To color your brand, get the black and white right.
Let’s be clear: Hospitality marketing is hard. This is especially true in the vacation rental (VR) industry, where marketing budgets are small and brand recognition is even smaller.
It wasn’t always this way. In The Time Before, send a very large book of all of your properties to past guests, you put a shiny brochure in the racks at service stations and a very expensive ad in the back of Travel + Leisure and crossed your fingers. If you were around long enough, you could count on word of mouth to get you through. Oh, how times have changed.
Hopefully, by now you’ve accepted that OTAs are a fact of life for VR. We can debate whether their fees are too high relative to the value they deliver, but that’s not what this article is about. It’s about treating those fees as an investment and making the most of it.
Whether you manage one property or 100, you have to make listings. Those listings will appear on your OTA channels, your website, print publications such as vacation guides, and other media that expose prospective guests to your properties. If you don’t enjoy the widespread brand association of, say, Wyndham, then guess what represents you and your brand.
Your listing’s completeness and quality (or lack thereof) may be the only exposure a guest has to you a property before they ever consider to pick up the keys or stumble up the steps with their bags. A listing that is comprehensive, grammar-perfect, easily skimmed, and professional looking with good photos will convey a number of critical brand cues to a prospective guest. These cues can make all the difference between a booking and the discard pile.
You have exactly one opportunity to get it right. Let’s talk about the key components of a listing and what they say about your brand.
Put yourself in the Guest’s shoes
You’ve heard something like this a million times: You are not your guest. It’s true—understanding your target audience is critical to any successful marketing or communication campaign. But what does that mean, exactly?
No single property appeals equally to everyone. Look through the rental records and reviews for your property and build a basic renter profile. You might even have something like it already. Is it more popular with college kids or seniors? Families or couples? Where are they from? What’s their level of income and education?
You won’t be able to answer all these questions, and much of the time you’ll resort to educated guesses. That’s okay. All you’re really doing at this stage is taking the picture you already have in your mind about the “perfect” guest and spending a little “virtual” time with them. What kind of device are they rental shopping on? Where are they? How much time have they dedicated to the task? What’s at stake for them personally? Pretend you’re interviewing them for the purpose of market research. Write down their “answers” and use them to create a guest profile. In marketing-speak, this is called a persona.
Now, one way to proceed would be to think about the factors that influence their purchase decision. That would be fine, but you’re not there yet. Your first job is just to earn consideration. In other words, don’t give them a reason to eliminate you.
Think about your guest and how they search, e.g. “rental homes mobile al.” Step one is to make sure your listings are tagged with the right location(s) and that they are in the proper category. If you include the specific address, check it on Google maps to make sure the location and street-level view are exactly correct. Changing “Court” to “Drive” or adding “NW” to an address can make a huge difference. Get it right.
If the search originated in Google, they might land on your own website. If so, congratulations on improving your chances of a direct booking! But don’t hold your breath. Chances are, they’ll wind up in a long page of OTA listings.
This is where you stop and your listing begins. You can’t control what happens next, but you can influence it.
Rate and Availability
Obviously, this is the top of the pyramid in terms of listings and the first step in a good search. But let’s assume for now that your booking engine is talking to your PMS, which in turn is talking to the OTAs. That means your availability is covered.
Rate is the biggest and easiest lever you can pull, but it’s also the hardest thing to stay on top of. Ideally, you would analyze the market to build a set of competing properties, or comps, in order to evaluate your price-competitiveness at any given time. You could then assign listing-specific pricing strategies to determine where you want to be relative to those comps, and maybe even receive automatic alerts when you fell outside those parameters.
This is how Lexicon works, but it’s not the only way. Price comparisons happen all the time in all manner of industries. If you can’t be automated, then you have to be fastidious.
The first step is to develop a comp list for each property or group of properties. Look at price (duh), general location, amenities, and so on. Eliminate low-quality listings and focus on the ones that put you in good company. If you know who they belong to, so much the better.
Create a spreadsheet tab for each listing or group along with links to your comp set. Check their pricing at least once per week for various date ranges and see how far you deviate, and how your availability might differ. The longer you do this, you’ll start to see trends that can help refine your pricing strategy Y/Y and help you stay on top of rate changes going forward. If your rate seems competitive but you still show availability, look to your policies and make sure your listing is tight. Just because rate is the easiest lever to pull doesn’t make it the first.
Amenities and Headlines
Next, some shoppers will filter their results but others will peruse all the listings. Some will save listings for later and others will just take mental or written notes. Since you have no way of knowing, you need to make sure you have a great, meaty headline and a thorough (and accurate) list of amenities. Again, your goal is to not be eliminated.
Most amenities are treated as fields in the OTA’s database to help enable filtering, such as a pool. Carefully review those checkboxes so you don’t get wrongly eliminated from consideration.
Headlines are tricky. In other contexts, such as online articles, headlines are designed to grab your attention. Rental listings are a different animal. Instead, use that precious real estate to communicate some critical information to your imagined guest. Say it’s the matriarch of a large family who’s looking to host their four adult children and their families for a week of sun and fun on the beach. What are some of her biggest concerns? Size, family-friendliness, and proximity to the water. What listing is she more likely to consider—”Charming Home with Ocean Views” or “Spacious Oceanside 5br/3.5ba w/Pool?”
Confusing or cutesy headlines probably won’t earn you a click. In fact, they’re more likely to put you on the slush pile. Use that space to convey as much useful information as possible. Size, general area, the luxury level, and exceptional selling points are good places to start. Avoid terms or neighborhoods only locals or frequent visitors will relate to like “Warehouse District” or “Park West.” Also, a specific home name, although the owner likes to see - does not mean anything to a prospective guest.
Photos should be organized with your guest profile in mind. This will help determine which photo is featured with your listing and the order in which they appear. Most OTAs give you at least some control over this.
Taking our large family as an example, would you lead with an exterior shot of the house or a shot of the pool with the beach and ocean behind it? Would you put a shot of the master bedroom ahead of the comfy-looking sectionals in the huge living room? Of course not. Who cares if the properties you consider direct competitors do it differently in their listings? They’re not being as strategic and thoughtful as you are.
The more quality photos you have of the property, the better. Obviously, you should include photos of exteriors, bedrooms, bathrooms, living areas, special features like pools or hot tubs, and even some shots of the local area. If there’s a killer view, show it off. You don’t necessarily need to conduct your shoot with the guest in mind, but it will definitely help determine the order in which your photos appear.
One by one, you’re eliminating reasons for the guest to eliminate you.
You’ve written a meaty and descriptive headline, completed a thorough and accurate list of amenities, and put your photos in an order befitting your target guest. That diligence has earned you a click, which in the online world is the ultimate compliment.
Unfortunately, this is where most listings go off the rails. We see it all the time.
Let’s take a step back. Your property is basically a product, and your listing is basically your product description. It has a lot of heavy lifting to do, right? Since you can’t be there in person to sell the property, the listing will have to do it for you.
Now consider the process of actually writing a good description. Usually, you have a word or character limit to stay within. Your copy must be substantive but easily understood. Its tone must fit your brand and appeal to the reader. It must be organized logically, starting with the most critical information and ending with the least. It should contain enough keywords to make sure it appears high in search results but not so many that it feels clunky. And although most people won’t care much about perfect grammar and style, every error reflects poorly on your brand and, to a certain extent, the property itself.
Is this your specialty? Do people compliment you on your ability to write tight, on-point, highly readable prose that takes into account SEO and how people’s eyes flow across a website?
If so, then go for it. Write your description and have it proofread. Have them look at it through the lens of your perfect guest, make your edits, and put it out there across all your channels. Repeat the process for every single property in your portfolio so the tone and presentation are consistent.
If this is not your specialty, then you shouldn’t be the one to write your description. If you were placing an $8K ad in a magazine, would you design it and write the copy yourself, or would you put it in the hands of an expert? Hopefully, you’d hire the expert.
Policies and House Rules
The main thing with policies and house rules is to make sure they aren’t scaring people away. Often, when we audit a new client’s listings, we’ll run across a well-done listing that doesn’t seem to convert. If a property or grouping checks all the other boxes but doesn’t convert that well, this is something to check.
Cancellation policy is a big one. Most OTAs either let you specify your policy or choose between a few options. We advocate for a fairly moderate cancellation policy. Although they protect you, there’s a point at which prospective guests will sense that you’re far more concerned about your own cash flow than their comfort and enjoyment. Once you hit that point, it casts a long shadow over your brand.
If it comes down to your property or another, a 30-day cancellation window might give you an edge over a 60-day window. As a rule of thumb, choose the smallest cancellation window you can live with, not the one you would most prefer. In the long run, it’s much cheaper to pull the rate lever to get a replacement booking than to be perceived as too restrictive.
You only have so much control over house rules, but you can certainly influence the owner’s direction. This is another area where deep knowledge of your guests comes in handy. For example, an owner might be staunchly against pets, but if you know that 70 percent of your guests are looking for pet-friendly rentals, it might persuade them to reconsider, perhaps with a larger security deposit or additional cleaning fee.
The modern vacation consumer is a fickle, stressed-out individual with the attention span of a nat. They have more choices than ever, which is why their interaction with your listings is geared more toward exclusion than inclusion. They begin their vacation search first with a vague idea of what they need, eventually identifying what they want. Your listing’s job isn’t to find, it’s to be found. Your listing may not always generate a booking, but it certainly can eliminate you from consideration.
Your listing says a great deal about you because it essentially is you. When onboarding a new property, as much as you and the homeowner both want that listing out there working for you, be deliberate about writing it. Explain why it’s so important to get it right. Not only will they understand, but they’ll appreciate the careful attention to detail and reinforce their decision to entrust their property to you.
Complete, accurate listings say a lot about you and your brand, to owners and renters alike. Give them the time and consideration they deserve, and they’ll work for you while you sleep.