By Heather Weiermann — If you’ve ever heard the phrase “Don’t put all of your eggs in one basket,” you will probably understand the idea of diversification and why it is so important for protecting your assets. The same concept applies to your source of business in the vacation rental industry – specifically where your guests find you.
Diversification is simply the “act of introducing variety.” Although it can be applied to a number of areas within your business, the concept absolutely must be applied to your marketing strategy and generating leads. Just like your financial investment efforts, diversification of your marketing strategy reduces risk and ensures that your revenue goals are not derailed by the unexpected.
A lot has been said recently about new fees and policy changes implemented by various online travel agencies (OTAs) and listing sites. As the online giants like Expedia and Priceline move further into the vacation rental space, the market is heading toward consolidation with a few large players dominating, all with very high rates and potentially poor service (some might argue that we’re already there).
There is no denying that vast majority of guests are shopping online. Vacation rental managers now have some choices to make. The result of these choices will determine who holds the power in our industry and your business moving forward.
- Where do you invest your marketing dollars– in OTA and listing sites or in your own brand?
- When is it beneficial for you to pay a commission fee to secure a booking and when are you just giving away margin?
The path of least resistance is always the most expensive. You can put all your eggs in the OTA/listing site basket and rely on them to generate all your business demand, or you can invest in driving consumers to your brand.com to book direct via your website or via phone.
If you don’t own the marketing channel you are using, you are beholden to their whims – you not only have to pay the fees the sites are charging, but your business will always have to conform to their policies (cancellation, refunds, payment processing, etc.). You will always be at the mercy of their decision making, which will ultimately be in the best interest of their company, not yours.
Growing commission rates, coupled with the fact that many OTAs are bidding on and competing for your property’s brand search keywords, makes the OTAs’ relationship with vacation rental managers anything but a partnership. Granted, for many small companies with restricted marketing budgets it is a necessary lifeline for getting your properties in front of potential guests early in the buying cycle.
It is important to keep in mind, however that OTAs and listing sites do not create the demand for your business. As we review year over year “lead volume” with VRMs who use OTAs, we aren’t seeing growth in volume but rather lead numbers simply shifting over to a channel that reduces your margin. In other words OTAs and listing sites are simply spending more on marketing that you can and in many cases are injecting themselves between you and your guests.
Why diversify your marketing? When considering your strategy for generating leads, you may only think of one thing — how many? However, that’s certainly not the only aspect that matters when it comes to how your leads will convert into bookings and the net revenue generated by each lead. How much will you spend to get the leads? How high of a commission you are paying? Will you have to pay a credit card processing fee? Is upselling ancillary services possible? How high is the demand for the dates you are trying to book? Plus a number of other factors can make the same number of bookings look very different when it boils down to the net revenue generated.
Too many vacation rental managers rely on OTA sites for far too much of their booking demand. Even the companies succeeding with in-house bookings could benefit by chipping away at their OTA percentage. There are a few relatively simple things you can do to diversify your marketing and move some of your eggs out of the OTA and listing site baskets. These changes will make an impact on your net revenue, grow your guest database and improve guest satisfaction. Implement these and I guarantee you’ll find your OTA percentage drop while occupancy grows!
1. Create Value with Exclusive Incentives
At the end of the day your guest will make the decision that is best for them. As we look at guest sentiment in the hospitality industry, we see a growing desire by guests to book through your website because they feel they can trust your business compared to a large booking engine, help support this growing preference. If your guests perceive real value or receive an advantage when booking direct, then they’re more likely to do so. This not only reinforces the value to your current direct bookings, but also incentivizes your guests who book via OTA sites to make a better choice in the future. It’s not hard to think of an incentive that’s going to cost you less than the three to ten percent OTA commission while also providing more value to the guest. I have seen the following be very effective at driving direct bookings:
2. Compete Head to Head With Rate
One of the most important strategies you can implement to drive direct bookings is to have the best rates. Give your guests a sense of security knowing they made the best choice with a “Best Rate Guarantee.” This can be as simple as a price match or a discount that is less than the commission potentially paid to the OTA. The only way to qualify for the guarantee though is for the guest to book direct. Here’s the most important part…make sure everyone knows about it! Promote your guarantee on your website, in your marketing materials, via social media, in your email messaging and wherever else you are marketing.
You’d be amazed by how many guests give you the chance to book them direct by calling your business even while they are online perusing listing sites. We hear it day in and day out as we help our clients listen to their call recordings and coach their reservation agents. Make sure your reservations team understands the critical importance of winning business that is contacting you directly, and incentivize your team to help them book direct.
3. Offer Late Checkout
Sure, this may have an impact on operations. But, if you can make it work, adding an hour to the check-out time for direct bookings is a big incentive. You can do this either by extending the check-out time for your direct bookings or by changing the check-out times for your OTA bookings to an earlier time.
4. Just Ask
It’s really that simple. People will do what you ask if you take the time to ask them. Your reservations team, your website and all your email communications should educate potential guests on the value of booking direct. Make sure they see and hear your promise of “Lowest Rates Guaranteed” or “Best Rate Guarantee” each time they interact with your brand.
Ask guests to book direct and explain the benefits for them if they do. Reinforce the personal touch and develop a relationship with your guests to demonstrate how important their vacation experience and their business is to you. If you can make it personal and make it genuine, the guest will want to book direct to ensure that same level of service is provided during their stay.
5. Collect and Use Guest Information
These are your guests. If they have a great experience, they are likely to stay with you again and share their personal vacation storied with their network of family and friends. You should be building your guest database, not just with your past guest data, but with the data from every lead you receive. At a minimum, make sure you are collecting a name, email address and phone number from each prospective guest.
However, to build meaningful relationships and to truly personalize your marketing messages, you need to collect more than just the basics. It’s not difficult. Your reservations and guest service team members are already learning many things about your guests just by talking to them. However, if you do not have a way to capture this data and record it in a usable format, this valuable information will slip right through your fingers. With no guest data of your own to use for remarketing purposes, you will always be paying for more leads. Why not reuse the leads you already paid for as a supplementary source of direct booking opportunities?
Knowing your guests will make them feel as if they know you. The OTAs are collecting your guest data. They use it to remarket their site and your competitor’s homes to prospective guests. Your primary goal when a guest inquires via an OTA site should be to make sure you have the ability to communicate directly with them and develop an ongoing relationship with your brand. You can do this through personalized messages and strategic touch points prior to their next planned stay in your market.
6. Recycle Leads With Post-Stay Targeting Messaging
Keep in touch with every lead in your database regardless if they stayed with you or not. I don’t mean adding them to your newsletter database though. In order to build strong, lasting relationships and earn their business, the messages you send should be personalized based on their interactions with your brand and the personal details you know about them.
We have worked with several property managers who have begun targeted email campaigns to “not booked” guests after their stay dates have passed. These guests are sent a special message 60 days prior to their initial inquiry anniversary to convert them to direct bookings on their next stay. This is just one of the remarketing strategies proven to be very effective at triggering OTA guests to change their behavior and book direct.
7. Know How Each Marketing Dollar Performs, Down to the Penny
If you don’t know how each spent marketing dollar performs, how can you make informed decisions about changes needed in your marketing strategy? OTAs use the fees you pay them to bid on your market and brand keywords on the major search engines in order to intercept your guests as they are looking for your homes.
It is almost impossible to compete with the enormous marketing budgets of an OTA or listing site. That is, of course, unless you are tracking and measuring your marketing return on investment (ROI) for each marketing strategy you have deployed. It is not enough to know how many impressions, clicks and click throughs your dollars generate. If your tools and technology cannot track your marketing spend back to the bookings generated, every dollar you spend is just like throwing a dart at a dart board.
If you’re going to implement a new marketing strategy, make sure you are able to track results and understand your average cost per guest acquisition. This reveals just how effective and valuable the new strategy is from a business objective standpoint. Based on results, further refinement of your marketing program is possible which allows you to focus on the strategies that perform the best for you.
Tracking true ROI requires an inter-connected system that tracks both online and offline (phone) responses and ties actual booked revenue to specific online, e-marketing, social media and traditional marketing campaigns. You should be managing the details of each marketing strategy, recording costs and analyzing conversion and booked revenue to validate ROI and justify your marketing spend.
8. Invest in Your Reservations Team
An exceptional reservation sales team is far and away one of the best investments you can make. By training and coaching your reservation sales team members who directly interact with your guests, you can emphasize how to build a lasting guest relationship, sell the experience of staying with your brand and earn the right to ask for the booking. By doing so you will achieve higher conversion rates and unmatched guest experience. At a minimum, you should be listening to your reservations calls in order to provide your agents constructive feedback and training to help them improve their skills and assess agent performance.
Incentivize your agents on more than just total revenue booked. Encourage and pay them when they successfully build a relationship with the guest and collect more than just the basic guest data. Provide your agents with the tools to perform proactive, personalized and timely follow-up calls and emails with potential guests rather than waiting for the guest to call back.
Yes, the OTAs can, and most likely will, play an important role in your overall marketing strategy. However, ensuring you are diversified and not dependent on just one source for leads is becoming even more important than ever before. To protect your business, your goal should be to convert every guest to a direct booking guest, if not for their initial stay with you, then for all future stays.
In short, make the effort to diversify the eggs in your marketing basket. If you are successful, you will not only grow your business, but unpleasant changes by one channel are more likely to be offset by positive results in another. This will deliver a stronger position in the market for your brand and more retained revenue for your bottom line.
About Heather Weiermann
After growing up on the beaches of San Diego, Heather graduated from the University of California, Santa Cruz with a Community Studies degree. Directly out of college, Heather built a consulting business for non-profit organizations. During this time Heather began marketing and managing vacation homes in 1999 as a favor to a friend who owned a beautiful home in La Jolla, California.
Over the course of 14 years, Heather’s business, Southern California Vacation Rentals, grew to become one of San Diego’s leading vacation rental companies. In 2013 Heather sold her company to a prominent East Coast company that wanted to build a West Coast presence. After helping with the transition of ownership, Heather knew immediately she wanted to help other vacation rental managers realize the same results she found after implementing The NAVIS Way at her own business.
Throughout her tenure, Heather has supported the vacation rental industry and other vacation rental managers by volunteering on local, state and national tourism and vacation rental committees and advisory councils. Heather served on the Board of Directors and as an Executive Committee Member of the Vacation Rental Managers Association (www.VRMA.com) from 2010 – 2014. Heather also founded the California Vacation Rental Managers Alliance (CAVRMA.org) and the San Diego Vacation Rental Managers Alliance (SDVRMA.org). Both organizations were created to bring a much needed voice and public awareness to the region’s vacation rental industry.
In her personal time, Heather loves being outside, traveling with her husband Mark and their dog Willard, and finding adventure in every turn. If they are not staying in a vacation home, they can be found somewhere out in the wilderness in their off-road camper.
First….if Visitor Bureau calls…..run.
Second…..Chamber of Commerce calls…..run faster.
Third….website optimization piker calls…..sprint.
Fourth……if someone calls, writes, emails who has no tangible bonafide brick and mortar interest in vacation rentals who says they got the answers…..don’t trip…..run…run. Run.
All you need to no…