It’s been about just over a year since Expedia completed its purchase of HomeAway. It’s been a year since the never-ending waves of changes started occurring in the the vacation rental industry. I’ve tried to explain all of the changes to prospective clients — folks who have never rented out their houses before — and it’s been difficult to explain. I don’t know how to predict the future. I don’t how these changes in the largest vacation rental listing site will affect future bookings in our little corner of Maine.
So far (I’m knocking on wood), it’s been okay for my rentals. I’ve been fully booked at all of my properties and am looking into 2017 with optimism. I’ve seen a higher percentage of reservations finding me directly through my website instead of through VRBO/HomeAway which is awesome.
The one thing that I haven’t been able to get on board with many of the other vacation rental owners that I often network with is anger.
Other owners are angry.
Really, really angry.
They were angry last October when HomeAway announced their “best match” algorithm.
They were crazy angry in February when HomeAway started adding on their own service fee.
They started Facebook groups.
They initiated class action lawsuits.
They developed sneaky ways to circumvent the HomeAway system.
And the owners are still just as angry now as they were then.
I was angry, too. And I am still upset. But here’s why I’m upset — it all has to do with geography. Our little area of Washington County used to have a little over 200 vacation rentals listed. Now, it has about 1600 vacation rentals. What?? Now the Down East region on VRBO/HomeAway includes rentals in Acadia, Bar Harbor, Blue Hill and even a few in Canada. When you search on the Vacation Rentals By Owner listing site for rentals in the DownEast region of Maine (an undated search), on page one, of 50 properties shown only a handful are actually in Washington County! The rest are in the Bar Harbor area. Bar Harbor and Mt Desert Island have their own category, they don’t need to encroach on the DownEast category.
Imagine if you think that you are booking a rental property near the nightlife of Bar Harbor, only to find that you are somewhere in the woods of Baileyville (not that there’s anything wrong with being in the woods of Baileyville). What a shock when you find you are a two hour+ drive from your intended destination. I haven’t figured out just why the search now includes so many distant properties. Maybe because rentals in Bar Harbor and mid-coast area are generally more expensive, VRBO, the listing site will make more money by putting them front and center and having them book first? (Part of the ongoing VRBO changes — the higher the rate, the more money VRBO makes). Whatever the reason, it’s a small step backwards for bringing tourism dollars into Washington County.
Whenever I meet a rental owner for the first time, the conversation almost immediately seems to go to how much they HATE HomeAway, about how HomeAway is screwing them over (pardon my French). Or how they have elaborate schemes to funnel potential guests away from the HomeAway booking platform. I was contacted by several media reporters in the past year (I’m guessing because of this blog) to ask me about my opinions about the changes on HomeAway. My statements never made any articles — one reporter even told me after an hour long interview that I wasn’t angry enough and asked me to refer her to angrier colleagues.
I don’t know.
I’m sure this blog posting will certainly bring up the ire of many of my owner colleagues and probably get me bounced out of the angry Facebook groups. But, it seems that we are in the hospitality industry. I want guests to my properties to begin imagining their vacations from the moment they move their fingers to type their very first emails to inquire. I don’t want to pass them cryptic messages about how to find me though other avenues. I don’t want to bad mouth the site that is bringing me this lead. I want them to feel comfortable dealing with me, the owner or manager of the property and imagining the relaxing vacation to come.
So, here is my personal game plan. (And I need a game plan. I don’t just need to offset some of the bills of my vacation home. Rents from my income properties are a significant portion of my yearly income).
I will continue to offer the best customer experience that I can.
I will continue to develop and improve my website. Two years ago, 100% of my bookings came from VRBO/HomeAway. This year, about 50% came from my website and own marketing efforts. It takes hard work, lots of time and no griping. I’ve invested hundreds of hours in the past year marketing my properties. (Cue the corny fish comparison)
It’s the fish that develops lungs and feet during a drought that will survive.
I will look into other avenues of marketing and advertising my properties. They are out there.
So now I ask you… other vacation rental home owners. And I know you are out there. Over 7,000 of you Maine owners are listed on VRBO. Have you been affected by the changes Expedia has made to HomeAway/VRBO? What are YOU doing to change your marketing strategy?