When I first started in the vacation rental business, I knew next to nothing. I was on vacation. I met some Dutch businessmen. I looked at some contracts. And then poof: I purchased their company (Los Cuatro Tulipanes), located in the scariest part of town, with two prostitutes and a small gang as neighbors.
This was in 2006 and in looking back, I’ve probably made every mistake in the book. I’ve had leaks. I’ve had robberies. I’ve had angry guests, thrilled guests, guests that never even arrived because they got lost in the Darien jungle. I've had features in The New York Times and GQ, I've had more 5-star reviews than the Panama Canal, and I’ve gone from zero bookings to a full house. All without losing my marbles.
On a sign posted in our office, you'll find the following words as they pertain to Murphy’s Law of Vacation Rentals: "Anything that may go wrong, can and will."
So my years of trial, error, and tribulations have given me a vast gulf of wisdom that I now share with other newcomers looking to succeed just like me. But here, for the first time ever, are the top 8 things I’ve learned along the way:
1. Friendliness trumps faults: I’ve learned that you don’t need the absolute nicest rental on the block to secure the best reputation. When things go wrong, a prompt, helpful, and (most importantly) smiling host is far and away the best remedy.
2. Your online reputation is your life: I’ve learned that in this age, if you don’t have a solid online reputation (that means good reviews, your own website, plugs in various internet magazines/newspapers) you’re nobody. These days 95% of my rental bookings come online and so I’ve learned that things have changed over the years; most old-fashioned marketing techniques have become obsolete.
3. Always make new mistakes: A vacation rental business is really a microcosm of entrepreneurship as a whole. I have learned that if you don’t make new mistakes, you’ll never improve. I’ve learned that soliciting and accepting critical feedback is amongst the best way to offer a higher-quality accommodation and that owners who choose to ignore their property’s weaknesses tend to get left behind.
4. A happy guest tells 5 friends, an unhappy guest tells 50: We have a priority in my company to treat every single guest the exact same way we treated our first. Which is to say, when you’re new to vacation rentals, everything is exciting and you cherish each and every traveler who’s interested. I’ve learned that every single guest (from the first to the last) must leave happy, no matter what it takes. (And trust me, we’ve done it all!)
5. Vacation rentals can crush hotels: I’ve learned that vacation rentals are making waves all over the world because they can offer something that hotels and other accommodations cannot: super-human customer service. I’ve learned that the best vacation rental owners in the world offer their guests not the luxury of a property, but the luxury of being connected with insider locals. These are characteristics that will make vacation rentals unstoppable.
6. Focus on correspondence: I’ve learned that lots of people kill themselves trying to generate more inquiries for their rentals, while they tend to overlook the second half of the process (converting an inquiry to an actual booking). I’ve learned that in corresponding with guests, if owners focus on little details, they can improve their bookings without even putting forth marketing efforts.
7. In vacation rental marketing, persistence pays off…eventually: Up until now, vacation rental owners have had it easy. They’ve been able to book their rentals without much additional work. But things are changing. And I’ve learned that if owners don’t put in the legwork now, in several years when the competition has exploded, their cash cow will disappear out from under them. Marketing efforts take time and energy (not even necessarily money). But owners must be patient to see the results.
8. Listing details matter: Almost every vacation rental owner has a listing on one of the major sites. So what distinguishes you from the next guy? Two things: photos and descriptions. Owners who don’t have professional photos or professionally written copy describing their property experience 18% lower occupancy year-round.
Matt is the author of Vacation Rental Marketing Blog, a free resource to owners and managers looking to improve their bookings. Mat is also the Founder of VRLeap, an online store offering tools for vacation rental professionals at 50-90% OFF. In his free time, Matt competes in Ironman triathlons and attempts (but has never finished) Spanish-language crosswords puzzles.