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Vacation rental owners and managers once relied on classifieds or catalogs to get on guests’ radar, slowly shifting to listings sites like VRBO. “The emergence of companies like HomeAway filled a niche in the market, where hotels had dominated online exposure,” recalls Jeremy Grogg of Kees Vacation Rentals. “There was no central place where you could look for a vacation rental product — it wasn’t on Expedia.”
The adoption of third-party distribution worked fairly well for all parties, spurring industry growth as more travelers began to look beyond hotel lodging. For an industry without a robust online presence, the early listing sites served as a bridge to the digital consumer without serious disruption to the status quo, as guests still had to call or email to request bookings and listings fees were low. These simple interaction models and the ability to rely on one major site like HomeAway thus provided a strong return for relatively little effort or expense.
Now, however, vacation rental distribution is shifting into the next phase of e-commerce, which adds complexity for all involved and considerably raises the stakes. The rise of Airbnb and its instant-book model, Booking.com’s aggressive expansion into the vacation rental category, and Expedia’s acquisition of HomeAway all represent seismic shifts for the industry. The arrival of the big guns in travel distribution is shifting where and how travelers shop, and forcing businesses to adjust their models to accommodate current consumer behavior.
These developments have made distribution a charged topic in the vacation rental industry. “Over the last several years vacation rental owners have endured an onslaught of forced change as control of their vacation rental business has been chipped away,” explains a small site called Vacation Rental Direct. Distributors have grown more empowered by the rapid growth of online travel agencies and by consolidation — Expedia now owns HomeAway (which in turn owns VRBO), and along with the Priceline Group, controls the bulk of bookings through OTAs globally. So where they once saw the property manager as their customer, distributors now see the traveler in that role and are shifting accordingly, explains Andrew McConnell of Rented.com.
Issues of contention include instant bookability and cancellation policies. Currently tension is focused on revised HomeAway policies, including a new fee for travelers (akin to Airbnb’s charges) and a different fee structure for listings that goes into effect this summer. Property managers are protesting via a Change.org petition, the Facebook group Say No to VRBO Service Fee, and in one case, a lawsuit against HomeAway. The company says the fee covers the cost of enhanced customer support, site and mobile features, and marketing efforts.
“All these changes are driving folks crazy,” says Matt Landau, who runs the Vacation Rental Marketing Blog. “They built their entire foundation on a corporation just bought by Expedia, and now everything is changing. It’s a time of reckoning.”
Changes in cost structure are only part of the challenge. The new emphasis on online booking creates connectivity and administration challenges for property managers, giving rise to a thriving market in technology and distribution management solutions that help managers keep their listings up to date acrossthe newly available channels.
Landau believes property managers must “take small steps in the direction of independence” from distributors, since relying solely on a listing site is like “a landscaper who is only advertising on Yellow Pages.” The ultimate goal is “listings independence” — getting enough repeat guests and referrals without using distributors.
Many believe, however, that distributors are essential to generating those repeat guests by opening the door to more first-time customers. Plus, some guests now habitually turn to online outlets. “If you book on Expedia every time, you book on Expedia every time, so we want to make sure to capture that guest,” says Tricia Day, Wyndham Vacation Rentals reservations manager for two Colorado destinations.
Distributors also create a “billboard effect” for travelers in the research phase, who see certain properties popping up regularly online. “OTAs can be a valuable solution for capturing otherwise difficult-to-reach travelers,” notes Michael De la Torre, Chief Revenue Officer at LeisureLink, advising that property managers must then work to convert those travelers into repeat guests.
Another advantage is global reach. “We give small, local accommodations such as a B&B in the Russian countryside access to the world,” says a rep from Priceline Group’s Booking.com, which translates content into 40-plus languages.
For now, Expedia remains unhurt by the brouhaha over HomeAway’s changes — Cantor Fitzgerald recently reiterated its Buy rating for the company and said the fee is “unlikely to adversely impact consumer booking behavior.”