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Zillow.com is a fantastic service, packed with information that is useful to the general homeowner, vacation rental managers and anyone involved in real estate. Zillow began with the idea of helping consumers determine how much a home is worth by giving them access to data points and comparable home sales in the area. With an open platform for adding user-generated home listings and content, Zillow has created a vibrant community.

Zillow Logo

I claimed the vacation home in Mattapoisett, MA that my family has operated for over 25 years. Leveraging public database information, recent sales and other claimed homes, Zillow calculates a Zestimate for the value of our home. Through Zillow I can add to the description of the house, adjust/update house facts, and can even set a ‘Make Me Move’ price – the price I’d be willing to sell the house for. The community features allow homeowners or prospective buyers to discuss the area with neighbors.

Sample Layout of a house on zillow.com

This becomes interesting for vacation rental managers as a tool to monitor home sales in their region, cultivate community with their neighbors and generate more owner-clients. The map below shows my neighborhood with recent sales flagged in yellow.

Sample Zillow Neighborhood Map

Yesterday, Zillow announced that they recently closed a $30 million financing round, bringing their total funding to date to $87 million. Zillow has big plans for the real estate industry and we’re very interested in the tools and features Zillow will continue to develop.

As a proponent of the vacation rental industry, FlipKey continues to recognize the value in ancillary services to help promote the industry. We recommend that property managers and owners familiarize themselves with the bevy of free Internet tools in this space. There are many unique ways (some that we haven’t even thought of yet!) in which services like Zillow can help you with your vacation rental endeavors.

I recently traded emails with Secure Lodging, Inc. Secure Lodging specializes in ‘keyless’ entry systems. There are several keyless home providers, but I like the Secure Lodging folks, so I will focus the discussion on their specific product.

Keyless entry systems aren’t new, but they are getting more sophisticated compared to the static button system I grew up with. Secure Lodging’s Oracode 660K product allows managers to remotely program access codes from their web browser. Since the lock does not require an internet connection I assume the Oracode lock receives transmissions via a radio signal – very cool.

In addition to remote updates, Secure Lodging allows you to control access levels. This means you can make sure a guest’s code is only active during a specific period of time (ie. the days they have reserved the unit). Oracode also allows you to monitor and control times of access for cleaning service staff and maintenance contractors. Again, very cool.

So why hasn’t keyless entry taken off?

It’s not entirely cheap. The cost of a keyless entry is $400-500 per home, with prices going down with bulk orders. Installation is easy enough to do-it-yourself – the manufacture provides a video walking you through the process. Given the security and convenience advantages of keyless entry I think many owners would be willing to foot the bill, but I admit others will not.

Speaking with various industry pundits, rent-by-owners are the primary customers of keyless entry systems. It makes sense. Rent-by-owners cannot be on-site to manage key exchange and mailing keys is a disaster waiting to happen. Keyless entry solves one of the rent-by-owners largest management challenges.

The benefit to owners underscores the lack of adoption by property managers. Installing a keyless entry system potentially disintermediates property managers from one of their key functions (pardon the pun).

Yet, I tend to have a positive outlook on the vacation rental world and the services that surround it.

  1. Yes, keyless entry enables an owner to control home access remotely. With a phone and some dedicated efforts an owner can effectively manage guests, cleaning and maintenance remotely.
  2. However, if I’m about to spend $2,000 on a weekly vacation rental, I don’t care if the owner has a StarTrek teleporting system….. I would feel more comfortable if there was a human being within 10 miles to ensure my stay is seamless and enjoyable.
  3. As an owner, I would be ecstatic if my property manager offered to install a keyless system for me – I would even pay them to do it!
  4. The value of property management is much deeper than the process of key exchange. It’s about making sure both parties – guests and owners – have a seamless and comfortable experience. It’s a juggling act of coordination, hospitality, and PRESENCE.

I emphasize PRESENCE, because it’s arguably the most important service provided by property managers and it can never be replaced by technology.

In June 2007, FlipKey conducted a survey of 277 vacation renters, owners and property managers to evaluate the current state of the market. In partnership with Compete, Inc’s behavioral targeted survey panel of 2M consumers, FlipKey contacted individuals who had recently visited large vacation rental listing services as well as owners/managers actively managing vacation rental properties.

FlipKey is happy to report that the market is vibrant, growing and economically attractive. However, we also identified a number of gaps that have not been addressed by existing logistical and marketing solutions, which are hindering the realization of this industry’s full potential.

  • Despite numerous vacation rental listings services, property managers continue to seek effective and economical guest acquisition solutions
  • Market growth is handicapped by the lack of reputation transparency between guests and properties/owners
  • Many travelers seeking rental accommodations are defecting to traditional hotel lodging services due to the frustration of identifying available and reputable properties

FlipKey has made the report free through its homepage. Click here to request a free copy.

FlipKey Research Report Chart Example

For the average property manager, a guest booking a vacation home represents the end of the sales process. Congratulations! But for the average guest, the booking of their vacation home is just the beginning of their vacation planning. Next comes the flight, the rental car, the tickets, and all the other essential itinerary planning.

Kayak.com logo

Enter Kayak.com. Kayak represents everything that is great about the internet – it’s quick, it’s comprehensive, and it is pretty much guaranteed to give you what you want. Kayak is different than Expedia and Orbitz. Kayak is what is called a “meta” search engine. Kayak’s charge is to search all other travel search engines to help the consumer find the best option. As such, the Kayak search engine covers more ground than all the other travel sites out there. Thus you are almost always assured of finding the cheapest flight.

Kayak is a great service to help your guests book the rest of their trip. Luckily, Kayak provides some simple tools that can allow you to extend its service to your own website. By simply copying and pasting some simple html into your site you can help your guests find a cheap flight and car rental service.

For one example:

Embedding a widget like this on your web site makes it very simple for your guest to begin their flight search. It costs nothing to add to your site and can help compliment your primary service (providing great lodging accommodations).

Since most vacation home sites are regional, you can even pre-populate Kayak’s tools with the airport nearest your vacation homes. Kayak offers several simple widgets you can embed on your website. Click here to see more options.

In addition to helping your guests, you can earn money by signing up for an affiliate id via linkshare. By inserting the id into the widget on your site, you can ensure you earn a commission on anybody you send to Kayak.

Your guests look to you as an expert. By providing them with easy access to the best-in-class tools on the internet, you are setting high standards that will keep guests coming back to you every year.

Rentmineonline.com is a new U.K. based start-up striving to create an eBay-like network to enable people to rent “things” to each other. We write about Rentmineonline, because we love the idea – despite some major pitfalls.

The concept of an eBay for rentals was one of the original business ideas we explored before we created FlipKey. We looked at the world around us and thought of all the great things we’d love to have access to, but were unwilling to purchase.

  • A boat on a hot summer’s day with friends
  • A power saw to clean up some fallen trees after the latest wind storm
  • A hand bag, so my girlfriend doesn’t pay $500 for the latest craze that she will abandon in a month
  • A car to do a quick grocery run

rentmineonline.com homepage

The fact is we as a society own a lot of stuff that we don’t often use. By creating a trusted network of members you can establish a cooperative that adds new meaning to the term ‘social efficiency’.

With that said, if it was easy someone would have already done it. eBay evaluated this concept several years ago and abandoned it because of the inherent challenges. I had the opportunity to meet with Josh Koppelman of First Round Capital (and former Half.com and eBay fame) and he put it best, “to succeed you will have to inherently change human behavior.”

Josh is referring to the fact that we, as individuals, do not rent things to each other. Minus the obvious category of Vacation Home rentals, when’s the last time you rented a personal asset to a stranger?

Rentmineonline is not a crazy idea… In fact it won an investment award at SeedCamp (a European business competition) and was recently featured on TechCruch. However, Rentmineonline will have a tough road to glory. To succeed they will have to (i) build a critical network of people willing to rent things (ii) create a sense of trust out of the ether and (iii) figure out a way to monetize the process.

If they can succeed this will be a huge win for social efficiency, not to mention a very large business. As I finalize this post the market capitalization of eBay is only $49B.

FlipKey was born out of my own experience as a vacation home owner/renter. For the last year I have rented out my Boston condo to people from around the globe. When friends hear of my little side business they are quick with questions:

  • Has anyone trashed your place?
  • What happens if there is a problem?
  • How can you trust a complete stranger?
  • Has anyone tried to scam you?

It’s human nature to focus on the negative, but I’m happy to say that my experiences have been 100% positive. I have met people from all around the world that wanted to taste Boston – all have been respectful – and in some cases I have made life long friends.

Moira L.: A wonderful woman from Australia who was in town for four weeks to promote her personal care product line. She called once a week with a general question about the home and then took me out for coffee to say thank you. Moira left my home in better shape than the day I moved in.

Dolores G.: In town for a week to help her daughter find an apartment. I needed to pick up my bike in storage and met them in my home. Dolores had a wonderful family that left behind a bottle of wine to thank me for a great experience.

Elizabeth D.: Arrived in Boston during a cold and rainy Spring week. I was in San Francisco during her family’s stay. Unfortunately my furnace broke down and the family was stuck in my 40 degree condo for 24 hours while I arranged a contractor to replace the broken unit. Elizabeth helped me coordinate letting the contractors in and stayed in good spirits throughout the ordeal. I refunded their last two nights.

The people who have stayed with me have been great, but problems do arise – a broken furnace here and a lost key there. I am fortunate enough to live within 10 minutes of my vacation condo, but my experiences have highlighted the necessity for ‘assistance’. Although occasional rentals can be managed directly by the owner, a seamless experience can only occur if a dedicated service/individual is available for the various mishaps that can occur during a vacation rental.

As renters we have a responsibility to ensure a great vacation experience for our guests. Bad guests do exist, but they are few and far between. Below are my recommendations for ensuring guests receive the support they deserve:

  • Use a property manager. Although property managers will charge a 15-30% service fee on the total room rate, they provide end-to-end services that will remove the back breaking chores of cleaning & maintenance and will take care of onsite problems. You get what you pay for, and more importantly your guests will get what they paid for.
  • If you are independently renting your home make sure you have a trusted contact within 15 minutes of the home. Your ‘back-up’ should have key access and be aware of when guests are in the home. Should a problem arise your back-up should have previously agreed to manage the situation.
  • Before a guest arrives provide them an emergency contact and explain your process in the case of an unfortunate event. If you are a property manager this is a key communication to emphasize the reputation of your service and advantages of using a professional management service.

We are busy at FlipKey, but we also enjoy getting out and meeting people. Over the next few weeks we will be attending a number of industry events, so if you’re in the area, please come by and say hello.

Tech Cocktail Boston 2007

What’s the hottest ticket in Boston this month? Nope – not the Red Sox. Surprisingly, it’s the Tech Cocktail Boston Party on September 6th (tomorrow night) at Tequila Rain in Boston. If you were one of the lucky few to get in, drop us a note and we’d love to meet you.
Web Innovators Group Boston logo

Next up is Dave Beisel’s Web Innovator’s Group of Boston on Monday, September 10th. The WebInno has been a great way to showcase early stage self-funded startups in the Boston area. Unlike the Tech Cocktail Party, there is no cap on attendance. Tickets are free, just make sure you register.
VRMA 2007 Showcase New Orleans Logo
Finally we will be attending and presenting at the VRMA 2007 Conference and Showcase in New Orleans this October 13-17. We will be there with booth in hand, finally ready to answer the question “So what exactly are you guys doing?”

It’s the week before Labor Day and summer is coming to a close. What do you do if you’re a property manager looking at a calendar of unbooked vacation rental units for the next month?

  • Slashing prices might bring in last minute renters. This is a popular choice among vacation rental property managers, with last minute discounts ranging from 10-20%.
  • Offer free or discounted activities through local services and area attractions.
  • Sweepstakes and raffle incentives.

Below we’ve included sample booking incentives that we’ve noticed, some of which are more appealing than others.

Twiddy (Outer Banks, NC): Rent for a Week and Receive a Free Jeep Rental ($800 value)

DeepCreek (Mt. Railey, MD): 20% Discount on Rental Price and Free High Speed Internet

LoonRes (Lincoln, NH): Stay a Week and Receive a Free Tank of Gas

SunRealtyNc (Outer Banks, NC): Free Fishing for 8 with Home Rental

GrandbyVacationHomes (Grandby, CO): Golf for 4 and Rafting for 8 with Week Long Vacation Rental

MountainChalets (Gatlinburg, TN): Book a Cabin – Win a Jeep (1 in 15,000 chance of winning)

FloridaSpiritVacationHome (Orlando, FL): Six Night Stay, Receive $50 Gas and $75 Grocery Coupons

If you have others to add to the list, please send them in via comments to this post.

Google Trends (trends.google.com) is a fun and useful way to keep tabs on the search volume of just about anything. Enter a term into the search box and see a graph of the term’s search volume since 2004. The real value comes when you compare two or more terms in the same graph – this provides a great view into the relative popularity of the requested terms.

The ubiquitous example in Boston is “red sox, yankees” – as you can see the two graph lines hold very close except in October 2004 when the Sox won the World Series.

Red Sox vs Yankees in Google Trends

However, this site is about vacation rentals, so we will spare you from our obsession of Red Sox nation.

What is more popular, vacation homes or vacation condos?

Google Trends: “vacation rental” vs “vacation home” vs “vacation condo”

vacationrental vs vacationhome vs vacationcond in google trends

As you can see, “vacation home” outpaces “vacation condo” by an approximately 2-1 margin. The generic “vacation rental” term makes a good baseline to compare the relative popularity of “vacation home” and “vacation condo”.

What popular vacation destination is the most searched for?

Google Trends: “outer banks” vs “cape cod” vs “lake tahoe” vs “vail” vs “myrtle beach”

outer banks vs laketahoe vs capecod vs vail vs myrtlebeach google trends comparison

A bit of an upset here – I would not have guessed “outer banks” to come in dead last. Myrtle takes the crown with the Cape coming in a close second.

While all of the above data is perfectly valid, it doesn’t give you much more than a crude directional metric. We suggest you use Google Trends as a fun exploratory tool, but avoid using it for anything beyond “oh, that’s interesting” based analysis.

For the international crowd, renting a vacation property for your “holiday” has been a popular alternative to hotel and resort accommodations for decades. Over the last several years this trend has been spreading across the Atlantic and represents a growing segment of the US travel market.

Visits to Top 5 Vacation Rental Sites

And it’s not just families trekking for a weeklong vacation at a home rental on the coast. Here at FlipKey we have experienced first hand the growth of urban vacation rentals and the increase in travelers seeking alternative lodging in places not usually associated with vacation rental travel. Our personal rental units here in Boston are fully booked and have been since the Spring.

Maybe you’re planning a trip to Vegas? Why stay on the Strip? OK, we can think of a few reasons – but the rationale of the vacation rental holds true even in the hot desert sun: affordability, unique accommodations with more space, and the opportunity to escape the madness of the hotels and retreat to your own temporary oasis and private pool. Las Vegas Retreats – Castillo Estaban.

As vacation rentals become more popular, we expect inventory to continue to grow in all vacation destinations, not simply beach, mountain and golf locations.