As most of my readers and clients in the vacation rental (VR) niche of lodging know, I have also been providing training in the hotel and resort space for even longer. In the late 1990s, my company, known at the time as HSA International, trained hotels on how to use this then-new concept we called “cybermarketing.”
Back then, Expedia was still owned by Microsoft, and Travelocity had just partnered with AOL. With the internet still in the dial-up era and computers chained to a phone cord, cybermarketing represented a “fenced” distribution channel that had yet to be discovered by mainstream travelers. After 9/11, the hotels we trained discovered that OTAs were a wonderful tool to sell distressed inventory, and deal-seeking guests soon spread the word. By the mid-2010s, hotel brands realized they had become overreliant and launched “book direct with the brand” campaigns, but it was already too late. Guest loyalties were rapidly shifting to the OTA brands vs. the hotel flag flying out front. The brands essentially conceded and simply proceeded to negotiate lower commission structures, which is perhaps the single most important benefit of being part of a hotel brand these days.
In 2014, I was asked to return as a guest speaker to the VRMA conferences, in which I had been a speaker every year from 1996 to 2009, and I was shocked to see how far the OTA concept had already penetrated into the VR space. Part of me wanted so badly to grab a microphone and warn the industry of the perils of overreliance on OTAs; unless they were used correctly, OTAs would siphon away top-line profits. Yet the owners of some of the fastest-growing VR companies were singing the praises of this model.
So here we are in 2020, and an ever-increasing number of VR management companies are waking up and realizing that OTAs may represent the proverbial “wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
Now, I’m not saying that OTAs are the enemy, nor that VRMs should immediately pull all inventory. When managed correctly, OTAs are and will continue to be an integral part of a comprehensive marketing and distribution plan.
OTAs are especially important, perhaps irreplaceable, for certain classifications of VR companies, such as those whose inventory consists mostly of condos, those who host shorter stays, and those in markets wherein guests return infrequently. For example, most visitors to Central Florida’s theme parks might return every five years and are therefore harder to convert into regulars than guests who want to rent the same beach house or ski chalet every season.
The smartest strategy for all VR companies is to use OTAs to find new guests but then do all they can to convert those OTA guests into booking directly next time.
Not all of the following suggestions and tips will be feasible for your company, depending on your market demographics, but hopefully this list will spur the kind of creative thinking that will enable the VR industry to take back its power. Remember, VRMs, you control the inventory that powers the business model of all OTAs. They need you more than you need them.
1) Work for more direct website traffic. There are so many self-study resources to help VRMs learn the latest about organic searches, pay-per-click, and especially the retargeting of website visitors on social media. Even if you rely on an in-house leader or an outside agency, every VR owner and director should stay abreast of the latest so they can at least ask challenging questions.
2) Seek out listing and referral sites that have a critical mass to compete with OTAs for organic and paid SEO but also drive traffic to your website. A few that are well known to VR operators are vacationfinder.com, condo-world.com, resortsandlodges.com, rentabeach.com, findrentals.com, and northweststays.com.
3) Post your phone number prominently on your website on both desktop and mobile versions with a line of text saying something like, “Call in-house reservations now.” Update your after-hours voicemail greeting to reiterate that callers have reached in-house reservations and promise a timely callback.
4) When communicating on apps, make it personal. Explain that you are a local, small business. Ask guests to stop by the rental office. Entice them with free, local giveaway items, such as jams, honey, regional wine, branded picture frames, or kids’ welcome gifts.
5) Encourage everyone who interacts with guests to ask questions to uncover the stories behind guests’ travel plans, and then recognize birthdays, anniversaries, military furloughs, and memorial services. Stop by the local dollar store or stock up from Oriental Trading to keep low-cost decorations handy.
6) Make your service staff aware that those shopping on OTAs who click the “manager” link might then contact your company directly by phone, email, or chat. When that happens, train everyone how to use a personalized, engaging hospitality style. If guests have not yet booked, work to channel-convert them. If they have booked, ensure they know who your local brand is and get a jump start on channel conversion for their next visit.
7) Embrace in-home messaging. Post pictures of the entire staff of your small business. Have a small poster that tells the stories of your company’s owners. Likewise, post your company’s emergency phone number with pictures of the people who answer, such as maintenance or housekeeping, in uniform.
8) Consider moving to a Wi-Fi provider that requires guests to give their email addresses to access it, presents a branded landing page upon accessing the network, and allows guests to opt-in to future email marketing.
9) When you get guests’ email addresses, send personalized video email messages to reiterate the welcome and send a fond farewell. This is especially important if your company uses remote registration and self-check-in. Yes, it takes about 60 seconds per guest, but a personal video welcome message is a wonderful way to rehumanize what has evolved into just another electronic transaction.
10) Organize a drip campaign of emails, targeting guests by dates relevant to their anticipated rebooking cycle, and make them as personalized to specific guests as your CRM and PMS integration allows. Consider old-school postcards too, especially if your CRM allows you to personalize them with guest-specific details.
11) Create a “selfie station” at your office or welcome center, labeled as such. Include your company name but, more importantly, the destination name with a cute, locally-themed background.