How 15 Property Managers Are Navigating the Crisis – Key Takeaways from the Sarah and T Podcast
In the latest episode of Sarah and T – The Professional Vacation Rental Manager’s Podcast, 16 leading vacation rentals managers and owners from across America share how their business is faring during these unprecedented times. We’ve rounded up the key takeaways from each property manager’s account of the current situation and their hopes and predictions for the future.
by Bethany Mae Milne
May 26, 2020
Without a doubt, COVID-19 is changing the face of the vacation rental business and it’s changing it fast. There are a lot of decisions to be made about how you are going to run your business in this changing landscape.
In their podcast Sarah and T, hosts Sarah Bradford and Tim Cafferty discuss the day-to-day issues affecting professional vacation rental managers.
The most recent episode features interviews with 16 successful, forward-thinking rental managers in different markets across the US. They talk about overcoming challenges posed by COVID-19 and national lockdowns, navigating uncharted territory and adjusting their strategies to the new normal.
Here are the key takeaways from each VR Professional.
Mark manages Mountain Time Vacation Rentals in Fort Collins Colorado, with 50 homes. They have a mix of townhouses, condos and big homes – from mid-range to luxury.
Short-term bookings completely dried out in March and April, so they quickly pivoted to mid-term rentals.
They slashed their prices and looked for 1 to 3 months bookings to fill up the homes for owners. They lost only a couple of owners during the process.
In March and April, they had 20% occupancy, and now they have 90% occupancy with mid-term stays. Mark does admit that they probably went too low on prices.
They used Zillow and Trulia marketing platforms to attract mid-term renters.
They’ve seen some uptick for short-term stays but the booking window is 3 to 4 weeks out, nothing beyond that.
Mark recommends putting yourself in your guests’ shoes: they want to know what the situation is in your area. “Are parks open? Are grocery stores open? Will I be able to get there?” Share all of this information on social media.
2. Judith Lee, Sun Palace Vacations
Judith manages Sun Palace Vacations in Fort Myers Beach, Florida. They have 150 homes, cottages and multi-family properties all on one island. Mostly larger homes and clusters of homes for large, 50-60-people groups wanting to stay together.
Occupancy was 0% due to the vacation rental ban in Florida.
The company decided to use the time to better compete in the future with the multitude of owners renting their places privately and also the hotels in the area.
They asked the question: “What can we do to compete in this new, completely sanitised word?”
The answer is going into every home and making them hotel-standard by using time-release disinfectants, implementing triple-sheeting, washing everything every time down to the pillow protectors, etc. Sun Place Vacations owns all the sheets and towels and they are washed in commercial laundries.
They now market these initiatives heavily to be known as the safest company to rent from in their area.
3. Steve Milo, VTrips
Steve Milo is the CEO of VTrips, a multi-location property management company with rentals in Florida, South Carolina, Tennessee, Mexico and Hawaii. They have 1,800 rentals in both mountain and beach locations, and a mixture of condos, cabins and houses. Steve Milo appeared in our podcast The Secret Sauce of Large Property Managers – listen to it here.
After three weeks of negative revenue, bookings suddenly picked up again at a much higher rate than the last years. Steve expects numbers will continue to grow as they still have a lot of inventory available for the summer months.
According to Steve, the biggest challenge was the government’s travel restrictions and bans, not so much people’s fear of COVID-19 – people find vacation rentals a good option for social distancing and working remotely.
They renegotiated terms with OTAs and vendors.
They employed full-time cleaners to be more in control and comply with the new cleaning standards.
Steve has had many hours of calls with the local governments. He says that “Advocacy should be the priority for this industry. You need to put money into advocacy funds, it’s like insurance.”
Governments are going to look at regulating the vacation rental industry after the crisis, and according to Steve: “We better be at the table, because if we’re not at the table, we’re going to be on the menu.”
4. Chris Bettin, Premier Vacation Rentals
Chris Bettin, CEO and Co-Founder of Premier Vacation Rentals, manages 350 properties mostly located in Colorado, Oregon and Idaho.
They noticed that the average length of stay is up 60% compared to last year across markets.
They see an uptick in reservations over the last two weeks and a positive trend that the booking pace is still steady.
Their occupancy was significantly down: 25% in metro and 13% in resort.
According to Chris, the sector can be a winner – there’s an opportunity for vacation rentals to shine.
Vacation rental to the rescue was set up to provide relief accommodation to those in need of lodging, for example, medical workers, first responders and high-risk individuals. This allowed them to create positive messaging towards their guests, owners and local communities. Giving back to the community has generated good PR and great guest feedback – they had their best reviews in 10 years.
5. Kirsten King, Big Sky Vacation Rentals
Kirsten’s company, Big Sky Vacation Rentals manages 127 luxury homes and condos in Big Sky, Montana. In the winter, they’re mainly known for the Big Sky Ski Resort, and in the summer for Yellowstone National Park, which is only 45 minutes away.
Challenges: the resort was closed down in the middle of the ski season, and there’s currently 14-day quarantine in place for arriving travellers.
In terms of booking trends, Kirsten has seen an increase in the length of stay: while their normal summer length of stay is about 5.1 days, it has moved up to about 7.3 days. This is a direct result of their efforts to promote extended stays (something they hadn’t done before).
There is pent-up demand: when Kirsten and her team ran a 1-day sale, they got 53 new bookings (the offer was 25% off, with greater discounts on extended stays).
They call every single guest to let them know about their policies concerning moving dates or cancellations, and they have relaxed cancellation policies.
Kirsten’s team has been taking advantage of the downtime in two ways. Firstly by delaying all revenue-producing tasks until the end of the 8-week period covered by the PPP loan. Secondly by looking at how they can utilise technology as a business and what software initiatives they can undertake while they have time to focus on them. They’re putting out a new website, making some software changes, and adding property management tools to their toolbox.
6. Joanne Logie, New England Vacation Rentals
Joanne Logie, Founder and Managing Director of New England Vacation Rentals manages 150 Cape Cod homes in the New England area since 2001. New England Vacation Rentals is a boutique company managing properties with well-appointed amenities in the coastal style. They operate with five full-time staff members.
From the beginning, they only had five full-time staff, so they only needed to furlough one temp.
Currently, they are on a rental ban – completely frozen.
They are working with owners and guests to help preserve reservations.
They have used this time to work on their marketing: creating promotional videos and inspirational social media posts
They’ve made sure to keep open communication with owners.
Bookings for the future are coming in – with a deferred payment option, giving people the chance to pay the final payment when the ban is lifted
They have seen an increase in bookings – up 20% in the last two weeks
They’ve created flexible cancellation policies and applied the VRMA housekeeping agreement to attract guests.
7. Sharon Walker, Walker Luxury Vacation Rentals
Sharon is the Founder and CEO of Walker Luxury Vacation Rentals located in Austin, Texas. They manage 30 properties, all with 4+ bedrooms catering to larger groups. Their customers are typically families, couples and girl groups – people who are trying to escape for a week.
The big COVID-19 hit happened in the middle of March. The beginning was the hardest, but it has all been uphill since then.
Sharon’s area is not typically a drive-to market, but right now, their large geographic area is serving them very well.
They have a lot of people looking to make last-minute trips, booking seven days out.
They haven’t had any bookings for fall or winter yet.
Their lake homes are booked out for almost the entire summer. Downtown houses are still not booked.
Almost every booking that was cancelled has been rebooked, albeit at a lower rate.
It seems travellers are looking for their own private resorts and safe places to have fun with their families.
They applied to the PPP programme, so they didn’t have to lay anyone off.
8. Larry Hoffer, Resortia LLC
Larry is the CEO and Founder of Resortia LLC, a Denver-based vacation rental agency. The company currently represents approximately 3,000 privately owned vacation homes, condos and townhomes in 20+ different resort destinations, with a local partner running each market.
Their Québec properties are doing very well because people are looking to stay in remote locations within Canada.
The summer is looking promising.
They only had six reservations across all their markets in a two-week period towards the end of March. Since then, they’ve seen a tremendous uptick.
They’re working on encouraging longer-stay bookings.
They’re even getting a few winter inquiries.
They’re seeing an interest in longer summer stays in their mountain markets – a distinct uptick, if not a boom.
Larry views this as the greatest opportunity that the vacation rental industry has ever had throughout its history. He says: “We will be gaining more market share from other parts of travel for the foreseeable future.”
Vacation rentals should consider adding new amenities – like converting a bedroom into a home office. People are looking to get away even in the off-season for isolation.
9. Amy Gaster, Tybee Vacation Rentals
As President and Co-owner of Tybee Vacation Rentals, Amy Gaster manages 300 properties in Tybee Island, South Carolina and Savannah, Georgia.
Since Georgia beaches and vacation rentals opened on May 1st, they have seen a massive increase in bookings and are fully booked for most weekends.
Currently, they average 60 bookings a day.
They are calling back staff and hiring.
Ongoing revenue strategy since the beginning – they adapted quickly with rates and cancellation policy (credit or refund).
They expect reservations to explode once the lockdown end date is announced. Amy says to make sure your operations staff is ready for that day.
Being adaptable and honest has helped them tackle challenges.
10. Brad Stewart, Stewart Mountain Lodging
Brad is the co-founder of Stewart Mountain Lodging located in Sundance, Utah. They manage 30 private properties, from mountain homes and cabins to small cottages. They’ve been in business for 12 years.
They’ve seen an uptick in reservations. The low-hanging fruit seems to be guests booking from nearby, looking for a change of scenery.
This is usually their downtime until mid-May, but they’re seeing an increase in bookings as people rush to find somewhere quiet and farther away from cities.
Trending towards small groups – no family reunion and business travel yet.
They’re receiving some longer-term bookings for 1-2 months.
They’re reaching out to guests through email with rate incentives: 20% off or one night free when booking five nights.
They’re adding extra housekeeping measures to sanitise properties and reassure guests that they’ll be staying in a safe environment.
11. Betsy LeBarge, Mt Hood Vacation Rentals
Betsy has been in the vacation rental industry for over three decades. Her team at Mt Hound Vacation Rentals in Oregon manages 35 properties – one is a condo, and the rest are standalone cabins and lodges. 60% of their guests are from Oregon, 15% from Washington, and around 5-10% from California.
As a drive-to destination with riverfront-view properties where guests don’t need to share common areas, Betsy expects reservations to start increasing soon.
In the last 2 weeks, they received more new bookings than in all of April, which signals an increase in consumer confidence.
Guests are booking for 2-3 nights, within the next 3 weeks, mostly the smaller homes for up to 6 people.
They are getting lots of inquiries for summer, but most people are still afraid to commit.
They haven’t really had to reduce their prices.
12. Mike Harrington, Carolina Retreats
Mike Harrington, CEO and Owner of Carolina Retreats, manages 300 properties on the coast of North Carolina in areas like Wilmington and Topsail. Mike is also past president and board member of VRMA.
Over the past seven days, their bookings have doubled compared to the same period last year.
When the local government announced that the area was going into “phase 1” of lifting restrictions, bookings skyrocketed.
Property managers need to be able to service the bookings coming in, taking into account the heightened safety protocols, etc. They also need to do their part in making sure that things can stay open after lockdowns are lifted.
Mike suggests taking advantage of loan deals for small businesses and small business associations offering help.
His advice is to prepare thoroughly and be ready for when lockdown ends because he is expecting bookings to skyrocket.
Mike says there are two types of travellers: 1) not willing to take risks 2) eager to travel again soon. Type two is the one that vacation rental managers should focus on.
13. Lance and Elaine Stitcher, Seaside Vacations
Lance and Elaine are the founders of Seaside Vacations, a Vacation Rental company with a focus on relationships and service. Their primary markets are Chincoteague Island, VA, Ocean City, MD, and Captains Cove, VA. They manage 175 properties (145 vacation rentals and 30 long-term properties.
When the COVID-19 announcement hit, they saw an immediate drop in their web traffic.
Bookings are catching up, but they’re still behind for the year.
They have a lot of immediate interest right now, but very little interest for mid-June. The interest then increases again from the beginning of July through October.
There are still a lot of travellers who are nervous about travelling and want to either reschedule or cancel their holiday.
They have noticed two distinct groups – those who have decided they will not be travelling this year and those who are dying to get out.
They have concerns about being able to ramp up in time for reopening.
They applied for the PPP loan – they’re a small team, but they managed to keep all their employees.
14. Angie Leone, Coconut Condos
Angie runs Coconut Condos, a property management company with 60 rentals in West Maui. They have been in business for 10 years.
As a fly-to destination, Maui has had a low number of COVID-19 cases, but it also means that travel restrictions have made receiving guests extremely challenging.
Bookings are at 15% of what they had last year in May, and they’re mostly for the fall. They are still seeing more cancellations than bookings. They are trying to encourage guests to reschedule their trips instead of cancelling.
What has really helped Angie: sitting down with her CFO right away, cutting expenses in half and doing projections for different scenarios. Seeing the concrete numbers helped her understand that they can get through this.
15. Alan Hammond, Holiday Vacation Rental
Holiday Vacation Rental in Northern Michigan has 150 short-term rental properties and also offers real estate and management services of different types of resorts and sporting clubs.
Alan feels that because of their diversification, they’re better positioned to weather the storm.
The local laws have prohibited vacation rentals to even advertise until at least the 28th of May 2020.
May is usually their strongest month for booking the short-term summer rentals, but this year they have none.
They’re trying to educate everyone to reassure guests and staff.
40% of their cancellations have been transferred to dates later this year.
The company is using the time they have now for new marketing strategies: “Our homes are clean, safe, sanitised and disinfected and carefully inspected for every arrival.”
They allow for 24 hours downtime between bookings for deep cleaning.
Keeping homeowners informed on the changes of executive orders.
Housekeepers are taking certification programs with the VRMA and the Professional Housekeepers association.
They made changes to the cancellation policy with a full refund from 60 days to 30 days notice.
The company is not reducing rates, and the rates might even increase.
The good news is, 73% of the managers that Sarah and T talked to are seeing an uptick in business. As Tim says, “If you haven’t quite gotten the wave yet, it’s coming.”
Here’s a recap of the strategies they’ve implemented to combat the crisis that you may want to consider for your own business:
Shift towards mid-term stays to increase your occupancy – advertise on mid-term channels, consider adding new amenities (turning a bedroom into an office, etc) and give discounts on longer stays
Inform your guests about the situation (travel restrictions, etc) in your area via email and social media
Take advantage of the downtime to come up with strategies that will help you stay competitive in the post-COVID-19 travel world
Adopt rigorous health and safety measures, upskill your cleaning staff and use your marketing ads to notify guests about hygiene and sanitation practices
Adopt a relaxed cancellation policy – guests are more likely to book if they have the flexibility to cancel or move their trips
Try to get involved in discussions about future industry regulations with your local government
Give back to the community – besides helping those in need, this also generates good PR
Take advantage of loans for small businesses
Prepare for bookings to skyrocket once restrictions are lifted: booking windows will be short, prepare to accept last-minute bookings
Stay on top of your revenue management efforts – see what you have to fall back on, cut expenses as needed
Reevaluate your tech stack and see how your business can use technology to be more cost- and time-efficient
We hope you find these overwhelmingly positive reports from US-based property managers reassuring. What results are you seeing from your crisis management efforts?
Are you ready to build a tech-based distribution strategy? Discover how our enterprise-level Channel Manager can get you more bookings.