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So HomeAway has finally decided to pull the switch. They have taken all the necessary measures to maintain complete control of transactions through their platform. Moving forward, one must enroll in online bookings to list with Homeaway. Communication with prospective guests must take place on the Homeaway platform. Transactions will be monitored and any external phone numbers and emails will be unilaterally removed on both ends until the transaction is finalized. Finally, responsiveness to inquiries will directly affect search rankings.

We had a conversation about these changes at the CartoBlue office in Destin, Florida. All of us at one time have worked in the industry, and we all have a vested interest through the clients we serve. VRBO is a powerful channel in our area. Although the writing has been on the wall for a while with these changes, they will be a hard pill to swallow for some. 

At the surface, an argument could be made that these changes will positively affect professional property management companies. The new responsiveness requirements will make it difficult for the part-timers and individual rental owners to compete with the staffing and automation of the bigger businesses. But at the end of the day it’s all about controlling leads. HomeAway is tired of passing along leads directly to property managers and never seeing them again. Many of the other listing sites already isolate the leads, so why shouldn’t they?

They felt like they were giving away too much.

HomeAway sites demand on the consumer side for direct bookings and secure communication through the platform. 

Rightfully, many vacation rental owners and property managers are anxious. For the short term, we would advise to conform to the changes to ensure higher ranking. But that doesn’t mean you should sit on your laurels. You should be considering ways to gain some of that control back. How vulnerable do you want to be when they decide to roll out the next major change?

A great first step would be to invest wisely in your most profitable booking channel: directly on your website.

I had to go back and add “wisely” into the aforementioned statement. The whole reason the HomeAway platform is the go-to booking channel is the fact they deliver strong results. The speed a property manager can begin capturing leads through them is difficult to match; frivolous spending on alternatives can go south quickly.

So how does a smaller capitalized company compete with Homeaway’s marketing budget? The answer is simple: you don’t.  

To gain momentum with direct bookings, you must leverage your advantages; you’re a local business with roots on the community you represent and HomeAway isn’t. Here’s a list of three ideas on how to make the best of this advantage.

1. Google Business Profile– One quick thing you want to make sure is that your local business profile is up to date. This simple step will help your visibility on Google. Most of you will probably already have this down. For those of you that don’t, here’s where to begin

You’ll see reviews get listed here. I know, another review listing platform to manage. Yes, in hospitality reviews can certainly be a double-edged sword. One thing that I would advise on is that attention is given to acquire reviews on Google. The more positive reviews you have here, the greater it will affect your SEO. This is greatly beneficial when you are in a competitive market.

Pro Tip: Having quality photos can enhance your SEO. Google has the Street View program that allows 3D walkthrough tours of your office to be uploaded to your business page. According to SEO experts, these tours can boost SEO as much as several positive reviews. Click here to find a Google Certified photographer in your area.      

2. Content, Content, Content – You are the local expert on what it’s like to vacation to your area, so your content should reflect that. Start with terms you can rank for organically. Get the most out of exposure that doesn’t cost a thing. SEM Rush is a great website to find opportunities to capture organic traffic. They allow you a handful of free keywords daily. Simply type in a keyword you’re targeting, and SEM Rush will produce similar keywords and the monthly search volume for each. On the side-bar there is a tab labeled “Keyword Difficulty”. This metric will allow you to see how hard it is to rank for a specified keyword. High difficulty keywords often have a considerable amount of traffic. You may want to consider paid traffic for these.  

Whether it’s a landing page for paid traffic or a blog targeting keywords with organic potential, the content needs to flow naturally and be useful to the reader. Google’s algorithm has many quality measures built in. It will penalize you if you use certain keywords too aggressively.

Within the arena of marketing vacation rentals, the magic to building quality content is making the viewer feel like they are there. This segues nicely into number three, which is kind of a subset of number 2.

3. Interactive Content: When it comes to making potential guests feel like they are on location, there is really no better medium than interactive content. Let’s take a step back and discuss exactly what interactive content is. There are many forms in use today, from mortgage calculators to interactive online dating questionnaires. It's intended use is to be a discovery tool to the end user. Discovering new areas to vacation to seems like an excellent use, does it not?Providing accessible information online is a key component to making online sales. The vacation rental industry can benefit tremendously by using this medium, but it seems that it is just now catching on.

There are really only two components of a vacation that people want to know about: the interior of the property (is it a good fit?), and what the area has to offer in terms of attractions.

 For Properties: 3D Walkthrough Tours are great tools for guests to discover their next vacation. In the example below, the guests can use the interactive floor plan to organize sleeping arrangements prior to their stay. On the other side of the desk, it’s difficult for a guest to state that a property is misrepresented when it’s completely mapped out in front of them. In the vacation rental industry, complete transparency is always the best policy.

These tours increase view time from 30 seconds (typical time spent on a traditional photo gallery) to 4-6 minutes. View time has a big impact on SEO and direct bookings. Properties that have a 3D tour outperform standard listings by 9% in gross revenue.

For the Area: Interactive Property Maps show the location of individual properties along with the local attractions of an area. There’s a built-in availability calendar and filtering for guests to really narrow down their property search. It’s a great tool to help a potential guest at the beginning of their hunt for a rental.

Within the map, you can place custom pins to highlight the areas attractions. The proximity of certain attractions to rentals is something that is often disregarded. Search this custom map yourself:  

While some of the changes at HomeAway may be painful, there’s no denying it’s a powerful source of traffic to your listings. The first place to start counteracting these changes is working on strengthening your brand. Putting yourself out there and getting testimonials of your service via Google Reviews is a great way to get exposure. Differentiating yourself through local expertise and organic keyword targeting can give you a boost in free attention. There are many mediums to distribute content, through your blog, YouTube, and social media. And finally, interactive content is like the icing on the cake. It allows you to showcase your product in a transparent way. This helps convert both inbound and direct traffic.

Now HomeAway is focused on stopping leakage by tightening how information is managed on their platform. The front end of the transaction is depersonalized to an extent. There is concern on the supplier side on how this will affect the processes to screen guests. Most PMs in our neighboring Panama City Beach have in depth screening procedures for Spring Break. 

It’s up to you to what extent you want to maintain control. The difference is that now it’s going to require more effort to do so.