Sarah Bradford Special to the Winter Park Times
On February 7th, Winter Park Lodging Company and Stay Winter Park, two local specialists in vacation home rentals lent their voice to a National Movement to educate consumers about the value of booking direct with a local management company vs. using online listing sites. The day was designated as “Guest Education Day” and the hashtag #bookdirect could be found all over the internet from small vacation rental operators, to national publications such as vrmintel.com. In the past 24 months, Online Travel Agents (OTAs) such as VRBO and AirBNB, have begun charging the traveler an additional fee up to 7% of the booking amount just to book on their listing sites, and cloak it as a “Service Fee”. Independent full service vacation rental companies around the country decided to band together to get the “Book Direct” message out to their guests that this is money that can be saved by booking direct on the local company’s website. Small local companies took to social media, eblasting guests, and issued press releases to get their message out.
“If you’re traveling to a resort destination, your best bet is to google local vacation rental companies and book direct online or call and talk to a local reservation agent before booking,” said Sarah Bradford, owner of luxury vacation rental company, Winter Park Lodging Company. “Or, if you do use a listing site, you can find the company’s logo on the listing and then ‘reverse google’ the company name to find their site directly. There’s just no value in paying up to $500 more using a listing site.”
In other sectors of the travel industry such as airlines and hotels, an add-on fee by a third party listing site is unheard of. “There is currently a lack of awareness among the traveling public that vacation rental listing sites charge booking fees that can be avoided by calling in or booking online at a local vacation rental company’s own site.” said Robert Blay, of Stay Winter Park. “We are all banding together to get out a national message to educate our guests and let them enjoy the savings.”
These listings site cloak the fees in a message of security and 24/7 support, but that’s not the case. When you call VRBO’s 800 number for instance, and ask about where the property is located in Winter Park, or how is the snow in April, you are typically greeted by a foreign voice that tells you they don’t know. Calling the vacation rental company from those sites is now near impossible due to another strategic move the OTAs have made in the last year to keep the traveler away from booking directly with the local vacation rental companies. They no longer allow travelers to see the telephone number of the vacation rental company, so they cannot speak directly with the local company before booking. The OTAs also hide the real email address of the traveler, so that the vacation rental company cannot contact the traveler outside of the OTA’s site. “We are seeing frustrated travelers not being able to get specific answers to their questions about the destination and the home, because no one at VRBO knows anything about the local area or where the master bedroom is in relation to the bunk room.” said Sarah Bradford. “Vacation rentals are significantly more complex than hotels. It’s not just a room with a king bed. Guests are trying to choose the best option for 10 to 20 people co-habitating for a week in a place they often have never been before.”
The fact is like any publicly held company (VRBO and Homeaway are owned by Expedia (EXPE)) they must show increased revenue each year. The company feels they have a captive audience and added these fees to increase profits. The company explained that they added the fees to help them increase their marketing efforts, and run the site. “And, that’s within their right to do! It’s America.” says Bradford “But, it’s also within our right to educate the public and expose what’s going on so the consumer can make a choice. It’s probably faster to book on those sites but not necessarily smarter.”
And, not all vacation rentals in Grand County are on VRBO or AirBNB, so the consumer doesn’t see everything that’s available. These site push listings to the top that get a lot of online bookings since that is where the sites make money in the traveler fee. So, a property that is only open a few weeks a year but ideal for a large family, would come up so low on the search results, you’d never find it. In some beach communities on the East Coast, less than 40% of the vacation rental inventory is on these third party sites. With the latest changes the listing sites have rolled out, it is predicted that inventory will continue to decrease, so the travelers’ best bet is to Google the area and then book direct.
Sarah Bradford owns and operates Winter Park Lodging Company which manages over 150 high end vacation rental condos, town homes and large private homes in Winter Park and Fraser. She also co-hosts the national podcast “Sea to Ski with Sarah and T”, a podcast for the professional vacation rental manager.
Robert Blay owns and operates Stay Winter Park which manages over ?? vacation rentals in Grand County, as well as operates a flourishing property management/HOA business in the County.