In this, the 4th in our series ‘An independent vacation rental owners’ guide to listing sites’, Homes and Rooms looks at who calls the shots.
The world of online bookings and listing sites can seem like a world of Davids and Goliaths from an independent vacation rental owner’s point of view. The Davids in this case are the owners and the Goliaths, the listing sites – providing an important channel through which the properties reach their online guests.
Put simply, the owners supply the product (your property) and pay the listing sites to market it. In this way, potential guests have instant access to a myriad vacation rental choices on the worldwide web.
So, it’s in the interests of any large listing site to want to attract and retain as many owners as they can. At the same time, it’s also in their interest to be able to control the suppliers (the owners). And, where possible, to limit the owner’s ability to market their own properties outside the listing sites’ own operations.
Listing sites set the agenda
As the vacation rental industry has grown so rapidly and to such an enormous size, the larger listing sites have risen to positions of power where they can often call the shots. They set the agenda and may change their terms and conditions at any time without discussion or reference to the owners on whom they rely. Owners who themselves rely on listing sites as their sole communication channel are expected to fall in line. Whether they like it or not.
Cecelle is owner of a small but delightful vacation rental Rose Cottage Studio in Capetown, South Africa. She signed up with Airbnb in February 2015. Describing herself as an extensively-travelled ‘outgoing positive person’ with a love of animals and her garden, she wanted her place to stand out from the crowd.
But she found, initially, that the site’s format and the restrictions on what she was allowed to feature prevented her from sharing fully just what made the place so special. She wanted to share her own news to add extra interest. And to include the address of her property, so that people could assess the area. She was not allowed to do either by Airbnb. Nevertheless, one enterprising guest found her property on Google Streetview and was so impressed he booked for a month’s stay.
Get your own website
In order to overcome the shortcomings of her Airbnb listing, and to give her property better chances, Cecelle set up her own website. Here, she could post as many images of her property as she wanted and carry snippet of news and pictures. This would whet the appetites of prospective guests and increase bookings.
She is still with Airbnb, but by having her own website has a big advantage over other owner subscribers who do not. Some guests find her on Airbnb, then visit her site for further information before confirming.
‘I really love Airbnb and for the 3% off my payments it’s an absolute joy to use,’ Cecelle told industry blogger Matt Landau. ‘I do not have a credit card facility here at home so they handle all that as well as the hosting guarantees. This makes the clients happy and it takes all the financial work off my shoulders.’
But if Cecelle were to add her own booking and reservation system to the website, she could be fully independent of Airbnb or any other listing agency.
As we’ve noted before on the Homes and Rooms blog and on Barry Sacks’ independent site, having their own website is a must for the independent vacation rental owner. We could add having their own website plus some powerful web tools to get the best out of the property. Take a look at the kind of tools and features we offer our subscribers as standard here at Homes and Rooms.
Sites profit from the ‘data curtain’
Matt Landau is a respected industry blogger and very successful vacation rental owner who chooses not to use the listing sites to fill his reservation calendar. But he has followed closely the rise and rise of the listing sites. Which led him to reuse the phrase ‘data curtain’ to describe how some operate.
In the case of Airbnb, writes Matt ‘It withholds vital data in order to streamline a smoother service. By forcing all transactions through their system and keeping sensitive or valuable data (like guest contact info or credit card details) “air” tight, the company essentially legitimized an industry of random people lending other random people space in their home.’
So, when a booking comes through Airbnb, it takes control of the situation and deals with the guest before he or she arrives at the rental property. Owners don’t get an opportunity to vet guests and they have to wait for payment until their guest arrives and Airbnb passes on the money.
It’s easy to see how, if an owner has a stream of guests on this basis, they will not easily be able to develop their own client list of repeat guests that is so essential to independence. Nor is it just Airbnb that is hiding behind the data curtain. HomeAway (due to be swallowed up by Expedia.com in early 2016) and FlipKey use similar business models.
Listing sites control exposure
The listing sites control the exposure given to any vacation rental property that chooses to list. Obviously, every owner wants his or her property to come at the top of the heap when a guest is searching for that particular type and location. The decision of how high up – or how low down – you appear is made by the listing site.
When they first subscribe, owners are usually offered a tiered arrangement whereby the higher the premium paid, the higher and more prominent the listing. This can be attractive to some owners, although being higher up is not a guarantee of bookings. Yet being lower down will definitely impact on your popularity as, in a crowded resort, travelers may never scroll down to your property.
But even a tiered package may not deliver what you expect according to a report from Rentmoreweeks.com. This time it’s HomeAway in the spotlight under the provocative headline ‘HomeAway Fools Owners With Fools Gold’.
Premium listing is no guarantee
They say that even if you have the top Platinum subscription you may not appear in the first listing and that other properties without a premium listing can appear above yours.
‘The thing is,’ they write, ‘you can’t have everybody on Platinum. In fact if you were to list all the tiered properties as per their paid for positions those below them would struggle for any exposure at all.
‘Add to this all of the “Pay Per Booking” properties and you end up with a huge logistical nightmare that doesn’t work. This is a direct result of lumping over a million vacation homes into one place. It’s only going to get worse.’
Definitely not in the interests of the independent vacation rental owner. Will things change when Expedia.com takes control of HomeAway in early 2016?
Anger in vacation rentals community
HomeAway again caused anger among the vacation rental community last summer when they rerouted calls to a West Indian call centre without consultation.
They introduced a new system which rerouted telephone inquiries from travelers and guests calling specific properties. Calls were directed to a Jamaican call center where inquiries were dealt with by local staff. Callers believed they were speaking with someone directly involved with the property, whereas they were talking instead with someone who may have known little about the specific rental.
The change came as a big surprise to many subscribers who were not consulted and could do little but accept the new arrangement.
As long as vacation rental owners sign up with listing sites and rely on these methods for their bookings, there is little they can do against the sheer size of these organizations. But there are alternatives that are not only effective but affordable. With their own website and the modern vacation rental software tools now available, owners can compete and succeed.