAway.com, VRBO.com or VacationRentals.com
  • Homeowners who list online but not with a HomeAway site.


Homeowners were given two weeks to complete a Decision Journal that was designed to explore homeowner behaviors and values toward the rental process.  Participants were encouraged to bring their experience to life with photos, emotion stickers, charts and assignments including, family portrait, introducing my second home, to rent or not to rent and my experience finding guests.


Following the completion of the journal, 21 homeowners engaged in a one-on-one, 90-minute interview based on the homeowner’s journal assignment. We sought to dig deeper into the behaviors and attitudes around the decision-making process.


After combing through hundreds of pages of journals and watching the interviews, the team uncovered 2 key findings.


  1. There is a common decision path that vacation homeowners take as they move from acquiring a vacation home to renting it for the first time.  How a homeowner moves through that process, depends on what type of homeowner they are.
  2. There are 4 homeowner segments that broadly define vacation rental homeowners:
    • Sentimentalists - Their second home is their prized possession and they just don’t believe anyone will respect it as they do. These emotions are juxtaposed with their need to rent – either a few times a year or the majority of the year.  They can be so overwhelmed by feelings of fear and mistrust, that they have trouble making decisions when it comes to choosing tools to find renters for their home. Any difficulties in the process, coupled with their anxiety about renting in the first place, can be paralyzing and even cause them to stop the process.
    • Cautious Converts - They have evolved into a place of acceptance with the rental process. They’re still wary of others and emotionally attached to their homes, but they have a more optimistic outlook as they have become more familiar with renting. 
    • Realistic Reasoners - While still sentimentally attached to their homes, Realistic Reasoners also enjoy sharing their homes with others. It’s not a full-time venture but once they commit to rent, they want to be very involved in the process. While not as sentimentally attached to their homes, they still value the time they spend there when it’s not rented.
    • Business Attitudes – They view their second homes as an investment first and vacation home, second. They have feelings for their homes, but approach the rental process more pragmatically with less feeling and emotion. 


The Talk Show

In order to share these findings in an engaging and powerful way with HomeAway staff, we invited 8 homeowners who participated in the project to also participate in a talk show in Austin.  The homeowners shared their personal vacation homeownership experience and rental experience with HomeAway customer support, marketing, communications, finance, strategy and product staff in the US and Europe - an eye-opening experience for all HomeAway employees. We look to take their stories/perspectives and use it to improve upon the service we provide for existing customers and to better understand the needs and fears of those who are not renting.  Specific projects being considered as a result of the insights gained from this research include revising the sign-up process for new customers and changing the tone of some of our email marketing. We realized that while every owner has his or her unique story there are also many similarities in the decision making process. In fact, we thought their stories were worth retelling, so we asked them to write a blog about their experience – which will be posted in the coming weeks.




Karen Fuller, Director of Global Marketing Research