I think it was 2010 when I read a blog post titled, “SEO Is Dead,” written by a then-active vacation rental marketing leader. The post gave everyone a massive headache, and ever since, I’ve been looking for my own “XYZ Is Dead” topic. It took a decade, but I am finally declaring the death of something; and therefore, this article is destined to go viral, give people headaches, and force me to wear ugly-colored tennis shoes for my next speaking engagement (an inside joke for VRMs who were around in 2010).
All kidding aside, COVID-19 has changed the travel industry. For vacation rental marketers, this means that the way people have been traveling for the past several years (or decades) is not the way they are going to be traveling in the future. This shift affects many things, but it also brings up an important topic: What is travel demand? And why have we been pretending for the last 20 years that past booking performance is an accurate measuring stick for future demand?
Demand, by definition, is customer willingness to purchase a product or service at a given price. In other words, if I am a customer, it means I want something, I have a budget in mind, and I’ve heard that you might be selling it.
For the last 20 years we have read articles and listened to videos, podcasts, and industry experts on panels talk about demand being up or demand being down for various reasons—but do you know what they were really talking about? Their booking trends, not their demand.
When you convert a consumer’s willingness and intention to book into an actual reservation, you have converted demand into revenue.
We have been pretending our booking data is “demand” data because these are the only numbers we could get our hands on to make decisions. And for a long time, that was okay because consumers were creatures of habit.
But nothing about 2020—or the coming months—will resemble the past, so we have to rethink everything about our business.
We need to break our seasons down differently for the rest of 2021—no matter how much of a pain it is to set them up in our PMS. With virtual schooling, events being canceled, and people stuck in their home for a year, let’s consider how we can maximize revenue on a week-by-week basis instead of season-by-season.
2) BOOKING RULES
It does not matter if we have always required a Saturday arrival or a seven-night minimum stay. Consumers’ willingness has likely changed, and we will need to change with it if we want to make every dollar we can right now.
The anxiety of being stuck in the house and behind a mask is motivating people to travel for long weekends. Optimize rates, not only by increasing Saturday or Sunday night rates, but analyze data to see what a “long weekend” looks like in the destination. It probably resembles Thursday through Sunday or Monday.
This is controversial and differs by destination. However, now more than ever, consumers are willing to pay a premium for five-star cleaning services that meet COVID-19 safety standards. Pay attention to invoices from vendors. If we’re seeing increases in expenditures, we should feel confident in increasing cleaning fees for consumers. Make sure marketing teams are doing a good job explaining what consumers get for their cleaning fee, and it will be fine.
As an industry, we’ve been learning a lot about rate automation. If you are using set-it-and-forget-it automation for rates or email marketing, make sure your settings are still relevant. Automated pricing algorithms rely heavily on historical booking data (along with real-time booking data) to make recommendations. Designate someone to review the recommendations and the impact on conversion.
This is not the time for “George Foreman” revenue management or for marketing messaging; it is probably time for a complete refresh. Shoppers are browsing our websites or opening our emails because they want something positive on their minds, not more stress. Even if operations are limited or shut down due to COVID-19-related restrictions in the area, we can help people dream about their next vacation with a photo contest, virtual scavenger hunt, webinars, or the like.
As vacation rental marketers, we can more accurately measure real-time demand by looking at this activity on our own websites.
We can see when consumers are shopping and searching availability on our sites—and we know when they pick up the phone to book with one of our reservation agents. Even consumers who book on third-party OTA websites have often done a search on brand.com before making their final choice (a dynamic that justifies its own article in the future).
Today’s web analytics provide us with metrics like number of visits, time on site, pageviews, event data, and e-commerce transactions/ conversions. This data is invaluable, but it is often hard to translate into actionable marketing insights beyond making design improvements to the website.
For years, I’ve been thinking about how to get more demand data by quantifying how consumers navigate vacation rental websites. Specifically, I wanted to find a way to measure the following critical information.
Arrival Dates and Length of Stay Shoppers Are Searching For
Capture every query entered on the website—whether it happens on the home page, in the search results, or directly on a property page. Queries and quotes reflect our true demand data! They show how many consumers are willing to find our product.
We’ve spent years gaining inherent knowledge of what kind of amenities guests like to book. But what kind of amenities were they searching for during a given period of time for a future arrival date?
Number of Search Results Displayed
We haven’t had visibility into how many properties guests are seeing for any given search query on our websites. Whether you have 10 properties or thousands of properties, once someone puts in the arrival date, length of stay, and a few filters, would you be surprised to find out that your site is only showing them a fraction of the results that are actually available?
Wouldn’t you want to know when your site is showing “0 results” when you have plenty of availability?
Plus, how powerful would it be to talk to a stubborn homeowner about how many times their property was quoted at a certain rate and it never booked?
As an industry, we need to evolve from talking about demand based on what we’ve booked. There is a world of opportunity and higher revenue that emerges when we see the full picture of what consumers were looking for, what results they saw, and what they ultimately chose.
After years of thinking about how to help bridge the gap and solve this problem, I had the opportunity to spend the last 12 months— along with countless sleepless nights—completing my master’s degree in technology leadership from Brown University. Combining what I learned at Brown with decades of vacation rental experience, working through COVID-19 as Acme Vacation Rentals’ CMO, and aided by a brilliant team (it takes a village), I cracked the demand-analytics code.
The result is the DemandIQ plug-in, my capstone project. Using this plug-in, we can now quantify demand with customized analytics that track what guests are searching for along with what they are being shown.