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?

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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!

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!

Tropical Storm Bill – You Nearly Gave me a Heart Attack

Hurricane Season – I’m not ready.

Having a beach house on the coast isn’t for the faint of heart. We’ve already had an incredible year of storms and we are only 17 days into the 2015 Hurricane Season. The month of April was a monster and the storms over the 17th/18th resulted in two new roofs – one on each beach house!! I thought having homes in two different parts of the coast would protect us (somewhat) from doing major repairs from storms on each house at the same time. Well, not so my friends!

One of my Pointe West neighbors had a indoor security camera running and caught the storm on video. We had a mini tornado with 100 mph winds. The wind and hail in Galveston were incredible and seriously, why ANYONE would not evacuate in a hurricane, I have no idea. It was terrifying just watching the video and listening to the wind howl (yes it sounded like a train) and the hail pound and the hanging light in the foyer start to sway in the worst of of the wind. HOLY MOLY. The hail sounded like someone dumping rocks on the house. In case you are wondering, no one was at our place at the time.  Thank heaven!!  My first experience putting in a claim with TWIA and new roof and new paint job and Las Brisas is back in business thanks to Morgan Roofing and John Brock Painting.

Now all the wind and rain we had took a toll on the Port A home as well. But, sadly, that roof was just OLD and worn out and had to be replaced. Good thing that house is cute because it’s a bit of a pain. The blue roof they had to rip off, actually had been put on OVER a tan roof which also had to be ripped off, resulting in lots of extra work and a bit of a schedule delay.

The roof in progress:

Port a roof in progress

finished roof side Finished Roof back

We were very happy with Ricky at Upgraded Roofing and the job they did.  I think the grey of the roof makes the house look even more blue. Of course that gorgeous sky also helps. Perfect beach day!

And now onto Tropical Storm Bill – 16 days into the hurricane season. Seriously! I JUST put TWO NEW ROOFS on the beach houses. I was glued to the twitter feed from Galveston County OEM  (@galvcountyoem) and the Nueces County OEM (@nuecesoem) as well as the National Hurricane Center – Atlantic Ops (@NCH_Atlantic) for about 24 hours. My phone buzzed like crazy with updates. They were incredibly informative on the status of the storm. I was also in frequent communication with the guests at Las Brisas. Nothing indicated that it would be nearly as bad as the April storm, so I was not at all concerned for the guests at the house. It would be windy and rainy, but that’s about it. Gusts up to 40 mph. Luckily for all of us, the storm came ashore over Matagorda Bay – between Port Aransas and Galveston. And luckily, it moved just enough that the Galveston house received some rain, but not nearly as much as it could have been. Port A actually got more rain today, the day after the storm, than it did in the storm. My housekeeper said that some places may have received 5 inches of rain in an hour. Glad to have that new roof!!

Here’s hoping the REST of the summer is free from storms of any sort and full of sunshine.

I saw this at HomeGoods (my favorite store) this week and despite the drama and the trouble with homes on the coast, the statement is true. Let’s go to the beach!

Heaven closer