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    The Future of Guest Loyalty in the Vacation Rental Industry

    The vacation rental industry has boomed in the last 20 years. User-friendly, guest-forward technology combined with eye-popping budgets for branding and marketing has turned vacation rental booking sites like Airbnb and Vrbo into household names. The numbers speak for themselves: In 2010, less than 10 percent of people wanted to stay in a vacation rental. Today, more than half of people are choosing vacation rentals over more traditional hospitality options.

    For small-to-medium-sized vacation rental property managers, it can be difficult to imagine competing with the Airbnbs of the world. These industry giants have the money and the inventory, it seems, to meet the needs of just about any traveler out there. It might seem logical, even business-savvy, to rely on these third-party sites to attract a majority of bookings.

    But guest behavior, needs, and desires are changing. 

    Fewer people are searching for specific travel destinations, and major booking sites are capturing fewer and fewer of those searches when they occur. Recently, Airbnb shared that 40 percent of users are searching for vacation rentals without inputting a destination or specific travel dates. 

    This means that vacation rental property managers like you can’t rely solely on third-party booking sites to attract guests, because there’s a good chance the guests you want may never come across your listings. What’s more, it can be very difficult to foster connection with guests when they book on a third-party site, making it hard to encourage guest loyalty to your brand, not the OTA.

    This provides you with a unique opportunity to optimize your intimate knowledge of your market and your inventory to target the right audience at the right time and with the right price. By investing time and resources into your own marketing efforts and encouraging booking directly on your website, you can cultivate guest loyalty while increasing your revenue—on any budget and with any amount of inventory.

    Let’s break it down. 

    Use Third-Party Sites to Your Advantage

    Just because you want guests booking directly on your vacation rental website doesn’t mean you shouldn’t still use major booking platforms like Airbnb or Vrbo to market your properties. Third-party sites can be quite useful when used wisely and in tandem with other marketing strategies. When combined with your organic and paid search ads, nurture email strategies, social media, and guest referral programs, third-party site listings act as another way of reaching your audience and capturing bookings.

    Consider Your Budget, and Construct Your Strategy Accordingly

    For some vacation rental managers, marketing listings on third-party booking sites can be very expensive and can actually be detrimental to the bottom line. This doesn’t mean a property manager on a tight budget can’t use third-party sites at all. It just means they have to be more selective about how they use third-party sites. 

    For example, if you have a smaller budget to cover OTA fees and subscriptions, consider only listing brand-new properties, and only for the first six months or a year of availability. This will give your newest inventory a little extra exposure when they need it the most. Or perhaps you use third-party sites during certain times of year for extra exposure, or to fill your calendar during shoulder seasons. 

    Improve Your Listings with Regular Updates and Review

    However you decide to use third-party booking sites, it’s important to check your listings regularly to ensure they are attractive to guests and adhere to the website’s guidelines.

    • Make sure you (and your guests) are clear on an OTA’s cancellation policies and other rules specific to the third-party site.
    • Max out the number of photos you can have (making sure, of course, that they are of high-quality and not watermarked).
    • Check your amenities list for accuracy. 
    • Highlight five-star reviews.
    • Answer inquiries as promptly as possible.

    Stay On Top of Your SEO Game

    Search engine optimization (SEO) is a key marketing strategy that can help get your short-term rentals in front of potential guests. While SEO practices are constantly evolving to keep up with search engine advances, there are a few bases that are always important to cover.

    • Check that you’re putting your chosen keywords in metadata, photo captions, and property descriptions.
    • Avoid keyword stuffing—instead, place keywords as naturally and strategically as possible so that it feels like a human speaking and not like a robot.
    • Use high-resolution images of your properties, and plenty of them.
    • Create knowledgeable content to build credibility, like blogs and location-specific lists.
    • Add a Google Business listing and highlight positive Google reviews.

    In order to build guest loyalty and to drive direct booking to your website, lean into keywords and search terms that are specific to your location and sprinkle them throughout your website.

    Turn New Guests into Regulars

    There is a very good chance that a new guest will book with you through an OTA. And that’s OK—it can be a good way of establishing a connection with a guest. 

    But remember that, in essence, you are paying a third party to attract that guest for you. If you want that guest to come back (and not pay the OTA a second time), then you need to give a guest a good reason to come back—and book directly with you next time. 

    Offer a Unique, Branded Experience

    One way to achieve guest loyalty for your vacation rental management business is to provide an experience that aligns with your company values, highlights your specialties, and leans into the market you serve.

    • Invest in in-home tech like Alexa and keyless entry for a modern experience.
    • Provide complimentary discounts to local businesses like recreation providers or eateries.
    • Surprise guests with physical gifts specific to your region.
    • Encourage referrals for discounts on future stays.

    Find Ways to Connect

    It’s a good idea to find ways to gather guest information so that you can input it into a CRM. You can do this by requiring email addresses to sign into the internet, contactless check-in and check-out inside the home via tablet, or through invitations for social sharing. 

    Stay in Touch With the Right Message

    Once you’ve established contact with your guests, make sure to message them at a regular (but not overwhelming) cadence with high-quality, personalized content that may entice them back for another stay. 

    You can also encourage guest loyalty by building a classic loyalty program. It may be cliché, but it’s an easy way to encourage direct booking and build a solid group of potential brand ambassadors.

    Practice Dynamic Pricing

    Dynamic pricing is a way to adjust your rates based on a wide variety of market factors. It can help keep your prices competitive while also offering more opportunities to fill your calendar. When guests learn that they can get a better price directly on your vacation rental booking site than they can on an OTA, it’ll increase the likelihood that they’ll check your site first for any future trips.  

    Be Smart with Your Time

    Managing vacation rentals can be a complicated job. There are a lot of moving parts to it, and not all of them are going to be your favorite thing to do. So in addition to establishing a reasonable budget for the inner workings of your business, it’s important to consider how best to spend your time. There may be certain times when you would be better off either training an employee to do the job or outsourcing the work to a professional. This could include: 

    • Marketing, such as writing property descriptions or real estate photography.
    • Revenue management and managing your dynamic pricing.
    • Data analysts, to help read your own data as well as third-party, market data to make effective business decisions.

    Seize the Opportunity at Hand

    The vacation rental industry continues to grow, and prosperity is on the horizon for those who are willing to go after it. Data shows that the vacation rental industry will grow by about $63B dollars in revenue by 2024, with a 7 percent compound annual growth rate. By creating strategies that build guest loyalty and visibility to the perfect audience based on your location, amenities, inventory, and prices, property managers like you can not only reap the rewards of this continued popularity but also compete with even the biggest industry giants out there. 

    Andrew McConnell is the CEO of Rented.com.

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