Instant bookings are a driver of growth for the industry. How can vacation rental managers use instant bookings to their advantage and avoid making any unforced errors?
Before 2014, the vast majority of VTrips vacation rental properties were booked by phone or email. But that year, when VTrips took part in the Vrbo and HomeAway instant booking beta test, the company began to see a big change.
VTrips CEO and founder Steve Milo kept tabs on the numbers. In 2014, only 20 percent of VTrips properties were coming through its own website or online travel agencies. Three years later in 2017, 60 percent of VTrips’ bookings were being made online. As of 2021, Milo said that 74 percent of VTrips’ bookings were online, with just over a quarter of its business being booked offline.
Now, Milo considers all online bookings to be instant bookings. He sees no reason for his company to put a property up online if it isn’t able to be booked instantly.
“There are some people who still like the old fashioned way of trying to screen guests through a closed-communication loop, but we’re too big to do that,” said Milo, whose company manages more than 1,700 vacation rental properties. “And, frankly, it’s just much more efficient to allow guests to book direct. The online travel agencies (OTAs) want guests to be able to book instantly.”
The change that VTrips saw is likely familiar to most vacation rental managers. Instant booking has been key to the growth of the vacation rental property industry, according to Technavio’s “Vacation Rental Market - Forecast and Analysis Report 2020-2024.” The report finds that the industry will grow 7 percent per year until 2024, growing by more than $60 billion in that time. Technavio finds that instant booking has been and will continue to be a “major factor” in the industry’s growth.
“The trend of instant bookings positively impacts the growth of the global vacation rental market, as such booking processes are associated with minimal or zero wait time,” the report states. “Online vacation rental sites also facilitate real-time bookings. This value-addition will improve the convenience of booking vacation rentals, leading to increased customer satisfaction.”
But while instant booking has been a boon for the industry, that doesn’t mean it comes without complications. For example, vacation rental property manager Chuck Hawley—who manages properties close to home in California and far from home in Hawaii and Costa Rica—said that property managers who cancel an instant booking may get on an OTA’s bad side and lose their rank.
For example, Hawley is a Superhost on Airbnb, which takes about a year of good transactions and keeping bookings. Years ago, one of his property managers in Costa Rica canceled a two-day rental over New Year’s Eve.
“Basically, the property manager made a mistake and thought he was double-booked,” Hawley said. “He canceled somebody who had a legitimate reservation. That erased my Superhost status for a year.”
This also knocked Hawley’s property down on listings, he said. “The companies—Airbnb, Vrbo, HomeAway—carry a pretty big stick,” Hawley said.
After this incident, Hawley turned off instant booking on Airbnb for that property and saw just how much the website wants rental managers to keep the instant booking activated.
“The first thing that comes up was it saying, ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’, then ‘What’s the reason you’re doing this?’” said Hawley. He clicked that he wanted more control over his schedule and a dialogue boxed popped up that informed him that he could block off parts of the calendar for his property into the future and that he doesn’t have to accept guests he doesn’t want to accept. He sees this whole process as manipulative on the part of the OTAs.
“They’ve determined and know what drives people to rent certain properties and what a good listing looks like,” he said. “And only with great reservation will they not allow you to not instantly book.”
Even so, instant booking can mean massive growth for vacation rental managers. Matthew Gurley, director of worldwide sales for vacation rental marketing platform BookingPal, said that the more platforms vacation rental managers list their properties on, the better their marketing and income will be. Most companies are on two or fewer OTAs, he said, but in a growing, crowded market, vacation rental managers will need to list their properties on more platforms. And in the case of most platforms, this means dealing with instant booking.
“If a manager doesn’t have instant books, they’re not going to be very successful in marketing their properties,” said Gurley. “The OTAs sort the listing in search results based on what they know the guests will book. And nine out of 10 times, a guest doesn’t want to ask a question or wait hours for a response. For the bulk of the market, if they’re not an instant book, they need to be.”
Instant bookings are here to stay, as they’re clearly a driver of growth for the industry. How can vacation rental managers use instant bookings to their advantage and avoid making any unforced errors?
Block Your Dates
When Hawley plans for the holiday, he blocks off time on his calendar so that no one can instantly book the apartment he rents out in his house. Instead, his adult children stay there for a visit.
“That’s one of the benefits to having instant booking,” Hawley said.
Vacation rental managers who have longer periods of uncertainty coming can block off even larger blockers of the calendar. Those who are unsure of their plans in six months—Is their house going to sell? Will they move?—may turn off instant booking any time after six months. Doing this will not earn the scorn of OTAs.
Managers can also take their property off platforms temporarily, putting them in something akin to a computer’s “sleep mode.” This may come in handy if they’re going to have construction on their property, for example.
“You can either block the calendar by just not making it available,” Hawley said. “Or you can take the listing offline. The platform will still work—it still collects money and allows you to receive emails from guests—but you aren’t showing it to new customers.”
Use Caution for Longer Stays and High-End Properties
If a guest is going to stay in a property for a longer stay—60 or 90 days, for example—Milo said this may be a reason that some rental managers and guests may want to talk before making the booking official.
“They may have questions about the internet speed, accessibility from a driveway, or a number of elevators in a condo complex,” Milo said. “Because it’s very different spending 90 days on a property versus three or four days.”
High-end property managers may also want to have more of a screening process or work with a company to ensure that their instant-book rules are up to snuff. Those who specialize in higher-end properties aren’t precluded entirely from instant book, but they serve a clientele—both homeowners and guests—who typically desire a more personal touch.
Keep a Templates Message for System-Gamers
Hawley has noticed that instant booking incentivizes guests to book dates they don’t actually want. They book so that they can message hosts to ask about dates that weren’t available on the property’s calendar.
“This happens all the time, especially for a place like our local rental, which is booked nine months in advance,” Hawley said. “People find the first five days or three days that they can find this available, and they book that. Then, they write you a note that said, ‘Hey, I’m not actually interested in those three days. I’m interested in these. But the only way I could talk to you get your attention is to book those three days.’”
As a host who wants to keep his listings high in the rankings and not lose status on any of the OTAs—flat out turning down the false request would make it appear as though a host is turning down a valid booking—Hawley said he’s come up with an automated note to send these false-date bookers.
“I write them back a templated letter that said, ‘I understand you want this time in August—I’m sorry, it’s not available. However, the fact that you’ve tried to book in March forces me to accept your reservation. All you have to do is wait 24 hours, and it will evaporate,’” Hawley said. “Because now the onus is on you to accept or reject the booking. All the guest has to do now is sit on their hands for 24 hours and the booking evaporates. But managers have to go through that nonsense because you’ll be penalized if you start turning down a lot of potential rentals.”
Property managers who don’t know what to do here may accidentally hurt their property rankings— or, on Airbnb, their Superhost status. For those in competitive locations, it’s easiest to simply know that these system-gamers will send false requests and have a templated message ready to send.
Getting on Multiple Platforms is a Challenge
Nearly every vacation rental property manager uses software, but most are different. Globally, Gurley said that he’s found at least 700 different pieces of property management software.
This kind of software diversity makes standardization—easily connecting into new OTAs— extremely difficult. Each OTA requires something different, and each piece of software will connect to each OTA differently.
“There’s a big uproar in the vacation rental industry right now,” Gurley said. “Property managers want direct connections into OTAs. It should be simple, but it’s not. The API is structured completely differently.”
But it’s often difficult and time-consuming to link into different OTAs, as Vrbo, Booking.com, and Airbnb (among others) all want different things from hosts.
Gurley said that his company BookingPal has created a separate company, Channel Connector, to solve this issue. “We’re trying to give everybody the standardized format,” Gurley said. “We want to give managers a direct connection into the OTAs.”
Typically, Gurley said it takes managers between 40 and 90 days to integrate into a single OTA. He said that Channel Connector hopes to use that same period of time to allow rental managers the ability to link into multiple OTAs.
But with this in mind, vacation rental managers must know that there is not a proven solution available to make it easy to integrate with multiple OTAs. But whether it’s through Channel Connector or a larger movement, Gurley believes that the next big step for the vacation rental industry—especially with instant bookings in mind—is standardization and easy connection into multiple OTAs.
List More Features
Many things guests about information not typically listed on OTAs, Milo noticed. Property managers who listen to what guests are asking for and add that to their property listing may be able to win more bookings by answering a potential guest’s questions in advance.
“Wi-Fi upload speed is a big request from those who are going to be doing work remotely,” Milo said. “And there’s just not an easy way to display that information or even search for it on most of the OTAs. Being better in tune with what the customer is looking for, so they can easily search for upload speeds, becomes important.”
The Convenience of Hotels
The future of the vacation rental industry likely looks a lot like the hotel industry.
“I think that’s very much the case that people want to make it as easy to book a vacation rental as it is to book a hotel,” Milo said. “That’s hopefully where we’re getting to.”
Gurley believes that hotelification of the industry will also creep into things like booking a vacation rental property alongside your flight and using mileage points to book your stay. This will mean a need to ensure the highest quality of stay, but also ease of access to booking. Those who don’t use instant booking will likely not be as easily found by new guests.
To those who still hold out from using instant booking, Milo asks them to think about the world’s next big, unexpected event that will disrupt customers.
“At VTrips, because we had so much distribution, we were able to find new customers to replace customers we lost because they were no longer able to travel due to location restrictions or potential health concerns,” Milo said about using instant booking during the early days of the pandemic. “Having distribution helps you replace the customers you may lose with new customers.”
And much like it’s nice for guests to simply book their stay and be done, Hawley said that may be one of his favorite features of instant booking as a vacation rental property manager.
“It’s like getting the confirmation from Delta Airlines when you book a flight,” Hawley said. “Boom, I did it. I found the flight I wanted, I know what the price is, and now they’ve confirmed it. I don’t need to talk to somebody on the phone. It’s nice to just get it done.”
Hal Conick is a Chicago-based writer.