As I often say in on-site workshops, “If you want to get as much business as everyone else gets, then do the things that everyone else does.” Until recently, that approach ensured that any given vacation rental (VR) company would get its fair share of the market. To find new owners, all one had to do was check real estate transaction reports, send postcards to solicit new owners, and bribe top realtors into forwarding their leads. Likewise, keeping existing owners was fairly easy; just return phone calls and emails reactively, and keep a revenue stream coming in that at least covered the owner’s mortgage payment.
However, like most other industries, the VR business experienced a significant and sudden disruption in the marketplace. Suddenly, long-term owners of top-tier inventory were giving notice of exiting, while responses from new owners to the old marketing efforts slowed to a trickle. Established companies have found their legacy models disrupted by new start-ups purchasing existing VR companies. These disruptors are backed by seemingly unlimited venture capitalist funding, enabling guaranteed rental streams and lower commission structures. If you are not yet experiencing disruption, it is only because they have not found their way into your market just yet, but they are coming one day soon.
What can locally branded companies do to fight back? The following are some of the best practices that I recommend for our VR client companies.
How to Sign New Homeowners
- Personalize correspondence. Rather than a generic postcard, reference something special and specific about the new home. Reference the names and addresses of other homes you represent nearby.
- Sell the advantages of being a local brand. Include a picture of a property manager(s) and a group shot of your operations team. If you have in-house maintenance, laundry, or housekeeping, mention that too.
- Be diligent and timely with follow-up. Rather than sending one postcard, use a drip-style campaign, again personalizing the messaging. Continue even if they sign elsewhere.
- When homeowners inquire about changing but do not switch, stay in touch with personalized messages every two or three months. Vary the media used from handwritten notes to emails to video emails and camera phone pics, but when the season draws to a close, place a phone call.
How to Keep Existing Homeowners
- Organize a process for connecting with every homeowner every four months. Start by entering all homeowners into a lead tracking system. If necessary, start with an Excel or Google Docs spreadsheet, or use one of many excellent cloud-based CRM tools. (I like ZoHo.com, which runs about $12 per month.) Trace each owner for a four-month follow-up. If you end up connecting sooner, retrace them after another four months. Vary the medium; for example, first make a phone call, next an email, then a handwritten note, and so on. The message should be brief but personalized. For example, comment on how well an upgrade or improvement is being received; share a recent positive review; give an update on their community or neighborhood. Rather than sending birthday messages to owners, how about sending an anniversary card of the date they joined the program?
- Close the loop on upgrades and repairs. When a major replacement or repair is complete, have maintenance take a picture. For upgrades, look through recent reviews for comments relevant to the change. (This can count as one of your four-month touches.)
- Convey that you are personally engaged with their home. Most VR companies seem to use an annual inspection checklist; be sure to share it with the owners. While in their home, take a picture or send a video email message to let the owners actually see their main contact there.
- Let owners know your company is working on their behalf. Let them see pictures of your staff at educational sessions, training workshops, and industry conferences. Share “frontline hero” stories during which your maintenance and operations staff resolved difficult guest situations and emergencies. Talk about new tech you are implementing.
- Make annual reviews more engaging. Make them easy to schedule by using an online tool (I like Calendly.com, which is about $10 a month.) Once scheduled, ask the owners to be by a computer if possible so you can use an online meeting tool and screen share to show what you are covering, such as guest reviews, contract terms, revenue reports, and so on. Use a highlighter tool to circle or underline key points discussed. Have your owner relations rep share his or her webcam; ask the owners to share theirs too. Even if they decline, this makes for a more personally engaging conversation. Sort through reviews to find those that are actionable and tied to improvements that can help increase rents. (Copy and paste actionable reviews into your CRM as the year progresses for quick access.)
- Send personalized thank-you notes and messages. Finally, when despite all your best efforts an owner still leaves, be helpful with the transition. Send a thank-you note or personalized message (again a picture or video email). Then put the owner back in your trace system, and reach out again every four to six months to invite him or her back.