Operation Off-Season: Tips for Attracting & 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 holiday home. That's right. That apartment or villa that renters clamour 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 go on holiday 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 blues. 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 holiday property appealing to autumn and winter renters:


    “Winterize” 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 chocolate 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.


    Consider 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.


    Reduce your minimum stay. Some holiday 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 holiday.


    Consider adding a hot tub, sauna or ventless gas fireplace. If your holiday 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.


    Make 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.


    Accept pets. Holiday properties that accept pets increase their occupancy by 10 to 50 percent. When you accept pets, it's okay to take an additional £15 to £20/night. This amount (which pet owners would have to spend anyway on boarding fees) is typically enough to pay for any extra cleaning that needs to be done.


    Offer 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.


    Highlight special events. Reach out to alumni or sports fans that will be heading to (or near) university 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.


    Promote mother/daughter weekends. Not much to do when it's cold outside but shop? This is perfect for mother/daughter bonding getaways. You could even offer in-house spa services for guests looking to pamper themselves in the colder months.


    Get as much mileage as 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 holiday—which, of course, is likely to result in another visit in the future.


    Add 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: hot chocolate & 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.


    Plan 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 holiday 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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