Getting the word out about your properties and services is the basic, and arguably the most significant challenge for vacation rental companies (VRs). Every company has access to the internet, email and print communications. But are there new ways to use technology to improve marketing so your VR is more competitive?
Chad Taylor at Taylor-Made Deep Creek Vacations in McHenry, Maryland, sees technology as an avenue of possibilities and opportunities. “Taylor-Made is always looking at new ideas and researching emerging technology in order to attract guests. Creativity is key, and you cannot be stagnant with your marketing initiatives,” he says. “Evolving your strategy and seeking out different channels is essential to forward movement.”
“The thing about today’s vacation rental marketing is that there is no magic bullet,” adds Mike Harrington of Topsail Realty Vacations in Surf City, North Carolina, and current president of VRMA. “We are fortunate in that we have a very loyal base of consumers that visit our area year after year. However, we have some good, healthy competition vying for this core base of repeat guests, so staying in front of them in the most efficient way throughout the year is a priority. As far as specific technology, we put a lot of time and resources into ongoing email communications and social re-marketing efforts. We have seen a very good engagement and return by concentrating on our database of past guests and inquiries, and only work to fill in gaps via online travel agencies (OTAs) if necessary.”
Building a Better Website
A VR’s website is the heart of marketing in today’s VR environment, but not all websites are created equal. Knowing how to use technology to make the experience smooth, fast, informative and productive for the owner and guest is vital. “Your website should offer an optimized user experience that moves people through the funnel toward conversion without any roadblocks. It should also offer those who have a reservation all of the info they need for a great vacation. By constantly tweaking it, you can avoid reliance on OTAs and foster sustainable growth,” says Chad. “We implement a variety of methods to drive traffic to our website. Through our partnership with an online marketing firm that is dedicated to our industry, we have experts at work behind the scenes making sure our site gets maximum exposure.
“We have invested heavily in photography and videography in order to highlight the beauty and recreation available in our area along with showcasing our homes in the most accurate and flattering light, he continues. “Additionally, we have added a new CRM software to the mix. It provides improved analysis for our marketing campaigns as well as better lead capture and communication with guests.”
“If you’re not using hi-resolution photos, even professional hi-resolution photos, you are already at a big disadvantage,” points out Mike Harrington. “The cost has come down considerably over the years to have a home professionally staged on photographed. One of my mentors, Stewart Couch, used to tell me ‘we’re selling the sizzle, not the steak.’ You want guests to be able to picture themselves in the home, having dinner or drinking a glass of wine and connect emotionally. We also use drone photography on all waterfront properties. Maps are great, but having an aerial shot to capture the surroundings and proximity to other landmarks is invaluable to head off routine questions.
“You’re also seeing 3D tours from services like Matterport” — Chad Taylor also likes Matterport, which he calls “a truly immersive experience” — “and walk-through videos becoming increasingly popular, but they haven’t taken off like I predicted. I think that is a function of the technology itself right now and the time it takes per home. Eventually, this may change, but right now nothing can replace solid photos and floorplan layouts.”
Storytelling with Video
Chad is another advocate of using the best imagery possible to market homes – and using the best technology available to obtain those images. In fact, Taylor-Made Deep Creek has four photographers on staff.
“Because of the increase in popularity of video, we also hired a professional videographer,” he notes. “Brands need a video marketing strategy, as studies have shown it is the most memorable when compared to text and images. It is important for every platform and channel. But while the tools and technology are always changing, authentic, tried-and-true methods are certainly still in play. You can’t beat a beautiful sunrise photo or an image of an amazing waterfall – particularly on social media. Drone photography and videography have been tools that we have used for years. As a licensed drone pilot, I can capture stunning photos and videos. Unique angles engage viewers whether the subject is a vacation rental home or a water skier on the lake. I continuously upgrade my fleet of drones in order to produce the best quality imagery.”
Video is also an increasingly important element for guest testimonials. “I love video to tell our story, but not just any video. We invest in professional production for company videos that we want to portray our brand. An iPhone isn’t going to cut it,” advises Mike. “Also, I love listening to podcasts (shout out to Sea to Ski!), but they are a lot of work. It takes a lot of time to build an audience so make sure you know what you are getting into before you start!”
We have a robust library of video testimonials from both our homeowners and our guests. My marketing team identifies our best brand ambassadors with the help of feedback from our reservations team and our owner representatives. If an owner or guest is especially happy with our service, we want to tell the world,” adds Chad. “We have found them to be very effecting and engaging across all channels.
The Basic Tech Building Blocks: Software and SEO
Behind the scenes of a website and the flash and snazz of great photography and video is software. Mike Harrington says he’s always been an early adopter of software solutions that could have potential to impact Topsail’s business in the future. “As far as a base property management system, we use V12.net, which has met our needs satisfactorily,” he reports. “Additionally, we use add-on tools like LSI Tools and Breezeway for a host of more customized functions that are geared to our operations. It’s hard to say there is any perfect solution out there, and that’s why I think you’ll eventually see larger property managers starting building their own ‘add-on tech’ to help separate themselves from the herd. That is something we are looking at now.”
Chad Taylor likes Adobe’s Creative Suite software, especially the email component. The email marketing software has robust tools that make it easy to create segments based on a subscriber’s expressed preferences, past behavior and geographical location. Our CRM and PM software play a role in building segments too. Currently, we are very excited to be moving to a new PM software. Overall, its flexibility will make us more efficient and streamlined. Taylor-Made also uses tools like Glad to Have You and Vacation Attendant from Silicon Travel to capture email addresses for all of the guests that are staying in a home — not just the contract holder. We understand that most people take several trips a year and may not vacation with the same group, so we want to reach every member of their party. I have been very impressed with Beyond Pricing, too — a dynamic pricing software that allows you to always get the best rate for every home based on market data and comparable properties.”
Software to maximize search engine optimization (SEO) is another key marketing technology. But with virtually all VRs using some kind of SEO software, how can an agency stand out from the crowd?
“Google feels like a chess match most of the time,” comments Mike. “Once you have a strategy that seems to be working, they make a move and you have to counter. We use pay-per-click marketing, but it’s not our focus. This can get unbelievably expensive very quickly. We’re selling a perishable product, so just turning on the spigot and letting it flow is a bad move as you start to book up. We focus a lot more on local search relevance, like making sure we are visible in the map pack, as well as building our Google reviews profile. I feel like search has evolved, especially in travel, from just clicking on the top paid link, to a more thoughtful research process by guests. So far this has worked well for us.”
Chad says Taylor-Made has played the same chess match with Google, and now partners with a leading digital marketing firm specializing in the VR market. “Their team of experts keep up with Google’s changing algorithms in order to ensure that we are on the first page for specific keywords. Taylor-Made also has a very talented blogger who creates content based on keyword research that is then indexed by all of the search engines. This positions us as an expert on the area and a resource for Deep Creek Lake information.”
He sums up the challenge and goal of using new technology to improve VR marketing this way:
“We are always looking to the future and working to grow and evolve our marketing efforts. Our goal is to have a well-equipped marketing toolkit that is nimble enough to adapt to the rapidly changing vacation rental industry.”