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The Central Florida Town That Wants to be the Vacation Home Capital

Aug 06, 2014 6:00 am

Skift Take

Florida’s vacation rental laws have been managed on a state level, but municipalities and locals are moving to change this in order to exert greater control over housing and capture more tax revenue.

— NewsCred

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Sally  / Flickr

A family in the pool of their vacation rental. Sally / Flickr


Osceola County, often overshadowed by Orlando’s global image as a vacation destination, is trying to stake out a patch of supremacy in Central Florida’s crowded tourism landscape.

Citing its huge inventory of vacation properties for rent, it’s positioning itself as the vacation-rental-home capital.

The county says it has 9,800 rental units, more than 37 percent of the total number of vacation homes and condos in Metro Orlando.

“It is a staggering number,” said Pete Bolduc, sales manager of the Kissimmee-based Florida Dream Homes, one of 94 vacation-rental companies listed by the county’s tourism agency. “It’s just huge in this area.”

The agency, called Experience Kissimmee, has focused on promoting the vacation-rental market in two campaigns this year. Both featured print and online ads, and one of them, “Rock Your Vacation,” included an online-video contest that won a Tennessee family a free stay in a nine-bedroom home near Walt Disney World.

Agency spokesman Larry White said the county is branding itself as the “nation’s leading vacation-rental market” based on the size, quality and locations of its properties. It’s a debatable title, but White is prepared to defend it.

“Until someone gives me data” to dispute it, he said, “I think we have a leg to stand on.”

Some vacation-rental companies offer modern studios with ceramic floors and a community pool. Others specialize in pint-sized mobile homes of 400 to 500 square feet. Still others feature eight-bedroom, 5,000-square-foot luxury homes with private pools, golf-course views and marble countertops.

Visitors can pay as little as $75 a night for a small, prefab cottage or more than 10 times that amount for an estate home that sleeps 12 and merits its own 10-minute video on a rental company’s website.

“It really spans a wide range,” said White. “But more typically, it lends itself to an affluent market.”

The county, which also has 24,000 hotel rooms, is targeting people such as Bryan Orr, a 31-year-old Clermont heating-and-cooling contractor with a wife and eight children. Orr and his family have stayed in Osceola County rentals a few times, joining friends from out of state. They like the game rooms — “pool is our game of choice,” Orr said — the private pools and the extra space a house offers.

“One of my friends has four boys,” he said. “So between us, there’s a boatload.”

The amenities, Orr said, “are often beyond what you’d get in even a nice hotel.” And the total price, when split between families, is sometimes less than what you’d pay for a hotel stay.

Vacation-rental homes generate about 45 percent of the county’s tourist-development tax on lodgings. This fiscal year, the total tax revenue, which is used to support tourism efforts, could top $37 million. A few years ago, property managers sought help from Experience Kissimmee, pointing out the revenue the industry was producing.

“Since then, they’ve been phenomenal,” said Jeff Chase, vice president of business development at VillaDirect.com.

Like many vacation-rental companies, VillaDirect leans heavily on Internet marketing to find clients. It’s active on social media, and it targets travel bloggers and so-called “mommy bloggers.” Chase says the company’s website gets about 3,000 unique visitors a day.

Florida Dream Homes loads its site with key words — “The bottom line is where do you rank on Google,” Bolduc said — and prominently displays photos from clients. This year, it ran a photo contest to give away five free nights for a future reservation.

Many sites have a “mom-and-pop” feel, a quality that personalizes the transaction and helps build a connection with clients. That’s crucial because tourists tend to stick with one company if they feel good about the deal.

“About 75 percent of our clients will come back next year,” Bolduc said.

Most visitors come from within the U.S., but rentals are also popular with travelers from Canada, Brazil and the United Kingdom. International guests are coveted, several operators said, because they tend to book longer stays.

Dean Bateman is president of Reunion Vacation Homes, which carries a mix of about 130 homes and condos not far from Disney. Bateman said 10 percent to 15 percent of those are strictly investment properties. The rest are owned by families or individuals who use the home for some part of the year and lease it out for the rest.

Like Orr, Bateman said most clients like the amount of space they get for their dollar. That’s especially true with large groups traveling together. After spending all day at a theme park, they can return to the home and spread out without being on top of one another.

“You get more room, more privacy than you would in a hotel,” said Bateman. “Everyone can relax and have a little space.”

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