Operation off-season: 10 tips for attracting and accommodating guests during the winter months

    It'll be that time again soon— time to rake up mountains of crunchy leaves, build crackling fires in the hearth, unpack your cuddly sweaters, begin your holiday shopping—and start fretting over that unrented vacation home. That's right. That cabin or condo that renters clamor over all summer tends to sit depressingly (and expensively) empty all winter. If only there was something you could do to make your off-season not quite so...off.

    Now is the time to start thinking about the many things you can do to draw off-season renters, delight them, and keep them coming back for more. Obviously, more people vacation during peak season — that's why it's peak season! But there are still plenty of people who prefer to travel during the cooler months, whether it's because they want to avoid the crowds, take advantage of the lower rates, or just escape from the winder doldrums. Your mission is to make your second home stand out from the many others that are available to potential renters.

    Here are some tips for making your vacation property appealing to fall and winter renters:

    ha-template-image1.pngWinterize your marketing

    It won't matter how perfect your place is for a mid-winter getaway if people don't know about it. Play up features like hot tubs and fireplaces. Sprinkle your description with words like warm, cozy, cocoon, snuggle and cuddle. You might even paint an inviting verbal picture such as “Envision yourself gazing out the tall picture window, a cup of hot cocoa in hand, as fat snowflakes drift lazily through the pines.” Finally, add a few “off-season” photos of your property to your website. Photos of the home framed in brilliant autumn leaves or dusted with snow will speak louder than a thousand poetic words.

    ha-template-image1.pngConsider off-season specials

    Everyone loves a bargain, and in the winter, they expect one. One attractive off-season booking magnet is “rent three nights and get one free”. Or, when you get a call from someone looking to book next spring or summer, offer them a winter special—say, half-price off a weekend stay—so they can come check out your place early. That would be tough to resist.

    ha-template-image1.pngReduce your minimum stay

    Some vacation rental owners list a minimum stay of one week during their off-season and then wonder why they're not getting bookings. Typically in the off-season people are looking for shorter getaways and perhaps more local trips. Shorter minimum stays will also mean lower prices, and this will also attract the bargain hunters that just need a quick vacation.

    ha-template-image1.pngMake your home baby and toddler-friendly

    You've probably noticed that people with very young children are more likely to travel off-season. (After all, they're not constrained by school schedules.) Appeal to these people by stocking baby and toddler gear. A high chair and a port-a-crib should cost less than $150 combined, and can drastically increase your off-season bookings.

    ha-template-image1.pngConsider adding a hot tub, sauna, or ventless gas fireplace

    If your vacation property is a “summer home” with no winter appeal, such additions can make a world of difference. You may be thinking that these are pricey upgrades, but you'll be amazed at how fast they pay for themselves via increased off-season bookings. One caveat: if you install a ventless gas fireplace, be sure to get a carbon monoxide detector as well.

    ha-template-image1.pngOffer a "customized" special to repeat guests

    Consider calling or e-mailing prior “VIP” guests and offering them discounted off-season stays. You might even link the stay to a special event in their lives. For instance, if you know that John and Jane Smith have an anniversary in March—thanks to the detailed file you keep on them—call them and offer a special celebratory weekend at a reduced rate. When they accept, have a champagne gift basket waiting for them in the bedroom along with a handwritten “Happy Anniversary” note.

    ha-template-image1.pngHighlight special events

    Reach out to alumni or sports fans that will be heading to (or near) college towns in search of sporting event tickets. If you have access to tickets for sporting events and can include them as part of a package deal, consider creating a package for these enthusiasts. And don't forget to feature local festivals and events that might draw in a semi-local crowd looking for a getaway.

    ha-template-image1.pngGet as much mileage possible out of the holidays

    Early November is not too soon to put up a Christmas tree, twine the banister with garland or set out a selection of seasonal DVDs. (It's a Wonderful Life and Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer would please guests of all ages). Holiday trappings delight almost everyone's “inner child” and can really add to your renters' enjoyment of their vacation—which, of course, is likely to result in another visit in the future.

    ha-template-image1.pngAdd warm, cozy touches

    Put thick, warm comforters on the bed and fleece throws on the sofa. Place a few spice-scented candles on tables or counter tops. Leave savory winter treats in the kitchen: cocoa mix & marshmallows, spiced apple cider, ginger cookies, chili fixings and a crock pot. (Ask the housekeeper to replenish edibles.) You might even consider leaving an extra coat or two in the closet, along with toboggans, gloves and scarves—chances are they won't be used but guests will appreciate the hospitality.

    ha-template-image1.pngPlan for snow

    If guests should happen to get snowed-in at your home, you want to make the experience as pleasant as possible. Make sure to have a snow shovel, ice melt and a windshield ice scraper on the premises. The possibility of inclement weather is a good reason to have a selection of nonperishable foods on hand, as well as movies and books. You certainly don't want a houseful of hungry, stir-crazy, cranky renters who are cursing their vacation experience (and by association, you)!

    Not sold on winter renting? Consider it “damage insurance.” Houses that are empty for long stretches of time, especially in freezing weather, tend to have problems. If renters periodically visit, these issues could be avoided or at least discovered early, before things worsened.


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