What do a collection of homes on golf courses in Alabama, a 10-bedroom mansion in Branson, Missouri, and a sun-drenched villa on the island of Cyprus have in common?
Each was purposefully built with a rental demographic in mind.
In 2005, Rick Oster—a former advertising executive—sat down with a blank sheet of paper and asked himself a single question: “If I were to design a home specifically for groups on a golf trip, what would that look like?”
Rick, an avid golfer, had been to vacation houses near golf courses in the past and had been disappointed at the lack of thought that went into their design and presentation.
“They just weren’t set up for the average group that travels on golf getaways—usually six to eight buddies or three to four couples. Instead, we were faced with the decisions—who would have the master bedroom with the en suite bathroom and who got the bottom bunks in the kid’s room. The guy who planned the trip was the lucky one—the others took potluck.”
If they went to a hotel instead, they would be guaranteed an en suite room with two guys to a room but would likely be scattered across the property. Then there were issues with where they could meet collectively to play a game of cards or watch a football game. There was no good way of hanging out together.
It seemed no one had given a great deal of thought to what these groups would do outside of playing golf. On top of all that, the accommodations were expensive. At one property Rick stayed in, the charge was $1,600 per night for average accommodations. Oster mulled this over and figured, “If I combined the two concepts—all the amenities of a hotel built into a custom home—built it twice as big, and charged half as much, I’d have a pretty good business.”
What followed was the blueprint for Oster Golf Houses, a collection of purpose-built homes designed with a specific type of person in mind.
Whereas some golfers travel with their partners, many travel in groups of players; the “guys’ weekend” springs to mind. They have some very specific needs, and Rick outlined these on the back of the proverbial napkin as his first blueprint. He knew his golfing guests would want the following:
- A large, open-concept living area with a
large-screen plasma TV and large flat-screen
TVs in each bedroom
- A game room with a pool table and an additional
card table to seat at least eight people
- Four master suites, each with two queensized
beds with top-of-the-range mattresses
- En suite bathrooms with large walk-in
showers and wide vanities with double sinks
- Space for storing and cleaning clubs
- Stainless steel grills
Two years later, Oster’s first golf house was built on a course in Oregon, and the response was immediate and strong. However, it was fairly short-lived as a business venture. The golf course resort made policy changes that curtailed the benefits to those golfers who stayed in private accommodation and made that choice less appealing than staying in resort lodgings.
Having proven the concept, Rick started looking for locations that were friendlier to private ownership and rentals and discovered the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail (RTJG) in Alabama. RTJG is a collection of 26 golf courses in 11 locations, which made it a perfect home for Oster Golf Houses. Rick has built five properties with a sixth currently under construction, and they all follow his original design.
He says the development process is not for the faint of heart because it involves searching for land, learning about running utilities, engineering, building driveways, and so forth, before the actual build even commences; he continues to learn all the time.
He didn’t use an architect—he simply took his rough drawings to a designer, who created the plans for around $3,000, then sourced a reliable contractor who understood his goals and ideas.
Rick is rueful about some of the mistakes he made with his earlier projects: “In the first houses, I installed carpeting in the bedrooms and economized a little on furniture. Now I know that the properties get some hard use, so I‘ll put in hardwood flooring throughout and buy more robust pieces that will stand up to rental use.” His advice to anyone looking to purpose build for a niche: “Choose something you are passionate about, something you know and love. That would be the easiest way to guarantee success.”
Making the Mediterranean Accessible
At around the same time Rick Oster was jotting down notes on a napkin, 6,500 miles away, in the tiny village of Maroni on the idyllic island of Cyprus, an ex-firefighter was just beginning plans for his luxury villa.
Andy and Niki Renals had long dreamed of building in Cyprus, and their goals were finally coming together when they renewed contact with an old college friend of Andy’s. David Croft had been an outstanding athlete when his life was suddenly changed by an accident that left him tetraplegic, and when he heard about the plans for the villa, he told Andy how much he would like to visit.
For the Renals, that was a turning point—if they were going to build from scratch, why not
make it accessible for people like David? And not just for people in wheelchairs, but for all those with more complicated needs?
For David, a member of the Spinal Injuries Association, this was the opportunity to share the needs of those with physical disabilities and to explain what a great vacation would look like in a rental property if it were accessible.
The result is a three-level villa with a swimming pool, of which two levels and the outdoor space are fully accessible via ramps, slopes, lifts, and hoists.
On the lower floor, the accessible suite has two bedrooms, a large wet room, and a kitchen. “If you’ve got one person in a group needing accessible accommodation, there will typically be four or five others traveling with them. Most have a personal assistant or caretaker, so it’s important to have a second bedroom closely located to the disabled person on one floor,” says Andy.
The other bedrooms are on the upper level, which is accessed by stairs.
“We listened to David and talked to others who have visited, and subsequently built up a large range of equipment as part of the overall package,” says Andy.
From electric profiling beds to a manual hoist for access to the swimming pool to a fully adapted vehicle, the villa has just about everything a person with complex disabilities would require to enjoy a great vacation.
Andy recognized early on that to offer accessible accommodation on an island where guests arrive by air, he would have to research the means by which they could get there. He realized that without specific equipment, some of his potential guests wouldn’t be able to disembark from their airplanes at Larnaca Airport. In 2016, after working with a range of stakeholders, Andy was rewarded with the news that an Eagle Passenger Lifter had been purchased by the airport authority. This meant access was opened up to many more guests, and, in a market that Andy says is “surprisingly large and underserved,” it was a boom for business.
Creating a great vacation isn’t limited to providing accessible accommodation. The owners of Villa Carpe Diem partner with other island providers to offer a wider experience of Cyprus for guests with disabilities, and one such experience in particular is dear to Andy’s heart.
Thanks to Andy’s partnership with Freedom Divers Cyprus, guests can visit the island on a diving holiday and experience the perfect combination of accessible accommodations, adapted vehicles, and the means of learning a new activity that few would have thought possible.
Tapping into the large-group market
An understanding of group size in the potential visitor demographic is central to purpose-building a home for a niche rental market. Just as Rick Oster settled on eight as the ideal group size for his golf houses, and Andy Renals had a slightly smaller group in mind, back across the Atlantic, Tyann Marcink has her sights set on far larger numbers.
As community manager for the digital guest guide Touch Stay, Tyann is fully immersed in the guest experience, and the success of her small-town businesses, Missouri Haus and Branson Family Retreats, shows that she walks the walk.
The latest addition to her growing property portfolio is a 10-bedroom, 10½-bathroom house in Branson, Missouri, that should be completed in early 2020.
Branson is a town of 10,000 people centrally located in the United States and easily accessed by car. Known as the live entertainment capital of the world, it hosts nearly 8 million visitors each year and is the second most popular destination in the US for group travel. With a popular theme park, a renowned Christmas lights display, and a major convention center, Branson attracts visitors year round, so Tyann has no doubt her third property will be another success story.
“When people think about group travel to a vacation rental, they have in mind families of 15 -20. In Branson, a typical group can be 60–100, and every part of the town caters for these numbers, including the restaurants and entertainment venues,” explains Tyann. With the size of the new house only constrained by budget, Tyann has designed the property to accommodate up to 32 guests. This means doubling up on all kitchen appliances, creating enough dining space for all guests to sit and eat together, and ensuring there is ample parking available on the property.
“All the properties in the area are vacation rentals, and building plans incorporate sufficient parking areas outside each home,” adds Tyann.
She’s also considered the access requirements of her typical guest group, which often includes older and less mobile family members, and has installed ramps and wheelchair-accessible areas. Friendliness to short-term rentals is integral to Tyann’s portfolio plans, and her first stop in a new town is the local Chamber of Commerce. In Branson, where tourism is a primary part of any location’s business plan, new building projects are encouraged and supported, and the Chamber also provides a wealth of information about what guests are looking for.
Tyann suggests joining the Chamber early in the process and getting to know the staff.
“Get friendly with the person who meets the travelers who walk through the door—this is the one who is going to recommend your place,” she says.
The target market for the new property is wide, from family reunions and celebrations to church groups, military groups, corporate retreats, and attendees of conferences at the nearby convention center. Tyann is fortunate because her parents and brother own several large properties nearby, so larger groups can rent two or more places and still be close to each other.
Like Rick and Andy, Tyann stresses the importance of knowing what prospective guests want in a rental home. This in-depth knowledge extends to understanding the optimum length of stay.
Whereas a trip to Cyprus usually lasts a week or more, group travelers to Branson and golfers in Alabama tend to book for shorter periods.
From a marketing perspective, purpose-built niche properties lend themselves to booking directly and not relying on OTAs to deliver their guests.
All three owners have comprehensive websites that appeal to their target markets. Villa Carpe Diem provides a lengthy access statement that describes every aspect of the property, from the height of each bed to floor coverings and lighting types. Oster Golf Houses includes drone videos covering every hole on each golf course where the homes are located. And Branson Family Retreats offers information on all the activities and events taking place in the area.
Each drives traffic to its respective site from targeted marketing in niche-specific forums and groups and in partnerships with local organizations.
Building a property designed to meet the needs of a specific niche audience is not done on a whim. Such a project requires thorough research, attention to detail, and deep understanding of the chosen market. Rick Oster, Tyann Marcink, and Andy Renals have achieved success following these principles.
A final word of advice from Tyann: “You have to know the numbers—projected income and expenses plus extra for the things you’ll forget. Know what your definition of success is, and if the numbers don’t get you there, think again.”