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How VRBO Owners Become Independent

Today we’re going to look at the success of another to help ourselves become better in our vacation rental businesses. You remember Kendall & Leina, right?  They’re independent owners of several properties in the Gatlinburg – Pigeon Forge Tennessee area. Their rental company is  called Closer to Heaven Cabins.

Several weeks ago I shared how they were able to drive 300 inquiries directly to their website.

Kendall told me he has competition to the left and right of him and there are vacation rentals everywhere. So how does one overcome the competition in such an extremely competitive market? We showed you what he has built up to make that happen for him in Kendall’s and Leina’s VR business.

How 1 Owner Drove 300 Inquiries to Their Vacation Rental Website.

One part of being a successful vacation rental entrepreneur is being able to look at those around us who are achieving the results we want and learn from what they’re doing right. I’ve asked Kendall to share with us some of his secrets to success.   Here is what he’s shared with us…

I am listing these items as my top topics because I really do feel that following these has made us successful.  Guests appreciate us (and we appreciate them as well!) and it shows in our reviews.

vacation rental cabin owners

-First and most importantly, owners and managers should ALWAYS remember that every inquiry & booking is potentially someone’s vacation.  

When you’ve been managing vacation rentals for a long time, it’s easy to get comfortable and lose sight of what you are really doing.  

Stay focused and remember that you’re dealing with someone’s vacation.  They could’ve spent months or even years saving up for this trip and your job is to ensure that it’s fantastic.

Keeping a focus on this will help ensure your customer service is spot on. Guests love knowing that owners/managers are there for them from the very first inquiry all the way through check-out.

Reach out to them and make it personal!  Yes of course you want their business but you should more importantly want to provide a 5 star stay that they tell everyone about and hopefully generate you more bookings.  

This is free advertising that you can’t get anywhere else so taking the simple steps toward great customer service will quickly get you on your way to more success.

-Second, and my reason for contacting you (Jay) in the first place is not to rely on VRBO and HomeAway.  I know this may be often talked about but I want your readers to hear about it from a fellow owner who’s made the jump.  

For the first couple of years we relied solely on our platinum subscription through VRBO which advertises our properties on multiple listing sites.  

The Other Side. These sites are great and definitely are the current backbone of our business and, while we still use them, we are shifting our focus to our newly created website to gain bookings from the “other side”.  

I’ll elaborate on what I mean when I say the “other side”.  We currently own properties in an area where vacation rentals are THE ONLY industry around.  

There are tens of thousands of properties for rent and hundreds of huge companies managing these properties.  

These companies are the “other side” I speak of and they are raking in bookings at a staggering rate.  People who book through these companies have never heard about HomeAway or VRBO.  

They simply go to a search engine (Google or Bing) and search for vacation rentals in the area.  Pages upon pages of these companies show up, the guest will then call or email said company and book a property.  

The purpose of the website is to cater to theses folks looking for a vacation but have never heard of a listing site.  

I’m mentioning all of this because there are way too many owners out there who rely on VRBO.  We’ve been there.  

We have had several bookings through our website and it only gets better from here.  It all takes time as you are competing with large companies but Jay and the Villa Marketers team do a great job of utilizing the perfect keywords to ensure your property will show up right along-side these large companies in the search engine results.  HomeAway is not looking out for youyou must look out for yourself.  The new service fee recently added by HomeAway is terrifying.  

This was no surprise after their acquisition by Expedia but it should be a sign of things to come.  Help yourself and tap into the “other side” and start getting bookings from those who don’t know about listing sites. There are a lot of them and it could potentially grow because guests who do use VRBO may be trying to avoid a silly service fee!

-Third, be prompt.  There is nothing more reassuring than sending an inquiry email (not just in the vacation rental industry but in ANY industry) and receiving a response within minutes.  

I’ve lost count of the times that we’ve turned a simple inquiry into a booking because of our prompt response.  Guests appreciate it and let’s be honest…as in life, first impressions mean everything.  

Your goal should always be to be the first to respond to their inquiry.  They’ve probably sent out multiple inquiries throughout the night and most owners/managers unfortunately don’t make it a priority to answer within minutes.

Their faults should be made into your advantage and when a guest sees that you’ve responded within minutes, it sets a standard in their mind that the other “lazy” owners who have yet to respond just can’t meet.  

By doing this and combining it with great customer service as mentioned in my first point, you’ve pretty much just guaranteed a booking!

-Fourth, and this may sound crazy, but do the right thing!  This probably fits into the customer service section but I wanted to mention it separately.  

The goal of every owner should be to offer a perfect vacation to guests who decide to stay in our property.  The feeling of perfection is variable, meaning, that my definition of perfection is very different from someone else’s, particularly a guests.

I also want to take the time to say that mistakes happen and things break.  The point of saying all of this is because how an owner responds to an unhappy or frustrated guests due to a simple mistake by the cleaners, or an item breaking, or something not being to their standards of “perfect”, can make or break them.  

Often times guests aren’t eager to post reviews of great experiences.  They do it because we ask them to and sometimes they will do it out of kindness.  Let’s do a 180* and imagine an unhappy guest.  

They want to vent their frustration and the easiest way to do this is behind a keyboard on the reviews page.  This can EASILY be combatted by being a patient and competent owner willing to please even in the most undesirable of circumstances.

Take the time to listen and DO THE RIGHT THING.  You need to develop the ability to feel a guest out over the phone (most issues should be addressed by phone and not email or text).

You simply cannot have a standard response to issues and I firmly believe that with varying personalities of different guests, your response should be based on what you read from them while discussing the issue over the phone.  

You obviously don’t want to lose money but you want to take the necessary steps to ensure they are happy with the resolution and sometimes and unfortunately, simply fixing the issue for an infuriated guests won’t cut it.  

Again, this is to be felt out over the phone and you will know immediately the personality of the guest you are dealing with.  

And let’s face it, they have the right to be unhappy because THEY’RE ON VACATION and it’s supposed to be perfect.  

If they are calm and understanding, simply fixing the issue in a timely manner will usually be enough (keyword there is TIMELY).  

Other times that is not enough and offering some kind of discount on their stay will do wonders in changing that bad review into a great one!

I’m not talking lots of money discounted back to them…simply a small amount to compensate them for their troubles experienced.

Your main goal should still be to resolve the issue in a timely manner.  Ultimately it comes down to doing the right thing, and the right thing differs from one guest to another.  

Make sure you remember that a great vacation is on the line and when I say you should do the right thing, it should be the right thing for both your business and their  vacation!
The key to this industry (in my opinion) besides offering a great property, is offering a great experience and it starts with great customer service.


What do you think? What have you learned?

Please share your comments below.


  • mickey says:

    How many units do you offer for rental? What is your pricing structure? Would you consider your pricing high, low or moderate. How many other units are actually in your area? I notice you talk about great service and quick response and great reviews – but you did’t share exactly what you are doing on website. Where are you marketing exactly, how much did it cost you and how much do you spend monthly on it.

    VRBO/Homeaway, AirBnb and Tripadvisor all or have become price seller’s. Renting cheap is great for management and marketing companies – but not great for owners! I did a quik change of rates and went from 1 or to 2 inquiries too literally hundreds in one day. It is easy to get inquiries and rentals when you rent for much less than your cost!

    I would like your opinion on something. You offer a property that you have invested $350,000 in. Your monthly expenses with NO bookings is $2,500 per month. The cost to have a guest with cleaning fees, wear and tear and utilities adds a cost of $50 per day based on 7 night stay. Your business is like all locations – the business is seasonal and you have 20 to 26 weeks a year of realistic rental income expectancy. What would your rate be for those weeks/days? Most management companies end up taking between 30 and 35% of the gross rental for managing and marketing – which after you have been in this business realize that number is a very reasonable price for this service.

  • SherwoodOR says:

    What do you think about VacaCasa? They seem to be growing rapidly and focus on customer experience and management. I’ve stayed at one of their managed vacation homes in Tahoe and was really impressed. They are not in Puerto Rico yet but being in Oregon and managing 3, going on 4 from thousands of miles away really bites. I do have a website and had my key words created by Villa Marketers but I must be doing someone else wrong as I don’t get inquires through it. HomeAway/VRBO has been the life blood so far and the new fee seems to be a sticking point for some guests but not others. I also have mine on AirBnb and TripAdvisor (I pay Trip Advisor a flat fee and guests contact me directly but I then have them go through HomeAway for the bookings since their calendar works good for tracking guests and they take the credit card payments) The other issue I run into is people inquiring having lots of questions prior to booking so I reach out to them quickly to answer all their questions. For me, it seems having HomeAway is easier as I do have a day job and it would be impossible to manage everything myself if it was through my stand alone website… at least I think it would and I’m not set up to take credit cards directly.

    • Jay William says:

      Hey @sherwoodOR Vacasa has pros and cons. They do everything from “marketing to maintenance” the pro is, it’s easy for you. The con is you’re dependent on them. No different than our current situation with VRBO. Trusting in someone else completely for your success- never a good plan.

      2nd point -managing from miles away. You need solid partners. A good property manager can help you make bookings and allow you to bring in your own bookings, the best of both worlds right?

      3rd- website with no inquiries. Look into these areas – site’s structure (who built it?). Conversion – things like having a form on every page converts visitors into inquiries. Keywords are step 1, you need to market with those keywords and build a campaign around them. Here’s a checklist of every step to become independent. If we skip steps the results will suffer.
      4th- Get booking software like GuestBooked. Sending people to HomeAway to book is like shooting yourself in the foot. We should use them, but lead people away from them any time we can. Booking software has become a must-have tool for independence.

    • Kendall Luelf says:

      @SherwoodOR. I wanted to chime in and reiterate what Jay said regarding linking them to VRBO for booking. As tempting and easy as it may be, it will definitely affect your inquiries turning into bookings. You can setup a Paypal account for free and accept payments via credit card that way or purchase a booking software. Villa Marketers have their own booking system that we use and we only accept Paypal (guests can use their credit card to pay through Paypal without a Paypal account).

      VRBO is still the backbone of our rentals but we are getting more and more each week through our website. We hope to someday use VRBO as our backup means to accept reservations and have the website serve as the backbone. Slowly but surely!

      The time it takes to manage a website once its constructed and running is minimal in the grand scheme of things. Homeaway’s dashboard is very user friendly and makes things easy, but don’t use it as a crutch to answer inquiries incoming from your personal website. Its great that you had a keyword list generated by Villa Marketers but knowing how to use the keywords is…..key (sorry for the pun). If you put them on the wrong page or in the wrong context, they serve you no good whatsoever. It is a somewhat high upfront cost to have a site constructed but it may be something you want to look into. Give whomever you decide to construct the site the keyword list and go from there. Good luck!

    • Debi says:

      @SherwoodOR, I can speak to our experience with Vacasa. We had them take over two of our properties for about 5 months. I would say their property management system was okay. We didn’t do anything, completely hands off, and they charged us 25% as an introductory offer, which would eventually go to 35%. We withdrew our properties when we discovered they were not creating unique entry codes (which we had agreed on prior to signing with them) for our keyless locking systems, and leaving us vulnerable to theft.

      Since we have resumed management we are booking more nights, and feel that our properties are much safer.


    While I really enjoyed your post I’m not sure it answers the question of how to do without VRBO/Homeaway. I have stiff competition in my area as well and have been at this self-managed rental game for 15 seasons now. Fortunately, half of my renters are longtime repeat renters otherwise the great 2016 Expedia VRBO/Homeaway debacle might have me putting up a “for sale” sign in front of my lone vacation rental property. I really hoped to learn something new that would help me find independence and success in filling my short 12-week season. I have been providing great customer service with one-on-one attention to my customers since day one and it has given me a core group of dependable renters but hasn’t helped a lick in picking up inquiries that Expedia has driven away. I accidentally learned when trying to set up my website that the majority of traffic for my area goes to real estate & huge conglomerate vacation rental websites that all provide free referrals to renters but hefty owner fees, like the percentages discussed here. I explored listing with Wyndham and was seriously considering listing until I discovered I’d have to allow them to take payments, give them one week for “promotional” purposes, etc. So I created my own beautiful website and am struggling with how to drive traffic to it. I have a blog, Facebook page, and new website and not one rental has come from all the effort unless they came thru Homeaway/VRBO and were smart enough to figure out how to avoid the fees. I have great reviews and a long history but I’m truly afraid to take the leap and do away with my dependence on the Expedia-owned sites I’ve come to rely on….but I’d LOVE to give them the boot! I’m a retiree with limited knowledge of SEO, Google ad words, keywords, etc. I’d love some pointers on the technical aspect of driving traffic to my website.

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