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Advice for Owners and Managers

Geronimo!Is it possible to fill your booking calendar and contribute to your favorite charity at the same time? Have you ever asked yourself how you could take a vacation and make a difference in society?

These are the questions that Mike Last and Michael McFadden have started to answer with Geronimo.com, a website that asks vacation rental owners and property managers to contribute “one spare week” to charity. I caught up with Michael the other day and had the chance to discuss Geronimo, how the service works, and where it’s going.

FlipKey: Let’s start with the basics – what is Geronimo and how does it work?

Michael McFadden: Geronimo is a service that allows vacation rental owners and property managers to donate a portion of a rental income to the non-profit of their choice without dealing with the hassle of non-profit bureaucracy. Essentially, you list a property at a discounted rate (we recommend a 20% discount) for a set period of time on Geronimo.com. The owners can get half of the rental income, and the other half is for the net donation.

Turning a second home into a vacation rental is almost never as easy as hanging a “for rent” sign in the window and waiting for the guests to arrive. At the very least there are local regulations to abide by, tax laws to consider, and plans to make for managing emergencies. FlipKey CEO TJ Mahony shared some of his own experiences in this blog post from 2007.

This week in vacation rental news, the media has been focused on the behind-the-scenes efforts that homeowners must make to run successful vacation rental operations. The New York Times “Bucks” blog addressed the importance of interacting with guests and being prepared. Writer and homeowner Christine Negroni stressed that doing some research in advance is crucial for both the guest and the property owner: “If they do their homework, both renters and owners can have a good experience.”

In addition to knowing who your guests are, it is also important to understand local rental regulations. Grover Beach, CA is considering an ordinance that would require property owners to apply for a vacation rental permit. If passed, violators would be subject to fines. This type of regulation is already in place in many areas, so you should make sure to investigate local laws if you are considering turning your property into a vacation rental (check out our vacation rental marketing guide for more tips on getting started).

Finally, the Obama’s “Winter White House” vacation rental in Kailua, Hawaii is now on Tweet Traveler – an interesting new service that could help vacation home renters interested in doing more with Twitter. As we’ve written before, social networking can be a valuable tool for promoting your vacation rental. Of course, a testimonial from the president can’t hurt either!

The social internet provides unprecedented opportunities to connect with potential guests and market your vacation property. Vacation rental owner, author, and blogger Heather Bayer shares some great advice on taking advantage of social media to help promote your property online.

Driving Vacation Rental Traffic with Social Media Strategies

by Heather Bayer

Listing your property with good, traffic-rich sites such as FlipKey is important, and this should be at the top of every vacation rental owner’s marketing plan.  What is not as obvious are the huge opportunities available to drive traffic to your listing or website with free or low-cost social media strategies.  The strength of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube for reaching a mass audience has never been greater. Continuing growth in all of these markets points to them sticking around a long time, so if you haven’t leaped in yet, now is the time to do it.

Before you begin, research what your competition is doing with social networking.  Look at how they are interacting with clients; what they are posting and the responses they are getting.  This research gives great insight into where you can position yourself in the social media scene.  Here are four networking opportunities to get you started:

Blogging

Despite the growth in Facebook and Twitter, a well-designed blog remains the strong foundation of a robust social media strategy.  The key to success with a blog is to post regularly, allow comments and reply to them personally, and post on a range of topics to appeal to your audience.  Many vacation rental owners are now using a blog platform such as WordPress to power their web site, and featuring a blog on it  gives it great value overall.  It’s possible to do all this for free with a site hosted on WordPress and a free theme, but for a relatively small outlay (less than $100 per year) for a hosting service and a paid theme, you can create an elegant and well-optimized site that will generate  a good amount of  traffic.

Facebook

It’s very likely you already have a personal account on Facebook.  For a professional approach to your vacation rental, you’ll need to create a Facebook Page.  Here, you simply promote your property and the area, and connect with potential guests without them seeing your personal interactions. Mari Smith’s Facebook 101 for Business is a great place to start.  There are a lot of companies offering Page design services – Custom Fan Page Designs do a great job at reasonable rates.

Twitter

Twitter gets bad press from people who are not using it for business purposes.  For vacation rental owners who want to connect with the people that really matter such as travel writers and potential guests, it is a terrific social medium.  It takes some time to create a group of followers on Twitter but it’s worth persevering.  As with any other social network, be careful not to use it for straight promotion of your property – it’s about making a connection, starting and maintaining a conversation, and sharing your expertise on your area.

Article Writing

In 2006 I wrote a short article called Travel Insurance for Vacation Rentals and posted it on Ezine Articles, the giant of article marketing sites.  In 2011 that article still ranks in the top three on Google for those key words and is consistently republished on other blogs and websites. Publishing articles is a simple and effective way to create buzz about a topic you are interested in, with the opportunity to create a signature block that includes your bio and a link to your listing or site.  What better way to market your property for free?

It’s not necessary to tackle all these platforms at once – take one at a time and give it a week or two of concerted effort, and then move onto the next.  Just remember that having a successful social media strategy is like spinning plates: they all need consistent attention to keep them going.

Heather Bayer is author of Renting Your Recreational Property for Profit (Self-Counsel Press) and is passionate about raising standards in the vacation rental industry.  She regularly blogs at www.cottageblogger.com and runs a successful membership site at Renting For Profit – The Complete Resource for Vacation Rental Owners.

Before you know it, Halloween will have come and gone, and being named creepiest house on the block will no longer be a compliment. While vacation rentals offer privacy, more space, superior amenities, and better value than most hotels, there are some unique home features that can be off-putting to an unsuspecting guest.

Spider ridden cobwebs, mounted animal heads, and unfamiliar sounds are some of the house features that are likely to scare off visitors, especially once Halloween has passed. Don’t let one small thing spoil an otherwise great property review! Use these tips and tricks to de-spook your home this holiday season:

The Creepy:

“Deer head above fireplace, creepy. I think it stared at me the whole time!…[but] Overall we had a great, relaxing vacation.” –Anonymous vacation rental review

Hanging an occasional hunting trophy on the wall is alright but covering your walls from floor to ceiling with everything from dead rodents to bears could potentially be overkill. When decorating, try to find a balance between giving your property character and creating an environment that might make some of your guests, especially animal lovers, uncomfortable. If your taste does gravitate towards taxidermy inspired décor, post as many pictures of your property and its furnishings as possible to give prospective renters a better idea of what to expect.

The Spooky:

“First night was a little “scary” as you hear every noise echoing about – it’s all wood floors – no carpet – and you hear every pop & creak…[despite the noises] I would stay again & I would recommend this cabin!” –Anonymous vacation rental review

Many older houses will undoubtedly have some creaks and squeaks. Drippy faucets and squeaky door hinges on the other hand are a quick fix with a little help from the plumber and a can of grease. Remember, unfamiliar noises can seem a lot scarier in the middle of the night than they do in the daylight so try to identify and address any strange sounds that could be unsettlingly to a new house guest.

The Scary:

“We checked in late at night, so I think the most difficult part of that was finding which unit was ours, in the dark, without assistance… [However, based on the rest of our stay] We would definitely consider going back!” –Anonymous vacation rental review

While you may not be able to personally welcome your guests upon their arrival, there are still ways for you to make sure that they feel safe and secure while staying in your home. Keep in mind that many guests may be visiting your property for the first time. Prior to their departure, provide directions that are as detailed as possible to avoid any confusion. For houses in more secluded or wooded locations, install motion sensor lights to help guide those arriving late into the night. Don’t forget to check that the locks on all windows and doors are working properly. Finally, if your house has a home security system, make sure to leave clear instructions on how to operate the alarm.

While the creepy, spooky, and scary mentioned above can make some travelers uncomfortable, the good news is that many renters are forgiving as long as they enjoy the rest of their stay. So, in the spirit of Halloween, make your guests feel extra special by leaving them a treat—a candy bowl on the coffee table or a goodie bag filled with local specialty items is always a nice surprise!

Reviews Rent Vacation HomesAt FlipKey and TripAdvisor, we’ve seen first hand the monetary success that coincides with having reviews. Properties that have reviews earn higher rankings and placement in search results. Think more visibility, more inquiries, and more bookings! Having reviews for your rental properties is so crucial that we want to share some essential tips to make collecting reviews easy for both you and your guests.

The Importance of Reviews

A listing is not complete until you have collected at least one review. Reviews provide a sense of trust, credibility, and confidence amongst consumers searching for a vacation rental.  In fact, nearly 80% of travelers say they are significantly more likely to book a property if they can read reviews from past guests(1).

In order to appeal to the 80% of travelers who heavily rely on reviews from past guests as a signal of your property’s credibility, you must consider the process of collecting reviews as a fundamental first step in renting out your property.

Here are some helpful tips to make collecting reviews easy and stress-free:

  • Encourage Your Current Guests to Leave Feedback After Their Stay. Set the tone by letting guests know that if they enjoyed their stay, you would greatly appreciate them sharing their feedback with other travelers by leaving a review.
  • Explain The Review Process. Let your guests know that you’ll need their email address in order to send them a review invitation, but that their email address will exclusively be used to solicit feedback in the form of a review.  One way to indirectly remind guests to leave a review is to add a small note or written request in your rental contract.
  • Initiate the Exchange of Email Addresses. Start by giving guests’ your email address.  In return, ask for the email address of two or more people in your guests’ party (just in case you have trouble collecting a review from one person). Sharing your email address first not only makes it easier to ask them for their email address, but is also a good way to make sure that they have your contact information in the event that they choose to return.

Swapping contact information with your guests is easy:

  • Make Business Cards For Your Property. Create business cards with your contact information and your property links on FlipKey and TripAdvisor. You can also leave a stack of cards on the kitchen counter or coffee table (we’d recommend conveniently placing them next to a guest book that has a column for guest email addresses).
  • Create Pocket Sized Area Maps with Contact Information. Create a pocket size map of the local neighborhood. Include your home, great restaurants, and key attractions on one side of the card and your contact information on the other. Give it to your guests in exchange for the email addresses of multiple guests in the traveling party. A tourist is always looking for a map to make sure they hit all the “hot-spots” in the area.

 

  • Remind Guests to Leave a Review During Their Stay. Design an attractive sign with a catchy logo reminding guests to leave a review on FlipKey and TripAdvisor. Place the sign in a high traffic area, like the inside of the front door or kitchen where guests will see the sign frequently.
  • Set a Time Frame. Tell your guests that you will be sending a review invitation almost immediately after their stay. Sending a review invitation while your visitors are still relaxed from their wonderful vacation and while your property is still a vivid memory will increase the likelihood of positive feedback. As time passes and as they get caught up with the chaos of daily life, they will forget that you even asked them to leave a review.  So be sure to request your review in a timely manner.
  • Time is Money. Send follow up emails within 48 hours after the initial invitation.  Guests are significantly less likely to respond if too much time passes in between their actual stay and the time that they receive the email review invitation. Since reviews are central to property rankings on FlipKey and TripAdvisor, and higher rankings mean more viewings, inquiries, and bookings, you want to make sure that you successfully add a review at every opportunity you get!
  • Send a Personalized Email. FlipKey makes following up with past guests very simple by allowing owners to send a personal email directly to past guests. When sending an email from your personal email address, include the unique URL to the review invitation so that your guest can easily click on the link and leave a review. Including a memorable part of your home in the subject line will make them more inclined to open your email immediately. Make sure to distinguish your email from all the other emails that are clogging up their inbox.
  • Create a Thank You Note. Write a basic thank you note that you can tailor to each guest. Many owners require a refundable deposit, so this is a perfect opportunity to let your guest know that you are returning their deposit and to slip in a link to have them leave a FlipKey review.
  • Increase Your Odds by Emailing Multiple Guests From The Same Party. Since you have collected multiple email addresses from the various guests who stayed in your property together, send a review invitation to each guest that shares their email address with you. In your personal email feel free to sympathize with your guest about the rough adjustment back to normal life, but remind them that feedback about their stay would be sincerely appreciated, and that they are welcome back at anytime (repeat business)!

 

In a perfect world, every guest would respond to your invitation, but the truth is that most guests are going to need a bit of a nudge. A guest may have a great experience staying in your home, but may never leave a review due to the chaos of every day life (work, laundry, kids, etc). In fact, only about 40% of people leave a review after their stay(2). Although it can be disappointing that more travelers are not the reviewing type, you can be confident that your guests likely had an amazing time. Most travelers have great experiences staying in a vacation rental, and nearly 90% of vacation rental guests would recommend renting a vacation home following their stay(3). Our own research confirms strong satisfaction from travelers across the entire vacation rental category, as the vast majority of reviews on FlipKey are extremely positive. By taking advantage of every opportunity to collect reviews and following up with guests you will certainly see a much higher success rate!

(1) Compete.com

(2) FlipKey.com

(3) PhoCusWright

After last week’s Spring Cleaning post, we asked the FlipKey team for their tidying tips, and the most common response was: “Hire a cleaning service!” There are some parts of a spring clean that you will have to do yourself (organizing your belongings and throwing out stuff that you don’t need anymore), but don’t be afraid to call in the professionals when you get to the scrubbing, dusting, and shampooing of a deep clean. It’s no sign of weakness to let the pros handle the serious grime while you focus on getting your rental ready for this season’s guests!

If you are going to take on the challenge independently, here are some tips to keep cleaning under control:

It’s the most wonderful time of the year. No, there’s no time warp bringing us back to December holiday celebrations. I’m talking about spring: longer days, warmer weather, and the ancient ritual of spring cleaning. If you own a vacation rental, then early April is a key time for revitalizing your home in preparation for the summer rental season (or for recovering from the winter rental season).

The annual rite of brooms, buckets, and bathroom cleaners can be daunting. But have no fear. If you approach spring cleaning with a good attitude and a strong action plan, then you can not only improve the look and feel of your property, but you can also make future cleaning easier and more productive. To get you started on the right foot, FlipKey presents the following spring cleaning strategy session…

Today, join us for the first part of a series in which we pursue vacation rental perfection by combing through thousands of FlipKey guest reviews to gain insight into the mind of the self-catering traveler. In this installment, we examine factors that worry and scare guests, and what can be done to put them at ease.

Although most of us go on vacation to relax, the planning process for any major trip invariably includes some stressful moments. For some travelers, the decision to stay in a vacation rental for the first time can be daunting; others worry about practical issues such as the size of a home, proximity to the beach, and nosy neighbors. We broke down reviews and found that travelers’ three main worries are safety, privacy, and noise. Here’s what the travelers are saying, and what owners and managers can do to help them achieve travel nirvana.

Here at FlipKey, we spend a lot of time thinking up ways to help vacation home owners and property managers get the most from their properties. Helping to keep every property listed on FlipKey and TripAdvisor booked solid keeps us up at night. The good news is that all the sleepless nights are clearly worth it, as the average listing on TripAdvisor and FlipKey is currently receiving more than 75 inquiries annually.  We know that vacation rentals are the best accommodation option for many trips, and we won’t rest until we spread that message to the world’s travelers.

Believe it or not, we’re not the only ones obsessed with helping others succeed at renting their homes, which is why we asked Alfred and Emily Glossbrenner, of FullyBookedRentals, to write a comprehensive guide to vacation rental marketing. The Glossbrenners put their years of experience down on paper and came up with Vacation Rental Marketing Made Easy. We are proud to offer you their insight as a free guide to converting page views to inquiries, and finally to bookings. The marketing guide features tips on all the important aspects of a successful vacation rental marketing program, including:

  • Creating and fine-tuning your advertising program
  • What to look for in advertising websites
  • Creating your own website
  • Making your listings stand out from the crowd and
  • Creative ways to boost your bookings
  • And (much) more

You can always access the marketing guide through the link in the upper right-hand corner of this blog. Also, feel free to tell your friends about the guide. Good marketing techniques are not industry secrets – they’re great ideas that can work for everyone. Put the wisdom of other vacation rental owners to work, share your home with new guests, and keep your past guests coming back again and again.

Finally, remember to check in regularly with the FlipKey blog to learn the latest news, tips, and tidbits (or better yet, sign up for our RSS feed). And don’t hesitate to throw your two-cents into the comments. After all, no one knows more about vacation rentals than the owners and managers who rent them and the travelers who stay in them.

In the world of travel, a scale of one to five stars is used nearly universally to indicate the type of service travelers can expect from a hotel. Vacation rental homes have no such implicit classification system. Star ratings on FlipKey and TripAdvisor, for example, reflect guests’ overall impression of their stay as opposed to advertising a property’s ability to meet predetermined criteria for each star.

Most of the time, travelers award stars in their reviews based on whether a vacation rental lives up to their expectations. Therefore, even the most basic rental property can earn a five-star review if it consistently delivers as advertised according to its description and price. Similarly, a one-star hotel could earn a five-star review online because it serves up everything expected of a three-star hotel. With that understanding of rankings and reviews, the key to earning great reviews is evaluating where your property falls on a scale of hospitality standards and then offering the appropriate services and amenities to the best of your abilities. To this end, the FlipKey blog presents its own five-star guide to vacation rental classification . . .

One Star

A single star in the hotel world denotes little more than four walls, a roof, and a bed. The budget travelers who search for this type of basic lodging care more about travel activities and destinations than where they sleep. The same traveler who may ordinarily stay in a hostel or inexpensive guest house would also consider renting a simple one-room apartment if the price and location are right. To earn great reviews on a small apartment with minimal amenities, make sure that it is clean, safe, and economical. An urban studio that goes for less than $50/night could win high ratings for its price and convenience. Bonus points are awarded to rentals in this category located near points of interest or with easy access to public transportation.