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Building Regional Vacation Rental Listing Websites

The following is a guest post written by Bob Bourassa of CarolinaVacationHomeRentals.com.

As the hammer slowly comes down on vacation rentals owners from HomeAway and other sites -- and we all knew this was coming -- many new vacation listing sites are popping up trying to capitalize on owners who are dissatisfied with the direction this is all going. Some old listing sites that have lived in the shadows for years are trying to become relevant. Service fees, limited cancellation policy options, worst best match, forced BIN. It is only going to get worse for owners.

Some of the new vacation rental listing sites are trying to capture a national or worldwide audience. However, they lack the capital to effectively market on that level and have shown little success. Without the cash to back it up, they can never be an effective alternative to the big guys who have been in the market for years.

A viable alternative is Regional Vacation Rental Listing sites.

Why regional sites? Unlike national vacation listing sites that have been developed since HomeAway began its changes, regional sites do not require massive amounts of marketing dollars in order to be even remotely competitive. Regional sites can target their marketing efforts on specific areas where typical vacationers come from, thus being more effective for far less money.

Since we developed Carolina Vacation Home Rentals in response to the detrimental changes to the industry caused by HomeAway, we have received numerous inquiries on what what it would cost to develop another regional vacation rental site. They asked what script we used for our site and what is involved, and they expressed frustration with the lack of options available for developing such a site The amount quoted from developers ranged anywhere from $15,000 to $30,000.

We have since created several regional sites for others using the script we used (Texas, South Jersey, etc.) and are currently working on one for all of Hawaii. We also plan to create a single site that will link to all of the regional sites to help travelers find what they are looking for without service fees.

So, where do you start?

There are multiple scripts available that can be used for creating a regional vacation rental listing site. However, most of them are clones that come out of Asia and are geared towards the AirBnB model. While AirBnB does have it's niche market, it often does not fit well with vacation rental owners. The clone scripts require substantial customization to fit the needs of vacation rental owners, which can easily run up the development costs. Some have also expressed frustration with difficult communication with the developers due to the language barriers.

A simpler option for some has been to use the WordPress platform and purchase a $54 theme. As a 18 year web developer, I can tell you definitively that WordPress is not the answer. It may be fine for creating a small homemade site, but it would be wholly ineffective at being used for a larger listing site. This is not an alternative we would ever consider, nor recommend in creating a viable regional vacation rental listing site.

Before we developed Carolina Vacation Home Rentals we evaluated all of the scripts that were available and tested each one thoroughly before choosing which script to use. Most of them would not do what was needed. The script we chose does everything that is required, and much more. We chose it because it was capable of being a back to basics HomeAway & VRBO type website (our ultimate goal) without forcing vacation rental owners into restrictive cancellation policies -- being able to display contact information and not having to charge service fees among other things. We found the script to be extremely versatile and contain a lot of additional functions that we disabled because they were not needed in what we were creating.

The script has an online quote system which we left entirely optional as to whether the vacation rental owner wants to use it. Some owners do, and some owners don’t. It generates a quick quote and then allows a person to request a booking. Visitors also still have the option of contacting the owner through the inquiry form as well or calling the owner. One of the goals for our site was to offer the options to the owners and leave it up to them as to whether they would like to use the tools provided. Owners also have the option of whether they want to display their calendar, rates or phone number. We left it completely up to them.

Even though the script does have the capability of accepting online payments for bookings, after careful consideration, we decided not to offer an online payment system for bookings. After researching the matter and seeing what is happening with AirBnB and state tax authorities it really wasn’t something we wanted to delve into. There was too much uncertainty and possible liability. We leave it entirely up to the owners to use their own payment processing. This fits with our policy to allow vacation rental owners as much flexibility as possible without restricting them to any certain way to do things.

Other features we have in our site that are available with the script are:

  1. SMS alert system. This sends the owners text alerts when an inquiry or booking request comes in so they can respond quickly. This is completely optional as to whether the vacation rental owner wants to use it or not.
  2. Our calendars can sync with their calendars on VRBO, HomeAway, AirBnB, iCal, etc. Again, it is completely optional for the vacation rental owner as to whether they want to use it.

So, what would it cost for your to start your own Regional Vacation Rental Listing website using the script and method we used? Not as much as you think:

  1. You will need a domain name, of course. This would run you about $15.00 per year.
  2. You will need proper hosting for the site. With this script the hosting must have PHP 5.3, ioncube, dedicated IP address, cron jobs, and a passive SSL Certificate, which will run about $125.00 a year. The reason an SSL would be needed is that Google is changing the way they list sites and those not SSL enabled will eventually be marked as unsafe.
  3. You will of course need to purchase the Script from the developer. It runs around $250.00 for a lifetime license. You would also have to purchase the calendar sync module, which runs about $100.00. There would likely be another $100.00 or so paid to the developer for some customization that we were not able to make as portions of the script function files are encrypted and proprietary.
  4. If you want to offer the SMS alerts you would need to use a third party service, which runs about $300 per year. We find this is a minimal expense to offer and a great tool to property owners.

So, your initial costs for all of the essential scripts and third party services for your site would run you less than $1,000.00, with annual recurring costs of about $500.00.

We spent many hundreds of hours customizing our site -- look, feel & operation -- to get it to work and look as we wanted. As our site grew we made other modifications based on both owner and user experiences and asked owners for feedback and made adjustments based on their preferences. We still make tweaks as we feel are needed based upon how people interact and use our site.

Does that mean you would have to spend hundreds of hours on your own regional vacation rental listing site before it is even launched? Well, you could, but there is an easier way.

Once you have purchased the necessary scripts, the editable site files from our site, which have been customized, can then be used to overwrite your site files and tweaked accordingly. This saves a lot of time of having to manually customize your site and do everything we did for ours. However, there is still a lot of manual configuration that has to be done setting up regions, rental types, guides, slideshow, features, activities etc. However, as we are intimately familiar with the script and it's capabilities, we can get this done faster than you would if you were to have to learn the system from scratch.

If you wanted to take the quick route and have use do the setup and customization for you, the cost would be $1,000.00 for us to customize your site and get it up and running. That's less than $2,000.00 startup cost for your own Regional Vacation Rentals Listing Website. We could have your site completed in 3-4 weeks.

We do need to let you know that operating a regional vacation rental listing site does require some time be put into it. It is not a static site that you can build and just let go on it's own. You will have some interactions with property owners and site visitors. So, if you are not able to devote time to the site this may not be a good option for you. It is a business opportunity and like any business, it requires nurturing and attention. However, we found that as time progressed and we tweaked our site based on user experience, that the amount of time we have had to dedicated to maintaining the site greatly diminished.

You will also find that there will be some expenses for marketing your site. This may be in the form of ads on search engines or social media, or just getting hands on and promoting your site in other arenas. We can offer guidance to you from our experience of what works, and what doesn't.

Some of the difficulties we've encountered is getting owners to list their properties. A lot of owners are simply oblivious to what is going on. Believe it or not there are still some owners who do not know HomeAway charges a service fee. Getting travelers to come to your site is easy, it is the owners who are difficult.

For those owners who have listed with us, we found we needed to offer a little guidance along the way, not just for listing with us, but for listing on other sites. Some were using dated photos of their rental (some even with 2011 time stamps), didn't list their rates far enough in advance, had short unappealing descriptions etc. Listing your vacation rental anywhere, you still have to sell it and stand out. If you have a crappy photo and one paragraph description, you are not exactly enticing people to rent your house.

Starting a Regional Vacation Rental Listing site is a great business opportunity for someone who wants to start their own business and help vacation rental owners.

We will be happy to answer any questions you might have, so don't hesitate to contact us.

Bob Bourassa
www.carolinavacationhomerentals.com

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17 Comments (add yours)

Apr 11, 17
3:39 pm
jfulciniti says:

I absolutely LOVE this concept. A group of us are working on something similar at our ski resort in WV. I don't want to hijack this thread so when we get a little further along and post in another thread.

Personally, I hate what vrbo has done to their long time users. 12 years ago one of my listings was #1 on the default page for our ski resort out of 100+ listings. Then it all went to hell. Now there are 421 listings which are a mix of true rentals by owner and managed properties.

I thought VRBO stood for Vacation Rentals By Owner. Not Some Vacation Rentals By Owners and Some By Property Managers. People still identify "vrbo "not home away - at least in my markets.

I think the biggest challenge is ranking a regional site in a competitive areas - like Myrtle Beach, SC. There are soooo many sites listing rentals, it's impossible to compete.

Bob - good luck - I wish your site all the success in the world !!!!





Apr 12, 17
11:00 am
Chris Hynes says:

Great to hear! It's a matter of building up the regional sites bit by bit. I've actually made one as well for the area around my vacation rental cabins: https://shenandoahcabinrentals.com

You're right, it may be tougher to build a new site in an area where there already are a bunch. It'd be a great experiment for sure.

You've given me another good idea -- we should have a list of all known regional sites to help out owners with finding places to list, and identify regions that might need more sites or not.

I've started with a few here: https://www.ownerreservations.com/support/articles/regional-listing-sites

If you know of or own a regional site, let me know and I'll add it to the list.

Apr 12, 17
1:50 pm
Michele T says:

Hi Chris
Bob Bourassa is building a website for us.
Our domain is floridarentalbyowners.com
I'll let you know when it's up!

Michele

Apr 13, 17
11:38 pm
Chris Hynes says:

Sweet! Looking forward to it.

Apr 20, 17
11:33 am
jfulciniti says:

A few of us are testing a site this summer with our HOA. We are all located in the same building at a ski resort. We discussed how to set it up and agreed we did not want another full blown vrbo site for users to manage. Our site will be free to our homeowners and we can add their ical to our search function.

http://snowshoevrbo.com/

Once we work out a few kinks, we'll send out a mass email to all owners in our building who self manage their condos.

Apr 20, 17
3:30 pm
Ella says:

Wonderful! I once built a site for owners to list on using Drupal. It wasn't easy! This was in 2011. It also wasn't easy to get owners to list with you. Maybe the recent nightmares with Homeaway, drop with Flipkey etc will prove different now. Definitely worth considering! I would love to use your script and help this time around. Will reach out if/when ready for it.
:)

May 11, 17
8:53 am
jfulciniti says:

Here's one more reason to HATE vrbo.

I received a cease and desist notice from homeaway noting I am breaching their terms of service by using "vrbo" in my url while maintaining a listing on vrbo.

I could fight them but the fallout - other owners listing being removed from vrbo would cause too much harm.

We'll just use a different url and continue our quest to become "vrbo independent". It will take some time but they are becoming less and less of a factor for my rentals.

May 15, 17
8:06 am
BlueMtnCabins says:

here is one more reason - dynamic fee. Even if you drop your price HA will up the fee amount to "fill in the gap" to what its algorithm thinks market can bear. Which essentially means owner completely loses control over their pricing. We cannot raise the price (because add on fee makes it overpriced by fee amount) but now we cannot lower our price either (say, to attract traffic) because increased fee will step in . is your blood boiling yet?

May 15, 17
9:32 am
Michelle J says:

BlueMtnCabins,

Tell me you're joking!!! I had not read that yet. Do you have have a link or more information you can share about this? HomeAway will increase your rate as high as they want to what they think it should be and just keep the rest? So if an owner put their condo at $50/night - way below market price, to drive in a bunch of good business/review - HomeAway will up that to say $300/night and just keep $250/night difference? If so, wow, that may actually be illegal since they are reselling a product way outside of the limits the producer has set. That's no longer adding a service fee. That's reselling a not-for-resale product at rates the product owner has disallowed. I guess HA is going to keep getting worse and worse until they get sued or owners ban together and room all their product from HA's network.

May 15, 17
9:42 am
BlueMtnCabins says:

Not exactly, but close. It has been reported that they have already removed thr breakdiwn of the fee in their help section. I presume it is because fee is dynamic.
One fella in Fb group just reported that he had a traveler asking for discount. He sent quote discounted by 100 euros but the traveler on their end only saw 50 euro quote reduction - because HA apparently increased relative fee amount on the 2nd quote. Several owners mentioned sending a quote(preapprive) to traveler. Quote expires. Traveler asks yo resend. Owner sends - quote goes up by several $.
Outside of euro example so far most fluctuations are within a few to dozen dollars but the direction yhis is taking is highly troubling. This meand they take complete control of pricing and essentially owner cannot even drop price without them interfering.
On another note, the links to owner sitesare gone from altady-sent email in HA mailbox. Walled garden.

May 15, 17
10:37 am
BlueMtnCabins says:

To add, recently the interface to wheelhouse pricing stopped working. Knowing that, I find that "coincidence" highly suspicious. Why? because for owners using wheelhouse, wheelhouse will price one's property to what market will bear. So that will leave no room for HA's own dynamic fee, IMO. So I am thinking that is y there is an "issue" connecting wheelhouse pricing now. I think it is by design.

May 15, 17
10:42 am
Michelle J says:

This is really mind-blowing. I just read a post by Alan Egan (who we love here at OwnerRez) that someone forwarded me. He's dead right - time to leave HomeAway for good. Or at least price your properties so that they are 30-50% higher on those listing sites so that it's worth the BS of having to deal with it. But drive your business outside of HomeAway for good. Really quite astounding how much of a money-grab it is for them at every turn!

May 15, 17
10:54 am
BlueMtnCabins says:

Alan Egan posted his after that fella Remy (I mentioned) reported what HA (or its European version) did in response to Remy's attempt to lower his rate. I saw other owners reported jumping service fee when they sent quotes to different travelers for the same number of same priced days. But those differences were within $10-15 ( like fee going from $110 to $125 or so) but this is over the top.
One of my listings ( 4 bd) is expiring in July. I have not had an inquiry or booking via VRBO in a long time and only 2 bookings outstanding going forward (they explain this by my property being booked so well via other sources). So yes, I am seriously thinking of NOT paying for renewal. I mean, Tripadvisor and Airbnb subject owners to similar tactics, but at least they do not expect owners to PAY subscription fee for such abuse. HA does. I have TA sub (formerly VHR) and so far since i PAID for the sub, they do not meddle in my business (but traffic is very slow).
this EXPE head is way brazen. I do not think lawsuit will help because Vacation rentals are not a big player due to being a fragmented mom and pop operations - they do not have lawyer-power of big hotel chains to fight this. And unless there is a public perception and awareness of this price fixing duopolistic abuse (look at DISH and DIRECTV getting away with basically price fixing - no one is suing them for being duopoply!) , nothing will happen. courts take years - there is Ivan Arnold's class action lawsuit in CA which I do not think anything is happening there ad that was filed in early 2016. They (EXPE) just waiting it out.

May 15, 17
11:28 am
Ella says:

We are on it and will try to fight this in our local area in the Catskill Mountains NY region. In the process of building Local website at www.catskillgetaway.com , domain previously just used by one owner but redesigned now for owners to join and list their place. It will be only used as an advertisement venue and all the communication will happen directly between guests and owners either via email, phone or through dashboard on website. We won't be processing payments, it's too much to deal with but it should help people go back to the basics and direct communication with guests. I hope it will help. Crossing fingers! :-)
Ella

May 15, 17
11:30 am
Ella says:

We are on it and will try to fight this in our local area in the Catskill Mountains NY region. In the process of building Local website at https://www.catskillgetaway.com , domain previously just used by one owner but redesigned now for owners to join and list their place. It will be only used as an advertisement venue and all the communication will happen directly between guests and owners either via email, phone or through dashboard on website. We won't be processing payments, it's too much to deal with but it should help people go back to the basics and direct communication with guests. I hope it will help. Crossing fingers! :-)
Ella

May 15, 17
12:47 pm
jfulciniti says:

BlueMtnCabins said:

here is one more reason - dynamic fee. Even if you drop your price HA will up the fee amount to "fill in the gap"


Wow. I have an open week in June and I lowered my price a bit. They raised their fee to 10% of the total. I just checked it.

May 15, 17
1:02 pm
BlueMtnCabins says:

Good! I am waiting for smoky mountains are site; but our tourism bureau runs excellent site just like that - only links to listings, no meddling in payments. it ranks pretty high on google ( visitmysmokies.com)

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