The problem with vacation rental websites
I am a devoted renter of vacation/holiday properties. From Florida to Tuscany, Maine to Paris, Bruges to Buenos Aires, I have rented beautiful (and sometimes less than beautiful) villas, cabins and apartments.
Sometimes I’ve rented from management companies and sometimes I’ve rented directly, sometimes a few weeks out and sometimes months and months out.
Having spent my entire career in travel, and the last ten years in travel distribution, I’m a pretty savvy (I think) traveler.
I understand travel products, how they’re presented, delivered, contracted, and operated.
I know how to effectively search for travel products, and I’m probably more willing to take risks in booking travel than the average person.
So I’m getting ready to go on vacation to France and I booked, as you would expect, vacation rentals for my accommodations
And it was an incredibly painful experience – navigating un-navigable web sites, squinting at out-of-focus photographs, looking in vain for a description (in any language) of a property, wondering if the availability calendars were accurate, hoping the owner or manager of the property would deign to return my inquiry.
What exactly are the complaints?
Some sites, to their credit, had filters on their left navbars (not unlike Kayak as an example), but these filters are worthless if the properties aren’t tagged correctly in the database.
- If I ask for a detached villa or chalet (and the site allows me to ask for that), I don’t want to see an apartment.
- If I ask for Chamonix, don’t show me Samoëns. The site has just lost credibility and I’m moving on.
I’m somewhat sympathetic to small property owners who list their properties on multiple sites, but what am I supposed to think when the same property is represented differently on different sites, when photos or availability calendars don’t match?
In almost every case, if a property owner had taken the time (and spent the money) to build their own site, the information on that site was generally much more extensive and useful.
But as a buyer, I don’t want to visit 30 different sites to see all the properties that might meet my needs. I want a site that aggregates data; it’s quicker for me to find what I want. In theory, anyway.
Every hotel company worth its salt knows it has to present photos of the hotel room (at least two), exterior, important features (pool, beachfront, rooftop deck, pistes) and possibly the surrounding area if it’s a selling point (Times Square or Mont Blanc).
I wish the vacation rental industry had the same rule of thumb. Here’s what I want to see:
- Front exterior view
- Terrace/balcony view
- Living room
- Dining room
The more photos presented, the more confident I am in the validity of the listing. I also want to see a text description of the property, and it doesn’t matter if the text is in a language I don’t speak.
There are enough free online translators now that I can get a decent idea of what the property owner is trying to say.
As with photographs, the more text I can read, the more confident I am that the listing is valid and just might meet my needs. It also shows me the owner or manager cares about the property and about communicating the value of that property to me, the buyer.
Availability – the worst offense
Why offer a calendar function (as every vacation rental site now does) then allow the property owner to ignore it?
At least some sites are now showing a “last updated” date on the calendar so I can see that the calendar was last updated three months ago and come to my own conclusions.
If the owner refuses to use a calendar, or hasn’t updated it recently (say 14 days?), hide the calendar and indicate up front that the owner must be contacted for availability. That allows me to decide if I have the time to follow up with that owner.
Acknowledgement of inquiry
Some of the bigger sites send an automatic acknowledgement of receipt of inquiry. That’s nice, but it doesn’t help me understand if the property is available.
A majority of my inquiries went totally unacknowledged – that’s right, a majority. That is no way to do business.
It’s still very rare to come across real-time on-line booking for vacation rentals, but it’s happening more and more often on management company websites (I never saw it offered by individual owners).
And it’s a blessing. If I’m willing to take the risk of booking online (like I do for hotels or resorts) after viewing your beautiful site with lots of photos and information, let me. Please.
This industry needs some standards, and I’m not talking just about distribution.
Presentation, description, terminology, terms-and-conditions, availability, response – there was no similarity of behavior amongst the sites I visited. I understand there will be regional differences, but ultimately it’s still just a unit of inventory to be displayed and booked like air, rental cars, hotels or cruises.
It’s clear this is one of the reasons the vacation rental industry suffers from an occupancy rate in the 30s instead of in the 70s like the hotel industry.
Make the product easier to buy and more people will buy it. Make it hard to buy and watch your customers go to a resort.
The primary challenge is obvious – hundreds of thousands of suppliers worldwide. Aggregating hundreds of thousands of units of inventory is hard but HomeAway is working on it, buying vacation rental sites around the world at a good clip.
It’s one thing to have the inventory in one place, but quite another to have it presented in a standard, useful and bookable way.
I reckon, from start to finish, I spent 20 hours total to find three properties for a two-week trip. And I’m an experienced traveler in the travel industry.
How long would it take the average person? Too long, I’d guess.
So what did I book finally, and from whom?
- A house directly from the French owner who has a really great website (although I found the property cross-listed on an aggregator site) with tons of photos and information and real-time availability, paying via PayPal.
- An apartment from a France-based management company who had their own website, again with lots of property information, real-time availability AND online booking with a credit card.
- A house directly from the English owner who listed the property on an aggregator website but loaded their page up with huge amount of photos and text describing the house, its contents and its environment, and real-time availability, paying via wire transfer (which cost me a USD35 fee from my bank).
- All three were immediately responsive to my requests either in the same day (if I sent my request in the morning US time) or overnight if I sent my request in the evening US time.
I expect to have a wonderful time on my trip, but I don’t expect to see much increase in the occupancy numbers of the vacation rental industry if the industry doesn’t make their product easier to understand and easier to book.
Valyn Perini is a contributing Node to Tnooz and the Vice President of Strategic Relationships for Nor1.
She was most recently the CEO of the OpenTravel Alliance, where she oversaw the operations of the organization, including developing and executing strategies to reach the goal of standardized electronic distribution of travel and traveler information.
Her travel career includes stints with InterContinental, Westin and Swissôtel, with PricewaterhouseCoopers as a travel technology consultant, and as the director of product strategy for Newmarket International.
Valyn speaks on industry topics at events around the world, and writes about travel when she can find the time.
Originally from Atlanta, Valyn now lives in Boston.