Marketing is complex. A lot of work goes on behind the scenes. By using a few key resources and letting technology do some of the heavy lifting, you can market your vacation rental properties more effectively. Marketing automation is
a powerful concept with long-term benefits, which, with a few smart workflows, can reduce manual work and drive bookings.
As someone who lives and breathes marketing, I have grouped the process into three rough categories, which apply regardless of your industry:
1. Think about what to say
2. Make it sound good
3. Manage your database
Let’s break these down. I’m in software, and thinking about how to present a service that has no physical representation can be tricky. Vacation rentals, however, have a huge advantage; your properties live and die by their photos, so you already have great visual material. The first marketing task is done—you have content. How to make it sound good? Well, property managers are the most knowledgeable people about their local area, so there’s no shortage of tips, trips and love to convey. The second marketing task is complete. So, you have beautiful photos and great information—now you need to get it to the right people. This is the last part of the equation, and probably where you will spend the majority of your time: managing your database.
You have a great list of people who showed interest in your properties but never booked, guests who have stayed with you before, distribution partners, maybe some website visitors or people who entered a giveaway. The only problem: they are all in different spreadsheets with different formatting. It may seem like an insurmountable task to consolidate these and figure out who gets what message, but every time you put this off and just grab a quick export of the most accessible contacts, you dig yourself deeper down the database abyss. When you next look at your folder of spreadsheets (are they even in the same folder?), I suggest that you set aside an afternoon to clean them up in a proper database.
Now you have a plan: gather your photos, write some nice words, organize your email lists. Time to get your tools lined up. I am passionate about automation and interconnected systems thanks to my company, Operto, which integrates operational software with smart devices—like locks, thermostats and noise/occupancy sensors. Therefore, when I look at a marketing tech stack, I want it to work smoothly together and crucially, provide automation.
This is the email marketing tech stack I recommend:
- Database: Airtable
There are lots of tools that provide more structured databases than spreadsheets. My favorite is Airtable. It’s super flexible, but user-friendly. Think of it as Google Sheets on steroids.
- Email marketing: MailChimp
MailChimp is tried, tested and really simple to use. Its drag-and-drop interface, mobile-friendly templates, helpful hints (like advice on the hardest part of your email: the subject line), flexible audience segmentation, as well as some pretty nifty automation features, makes this my top pick (Make sure you authenticate your domain (DKIM) to ensure deliverability).
- Interconnectivity: Zapier
If you care about efficiency even a little bit (i.e., you hate double-data entry) and haven’t come across Zapier yet, you’re in for a treat. Zapier automates workflows by moving data between different software, based on a variety of triggers. Zapier utilizes APIs but doesn’t require any developer knowledge or custom integration to connect two (or more) systems.
The beauty of this tech stack is that each component gets along and shares information. With this real-time flow of information, you can set up automated emails based on certain conditions. Create these templates once and then send them to new subscribers of a specific segment over and over, without having to come up with new content every time. This is how you move beyond time-consuming (though also powerful) scheduled newsletters. Here are some examples of how you could use these tools together:
- You have a spreadsheet of people who emailed with interest about one of your destinations. Every time someone contacts you, you copy/ paste email, name and phone number into the spreadsheet. With Zapier, you could set a trigger of filing emails under the heading “Interest,” which automatically takes the information you want and populates it in your spreadsheet (or Airtable).
- What if your guest relations team isn’t very good at following up on those emails? After storing the contact details for your prospective guest, why not also create a new subscriber list in MailChimp and start a two or three email sequence that sends some of your beautiful content and convinces the guest? Maybe the original email even said which property they were interested in and you can insert a direct link in your follow-up emails.
- Now you have this great database of people who are interested in your business. But maybe you have multiple locations and didn’t always were interested in. Send an email that asks the subscriber to click their preferred image of, say, a beach or a mountain. Set up a Zapier trigger based on the link click in Mailchimp, which populates your database with their choice. Now your database is much richer. If you’re considering a phone call campaign, your team knows which destination to pitch.
- Other than prospective guests, you may want to re-market to guests from last year, but who remembers? Your database does. Why not set a trigger for when the reservation ends, that will automatically schedule a re-booking reminder nine months after their stay. Consider including a direct link to the available properties in the same area they stayed last time.
- Maybe you want to send out nicer-than-PMS messages mid-stay to promote tours or other additional services. Set up a trigger and shoot it off with all the rich formatting and beautiful images you want.
Those are just a few ideas—once you start, you will come up with lots that benefit your business. A few considerations as you create your own workflows:
Many PMS’ still aren’t connected to Zapier, but that is changing, which is great to see. In the meantime, there are often ways around these limitations. Most software companies offer email notifications, and these are usually structured in a way that you can set up an email filter and let Zapier’s Email Parser dig out the important information.
You might be questioning why you would want an external database when there’s one built into Mailchimp. The answer is that maybe you don’t. Mailchimp’s database is good, but for obvious reasons, it’s very focused on the email side of things. That may be enough for you, especially if you already have a CRM or a PMS that keeps track of everything else you need.
Lots of people struggle on database management. If you’re one of them, I’d strongly suggest considering Airtable. Chances are that you’ll find a much wider use for it than you expected, as it’s extremely flexible—anything from company-wide project management to organizing your bathroom cabinet—a former colleague of mine who originally introduced me to Airtable used it for her make-up collection and swears by it!
Finally, one thing you will need in order to re-market to previous guests is the real contact details of your guests. For this, a guest-facing tool to collect emails is key—such as Operto’s Guest Portal, which also gives guests the ability to control smart devices and request additional services, such as early check‑in.
In summary, when it comes to email marketing, property managers have a huge advantage, as you’re already in the business of providing beautiful experiences— something that can easily be translated into images and copy for emails. So the biggest challenge is making sure the right people get the right message at the right time. This requires a good database and smart automations. Using the tech stack suggested in this article, the possibilities for distributing evergreen email content are endless—and thanks to the automated workflows, you’ll be getting more direct bookings with a lot less work.
AXEL PERSSON is director of sales and marketing for Operto Guest Technologies, a property automation system that provides intelligent control of smart devices at scale. Operto offers automated keyless entry, energy management, monitoring of noise and occupancy, as well as powerful software for guests and staff.