It's clear from talking to owners of vacation rental homes that those who have real success with their rentals have more returning guests and fewer issues with problem renters. What do they do that sets them apart from the competition? Why is it that some properties rent earlier and achieve higher occupancy rates over a longer period of time?
There seem to be some common factors that contribute to greater success so here are some tips to kickstart your rental season and help you attract more rentals.
Evaluate Your Marketing Strategy Regularly
Successful vacation rental owners have a robust marketing plan that is continually updated. They say it is not sufficient to simply list a property on a couple of websites, sit back and hope for the best. The important thing is to monitor how effective the advertising is. Good listing sites will provide you with statistics on how often the listing is viewed and will have a contact form so you can identify where the queries come from. You can then evaluate how the site is working for you. Many sites have free trials where you can list the property for a few months and then decide which works best for you. Cottages in Canada offers a three-month trial. Even if you are booked up already for the summer, now is a good time to take advantage of the free trial as it will show you what traffic you could expect.
Extra Tip: If you are using a site with a rental calendar and are doing a market test, don't update the calendar. You want to attract the inquiries to your own site, and collect data from the people who have shown interest in your property.
Be Responsive Even if You Are Already Booked
After your high season weeks have been booked, you'll continue to receive email requests for availability and information, even if you have a calendar. If you are managing your own bookings, be as responsive to these inquiries as you are at the beginning of the season when you are eager to fill the weeks. People will remember you, and your property, if you are quick to respond, and your answer if more than a ‘sorry, fully booked”. Suggest other weeks, encourage them to try an out-of-season weekend to ‘test drive' your cottage, and be as enthusiastic as if you were able to book them the week they wanted. You'll get bookmarked in this way, and they may come back to you earlier next year.
Extra Tip: Send a brief note to all the people who have made inquiries asking if they would like to be kept informed about cancellations or special offers you may have. Don't bombard them with emails – make sure you have their permission before adding them into a mailing list.
Create a Professional Booking System
Renters can be very wary of privately rented properties unless they feel confident their money will be safe and that the property will be as advertised. One way of developing that confidence is to create a good booking system with a series of consistent and professional looking documents. This starts with a well written rental agreement that is followed up with an acknowledgment of a deposit; final statement once the balance is received, and prompt despatch of a cottage information pack. I cover this in detail in my book, Renting Your Recreational Property for Profit which is available from Amazon or Chapters.
Extra Tip: If you have your own website, include a Frequently Asked Question section that explains your booking process. This may make the difference between someone clicking off your site and bookmarking it.
Offer a Competitive Rental Rate
I had an interesting discussion with a cottage owner who claimed that he charged a very high rental rate, but didn't worry if he only had a couple of bookings because he was making the same income as he would if he charged lower and booked more weeks. I didn't quite see the logic in this because he was taking advantage of the late booking market – when there were few cottages remaining, and renters were getting desperate. The problem here is if rental clients are not offered value for their money, there is a real risk of them not respecting the property. I also have an issue with the ethics of this model, but that's the subject of another post!
Extra Tip: Being competitive means knowing the market in your area; checking out what your competition is offering within their rental rate, and making sure your property is more attractive regarding the features and facilities you are including.
When potential renters are faced with hundreds of properties in a similar price range, the way to attract them to yours is to add value in ways that will make your property stand out above the rest. It doesn't take much and could be as simple and inexpensive as providing a docking station for an iPod, supplying additional kitchen equipment such as a breadmaker, or upgrading outdoor facilities to include a hammock or swing seat. At a higher level, those value-added extras could include internet access, additional watercraft, or providing an upgraded satellite package.
Extra Tip: Don't hide your extra value features in a listing. You need to make these prominent using bold type, highlighting or putting them right at the top of the text. Mentioning the hi-speed internet in a facilities list lower down in a listing may not be enough to capture fast moving rental surfers.
Only Use the Best Photos on Your Listings
I'm amazed sometimes at the photos some owners put on their websites. Bedrooms showing bare mattresses; kitchens with dishes and empty beer bottles in full view; outdoor images with junk lying around, are just some I have seen. The best web listings and sites have only the best photographs. These are well-staged images showing the property at its finest such as the ones shown here.
Extra Tip: Take a set of well-staged photos with lights on/lights off; flash/no flash, and assess the best ones. Lay up the dining table for a meal; turn bedside lamps on, and make the place look welcoming and inviting.
Be Totally Honest
Nothing travels faster than negative feedback. And if you aren't honest about any aspect of your property, the news may sweep across the internet faster than a speeding email. The growth of blogs and social networks like Facebook and My Space have given rise to a requirement for complete openness and transparency. Keeping quiet about negative aspects such as weedy waterfront, the proximity of the marina, or the neighbors that spend the entire summer doing construction, will open you up to the probability of news spreading like a virus just as soon as your guests can reach the means of transmission.
Extra Tip: create a positive aspect to a negative feature. For example, ‘Sit on the dock and enjoy the bustle and activity of the nearby marina,' or ‘The weeds at the shoreline are an ideal habitat for fish so anglers in the group will be in heaven – just drop a line from the dock.'
Create Raving Fans
No amount of marketing and advertising can beat the success of word of mouth endorsements. Your raving fans are the guests who go home with stories of how wonderful the cottage was, and how they can't wait to go back. They're walking billboards, and successful owners take advantage of the free advertising by providing them with the means of promoting their property. Create a leaflet or brochure they can take away with them and show their friends, or how about this one. I'm sure you've heard the expression ‘Been there – got the T-Shirt!'. Then why not use a resource like Cafe Press and design and print a T-Shirt your guests can buy that will promote your place each time they wear it. This takes some creativity but can be very effective if done well.
Extra Tip: Offer your guests a discount on an out of season break for every friend they tell, who books a vacation with you. Ours goes up to 50% for guests who have referred our cottage to five friends who go on to book.
Photo of Inukchuk by Louder