We are on Airbnb!

We’re diversifying our listing exposure. While remaining on HomeAway and VRBO, we are also listing the Galveston Beach House, Las Brisas, on Airbnb. Go on over there to check it out! https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/7761435 Add us to your wish list! It will help other travelers find us.

I’d love to hear from travelers and owners if you have a favorite travel website you like best and why. When would you choose a hotel vs choose a home? Does it depend on location/number of folks/whole vs. partial place?  We’ve rented three times through VRBO for extended family gatherings in Alabama, Tennessee and Georgia. All three were fantastic experiences for all ages – grandparents, aunts, uncles and kids.

And of course, we love sharing our beach houses!

 

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Las Brisas

The Devil is in the Details – Learning Curves

Working through learning curves is part of the vacation rental business. What's your current challenge?

Today’s #VRMChat on twitter focused on helping first time vacation rental owners get started. One of the questions I was asked was about my steepest learning curve. I replied that the setting up of the house was easy (and fun!), it was the accounting of it all that I had a hard time wrapping my head around!  Getting a handle on the financial details was the first learning curve. I’m not in anyway a financial expert – I’ve got a rudimentary knowledge of Quickbooks, enough that allows me to track the financial data and run reports for the beach houses. With any big questions, I always go straight to my accountant for answers.

The financials are not complex once all the categories etc are set up in Quickbooks, but managing these details has never been easy for me. I hate accounting, but I don’t hate it enough to pay someone else to do the basics of it. With just two beach houses, it really is just an issue of time and organization and making these management details a priority.  So, here’s how I’ve generally handled the financial details of the houses.

Once a week, generally on Fridays, I send damage deposit refunds. This used to be done by hand written note with a check, but now that I can send the refunds electronically on VRBO, I do that. It saves one step. I do miss writing the thank you notes, that is now also done electronically via the Hospitality Manager on VRBO, so I may start that up again. Once a month I make sure that all the reservations and payments are up to date in Quickbooks so I can run the hotel sales tax report for the local municipalities and the state Comptroller and send out their checks. And about once a quarter I enter in all the expenses that are downloaded from the bank into my Quickbooks software so I can run profit and loss reports. That should probably be done more, but it works for me to do it this way.

The second learning curve seems to be happening now, 5 years after getting in to the vacation rental business. It’s Marketing! With an increase in properties listed on every vacation rental site out there, it feels like it’s more and more important to differentiate my property from the crowd, but the question is HOW. Some industry experts like Matt Landau are calling for listing site independence and suggest ways for that to happen. Some like Clanventure are offering niche marketing strategies.  Some owners are working Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter and independent blogs and websites.

According to Pew Research on social media use, 72% of internet using adults are on Facebook, 31% of adults are on Pinterest and 23% are on Twitter. So, from those numbers, Facebook looks like it’s the winner for reaching the most people.

My friend, Richard Craft, gets most of his guest traffic from returning guests and his 18,000 likes on Facebook. I also have Facebook pages for both beach houses: Blue Roost and Las Brisas and post to each page a few times/week but for it to be a driver for rentals, I’ll need to run some targeted ads and post more frequently.  Recently, I’ve been spending a lot of time on Twitter – I’m getting great info from vacation rental folks about industry topics like marketing and social media. It’s interesting and fun to connect and learn with other people, but it’s not going to be a way to drive guests to my beach houses. Right now, it’s more for my own education.

Alicia Steffann, who runs Sadler House, told me about the increase in traffic to her website using Pinterest. Following her lead, I have optimized my blog for pins and the smart feed and Pinterest is the second highest driver of traffic to my blog now. My Pinterest page is a place to showcase the things to do in Galveston and Port A, share pictures of the beach houses, collect ideas for beach decor and easy recipes.I think it could develop into a way for guests to find our beach houses – most of my Pinterest audience is in the Dallas/Ft.Worth and Houston areas, where many of our guests live. Pinterest analytics are helpful!

Getting into vacation rentals has been a great venture for my family. I’m curious to see how the changes and growth in this industry play out. There are learning curves to everything we do and the resulting growth and knowledge are some of the rewards of sticking it out.  Don’t lose heart and be sure to share what you’ve learned!

What’s your current challenge? Have a solution?

A Marketing We Will Go

Ideas for updating vacation rental marketing plans and strategy with resource links.

This Fall I’ve been exploring different marketing strategies for the beach house rentals. Up to this point, we’ve primarily relied on two major listing sites and that has given us all the traffic we’ve needed. However, this year, the booked days have been down a bit. I can’t do anything about the rainy season we had in the spring, but I can do something about reaching a larger pool of guests. Here are the steps I’m taking this Fall to work on marketing.

  1. List on More Sites. Just listing on one or two sites may limit our exposure to potential guests. Vacation rental properties are increasing in huge numbers. Our beach houses return on the first page of results on our listing sites, but there are a lot of listings out there! I’ve bundled both listings on VRBO, at the platinum level, and they are on Homeaway, as well. That has been awesome and kept us pretty steady for 5 years. This Fall I’ve been experimenting with listing the Galveston house on Flipkey (to get into the TripAdvisor market) and AirBnB. The jury is still out, but it hasn’t cost me a fee unless I get a booking, so there’s not really a downside. My only angst with going outside the Homeaway family listing sites is the multiple calendar management.
  2. Consider Niche Marketing. We love to have large extended families with dogs at our beach houses. There are some interesting sites that promote vacation rentals to specific groups. Clanventure.com is just getting started and looks to be a great new site for listing and finding rentals for families with kids under 5. They plan to limit the number of homes per geographic location so there aren’t a million to wade through as a guest or to compete with as an owner.  I also just ran across Bringfido.com that advertises hotels, B&B’s and vacation rentals world wide that are dog friendly. So, maybe it’s worth working with a niche listing site and see if there’s a way to capitalize on it.
  3. Get Educated. I’ve taken two great social media classes from BlogClarity. One called “Content Brew” which covered all things blog content related and the other “Pinning Perfect” about driving traffic back to the website via the smart feed on Pinterest. Both classes were incredibly informative and worthwhile. I’ve also found a lot of helpful info via twitter and used tweetdeck to create a list of and follow active vacation rental professionals including @RentMoreWeeks (marketing), @GuestHook (copyediting) and @MarcinkDesigns (VR photography) for ideas and help. Next on my list is checking out some courses from RentMoreWeeks.com and BookingsPlus4G.com
  4. Utilize Social Media. I have a VR friend who’s focused his social media strategy on Facebook – he’s up to 18,000 likes and that drives most of his rental traffic. Another friend found that after taking the “Pinning Perfect” class, her web traffic significantly increased. I’ve been using Facebook since we started renting, and the traffic is growing. Right now, I’m working on building up my Pinterest account using things I learned in the “Pinning Perfect” class. I also blog once or twice a week. I do have some work ahead of me planning social media strategy!
  5. Connect with Other Owners. There is a great deal of information out there and it’s helpful to have other VR owners. There are great ways to connect – Facebook, owners associations and conferences like the Homeaway Summits. I’m looking forward to catching up with some other Texas Coast owners at the summit in Austin on November 6th.

Really, it’s all good. The beach season slows down a bit after Labor Day and it’s a great opportunity to look back, evaluate and see what changes or improvements in strategy need to happen with the vacation rentals.

Have your marketing plans changed this year? What are you trying?

Things I’ve Learned as a Vacation Rental Owner and a Neighbor

My experience as a vacation rental owner and on the flip side as a neighbor to a vacation rental.

Much is in the media lately about problems with short term rentals. I own three houses in three cities and each neighborhood has handled the short term rentals in our midst differently.

Austin

Shortly after we moved into our primary residence, the house next door became a vacation rental. It’s a gorgeous home – spacious house with a pool, high on a hill above a lake, great views. No other house was a vacation rental in our neighborhood at the time. We are one one side of it and there is an empty lot on the other. There were no wild parties, but there were some groups of ladies that liked to have late night hen parties around the pool. I remember hearing them chat and laugh into the wee hours of the morning. I bought a air filter for our room in short order to block out the noise. One time, some folks brought their Harley’s and parked them on the septic field. I wish I had had the contact for the property manager – I would have called to let them know! Other than those two minor issues, we had NO problems with the guests next door. Fast forward a few years and two other homes on our street became vacation rentals. The neighborhood went up in flames over a few pretty serious incidents. Lots of lawyering and an incredible amount of money was spent. The majority of the neighbors successfully organized to change the deed restrictions to prevent any short term rentals ever. I didn’t want to have anything to do with the issue and began just pulling into my garage and closing the door. It was an incredibly sad time for me to see how neighbors treated neighbors with opposing views.

Port Aransas

About half the homes in our little beach neighborhood are vacation rentals. There was a lot of tension between renting and non renting owners when we first bought the house. So much so that we actually considered selling the house about 2 years later. The politics there also became ugly with many things said that would have been better left unsaid. I will admit, regrettably I contributed to some of it.  The end result was that the Owners Association crafted some rules that were especially punitive to the renting owners. The renting owners were able to negotiate with the Owner’s Association to reduce some the fines set in place. The good that came out of it were some specific neighborhood rules that we all abide by. I print out the rules in our rental contract and let the guests know that if I get fined for any of their behavior, the payment will come out of their deposit. We’ve never had a problem with our guests and the neighborhood seems pretty peaceful.

Galveston

Galveston is the most organized set of vacation rental owners. When the city council was looking at changing the Land Development Regulation, STROAG (Short Term Rental Owners Association of Galveston) was there to follow the developments, encourage owners to contact council members and took an active roll in the process. They worked with Homeaway to show the incredible economic impact short term rental guests have on the island. They’ve created a “Good Neighbor Brochure” to help guests understand what the expectations are for their visit.  I’ve been so impressed with this group! They are a model for what an area wide Vacation Rental Owners group should be – active in promoting the good about short term rentals and holding members to a high standard.

So, what I’ve learned:

1. Good communication is essential. Knowing and respecting your neighbors can go a long way to heading off any future trouble. Invite them into your home and get to know them!

2. Community matters. You have to be a good neighbor whether you are in the house or renting it out.

3. Expectations are everything. Don’t assume anything in your roles as neighbor, owner or guest.

4. Form an association. Get to know other short term rental owners in your area and organize before you need to, otherwise, it’s already to late. You don’t have to organize something negative – promote the benefits of vacation rentals in your area. Get to know the city council members. Share resources. The owner’s group can aid in the success of any of it’s members.

Do you have any other suggestions based on your experience? Let me know!

Recipes, Remodels and DIY – Oh My!

September Round Up - My favorite home decor, remodeling and seasonal recipes found on Pinterest with links to pins and boards.

I love Pinterest.

Pinterest has actually been pretty helpful both from a business stand point as well as personal. I can spend a lot of time there looking at beach decor, holiday recipes, DIY remodel ideas, crafts and gifts. Pouring over decor over time helps me know what I like and don’t like. Collecting the pins in a board allows a style or theme to become evident. When the need arises and when it’s time to actually purchase something, I’m ready.  I like to arrange my boards with specific topics so that I can actually go back and find a pin for a meal, beverage, quote or a paint color etc. Each of my girls has a “Buy Me Something!” board which makes gift giving so easy! With the holidays coming up, I’ll be pinning a lot of great ideas to my Holidays – Coastal Thanksgiving, Holidays – Coastal Christmas and Great Meals – Holiday Recipes and looking for gift inspiration this season!

Here are a few of my favorite pins and boards:

Recipes

Follow Texas Coast Beach House’s board Great Meals – Dinner on Pinterest.

Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Bread – one of my favorite Autumn breads. Pumpkin and chocolate doesn’t sound like it should really go together but it’s delicious! My local farmers market vendor had a fantastic gluten free version of this made with sweet potatoes.

Eggs Benedict – quintessential brunch dish in my household. But we usually eat it out! Would love to surprise the family one Saturday and make it at home – maybe when the college girl comes home for Fall break.

DIY Crafts and Home Improvement

Great Coasters – good idea for gifts from SadlerHouse.net. I made a slightly different version of these for Christmas last year. I love the stamps used in this pin and think it’s great inspiration for coasters I’d like to make for the beach houses.

I love looking at remodel ideas – my wish list includes wood on my stairs and painting the kitchen cabinets…and maybe a plank wall somewhere!

Beach House Decor

Beautiful Coastal Decor in this group board. I think about beach decor year round. I always keep an eye out for fresh trends and think about ways to keep the beach houses in their best shape. I also find ways to sneak that style into my home in Austin, too.

Happy Pinning!

Is the Beach Safe?

I’ve received two calls over the past week from guests concerned about the bacteria counts in the water at the coast and one about shark attacks. Heavens! Worries can sure ruin a vacation. We have had a ton of runoff from the recent rains which unfortunately is impacting the contaminate (bacterial, viral or protazoan) counts in some locations. Thank goodness for www.texasbeachwatch.com from the General Land Office. Check out the map to see the status of the water near your location. Samples are taken once a week during the peak summer season and every other week the rest of the year. When beaches have a high contaminant level, an advisory is posted and levels are supposed to be tested every 24 hours until considered safe.

The beach over July 4th weekend in Pointe West.

The beach over July 4th weekend in Pointe West.

I found this news release from the Galveston County Health Department about the hot topic (http://www.gchd.org/press/2015/July-4-beach-advisories-press-release.pdf):

Scott Packard, Galveston County Health District spokesperson states, “Advisories are not uncommon after periods of heavy rain. Rain runoff from across the state flows into rivers and streams and eventually the Gulf. It’s a natural process that sometimes briefly increases bacteria levels at a handful of testing locations.” Advisories typically last just a few days, sometimes less, and are primarily aimed the people with weakened immune systems or open cuts or wounds. In fact, it’s routine for GCHD to recommend people with such health issues to consult their healthcare provider before swimming in untreated water, anywhere, anytime. The beach water advisory is simply a reiteration of that message. “If you are a healthy adult, you have little reason for concern when such advisories are issued,” said Packard. “If you are at a beach that’s under advisory and have concerns, we simply encourage you to go a block down the street to another one of the many beaches without an advisory.”

No worries at Pointe West over the 4th of July weekend. We got in the water and had a great time!

4 Tips for Planning Thanksgiving on Vacation

Coastal Holiday Planning

It’s become a family tradition to gather the extended family at Las Brisas, our beach house in Galveston, for Thanksgiving. My sister in law has a place in the same neighborhood, so there is plenty of room for the 13 + that celebrate together.

Planning Thanksgiving dinner for a crowd, including the cooking timeline and a bonus example of a DIY craft - a gingerbread turkey!

Family togetherness – planning the gingerbread lighthouse.

Planning a large holiday meal for a crowd takes some forethought and planning for one in a vacation home, even more so. Here are a few tips for pulling it off beautifully.

1. Find out about the kitchen
Ask the owner about baking dishes etc. Our vacation homes sleep a lot of folks and are well stocked to prepare meals for a crowd. I set the kitchens up in Galveston and Port Aransas so I could cook a holiday meal in each of them – lots of pots and pans and baking dishes. Alternatively, if the kitchen you are in is limited in its cookware, use disposable foil baking pans.

2. Bring the turkey
I buy a frozen turkey and bring it with us. We are fortunate that the kids have the whole week off, so I buy the turkey prior to heading out of town and stick it in a cooler, still frozen, for the drive. If you are arriving on a Wednesday and expect to cook the turkey on Thursday, make sure it’s thawed before you get to the vacation home!

3. Decide the ‘must have’ foods
At home, I have a double oven, so cooking a wide variety of foods is easy. With the single oven at the beach house kitchen, things need to be a bit more streamlined. When we started this tradition, I asked the family members what they needed on the table for it to be Thanksgiving, to make sure the meal met everyone’s expectations. Luckily, some of the must haves overlapped! I list our typical menu below.

4. Plan the cooking of the meal
What time will the dinner be eaten? How long will the turkey take to cook? Plan the rest of the meal backwards from there. It’s easier to make a few things the day before if possible.

Every year I debate about cooking the pies the day ahead of Thanksgiving. I’m doing it this year 🙂 and if we dig in a day early, so be it.

Here is my usual timeline. I’ve saved an electronic version of this as well as a shopping list so I can access it every year. I use the large turkey instructions from The Cook’s Illustrated Guide to Poultry and the Dry Brine from Williams Sonoma. Can’t beat it!
Thanksgiving 2014 Plan – Eat at 4:30 pm

Menu
Roast Turkey
Dad’s Homemade Gravy
Steamed and Buttered Green Beans – 20 minutes, stove top
Sweet Potato Casserole – 45 minutes @ 350
Mashed Potatoes – peel, boil and mash
Broccoli Casserole – 45 minutes @ 350
Corn Bread Stuffing – 45 minutes @ 350
Crescent Rolls
Pecan Pie – 1 hour @ 325
Apple Crisp – 35 minutes @ 350

Wednesday
Pecan pie, Stuffing, Cranberries

 

Thursday
10 am: Bake Broccoli Casserole and Sweet Potato Casserole
12 pm: Turkey in oven (3 1/2 to 4 hours plus 20 minutes rest)
3 pm: Start Mashed Potatoes
4 pm: Finish Gravy and reheat Casseroles
4:30 pm – Apple Crisp

I was thinking about Thanksgiving this weekend and couldn’t resist making some cornbread dressing. I stuffed a pork tenderloin with it. I admit, this is my favorite culinary season of the year. Although Summer BBQ runs a close second 🙂

Best of luck with your travel and holiday meal plans!!

Planning Thanksgiving dinner for a crowd, including a cooking timeline and a bonus DIY craft - a gingerbread turkey

Chatting it up

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Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?

I’ve had the great pleasure recently of chatting (they called me out of the blue after reading our VRBO pages) with two different folks who are interested in purchasing beach houses as vacation rentals. They asked me some good questions, so I thought I’d answer a few of them here as well.

How do you screen renters?

I talk to everyone before I send out a rental agreement. I ask questions like, “Who’s coming with you?” “Have you been to Port A/Galveston before?” I ask them what they like to do there etc. It takes a little time, but it’s worth getting to know the guests and letting them get to know you a bit. Some groups I expect to be a little harder on the houses than others but some groups surprise me. I also go with my gut instinct. I rarely rent to prom groups, but on occasion, have done so without incident. One family had a wedding at our Galveston home – it was lovely. I do have in my contract that no parties are allowed without my  written consent. As a renter, I’ve been required to list our names as well as ages. I think that’s also a great way to see who will be in the house. On occasion, I’ve googled people. In the end, the houses are our second homes and I’d recommend to anyone to take the steps necessary to make you comfortable with who will be renting.

How do you find a house keeper and How do you handle repair issues?

We found one housekeeper from a property manager. I’ve also searched on Craigslist and sent requests for information on help and contractors to our property owners email lists. A personal recommendation by another owner is a great reference. For contractors/repair folks, I’ve also found the yellow pages for each region helpful. I do recommend taking the local paper (I get mine online) – it’s a great way to stay ‘in touch’ with the area as well as read the ads for local service help like handymen and other contractors.

When do you use the beach houses?

I always go in May (usually with a friend or two) to prep the houses for the season and in September to restock and evaluate the needs of the house. We also take the kids there for part of spring break. We have large extended family gathering for Thanksgiving at one of the houses as well. If any repair works needs to be done, we take care of it in the off season (November – February.)

However, what good is owning a vacation rental (VR) if you don’t get to go and enjoy it some of the time too! Making memories at our houses is a priority for our family. Most of the time we take the kids and friends in the off season with an occasional summer excursion to the coast sprinkled in.

Are you making money

Happily yes! The rental income pays for all expenses on the homes (mortgage, insurance and taxes included) as well as upkeep.

How do you advertise

We list both properties on Homeaway.com and VRBO.com. These websites make it so easy to showcase a property to potential guests. The Reservation Manager program available through these sites makes payments and calendar management a snap. Highly recommend it. I’ve also found the Homeaway Summits I’ve attended extremely helpful, both to hear what’s new in the VR market as well as talking with other VR owners and learning from their experience. This year Homeaway is having several one day conferences around the country. The one in Austin is 5/31/14.

Other questions?

Getting Ready

One of things I love the most about owning two vacation rentals is preparing the houses for our guests. I recently went to The Blue Roost in Port A with a friend who is a WORKER. She paints, she moves furniture, she brainstorms. I love having her with me.

Beach house decor tips and how to get a vacation rental beach house ready for the season without losing your sanity!

Friends are good!

While there, it became abundantly clear that the patio furniture at the Blue Roost had outlived it’s welcome and we desperately needed something new. We set out with the intention of purchasing another patio table and chair set but we didn’t find anything that was just right. As we shopped and talked about the house and guests, what became clear is that we were searching for the wrong items. My vision of the house is a place where connections are strengthened and memories made. I wanted the stage to be set for leisurely breakfasts, lingering afternoon conversations and casual dining. So rather than find a traditional table and chairs, we searched for furniture that would create a more conducive environment for the goal of connections. We also decided  the first corner of the deck needed  a welcome and flexible sitting space. We found these great chairs and tables at World Market. And happily, found the pillows at Bed Bath and Beyond to tie in all the colors – including the coral on the front door! Serendipity at work.

Beach house decor tips and how to get a vacation rental beach house ready for the season without losing your sanity!

New chairs at the Blue Roost

 

Beach house decor tips and how to get a vacation rental beach house ready for the season without losing your sanity!

Chairs and large round coffee table.

What isn’t in the photo is the cute bench across from these chairs. The new set up with the chairs allows for better movement between the upper and lower deck in addition to a more flexible seating space. So we found the right furniture, but couldn’t fit it all in my Hyundai, nor could I schedule at timely delivery service. My friend had the brilliant idea of renting a truck, so we went to Home Depot down the street. I thought we’d get a pick-up. We ended up with a Penske! I was terrified! However, with a little encouragement from my friend and the Home Depot folks. we successfully got everything home and the old furniture taken to a location for donation. Three chairs, two tables and a bench later, I love the new look! And I can add truck driver to my resume.

Beach house decor tips and how to get a vacation rental beach house ready for the season without losing your sanity!

Things you never thought you’d do. Yes, I drove that.

A hard days work called for some hammock time. What fun is a vacation rental if you don’t get to have a little vacation out of the deal!

Beach house decor tips and how to get a vacation rental beach house ready for the season without losing your sanity!

Relaxation