Managers Owners What one thing can make your cottage vacation rental easier to manage as well as leaving you feeling comfortable about the guests you have staying? What can also increase your income in the offseason, and boost your referral rates significantly?The secret is in your returning guests. Those wonderful families that come back year after year because your place is their dream cottage. The one they would buy if they possibly could. The families that look after the cottage as it is was their own, even down to fixing things that break and leaving you lovely little gifts at the end of their stay. I’ve even heard of rental guests who ask the owner for a job jar, or ‘honey do’ list so they can keep busy during their stay. Lawns get mown; gardens are tended; kitchen cupboards are cleaned and tidied……the list goes on.But that’s not all. Your raving fans talk to people – and the people they talk to are like them. Why would they share information on their wonderful vacation home with anyone who might not respect it?What should this mean to you? Well, apart from the confidence generated in knowing who is in your cottage, you have is a referral programme that brings qualified renters without you spending any more advertising dollars.So, what makes people return over again to the same cottage? I asked some repeat renters about this and these are their responses:‘It’s like our own cottage. We couldn’t afford to buy a place of our own, so for two weeks each summer and the occasional weekend in the fall, we can imagine we have our own place.‘We feel we are coming home when we turn off the highway onto the cottage road. We know what to expect when we get there and there are no surprises.’‘Our kids have grown up with the neighbours’ children in on summer vacations over the years. From Christmas onwards they start to get excited about the annual get together. We do too as we’ve made some good friends on the lake as well.’OK you say, this sounds great but my guests don’t seem to want to come back, at least we’ve never had any returning guests yet.The key to attracting your renters, and keeping them coming back, is to make the first experience so memorable and special that they won’t want to go anywhere else. This is the part of adding value that makes some owners skilled at getting repeat visitors. Here are a few ideas to think about as you begin planning your rental strategy for 2008. The more of these you use, the more likelihood there is of your guests becoming repeat renters.Create a relationship with them from the first inquiryUse the phone to create a relationship as well as email. If you get most of your inquiries via email forms from your listing sites, call them and initiate a conversation from the outset. Make sure they are a good match for your place by asking them questions about their family and vacation lifestyle. How old are the children? Are they good swimmers? What makes a dream vacation for them – lots of relaxation, or lots of activity? Have you rented before and what did you enjoy the most of that experience? I often use the question: ‘What makes a great vacation really memorable for you?’If the conversation doesn’t go well, if the match doesn’t feel right, or there’s no rapport with the potential renter, don’t hesitate to respectfully suggest your cottage may not be the one for them You don’t have to create a lifelong friendship, but you must feel comfortable they will take care of your property.Buy the best beds you can afford. Quite simply, if you are not prepared to give your guests a good night’s sleep, don’t get into the rental business. Providing uncomfortable beds is the easiest way of stopping guests coming back as this is the one thing they will not forget. What you want them to remember is how wonderfully they slept and how well rested they were on vacation. Seriously, put some thought into this as investing in good quality mattresses will pay dividends in the long run.Make up personalized gift bagsA welcome basket or gift bag is a lovely touch and one that is well remembered. A bottle of wine or some local produce always goes down well. Match your gift with the people who are coming – for couples on a romantic winter weekend, make up a basket with some hot chocolate sachets, a cranberry scented candle, and some truffle chocolates; for guests with children, coloring books and card games are nice ideas. Develop a great library of books, movies, and games I remember renting a cottage year after year in the west country of England. Right on an Atlantic beach, our Cornish cottage was small and cozy and was host to numerous wonderful weekends. My favorite time there was in February or March when it was quiet and although the weather was not always great, I would look forward to a long weekend walking on the beach, reading and watching old movies. There were lots of books, magazines, and videos and I treasure the memories of a bunch of us sitting around on a Sunday morning, all absorbed in a good read.Collect a range of books & movies for all tastes – action adventure; romance; courtroom drama (who can resist a good John Grisham novel?); comedy etc. Pick them up in library or yard sales.Make it a real treat to cookHere’s how easy it is to create raving fans and repeat guests. Provide a well-equipped kitchen; good quality knives; plenty of small appliances and attractive and matching dinnerware. Think about it. The person who works the hardest on a self-catering vacation is usually the one who does most of the cooking. I’m not talking about the BBQ king here – rather the one who is cutting up tomatoes and peppers for a salad; peeling vegetables and creating wonderful desserts. In short, supplying blunt knives, a dollar store potato peeler and a single serving dish will reverse any savings you made in cutting corners in the first place. If you want people coming back, make it irresistible.Thank them for staying and ask for their feedback After your guests leave, make a note of what they said in the guest book, and write to thank them for their comments. Seek out their opinion on how you could improve and ask for any recommendations they may have for other guests – such as their experiences at local attractions and restaurants. Ask if they would like to have information on any special deals you have on out of season weekends and offer an incentive to return. I’m going to be writing a longer post on incentives in a few weeks so watch out for that one.Your repeat guests are your best marketing tools, but creating them takes some work and creativity. Make this your goal for 2008 and your rentals will be stress-free and enjoyable.