How Finding What Makes Your Brand Unique Can Help Your Business Grow
By Hal Conick
What’s your brand’s unique value proposition—the thing that sets your vacation rental management company apart from competitors? If you don’t know, it’s time to ask.
Often, knowing what makes a brand special can help a company better market itself, which can lead to press, awards, and new guests. A unique brand makes a vacation rental management company more recognizable, giving them a competitive edge and, over time, winning more loyal guests.
As Harvard professor Theodore Levitt wrote in his book The Marketing Imagination, “Differentiation is one of the most important strategic and tactical activities in which companies must constantly engage.”
Arrival spoke with three vacation rental property managers about how they differentiate their brands. As you read their stories, think about what makes your brand unique and how you can use that uniqueness to your advantage.
Think Locally, Act Locally
When Sand `N Sea Properties was founded in 1974, there weren’t many competitors in Galveston Island, Texas. The vacation rental market was still new— people were using vacation rentals as a way to afford their second homes. There were barely any local competitors, let alone giants like Vrbo and Airbnb.
But a lot has changed in 47 years. In the 2010s, Sand `N Sea Properties—which has always specialized in carrying a roster of beach, canal, and bayfront homes—started seeing more competition in its local area.
Claire Reiswerg, a daughter of the company’s founders as well as a co-owner and broker, said that they didn’t have to think much about their brand until these bigger companies came into the area. Since then, they’ve leaned heavily on what they consider to be a cornerstone of their brand: being local.
“We’re on the ground,” Reiswerg said. “We live here, we work here, we play here, and we’re part of the community. It’s an important part of our branding. There are companies that come in and the owners live far away. They’re not part of our community. But we serve on boards, we’re involved in artist institutions, civic groups, and the city council. Our brand is that we’re local.”
A big part of being local is having relationships in the community, Reiswerg said. Case in point, Reisweg is a member of the Galveston Island Park Board of Trustees and a board member of the Galveston Hotel & Lodging Association, which works with off-duty police officers to patrol neighborhoods and keep them safe. She often sits in at local community meetings. Many of the properties managed by Sand `N Sea are in neighborhoods where people live full time. If there’s a problem in one of those neighborhoods, Reiswerg said that people know who they are and know they’ll fix the issue.
Sand `N Sea also works to promote local businesses and events to guests. “Somebody promoting their beach houses from another city isn’t going to be able to point to local experiences,” she said. “There’s kayaking on the bay for kids every Saturday, or there’s nature walks, or there’s this guy, Emerson, who builds sandcastles. All of that creates a unique local Galveston experience for our guests. It’s more than just a beach house.”
Reisweg takes pride in one piece of feedback she often gets from guests when she asks them why they chose Sand `N Sea: Someone answered the phone.
“They’ll say that they could talk to someone with a name, or that our website was easier and actually had local stuff on it,” Reisweg said. “We do everything we can to put out in front of our guests that we’re local, that we’re not a big box vacation rental company.”
Now, Sand `N Sea gets fourth-generation guests—people whose great-grandparents visited one of their beach houses are now visiting themselves. And Reisweg believes that a big reason for that is their relationship with guests and the local area. “People know us,” she said. This comes in especially handy being 50 miles south of Houston, the fourth most populated U.S. city.
Being local and close to Houston also helped Sand `N Sea during the first days of the COVID-19 pandemic. When the pandemic hit, Reisweg said that they paused their marketing and focused on their list of thousands of people from the local area. “We knew our drive to market with the most important market that we could reach out to,” she said. “And, for better or worse, we had a banner year last year.”
Reisweg believes that there’s never been a better time to be a local vacation rental management company.
“We have an advantage over people that are making reservations 2,000 miles away and don’t know the area, nor the properties,” she said. “We always feel great when our reservationists get a thank you note saying, ‘Thank you. You helped me find the perfect beach house.’”
Going Green and Getting Green
Sixteen years ago, when Bob Garner and his husband Ian moved from London to Le Marche, Italy, they restored an old farmhouse into a luminous vacation rental property. The property has six units, plus their own space—it’s their dream life, one they want to be as environmentally friendly as possible.
The brand of Casal dei Fichi, the converted farmhouse, is based on both a luxurious, comfortable stay, but also being environmentally friendly. Solar panels heat the house’s swimming pool, electricity is provided by renewable sources through a green tariff, and Garner collaborates with local restaurants to plant trees in an effort to combat climate change. They’ve even brought a Tesla charger to the property, one of the only chargers in the area—Garner said that non-guests often come to use it for a small fee, money that’s used to plant more trees.
“We do this to have a lower impact on the planet,” Garner said. “But also, we use it as a means of educating our guests, talking to them about why environmental sustainability is important, and what they can do to be sustainable while they’re on holiday. They can go home and integrate some of those philosophies and ideas back into their daily lives.”
Beyond educating guests, Garner said that he also works to inform other vacation property managers and tourism professionals about how and why they can be eco-friendly. He works with Tourism Declares a Climate Emergency, a coalition of tourism businesses aiming to reduce carbon emissions 50% by 2030.
The biggest benefit of joining this effort, Garner tells other vacation property rental managers, is that customers want greener travel, now and into the future. For example, Booking.com’s 2021 Sustainable Travel Report surveyed 30,000 people and found that 81%of global travelers said that they’d stay in a sustainable accommodation at least once this year, a number that was 62% just five years ago.
“If travelers are being environmentally sustainable, it takes away some of the guilt some of them feel from flying in, driving, and taking a holiday, which they know is increasing their carbon footprint,” Garner said. “Travel is important. We just need to make it as easy as possible for people to do it with a lower impact on the planet.”
Many vacation property rental managers balk at going green, Garner said, because they think that it’s too complex or don’t think it’ll have much of an impact on their business. But Garner has found the opposite to be true: As they’ve worked, piece by piece, to make Casal dei Fichi more environmentally friendly, business has increased. They’ve won awards, received press for their efforts, and most importantly, have a 60 percent return rate from guests. Many guests come back multiple times— some have returned to Casal dei Fichi as many as 10 times, he said, and they aren’t always people who are exclusively green travelers.
“Green initiatives never turned anybody off— it only turns people on,” Garner said. “It’s great for business.”
And going green doesn’t have to be hard, Garner said. He suggests that property managers start simply, first by adopting LED light bulbs. These bulbs cost a bit more money but last longer and use less energy. Property managers can also sign their properties up with green energy tariffs through their energy provider—or, he said, switch to a provider that uses these tariffs. Once a company takes even these steps toward becoming green, Garner said that they can start listing their efforts on their website.
Managers may be surprised by how much even small efforts will pay off, Garner said. He’s been surprised at how much press they received from even the first days of Casal dei Fichi, when they started going green by installing solar panels on the roof. Sometimes, this means that his company wins awards—in 2020, Casal dei Fichi won the 2020 Shortyz Eco Award, which earned them more press.
“When we win an award, we always talk about it,” Garner said. “I’m not going to be embarrassed for winning an award, I’m going to push it out there and milk it for every bit I can because I work hard to be green and I work hard at trying to talk to other people about being green. I’m still running a business. I’ve still got to be successful.”
The brand has also set Casal dei Fichi apart in its local area, where Garner said that they are one of the few vacation rental properties that mentions being green. This means that if someone is looking to travel to that region of Italy and wants to stay somewhere sustainable, it will be at Casal dei Fichi.
Green tourism is a growing market, Garner said, one that will become larger whether managers make their properties greener or stand pat. “I’m always telling vacation mental hosts and owners: You need to start tapping into that market,” he said. “If you’ve got two great properties, which are the same price and same criteria, but one does green initiatives and one doesn’t, the guest is quite likely to choose the green initiatives.”
Questions to Ask
When thinking about what makes your brand unique, it’s helpful to ask yourself some simple questions:
- Who is your target customer
- What problem do they have that you can solve?
- What makes you different from competitors?
- How are your guests benefited by your service?
- How do you alleviate your customer’s pain? What’s the value of that pain relief to them?
- What’s it like to stay at one of our own properties? What’s the value? How does it feel?
Luxury Is Making People Feel Like They Matter
When Sharon Walker first rented a home, it was her own. It was 2009, amid the Great Recession, and Walker and her family were either going to be forced out without the extra income. So she started renting, focusing on ensuring people who stayed at her home enjoyed a luxurious experience.
Through the years, the brand of Walker Luxury Vacation Rentals has changed from renting her own home to renting owner-occupied homes to executives during the South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas, to shifting to renting out non-owner occupied second homes. At one point, Walker had a roster of 150 homes she was renting out—now, they focus on 20 homes.
“When I first started doing this, I visited one home and all I could think of was that people are going to get here and they’re not going to be happy,” Walker said. “And that’s going to happen is we’re going to get call after call after call after call. I don’t deal with angry people all the time.”
Walker has fewer houses for rent because she has increased her company’s focus on curating a true luxury experience for guests. The décor, the cleanliness, the home, the atmosphere, and the experience all needed to meet the standard of luxury that high-end hotels meet, she said.
“We stopped even visiting homes that weren’t going to fit into the portfolio,” Walker said. “We stick to that specific level. Our employees who decide whether a home is good for our portfolio have experienced the high-end hotels and gone on very luxurious vacations. They’re able to identify what people are going to think is high-end enough to not call us and say, ‘You’re called Walker luxury. This is not luxury.’ Whenever we visit houses, we ask: What are the guests going to say?”
Having fewer homes allows Walker to ensure that each home has what guests will want. All furnishings must be new, updated, and cohesive, which takes a lot of effort. She’s currently working with designers on redesigning three houses with an eye on style. Walker focuses on style because she’s noticed that even many high-end rental properties end up looking and feeling cold, dated, or simply aren’t comfortable.
Each house has to have its own feel, Walker said. Their first rental property, Daniel House, was created with a music festival in mind and has a rock-star feel, she said. Others are designed with bold colors and layouts, which Walker said has appealed to guests.
Walker even curates the guests who stay at her properties. Sometimes, if a large group—a bachelor party, for example—wants to come into a home that isn’t made for parties, she’ll redirect them to a different property, one that’s more durable. Or perhaps even to a different rental company. She said that the integrity of the home comes before revenue, which is one of their main brand rules. Owners of the homes need to trust her, so she brings as much curation to guests as she does to the homes.
When creating a luxury experience, Walker said that it’s necessary to define what the word means to you. Everyone has their own perception of what luxury means, Walker said. To her, luxury is trying to anticipate what guests and owners need before they need it.
“For that, you have to be able to put yourself in everyone’s shoes all the time,” Walker said. “It’s easy for us to put ourselves in the owner shoes, because I’m one of our homeowners. We’ve set up our staff to have a guest rep in charge of putting herself in the guests’ shoes—she can find out what guests are going to need.”
Some brands call themselves luxury without worrying much about the guest experience, Walker said. But she believes that the word “luxury” in the vacation rental property world means at least being up to the standards of a high-end hotel. This means providing luxury supplies and giving people extra touches, such as letting them check out early or late or giving VIP status to guests who return.
Being luxury also means apologizing or making amends when something goes wrong. Walker said that if a home wasn’t up to standards—even if the guest didn’t complain—she’ll send them an expensive box of Tiff’s Treats cookies to help make up for the experience.
“Ultimately, we’re trying to do is make people feel like they matter,” Walker said. “Profit matters, but profits will come if you’re making people feel like they matter.”
Walker has a warning for any brand that claims that they’re luxury: You must actually be luxury. Luxury can’t be faked. If the word “luxury” is in your brand name, for example, people will expect nothing less. The name and the brand can be limiting, but that can be positive.
“I like the way our brand limits us,” Walker said. “But if I ever want to start doing anything that’s not luxury, I have to come up with a whole other business. Because my name said luxury.”
Hal Conick is a Chicago-based writer for VRMA Arrival.