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Advice


Advice

Introduction Damage Deposit
Can you make a profit? Keep it simple
Furnishing your property Handling your finances
How much rent? Insurance
Rental Agencies Keeping the customer satisfied
Appointing a property manager Keeping a “house book”
Handicap accessibility Refunds
Should You Allow Pets? Protecting your business
Cleaning Say no to spam-filters
Handling Enquiries Internet access
Availability Marketing
Answer inquiries promptly Client comments
Booking deposit Website management
Website optimization

Introduction

You’re thinking of renting your property…but obviously you’re worried about the potential pitfalls. And having decided to make a business out of your property, how do you market it effectively to ensure a healthy profit? Going into the property rental business can be hard work and it’s important to be aware of the possible headaches involved. It’s a business which can also be hugely rewarding – both financially and in terms of developing an interest which can lead to new friendships across the globe. The key to success is to go in with your eyes open. Be aware of the common pitfalls in advance so you don’t stumble blindly right into them. And be aware of some simple things you can do to make your visitors feel really welcome. This guide is designed to smooth the way for property owners planning to rent their property for the first time. It also contains many useful tips for the experienced property owner who realizes there’s always something new to learn! It has been compiled from information supplied by the people who know best – property owners with hands-on experience of rentals. This combined experience adds up to many hundreds of years of renting! The invaluable wisdom gained from these property owners is presented here for the benefit of anyone planning to follow in their footsteps.

Can you make a profit?

Unless you have unlimited funds and have no interest in whether or not your vacation rental home is profitable, at some point you will need to sit down and do some figuring. Think in terms of two broad areas when calculating the cost of owning a rental home: The first area is the capital cost of purchasing the home, which will be represented in the profitability equation by the cost of having this amount of money tied up in the property. This cost may be mortgage interest, or it may be lost interest in capital that could have been invested elsewhere, or in most cases it will be a combination of the two. The second cost area is the day-to-day running costs that leave your bank account, hopefully to be replaced by regular rental income. Into this area we will also put any costs of improvement, upgrading or maintenance. We also need to think in terms of two broad areas when we calculate income to offset these costs. The first area of income is the regular rental cheques that you are putting into your bank account. The second area is the more obscure, but also important, area of capital appreciation – the fact that your home will likely increase in value year by year. We will also need to offset this against the cost of ownership.

Capital Costs:

Let us say that you buy your rental property for $160,000. You may set up a mortgage for part of this sum. Here, we will assume a 50% mortgage, but you can put in your own numbers. Let us say you pay 5%, which seems to be in the right sort of range these days. Let us also say that the part of the purchase price that we paid up front from savings would have earned 3% if we hadn’t tied it up in our new home. So every year we are paying 5% of $80,000 ($4,000) to the mortgage company, and losing 3% of $80,000 ($2,400) from the capital we put in. This totals $6,400 a year, which we take forward to add on to our running costs in the next section. Annual cost of capital investment = $6,400

Running costs:

There is really no such thing as a ‘typical’ set of costs, but we have to set down at least an indication to try and help you.

~Taxes, insurance, licenses, etc. $2,500 ~Routine maintenance, lawns, pest control, etc. $2,000
~Utilities, phone and TV $3,000
~Margin for unexpected ‘extras’ $2,000 (variable)
~Maintenance and replacements $2,000 (variable)
~Fund towards major costs $3,500 (variable) Average annual running costs = $15,000

You will notice that one major running cost is not included here. This is the cost of end-of-rental cleans. Since this is a cost that is directly dependent on the number and pattern of your rentals, we have included it below in the income calculation. All of the other costs are more or less fixed irrespective of how many rental bookings you take. In particular, don’t underestimate the cost of major replacements, refurnishing, etc. It is easy to be complacent if everything runs smoothly for a year or two, but these costs will appear at some stage! Even if you don’t have a real tangible reserve fund, you still need to include it in your calculations if you want a realistic picture of how your investment is performing.

Total costs to set against income: This is an easy one. Just add together the annual cost of capital investment and the average annual running costs. Taking the typical figures used above, the total comes to $21,400 per annum. You can allow a sum for the capital appreciation of the property to offset against these costs. It is not easy to come up with a credible and widely accepted figure for this, as there are too many uncertainties involved. For example, will the property appreciate at all in the long term? Will it deteriorate over the years, or will the market value decline rather than rise? Will an older property absorb an unreasonable amount of money in upkeep? Despite all these, we will assume that a rental home will increase in value by 2.5% a year above inflation over the next few years, net of any major renovation costs. This is worth $4000 a year on our $160,000 home. This $4000 nominal increase in the value of our property takes the net costs of ownership down to $17,400 a year, or $1,450 per month.

Income targets:

With a reasonable, indication of how much it costs to own a rental home, we now need to consider the level of rental income needed to offset these costs. We can approach this from two directions. We can either estimate the number of weeks of rentals we think we can get, then work out what the rental rate would need to be to cover our costs. Or we can estimate a realistic average weekly rental rate, and calculate how many weeks of rentals we will need at this rate. Having done this, we can look at a real situation, and see what a well-filled rental schedule can achieve in terms of profitability. In all the calculations that follow, we have to allow for taxes (where applicable) and the cost of end-of-rental cleans when we refer to a rental rate. For the sake of simplicity, let’s take a total figure of $100 per rental week to cover these two elements together.

Based on rental weeks:
How many weeks of rentals can we achieve? To cover all of our costs with 30 weeks of rentals will require an average gross rental rate of $680 per week including taxes. If we work really hard at filling our own rentals schedule, we may be able to achieve a much better 40 weeks a year. On the same basis, we would then need to average just below $535 a week gross.

Based on average rental rate:
Almost every owner has a different idea of a fair rental rate for his or her home. Let us take $700 as typical. We need to take off $100, as before, to cover taxes and cleaning, so the remaining $600 per week will require 29 weeks of bookings to reach break-even point. Some owners go for a high rate, say $1000 a week, and accept fewer bookings. Others go for full capacity at an average of $700 a week. The income from these two different approaches may be quite similar, as the number of bookings is likely to be closely linked to the rental rate offered. A rate of $1000 a week needs less than 20 weeks of bookings to cover costs, while a rate of $700 needs 29 weeks. A ‘typical’ rental rate for a 4-bedroom house, averaged through the year, may be $820 gross ($720 net), which would need 24 weeks of bookings to break even. The actual rate can of course vary with season, so that an average of $820 may be made up from a few high season weeks at $950, and a larger number of low season weeks at $700.

What is the potential profitability?
We have established that the cost of owning an average-value rental home is $17,400 a year. Is it possible, or realistic, to make more than that in rental income, and to turn your vacation home into a profitable investment? The short answer is, yes, it is possible, and it is realistic. However, you do need to do things right, and you do need to be prepared to put a significant amount of time into it.

Furnishing your property

When you first venture into the furnished rental business, it can be tempting to try and limit your initial set-up costs by providing the bare minimum of furniture and equipment. But the advice from seasoned property owners is…don’t try and cut corners! Furnish and equip your property as well as you can possibly afford. Obviously you’re worried about getting a good return on your investment. And the fear that some visitor from hell will wreak havoc with your possessions might deter you from you equipping your property to a high standard. Those who’ve been in the business for years have found that most visitors take greater care with furniture and other more personal items if they can see these are things which the owner obviously cares about…it’s human nature. Generally speaking people prefer – and expect – their vacation accommodation to be superior to their own homes. They are more likely to look after your property if they feel you have taken a lot of trouble to make them feel welcome and comfortable. Ensuring all the beds are comfortable is an absolute must. A lack of sleep is enough to ruin anyone’s trip.

One owner advises: “Sleep in every bed in the place! I had several complaints about a bed during my first year of renting out – and when I next visited my property I realized the complaints were entirely justified”. Bear in mind that many visitors regard certain items – such as a microwave, cable/satellite TV and washer & dryer – as essential in a vacation property, even though they might not have them at home. If you store personal things in the property which are not for the use of your tenants, it’s not a good idea to keep them in a locked cupboard…it just makes people curious and they may try to wrench the door open! Many owners find a polite notice, asking visitors not to use particular items, works better. Generally, tenants will respect the owner’s wishes. A better solution, if possible, is to store personal items with friends during rental periods.

How much rent?

There are many factors which need to be considered when calculating how much rent to charge. Choosing the correct price means you get the most rent for your home without scaring away potential tenants by overpricing. Factors to consider when determining the correct price include: Location: The real estate adage “location, location, location” applies equally to rental values as to selling values. In other words where your property is located will, to a large extent, determine how much you can realistically ask in rent. Its proximity to desirable venues such as waterfront, downtown, universities/colleges or sporting/special events will impact on the demand and therefore the rental value.

Condition: Obviously the condition and level of upkeep of your property will have a considerable impact. (Perhaps this is a good time to reiterate the importance of describing and presenting your property in a truthful and honest way. The implications of not doing so can be far-reaching and costly). How much wear and tear do items such as carpet and vinyl have? Do the walls need to be painted? Is the lawn and yard mowed and free of weeds? Is the property neat and free of unnecessary clutter? Time of the year: Demand varies with the time of the year and it may be entirely possible that you will establish not one rental rate but several. The highest rate for the high or peak season, a lower rate for the “shoulder” seasons and the lowest for the off-season. In most areas of Canada the peak season would be considered the summer months (often preferred because families with children generally go on holiday while school is closed); the off-season would be considered the winter months. One exception to this would be ski areas.

Competition: How much are other houses in your neighborhood renting for? No matter what your house is worth, if other similar homes in the area are under priced, tenants will generally rent that home first.

Formulas and rules-of-thumb for calculating rents are plentiful. We have found none which are foolproof. However, to give someone contemplating entering the fully furnished property rental business something to work with we offer the following very general rule-of-thumb. The monthly rent a property may attract on a “normal” long-term tenancy rental may be similar to the rent that could be achieved on a “vacation” rental for one week. E.g. A 2 bedroom condo, which may rent for $500.00 per month with a tenancy agreement in place, may rent for $500.00 per week on a shorter-term “vacation” rental.

Remember that you will be incurring expenses on the “vacation” rental that you would not normally incur on the other. Expenses such as electricity, gas, basic ‘phone, cable, cleaning, etc. and other, less tangible, costs like wear and tear on the appliances and furniture.

This may be a good time to mention that there is a lot to be said for being flexible about rental rates and terms. Some owners fix a rate, and if they can’t find a renter who will pay it, the rental stays empty! Far better to get something rather than nothing.

Rental Agencies

Weigh up the pros and cons of using a rental agency to handle your bookings. The advantage of handing responsibility over to an agency is that they generally deal with all the practicalities for you – from the booking enquiries and money transactions to the cleaning and maintenance of the property. This is ideal for owners who don’t have the time – or inclination – to deal directly with customers themselves. The main drawback of using agencies is that they charge a substantial commission for their services, so reducing your profits – sometimes by as much as 25-50%. Make sure you know exactly what price the agency plans to charge customers – and what commission they plan to take. Dissatisfied clients who feel they’ve been overcharged by greedy agents are more likely to cause problems in your property. Also check exactly what services the agency provides. Some provide different levels of service, depending on how much you’re prepared to pay and on whether you have a local manager handling certain aspects of your rental for you. Ask whether the agency inspects the property before and after each rental and does this include a full inventory inspection? Do they check tenants into your property and explain how the various major appliances work? Will they organize running repairs & maintenance and provide written reports? Are their staff on 24-hour call-out in case of emergencies? Make sure you know exactly what you’re getting for your money – because the cheapest agent isn’t always the best or most reliable. Talk to fellow property owners in the area to see if they can recommend a good agency – or if they can advise you which companies to avoid.

Appointing a Property Manager

If you decide against using an official agency – and you don’t live locally – it’s vital to appoint a property manager. You need a responsible and reliable person who lives within easy distance of your property. You can normally find someone willing to do this for a fraction of an agent’s fees. Their duties should include a weekly check of the property, arranging for a thorough clean before and after each group of visitors, handing over and collecting keys and generally sorting out problems. Consider paying your local manager to do extra duties, such as shopping, gardening, writing welcome cards etc. Many property owners find this worthwhile because it enables them to check up on the visitors – both to see that all is well from their point of view and that all’s well with your property!

Keep in close contact with your manager who must never hand over your house keys until given the go-ahead by you. Many owners have run into difficulties after appointing friends as caretakers …complaints from dissatisfied tenants can lead to friction between owner and erstwhile friend! Keep your property renting as businesslike as possible.

Handicap accessibility

With the number of older, well-traveled people increasing around the world, it may make sense to market your vacation property to individuals with disabilities. While disabilities come in different forms and levels of severity, many existing vacation homes can be designated as being handicap accessible. To be wheelchair accessible properties should have no steps, low door thresholds, and wider doors to at least one bathroom. For example, if a property is a ground floor unit or single-family home and can be accessed without stairs, then that may be enough for individuals who are simply unable to climb stairs and/or use a walker to get around. Condominium buildings with elevators may also qualify.

It may make sense to spend some money to ‘upgrade’ your property to some level of handicap accessibility. Many upgrades cost very little and could make the difference between getting a rental or not. Grab bars by the toilet and in the bathtub are quite inexpensive and easy to install. Widening a bathroom door may be feasible. Think about adding a short ramp to the front or rear door if space exists and the entrance design lends itself to this arrangement. In some instances getting one additional rental would cover the cost of renovations.

Adding the words “Handicap Access” to the description of your property will certainly help prospective renters locate your property but be sure to also indicate details which will help your prospective renters determine the degree of accessibility your property provides. Back to top

Should You Allow Pets?

Advantages of allowing pets: Lots of potential renters have pets, so allowing pets makes your property available to a larger pool of potential tenants, and thereby increases your chances of renting your home faster and even for slightly higher rates. If you already have pets, your home may be more likely to appeal to another pet owner.

Disadvantages of allowing pets: There is a greater chance of damage to your home when pets are present. And it may be difficult to recover the full replacement cost for older items, such as carpet, if they are damaged by pets. Damage from pets can easily exceed a renter’s security deposit. Many times damage such as pet odor and flea infestation can be hidden at the time of move-out and, therefore, not noted on the final inspection in time to make deductions from a tenant’s security deposit. Also don’t overlook the reluctance on the part of many non-pet owners to rent properties which have previously allowed the presence of animals. (In much the same way as some non-smokers often will not rent properties that have previously allowed smoking).

On balance, because of the potential risk involved, we would recommend against allowing pets into a rental property. However, if you decide to allow pets you could take extra precautions, such as charging a non-refundable pet fee or allowing only adult pets whose behavior can be verified.

Cleaning

Never under-estimate the importance of this vital aspect of property rentals. Garbage cans that haven’t been emptied, candy wrappers lurking in a far corner under the kids’ bunk beds and greasy stoves all add up to an odious start to anyone’s vacation. It’s essential to have good, reliable cleaners going into the property between rentals – many owners send them in for a mid-week clean as well. Besides going down well with your visitors, it gives you an excuse to keep an eye on things. Don’t expect your property to be in pristine condition after the rental period. There’ll always be visitors who leave a mess behind them, break things, trample your plants etc. It’s all part and parcel of the business. If you keep a record of names, addresses and phone numbers, you can turn down any “undesirables” if they ever reapply. Gradually you should be able to build up a loyal band of good customers who come back to you year after year.

Handling Enquiries

Never under-estimate the importance of this vital aspect of property rentals. Garbage cans that haven’t been emptied, candy wrappers lurking in a far corner under the kids’ bunk beds and greasy stoves all add up to an odious start to anyone’s vacation. It’s essential to have good, reliable cleaners going into the property between rentals – many owners send them in for a mid-week clean as well. Besides going down well with your visitors, it gives you an excuse to keep an eye on things. Don’t expect your property to be in pristine condition after the rental period. There’ll always be visitors who leave a mess behind them, break things, trample your plants etc. It’s all part and parcel of the business. If you keep a record of names, addresses and phone numbers, you can turn down any “undesirables” if they ever reapply. Gradually you should be able to build up a loyal band of good customers who come back to you year after year.

Availability

We recommend against showing availability on your site or linking to an availability calendar. By not showing availability visitors would have to contact you and that gives you the opportunity to offer alternative dates, or in the event of a late cancellation, go back to them later. It also gives you contact information for visitors interested in renting your property. We don’t believe any visitor will reject a property because availability is not shown.

Answer inquiries promptly

When vacation rental prospects inquire about a property, they expect a prompt reply, yes or no, even if the property is already booked. Those who have taken the time to consider your property will appreciate your courtesy and promptness. And even if the preferred time is unavailable, you can suggest one or two alternative dates.

We recently received this email from a disappointed rental prospect: “I made 4 inquiries last Thursday (6 days ago) via your website but unfortunately I have only had one reply. Would it be possible to pursue this matter on my behalf as I am very interested in renting a vacation house during August.” We replied “We encourage our advertisers to respond quickly to all inquiries. We’re sorry that some do not, and we suggest you to book with those who do.”

Booking deposit

Insist on a booking deposit – normally of 20-25% of the full rental fee. The remainder should be payable six to eight weeks prior to the date of the holiday. If anyone backs out, this gives you time to re-rent. For bookings made less than two months before the date of occupancy, ask for full payment immediately. If a potential client objects – treat that as a warning bell. This is probably not the kind of person you want anyway. Never confirm a booking until the deposit is in the bank….however genuine the prospective customer seems to be. You may lose the chance of a back-up booking. Make sure cheques have cleared before sending out the keys, exact address etc. You need to beware of that rare but dangerous breed of holidaymaker who pays his deposit but not the remainder. Insist on receiving the full amount before keys are handed over…after all, people expect to pay the full amount up front when they book a vacation through a travel agent.

Damage Deposit

Visitors expect to be charged a refundable deposit – often another 25% – to cover breakages, damage and other extraordinary expenses like long distance phone costs. Some property owners don’t charge a deposit – preferring to trust their guests to report any breakages and to pay for replacements. This can be risky – but it goes down well with clients and avoids the administrative problem of refunding deposits. One owner told us: “I’ve got the oddest collection of mugs because people have broken things and bought replacements.” A good rental agency will ensure that anything broken is replaced – with matching items! – between rentals. If you’re using your own property manager make sure s/he does the same.

Keep it simple

Every property owner should have a simple and consistent procedure for confirming bookings which should include:

1. Name, address and telephone number of the renting party plus the name, address and telephone number of the owner with name/location of the vacation home.

2. The specific rental dates, e.g. Arr; Saturday July 7th; Depart: Saturday July 14th.

3. Specific check-in and check-out times for the above dates.
4. An outline of the total due e.g. Rent + damage deposit + cleaning fee + other (tax).
5. A time line of when rental fees are due: e.g. 50% of above or $450 due immediately to reserve (and hold) rental dates; the other $450 due May 7th.
6. A clear concise cancellation policy: e.g. All rental fees are due 60 days prior to arrival (May 7th); after that point, the rental is non-cancellable unless re-rented by another party of equal value in which case a $50 fee will be assessed.
7. Check-in procedure and contacts e.g. Keys will be mailed two weeks prior to arrival date; property manager/owner on hand at 555-555-1212 in case of emergency.
8. Damage deposits are returned 3 weeks following departure date.
9. Other miscellaneous items unique to the rental arrangement.

With each correspondence, the owner should confirm to the vacationer, monies received and reiterate the above points with another simple confirmation, which can be sent as postcard, letter with a templated sheet of paper or e-mail. This will keep all parties in the loop. Further it will go a long way in addressing two of the most common complaints. That is, timely return of the damage deposits and clarification of the cancellation policy. Now a procedural trail has been established and the cancellation policy has been confirmed on at least two occasions. These simple steps will keep both the vacationer and owner aware of their respective responsibilities.

Handling your finances

A rental agent will take away the headaches of handling booking deposits, confirmation fees, deductions for breakages and deposit refunds. You’ll need to think about how you’re going to handle all this if you’re not using an agent. Most property owners aren’t in a position to accept credit card payments. Many visitors prefer to use cheques rather than electronic bank transfers but some property owners have found foreign cheques can take several weeks to clear -and then they have to pay hefty bank charges. On the subject of finance….it’s unadvisable to try and avoid declaring your rental income to the tax authorities. If you’re advertising effectively, and especially if you’re inviting rental enquirers to contact you directly, that means the taxman could end up on the other end of your phone as well as potential clients!

Insurance

Owners of rental properties currently face a challenging insurance market where high premiums, elevated deductibles and lower coverage levels are the norm. And that’s where coverage is available at all!

A recent survey of tourism businesses found:
85% say insurance costs and the lack of insurance availability are hurting their businesses more than global instability.

44% blame the cost and unavailability of insurance for forcing them to put expansion plans on hold.

12% could not access any type of insurance at all.

To find insurance start with the company/agent insuring your residence. Shop around using both properties as a package. Check with other rental property owners in the same area. Be prepared to accept lower levels of coverage on the rental property than your residence.

If available you might want to consider extra insurance to cover loss of rental income in the event of damage to your property. Take the time to compile a really thorough inventory – room by room and cupboard by cupboard. Take photographs of each room, wall, cupboard etc so if there’s a fire, theft or some other problem you have an indisputable record of all your possessions for insurance purposes. Your property manager should check after each visit that your important possessions (TV, microwave, pictures, etc.) are still in place. Back to top

Keeping the customer satisfied

Send your guests some useful information – e.g. maps, car rental ‘phone numbers, etc – a week or so before they arrive. All this shows you care about them – it makes them feel good, puts them in the mood to like and enjoy the property and hopefully will entice them back next year. Successful owners find a few small personal “touches” – a chilled bottle of white wine in the fridge, a fruit bowl and a welcome card with the guests’ names – can make all the difference. Many owners provide a “welcome pack” of groceries – particularly appreciated by visitors arriving after the stores have closed. Obviously this goes down well with your clients. But, as one owner discovered, some people are never happy. “I got complaints from people who wanted butter when I’d provided margarine – or they wanted brown bread when I’d left white. One woman even sent me a list of what she wanted in advance – it was enough to feed a family for a week. I gave up my welcome pack after that!”

After your guests depart send a hand written thank you card. Let your guests know that you enjoyed having them stay in your vacation home and ask for suggestions for improvements. It only takes a minute to write a note, and it is much more personal than email. Your guests will be more likely to return and to refer their friends. Make sure you keep all addresses and ‘phone numbers for future reference. Don’t ever treat potential or actual clients solely as a source of income. To win them over – and win them back – you have to show an interest in them, make them feel special and pamper them. Back to top

Keeping a house book

Compile a house book with practical information and instructions. E.g. how to turn on the heat, where to turn water and/or gas off, where to put garbage and recyclables, etc. Explain in detail how to use appliances. Please remember that what may be obvious to you may not be so obvious to someone from another part of the world.

Put grocery store discount cards on the key chains for your property. Your guests will love them and you will loose fewer keys. Tell them about the discount card in your information package so they don’t load up at the grocery store before they arrive. Your guests will also appreciate information about good local restaurants and places to visit, ‘phone numbers and addresses of local doctors, dentists, hospitals, police and fire etc. Some meticulous owners even go so far as to leave details of the kind of birds and other wildlife which can be seen in the garden and surrounding area. If you have any restrictions such as “no smoking” it is suggested you reinforce these in your house book.

Refunds

Be prepared to refund a percentage of the rental fee, without question, if you receive justified complaints from your guests.

Protecting your business

With the increase in malicious emails infecting internet users worldwide, homeowners might soon find themselves having to build “virtual moats” around their properties and position electronic guards at various checkpoints to avoid being hacked. Almost every day we hear of computer viruses that will cleverly attempt to masquerade themselves as something less sinister to try to outwit the less tech-savvy into lowering their often limited defenses or beat those we already have in place so that they can worm their way through our networks causing havoc. This state-of-the-art form of terrorism is smarter and potentially more damaging to humanity than the type which brandishes an AK47 or Kalashnikov. The malicious perpetrators of these viruses stealthily float around cyberspace at the speed of light – and their evil is not hindered by race, creed, religion or colour. The list of aliases that these brats dream up is limitless, with some labeling themselves as, for example, a software patch from Microsoft “that you must immediately install to prevent hacking”. In fact, that is exactly what they are attempting to achieve. Most often when these damaging viruses get into our systems, they “harvest” email addresses from local files and spoof the “from address”. The aim is to lull us into a false sense of security when receiving emails from known senders. Some may even attempt to download a “back door” from a remote website, allowing them to easily get back into your machine undetected at a later date. Don’t be so naive to believe that all attacks are external: disgruntled employees do exist, and they can all too easily infect your network with a virus. It is not impossible for some unscrupulous individual to steal and sell your data to competitors or, worse, to abuse personal details of your guests. Just imagine how valuable your guest history or business account information is to the open market – it needs to be protected, in the same way that you do with physical cash. If you want to sleep soundly at night, then you have to realize that network security is just as important as the physical security of your building. Start by conducting a thorough audit of your defense/system policies, (beware of spam-filtering software – see next article) and then consult with experts seeking their advice on such technologies as IDS (intrusion detection systems), IPS (intrusion prevention systems), firewalls and identity-management techniques. Don’t delay!

Say no to spam-filters

If your e-mail has ever been publicly visible on the Internet then you probably get a lot of spam. If your inbox is anything like ours, the worst of the spam is intolerably offensive. So you’re probably tempted to try some spam-filtering software. You may have even considered switching to a mail server that promises to filter offensive spam for you. It sounds like a great idea, but beware, spam-filtering software and e-mail servers can be very dangerous to the financial health of anyone who does business on the Internet.

Spam filtering requires the creation and use of rules to identify and censor (erase, block, or isolate) e-mail that looks like it might be spam. The problem is that the software programmers making the rules become the official gatekeeper of your business and personal email. In their zealousness to rid your inbox of spam, they unintentionally can and will make some poorly conceived rules that will eventually cause the destruction of some of your very important e-mail – like your vacation rental inquiries! Some of our customers have reported that anti-spam software – software used by their mail server or software they’ve installed on their own computer – has caused at least some of their vacation rental inquiries to be blocked. We understand the desire to block spam. But if you’re doing business on the Internet, we recommend that you manually review all of your own incoming email. Receiving ALL of email is simply too important to your business success to allow any software to censor your inbox.

Internet access

Many hotels, airports, restaurants and coffee shops now offer their customers some form of free or low-fee high-speed Internet access. It’s a very significant trend, especially for those property owners who advertise accommodation online to Internet-savvy vacation rental prospects.

With the increasing popularity of computer laptops, many vacationers now work online for at least a few minutes each day. Onsite high-speed Internet access eases that burden. If you include wired (cable or DSL) or wireless high-speed Internet with your vacation rental, be sure to identify yourself on your WebPages as Internet-friendly. If you don’t yet offer high-speed Internet access, consider the opportunity to make your property more appealing to a growing group of vacationers. If you add it now, and the cost is extremely reasonable, it has the potential to deliver extra rentals for many years to come.

Marketing

You can have the most desirable property in the world – but you won’t get the clients if you don’t have the right advertising strategy. Don’t ever lose sight of the fact that good marketing is the key to success in any business. It’s vital to get it right. Most owners use one of the following three ways to market their properties – and some use a combination of these methods to ensure a fully-booked rental season.

Using a rental agency
If you’re using a rental agency, they will handle the marketing of your property for you and their advertising costs will be built into their commission. Some agencies have brochures with colour photos of each property for rent – but in many cases properties are not advertised individually so clients may not be sure what they’re getting until they turn up on your doorstep. This can cause problems as your guests may arrive with false expectations, especially if they haven’t seen photos of your property in advance. Find out the extent to which your property will be individually advertised. How much information about the property will prospective clients be given? Visitors want to know exactly what they’re getting for their money. If you want all-year-round bookings for your property, check that your agent has a marketing strategy that will bring you clients outside the high season. Some rental agents only target high season visitors because of the higher commissions they receive in peak periods. Is the agent’s marketing limited to newspaper advertising? How many countries are they advertising in? Are they marketing on the Internet?

Print Media
There are various forms of print media you can use to advertise your property. Many Canadian property owners place a small ad in a national newspaper but be warned – it’s expensive and many owners say they have been disappointed by the response. The problem here is that you’re not reaching a specific target audience – it’s unlikely that many readers have bought a particular newspaper specifically with a view to finding a vacation property to rent. If you decide to try newspaper advertising, choose your newspaper carefully – decide what kind of customer would be attracted to your property (and what kind of customer you want to attract!) then advertise in the newspaper which they are most likely to read. Before making your decision, phone a few of the big circulation papers and ask the advertising department for ad prices, circulation figures and a readership profile. The use of colour photos and itemized facilities etc. are really out of the question in newspaper advertising – the costs being prohibitive for the majority of ordinary mortals! If your vacation property has special appeal for particular groups – e.g. fishermen, golfers, honeymooners etc. – you may decide to advertise in a specialist magazine or newspaper. Again, the costs are high and it’s not a particularly well targeted form of advertising. The sporting enthusiast who buys the magazine you’re advertising in isn’t necessarily looking for a vacation home. The drawback here is that you’re ignoring a much wider audience of potential clients. Although your property may have some special appeal for fishing enthusiasts, there are obviously many other kinds of people who would appreciate it. Effective advertising needs to reach as wide and as targeted an audience as possible.

Internet advertising
The Internet has quite literally opened up a whole new world in terms of marketing, giving advertisers instant access to a vast but highly targeted global audience. Just look at how Internet use is exploding before our eyes. Whatever people need in today’s world, they’re increasingly turning to the Internet to find it. Internet advertising offers a wealth of opportunities which are simply not possible with traditional marketing methods – and it’s considerably cheaper, especially when you consider what you get for your money. You can display full details of your property with colour photos & comprehensive description and promote it to a global audience, 24 hours a day all year round…all for less than the cost of a small ad in a national newspaper. One of the great advantages of this form of advertising is that you have a vast market and one that is also highly targeted. People only tend to visit web sites advertising rental properties if they’re seriously looking for a rental – and a good web site will be attracting thousands of these potential clients each week. You obviously want a company which is highly visible on the Internet. Good Internet marketing companies actively promote their sites on the major search engines as well as on hundreds of other lesser known search engines around the world. The best companies will take the time and trouble to ensure that your on-line property web page looks truly professional. Owners find that the use of a good selection of colour photos makes all the difference in terms of attracting potential clients. The ability to use photos – in a way that would be prohibitively expensive in print advertising – is one of the major benefits of Internet marketing; so steer clear of any companies that don’t use pictures of each property. You should be able to itemize your property’s amenities and you also want space for descriptive text about the property. If the advertising company is doing its job properly, you won’t need any special knowledge about the Internet to advertise – in fact you won’t even need a computer. Everything will be explained simply and clearly and all the technical side will be handled by a team of experts so you don’t even have to think about it. Make sure your property web page includes full contact information so visitors can get in touch with you quickly and easily. If you’re on email, you’ll want an email link so visitors can send you a message directly from your property web page. This is a bonus for your potential clients because they can reach you quickly and cheaply from anywhere in the world. You’ll want to know how many visitors the site receives. Check if your chosen advertising company can give you easy access to these figures whenever you want. You need to make sure your Internet advertising company has a web site which is ‘user friendly’ – both for you as the advertiser but also for those all important site visitors looking for a property. Is the site attractively presented and easy to navigate so visitors can easily find exactly what they want in the area of their choice? Another thing to bear in mind when using the Internet is that your property “ad” is probably going to be on-line for many months at a time – unlike a newspaper advert. So what if you need important text changes in that time e.g. a new contact telephone number? Check whether your Internet advertiser will do this for you and how much it will cost. You may find you have late availability on your property, possibly through a last-minute cancellation, in which case you’ll want to be able to let people know about it. Most good companies also offer attractive discounts if you advertise more than one property with them…so the more properties you put on the Internet, the cheaper your advertising costs. Property owners say one of the few drawbacks of Internet advertising is that you can find yourself swamped with rental enquiries. This is another reason to make sure you pick the right company. As long as your property is described in sufficient detail, you shouldn’t be bothered with time-wasters. A good on-line property web page should answer nearly all the questions a prospective client might want to ask – so the majority of your enquiries should be from people only interested in checking the availability of your property for certain dates. It’s a good idea, if you’re on email, to create a standard response which can be used for email enquirers in cases where your property is fully booked for the period they’re interested in. But don’t forget to personalize your message – at least by using the name of the enquirer who could be one of your future clients.

Client comments

This is what one property owner, Sam Hall, has to say about the various different ways of advertising a rental home: “The chief benefit of Internet advertising, as opposed to a classified ad for example, is that I can impart all the information I can think of about the property plus photographs in one go. Even with a quarter page ad you can’t do that! So by advertising on the Internet you are: (a) getting a good deal price wise (b) saving time and therefore money by not having to answer enquiries about the property. I’ve found that people rarely ask for more details because everything is on my property web page. They simply want to know how to transfer the money etc. So in terms of time-saving, money and effort it’s a huge benefit. Also, of course, if I were to advertise in newspapers or magazines, I’d have to select one: so do I go for tennis magazines, golf magazines, fishing magazines, vacation magazines or what? I could end up with ads all over the place – at huge expense. And for how long could I advertise? Certainly not for a year! I’d be broke in no time. Set against that, I can have a web page with pictures and all the information anyone could need on the Internet and thus worldwide for a year. In the past three months I have had enquiries from Maine, California, as well as England, Scotland and Norway. I couldn’t have reached any of those through ‘normal’ advertising.”

Website management

For those with their own website one of the most important aspects of website management is traffic analysis. The beauty of the Internet is that you can measure in great detail exactly what visitors come to your website and you can identify exactly where they came from. If they used a search engine, then you can see exactly what keywords or phrases they used. You can also see exactly what they did whilst they were there.

If you don’t know where your visitors are coming from – and in what numbers – you can’t effectively measure the benefits of any advertising. Checking statistics for your site should be a regular activity, and if you’re not doing it already, now’s the time to start!

The most important thing you should check is your ‘click-throughs’ or referrers. Looking at your referrers will tell you who’s linked to your site and, more importantly, who’s driving traffic to your site. If you don’t know how to retrieve these statistics check with your Internet Service Provider (ISP) – the host of your website. Unfortunately, if you don’t have your own (top level) domain name or if the web site is posted on “free” space (Shaw, Rogers, Telus, etc.) these stats may not be available to you. But ask anyway, you never know!

Website optimization

According to research about 80% of overall website visits begin in a search engine or a directory service. Many other surveys also show that up to 85% of Internet users rely on search engines (e.g. Google, Yahoo, MSN, etc.) to locate relevant information on the Web. Direct online distribution begins and ends with your website. A well functioning, fully optimized website is a real asset that serves as the chief instrument to capture new markets and facilitate transactions, and communicate with: a) your customers and b) with the search engines. Many vacation property websites are performing poorly as far as online distribution and search engine strategy are concerned. Why? Many websites have been developed by web designers who know nothing about the hospitality industry, based on input and concepts by property owners who are not experts on Internet strategy, online distribution, and eMarketing. And many of them were designed as online brochures without taking into account principles in fundamental search engine marketing and online distribution.

What are the Search Engines looking for? Here are the most important criteria used by the search engines to rank a vacation accommodation website:

The overall search-engine friendliness of the site. (The search engine bots do not like: sites built entirely in FLASH, sites built in frames, Intro/Splash pages with no navigation and copy, lack of site maps, the copy in GIF or JPEG and not in HTML text format, poor body copy, and lack of relevant contents, etc.)

Rich and relevant content on the site

Body copy with high keyword density
Invisible copy (page titles, description tags, meta tags) that supports the visible (body copy)
Link popularity of the site (number of incoming links from highly authoritative websites like directories, accommodation guides, portals, etc)
PageRank (Google)
Traffic Rank

As a result of their assessment the search engines determine the relevancy of the website to each keyword used to decide the ranking of the site. Online distribution has become the main distribution channel in vacation accommodation. This year over 50% of all accommodation sales will be directly influenced by the Internet. Optimizing your website is an essential component of a direct online distribution strategy. It is part of a comprehensive eMarketing strategy in hospitality, together with other important aspects such as email marketing, link popularity, online sponsorships. If you don’t have the time or knowledge to do the job consider seeking advice from an experienced Internet marketing hospitality consultancy to help navigate the Internet and utilize your website to its fullest potential.