Roberts Point Park

I’m in Port Aransas, falling in love with my beach house and town all over again. The weather could’t be more perfect – 50’s at night, 70’s with sunshine and blue skies during the day. The dog and I are doing the pre-season check up and supply drop off, but there’s plenty of time for some R & R too.

There’s quite a bit of deck work going on and the workers accidentally sliced my DirecTV line, so we are sans cable for the time being. That actually is better for my plans for the few days we are here anyway. Who wants to be tempted to be a couch potato when the beach is calling! The deck rails are being finished today and construction is quite noisy, so we headed into town for lunch. Emmy (the pup) and I grabbed lunch to go at Subway and had a picnic at Roberts Point Park. It’s one of my favorite places to go when in Port Aransas. The park is located adjacent to a marina with some GORGEOUS boats/yachts. It’s also Where the Pollyanna, the local shrimp boat docks.

The park is a great family play area. There is a covered pavilion with picnic tables, horseshoe pits, playgrounds for kids and soccer fields. The park is next to the ship channel, so it’s a great place for watching dolphins. Benches are set up along the sidewalk if you want to take a break, sit and watch the ships, boats, pelicans, dolphins, etc. There are almost always fisherman fishing along the wall and at the pier.

 

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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

Quick and Easy Recipes for Gifts

I love to bake at the holidays. Here are a few of my tried and true recipes that anyone can do. They make great gifts for neighbors, teachers and friends.  Make a batch to give away and maybe another batch for your own family and to share with guests.

Gifts from the Kitchen that anyone can make. Teachers love the toffee!!!

Gifts from the Kitchen that anyone can make. Teachers love the toffee!!!

Almond Butter Toffee

Toffee is a family favorite. I usually make 3 – 4 batches for the holiday season, depending on how much the kids want to give to teachers and friends. The original recipe is from Necessities and Temptations  cookbook by the Junior League of Austin.

  • 2 cups butter
  • 2 ½ cups sugar
  • ¼ teaspoon cream of tartar
  • 2 cups slivered almonds
  • 1 (12 –ounce) package of chocolate chips – we all seem to prefer milk chocolate with the flavor of the toffee.
  • 1 cup chopped pecans

Melt the butter in a pan and add the sugar. Raise heat, stirring constantly until mixture bubbles around the edge. Add cream of tartar and almonds. Stir constantly. Sometimes during the cooking, the butter boils out, keep stirring, it will all come together. Continue stirring until the mixture is a caramel color. Do not let it burn. It will start to smoke just before it burns. Carefully pour into two buttered cookie sheets (that are sitting on hot pads or towels). Use a spatula to spread thin. Pour chocolate chips on top of the toffee and as they melt, spread the chocolate chips across the top of the toffee. Sprinkle with the pecans. Refrigerate until hard. Break in to pieces. I like to serve the toffee in bags tied with ribbons or decorative canisters.

Spicy Pecans

These are delicious and while they are a great gift on their own, if I have extras, I toss them in to a batch of homemade Chex Mix. The recipe is from The Pirate’s House Cook Book, Savannah, Georgia.

  • 1 pound pecan halves
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 3 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • dash of Tabasco

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Melt butter and stir in all ingredients except the pecans. Mix well. Add pecans toss until coated. Place in a singer layer in a jellyroll pan. Toast in the oven, stirring frequently for 15-20 minutes or until brown. Watch carefully that the nuts do not burn. The pecans will crisp up as they cool.

Maple Walnut Granola

This granola recipe is based on the granola recipes in The Earthbound Farm Organic Cookbook Food to Live By by Myra Goodman with Linda Holland and Pamela McKinstry. I’ve combined and adjusted the original granola recipes based on my kids preferences. The one below contains my alterations.

  • 4 1/2 cups gluten free oats
  • 1 1/2 cups chopped walnuts
  • 1/2 cup sprouted pumpkin seeds
  • 2/3 cup packed brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup melted coconut oil
  • 1/4 cup maple syrup

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Place the oats, nuts, seeds and sugar in a large bowl. Stir to combine. Place the oil, syrup and 1/2 cup water in a bowl and whisk to combine. Pour over the oat mixture and stir well. Spread the mixture in a baking sheet with a rim or a roasting pan. Bake for about 25 minutes. Stir every 4 to 5 minutes thereafter for about another 15 minutes or until golden. The original recipe says it will bake another 30 minutes after the initial 25, but my granola gets too dark in that amount of time, so I’ve shortened it. Let the granola cool and store in in an airtight container for up to 1 month. May be frozen for up to 3 months.

I like to add chia seeds, coconut flakes and occasionally dried fruit to my granola once it has cooled.

Happy Gifting!

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?

Things to Do in Galveston during the Holidays

Galveston Dressed Up for the Holidays

For the past few years my extended family has spent the week of Thanksgiving at the beach house in Pointe West on Galveston Island. Aside from cooking and eating the usual holiday feast, here are the other things we like to do during that week and other times during the holidays on the island.

Galveston Island Historic Pleasure Pier

Fun family holiday events and activities in Galveston

My kids can’t get enough of the Galveston Island Historic Pleasure Pier – an amusement park that juts out over the water. It’s is a real thrill to ride the roller coaster over the Gulf of Mexico! I tend to stick to the less thrilling rides myself, but love hearing their squeals of terror and delight. Tickets for unlimited rides are $26.99 (48″ and up) $19.99 (under 48″). Walk on passes are $10 (48″ and up) $8 (under 48″) $7 Senior Citizens (must show valid I.D.) There are places to eat on the Pleasure Pier or great restaurants with in walking distance off the Pier.

Moody Gardens

The Moody Gardens Festival of Lights runs from November 14th – January 10th, 6-10pm each night. The display has more than 1 million lights and has over 100 animated displays with sound. Tickets are $10.95 and include admission to the skating rink. Skates available to rent for $7. Moody Gardens offers discounted admission to some of their other attractions after 4:30pm with a Festival of Lights ticket. It’s been a good time for us to take the kids late in the day. The walk around the complex is easy and slow. A visit definitely gets you in the holiday spirit and there are plenty of picture taking opportunities.

There is also a much acclaimed exhibit of ice sculptures returning to Moody Gardens this year. ICE LAND runs November 14th – January 10th. Tickets are $26.95 for adults, $21.95 for seniors and $15.95 for children. You can receive a discount of $5.00 Sunday through Thursday, Nov. 15 through Dec. 17, excluding Thanksgiving Day. The theme is “SpongeBob’s Christmas Party” and boasts 65 sculptures and figurines. The event is in a 28,000 square foot chilled tent, down to 9 degrees. Parkas are available for the visit, but be sure to dress warmly!

Beyond Thanksgiving: Dickens on the Strand

Dickens on the Strand is an annual favorite in Galveston. It’s a Victorian Holiday Street Festival December 4th-6th. The event features parades, entertainment, carolers, holiday food and crafts sold by vendors in full Victorian regalia. The event is sponsored by the Galveston Historical Foundation and this year will have a “distinctive historical theme that will add new attractions and cultural experiences,” according to GHF Executive Director, Dwayne Jones (GalvestonHistory.org) There are a lot of special events during the weekend that require RSVPs – including breakfast with Charles Dickens great grand daughter cooking a traditional English breakfast and a special tour of Bishop’s Palace that opens rooms that are usually off limits. Tickets in advance are $13 or $15 at the gate. Children 7-12 are $7 in advance or $9 at the gate. If you want to dress up in Victorian attire, you can get in for half price!

Check out Galvston.com for a complete listing of other holiday events.

Holidays at the Beach

Of course, as much as we love all the things Galveston has to offer, we can’t get enough family time at the beach. Most years the kids can run around in short sleeves, play football in the yard and event get in the water. Only once in the past 4 years, did we actually have to bundle up for our family beach walks. We have great memories from times there!

Thanksgiving at the beach - food, family and fun.

What’s your favorite island holiday tradition?

1% to Conserve Galveston

Protect This Land!

We are so happy to be a partner with 1% To Conserve Galveston Island™.

“1% To Conserve Galveston Island™ funds land conservation projects on Galveston Island. These permanently protected lands helps preserve: our beach, bay and upland ecosystems; ocean and bay view sheds; wildlife and avian habitats; recreational access; and, clean water.” This is a program of Artist Boat, a 501(c)(3) charitable non-profit organization.

Please support the program, and the Island, by shopping with local business partners in Galveston and saying yes to donating 1% of your purchase for conservation. For more information on the program and how to be involved see 1% To Conserve Galveston Island™.

1% to Conserve Galveston Island.

Visiting the 2015 Coastal Living Showhouse in Port Aransas

Spacious kitchen island at the 2015 Coastal Living Showhouse

I love touring houses and do it when ever I get the chance. I was so excited today to be able to tour the Coastal Living Showhouse at Cinnamon Shore in Port Aransas. I coordinated everything I had to do on this trip to the beach house with being able to see this gorgeous place. So very happy they could make a mid week appointment to show it to me! The house is open Friday, Saturday, Sunday and by appointment at other times, until The Sunday after Thanksgiving. It’s definitely worth the visit to see the latest in coastal architecture and design.

On to the pics:

Family Bunk Room at Coastal Living Showhouse in Port Aransas Inviting deck at the Coastal Living Showhouse in Port Aransas Dining room and living room great area at the Coastal Living Showhouse in Port Aransas Shower Doors in Master Bathroom at the Coastal Living Showhouse in Port Aransas. The perfect spot for a nap. Hanging bed on deck by master bedroom in Coastal Living Showhouse in Port Aransas. Large soaking tub in master bathroom at the Coastal Living Showhouse in Port Aransas. Beautiful Master Bedroom in Coastal Living Showhouse in Port Aransas. View of the Gulf of Mexico from the upper deck at the Coastal Living Showhouse in Port Aransas.Gorgeous tile back splash in the kitchen of the Coastal Living Showhouse in Port Aransas.

Some things to note:

The light coming into the house at 2:30 in the afternoon was lovely and the water was a gorgeous blue. The decks allowed a great view. The lower level has gorgeous wood look light colored plank tiles. The upper levels have light colored wide plank wood floors. The shiplap walls were crisp and made the main areas feel light and bright. I really liked the textures used in the house from the shiplap walls, to the wall paper to the use of tile. All the bathrooms had amazing unique tile – my favorite is in the room with the soaking tub. I really liked the AZEK decking.  Loved the layout – it was a 3500 square foot house and there were plenty of inviting places to gather for conversation. It also had amazing 1700 square feet of porches. You can read more about the house and get all the official details in the November 2015 issue of Coastal Living Magazine.

My takeaway – I really need shiplap walls…somewhere….

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?

Hospitality: Creating Community and Welcome at Home

Hospitality, homecoming and 3 tips on how to welcome people well.

I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about hospitality. Probably because I’ve had house guests just about non stop since mid September! It’s been great to have friends, extended family, international colleagues, and college students at our home over the past few weeks.

Kristin Schell came to speak to our mother/daughter organization this week about hospitality. One of of the questions she asked us was “What keeps you from having people over.” So often for me it can be lack of preparedness – laundry on the couch, dishes in the sink, etc. The thought of someone judging me makes me weak at the knees. Kristin also asked us, “Someone is coming in 15 minutes, what do you do?” ACK! My worst hospitality fail was a few years ago. There were wildfires in the area that caused nearby neighborhoods to evacuate. Without hesitation, I called our dear friends and offered our home if they needed a place to stay. I was already having a large extended family group over for dinner for Labor Day, so a few more folks were easy to accommodate. What I realized however, is that one daughter’s room, the guest room (aka “the kids lounge”) and their bathroom were in no way guest ready. The rest of the house was clean and there was plenty of food but YIKES!! My friends were really grateful for a place to stay, but I decided then and there, that I didn’t want to be caught unprepared again. After the fires were contained and all the company left, we added an egg crate mattress pad to the pull out couch in the lounge, cleaned out the bathroom cabinets, got rid of old towels, bought some new towels and wash cloths, etc. You get the idea. It wasn’t a remodel but boy did we need some upkeep. I have taken that lesson to heart. I’m no Martha Stewart. I’m likely to always have something out of place, but here are a few things I’ve learned to make hospitality easier:

  1. It’s not about you the host, it’s about your guest. Stop worrying and focus on what will make the guest comfortable and feel good. You will feel good, too.
  2. Discipline and habit go a long way toward preparedness.  In our culture of multi-tasking, sometimes its hard to finish things, especially a housekeeping job because it’s practically a never ending cycle of wash, rinse, repeat. My sister’s friend sets a time for 10 minutes to “reset” her while she’s cleaning the house. Like her, I’ll fold the laundry, take it to the room, start to put it away but see something else that needs to go someplace else and it spirals out from there. The timer acts to reorient my friend to the original task at hand. With house guests for the past month, my family has gotten a great lesson in discipline and habit. The public areas in the house are staying reasonably guest ready (meaning there are no socks on/in the couch or computer cords to trip over.)  Hooray!
  3. Don’t wait for things to be perfect to invite people in. Friends, perfect is just not going to happen and that is absolutely ok. I’m always going to have laundry in the laundry room and someday I’ll get new couches. Authenticity is more welcoming than perfection.

Hospitality creates community and welcome in a world that is sorely lacking in both.

What’s your best tip for being “guest ready?”

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!