As printed in HotelExecutive.com, by Eric von Starck, hotel web designer and hotel marketing consultant

Step Into The Light of Rentals

A Different View of Hotels' Townhouses, Houses, Condos, Resort Homes, and Extended Stay

We learned it all from a client. She showed us where to look for a whole new market for hotel apartments, condos, townhouses, resort homes, and extended stay suites.

Where did she point us? Well, it was obvious but with our heads deep into resort lifestyle marketing, we were blind.

She pointed us away from "hotel", away from "resort" and into the new world of just renting property - the house, the condo, or the apartment. When she led us over the horizon to the ocean of rentals, it made for an exciting paddle in new waters.

Rental and Extended Stay Program:

Switch the paradigm from hotel accommodation to . . .
rental -- rental apartment, rental suite with kitchen, rental townhouse, and rental resort home.

Rather than selling only to pre-determined hotel users, we could reach out to a potential market of users who want a non-hotel experience - a rental house, cabin, condo, and apartment. And yet we're still marketing the same hotel - just with a different light falling on it: the noonday sun of rentals.

Our client who pointed the way owns a group of eleven rental casitas in a 1700's adobe compound just north of Santa Fe. A primary method of communicating with her market was a single 3rd party web rental channel. Although she had found marketing success with just one website, there are some fifteen of these channels devoted to finding renters for their clients. It's a little like e-Bay - an ocean of items have been made accessible through the web and made available in such a away as to create its own marketplace. Looking at the channels from another viewpoint, they are a collective, dispersed Expedia for renting property. But this Expedia does not require discounts from the hotel or any commissions on the back-end. Rather, these web channels charge a straight fee - usually about $190 per rental property to list that property for a year. The channels are robust with listings of rental properties to the numbers of 33,000, 22,000 and 10,000 rental units worldwide. They have a lot to offer and have made their own backyard marketplace - a marketplace into which few hotel rentals have found their way.

Back to our client, our tutor. She was using just one of these channels and was selling a number of rental days thorough the channel. The inquiry numbers were not huge - just 60 a year but they were well qualified. Why? Because, unlike the websites of hotels, these channels offer the opportunity for lots of description, real photos rather than staged professional photos, and floor plans. The potential renter really does get an idea of what the experience will be like.

What have we been able to do with our client's gift of a new ocean to fish in? Like any good American marketer we've bloated it up with industrial size "oomph". We couldn't let our clients' well- being hang on just one rental channel so we've developed a whole program for rentals: a top to bottom paradigm shifter.

5 Parts to This Rental Marketing Program, to Shift the Paradigm

1. Ensure that the rental property is welcoming and user friendly - that it is a "house" - a "home" – not just an hotel room through which to process an overnight guest.

None of the following marketing steps will have continuing value if the guest's experience is not a positive "rental" one and that experience is not like that of an "hotel". We are switching paradigms here.

2. list the properties or property types on the 3rd party web channels.

3. create the rental units' own separate web channel devoted exclusively to rentals rather than the hosting "hotel", which, here, becomes an amenity support system.

4. use the E-mail collection system on the property's owned 3rd party rental channel so that it may deliver opt-in names that can be e-mailed to for need period special offers and for continuing customer relationship building.

5. keep all copy Search Engine Optimized and maintain the owned

# 1 - The Guest's Experience of the Rental Property

Our client in Santa Fe has a 70% guest return rate. How can that be? She cares and it shows. It's all the small things that make a completely decorated house into a home: notes, directions, welcome letter, leaving someone their own space to discover wonders and surprises and making sure that those wonders and surprises are, in fact, there. Most rental houses and condos in resorts present themselves as sterile, with no ownership, no individuality. You'd be hard pressed to find a book, VCR, DVD, or board game in any. That needs to change when you become a "rental". The personal touches, the notes, the books - all need to go in if the guest is to come in again and again, to feel "at home".

So our client in Santa Fe has it all and has a 70% return rate.

That's the height to which all rentals can aspire. The trick is to find the path - the partnering of owner with hotel management, of staff with their own personality, of humanity - books, magazines, guides, games, tapes - with the coffee table and the shelves. So, all right, the books come and go (yes, it can be a two way street - both give and take). So a video walks; think of it as a "take-away". Just put the hotel and unit owner's name on everything.

Put in a guestbook. Read the unvarnished personal truth of what the hotel is selling. Even worse, read nothing because no one cares enough to write about their "great week in NYC". Then, the hotel will know that the experience is not working. Now that's a scary thought. No marketing will be needed, if that's the case. No follow through. No point. Save the money and start, again, to fix the experience.

The hotel's success in fulfilling the rental paradigm shift is predicated on walls, desks, and decks that are humanized and individualized. Stuff. Personal stuff. Home.

Pets. Try to get pets in and, if they are in, take the time to make a fuss over them. If, however the hotel, unit owner, or condo association has not and does not allow pets, why not? This is an entirely anecdotal guess, but from our experience we have a sense that a "no pets" policy means saying "no" to 40% plus of the rental market. What value is 40% of the market that it should be eliminated?

Pricing Experience Circle

With a rental program, it will be advantageous to have posted pricing that reduces for longer stays. In the rental world, the "fee" for rents of three days or more can and should decline steeply so as to garner 5, 7, and 14 day rentals. The hotel can even get ahead of the cost game by offering a "green housekeeping" option that provides only weekly linen change. Costs can be further reduced with every other day or even just weekly housekeeping. Bear in mind the paradigm shift: being left alone, without daily housekeeping, might be an advantage in the eyes of many renters. Rental customers' expectations are predicated on being "at home" rather than "in a hotel".

#2 - Listing of Properties or Property Types on the 3rd Party Web Channels

With a small investment, say $1500, an hotel's inventory for rental can be given exposure on an assortment of 3rd party rental sites - both paid and free. The listing methods, sizes and values are all different and the actual writing of SEO copy and fitting it to the 3rd party channels' formatting requirements is time consuming: photos, floor plans, guest books woven into listings. Photos? No - not the ones that you spent $45,000 on two years ago but many, many digital ones - "real" ones, from every angle - with real people not models with martinis and collagen lips.

Now is not the time to hide the unit under the shadow of a single, generic shot of a "deluxe room" combined with more stock photos of towels and amenities. The rental customers are making a big investment.

We know that many of the digital photos won't look as polished as professional ones but they will, therefore, engender more trust in the eyes of the potential web renter. The web renter knows the difference between a set-up, contrived viewpoint and the real thing.

Then, we need to add real floor plans of the rental unit. Renters want floor plans.

This, of course, all presupposes that the hotel has decided that every specific unit can be reserved on its own rather than the promise of just a "type" of unit. Yes, it can be done. If for some reason, the unit is not available for the arrival of the guest, a simple call with an offer of an alternative or "better" unit will cement what we hope is a good and growing customer relationship.

No, you do not need to force your buyers into "long" rentals. Just like your room inventory, the "rental unit" can be for just 1 day.

In all the 3rd party web channels that should be selected, commissions are not payable for sales. An inquiry goes, in almost all cases, straight to the hotel's own reservation agents - usually by e-mail. Since no commissions will be payable on sales, the hotel's net income will be increased by the "Rental Program". The program is an investment rather than a cost.

No. It is not necessary to list all of your units on all the 3rd party web channels. That would be prohibitively costly. We recommend listing different types of units on varied channels. But the "type" is, in fact, a specific unit. It must be a specific unit as a pre-condition of listing. When making a booking, that specific unit may not be available but an alternative, similar one will be.

#3 - Creating the Property's Own Web Channel Devoted Exclusively to Rentals Rather Than the Hotel

Trifecta - that's what we can get with this one.

By building at least one website that is wholly dedicated to the hotel's rental properties, we are able to accomplish a web marketing win both for the rental program and the hotel, itself.

This website would, ideally, list each and every one of the rental units. The site gains search power through lists of many items. The listing pages then have extensive individual pages for each unit with detailed descriptions of the experience of living in the unit written with human reality rather than the gloss of "corpo-speak". The descriptions are reinforced with tens of photos and sets of floor plans. Discussion of the staff who will look after the renter will be an advantage here. People power does work; we are communicating a personal experience.

The power of this site is increased by the number of listings that are available for posting. The copy on the site should be aggressively search engine optimized for the niche markets of the hotel: art, history, sport, fly fishing, spa, and on and on. All of this deepens the site's interest for search engines and allows potential renters to find it when using lifestyle searches.

Then we take this site and give it a number of domain names -- all names pertinent to the broad feeder and niche markets. It is these varied domain names, such as www.santamonicarentalhomes.org, www.luxuryrelocationssantamonica.net, that will provide more varied search engine recognition as they beef up the opportunities for the search engines to find and rank the site/s with increasing depth. Each domain name drops the "looker" into a page that is customized for that domain name - so the "looker" will feel, from the visuals and copy, that she (most likely) has landed at a site that represents the searched for interest.

This owned 3rd party web site has the ancillary benefit of adding to the search engine positioning of the hotel's own website. The power of one adds to the power of the other. Good rankings = less commissions payable.

Then, we add a guestbook so that the whole enterprise can be given the legitimacy of real guests speaking about the units in their own voices. The voices are screaming? That's OK - as the GM's response to the posting will go right into the guest book and be seen before the issue, itself. The posting will reveal the degree that the property "owner" cares about and solves the renters' issues. This is a Tripadvisor for the hotel - but a Tripadvisor that the hotel has put on its own doorstep, thereby revealing rather than simply telling what the unit and the hotel management can do to garner praise, criticism, and implement positive response. The web buyer knows that "perfection" is inconsistent and hidden under the shadow of "corpo-speak". A sincere effort to fix the "un-perfect" can be a more valuable marketing tool than the bald words " the view from the expansive deck is perfection". Well, one of the 20 plus photos for the unit will give the customer a sense of that "perfection" with or without sunset. Is it "perfection"? Whose "perfection"?

Next, the site should have an e-mail club for special offers. This, of course, enhances the ability to market need period special offers

Finally, the site needs a fully functioning on-line concierge so as to give an active reason as to why the rents are higher than for other local rental houses. Activities and services that will come with the rental unit need to be given a witness - not just verbiage, be given a system that shows that the lifestyle is a real one. This takes us back to the Pricing Experience Circle - back to what rates are acceptable to the rental marketplace, to the hotel's new comp set.

The owned 3rd party web channel is now feeding links to the hotel's own site - increasing the Google rankings. Concurrently, the numerous mentions of the hotel's name associated with all possible search words on all the separate rental unit listings will give even more power and web presence to the hotel's own website search engine visibility.

With the addition of one website dedicated to the rental units, the hotel simultaneously increases its own web visibility and landscape, while shifting the paradigm.

4. E-mail Collection System on the Property's Own 3rd Party Rental Channel Delivers Opt-in Names for Need Period Special Offers and CRM to Interested Customers

This e-mail sign-up tool will yield another set of those elusive self-selected interested buyers. This is another avenue for entering the hotel's databases.

With that database, it will become possible to market instant specials - even for the upcoming weekend to the "drive market" addresses in that database. That's what we want, the ability to market the inventory that is distressed and do so at minimal cost. The web designer can set up web database e-mailimg for the reservations department to do on its own without added costs.

5. Update All Copy for Search Engine Optimization and Maintain Sites and Listings as Fresh and Seasonal

Regrettably, these listings on 3rd party web channels and the owned 3rd party web site need to be managed, changed and adapted so as to guarantee seasonal freshness. This is a daily, weekly, and quarterly job that should not be neglected. Search Engines appreciate copy that changes -- more words here, more emphasis there equals more interest to the search engine.

Value Yield for These Actions

Value should work for a hotel on two levels. Let's consider a key constituency - independent owners. If the hotel has separate rental unit owners, wholly owned or fractional, the values to be found with an increase in market visibility and penetration for their own units is . . .

1. happy owners

2. a track record of management's efforts on the owners' behalf

3. potential of increased value of current and future properties through enhanced revenue opportunities

4. a selling tool for future projects to new owners - "we care and we really do work for you"

And for the hotel's owners, the program will yield alternative ways to gain revenue at low cost and no commission that gives the hotel another set of targeted marketing tools that are in management's control.

And If It Doesn't Work?

It might not. The pricing structure could be an inhibitor - a week for $5000 in a sterile, uninteresting set of rooms. How many days of the week do all the properties sit empty? What is the value? Where is the incremental income?

Not taking pets could cut out 40% of the market.

Not renting specifically reservable units could turn the whole exercise into that of a generic hotel. This is the opposite of the renters' expectations.

The rental property could be uninteresting, lacking in perceived value, or has too few beds for too much money when placed next to its comp set – other rental properties in the area.

The guest experience could be negative. That is another story. A story that we all want to find the "right" way of telling but, are always confronted with so many "rights" - as many as there are staff members and managers.

Another day.

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