Operation “Winter Renter”: Eleven Tips For Attracting Off-Season Guests To Your Vacation Home
By Christine Karpinski
Teacher, Author and Speaker Specializing in Renting Vacation Properties "By Owner" 770-592-7860 Christine@HowToRentByOwner.com How To Rent Vacation Homes By Owner
Woodstock, GA (November 2004)—It’s that time again. Time to rake up mountains of crunchy leaves, build crackling fires in the hearth, unpack your cuddly sweaters, begin your holiday shopping—and start fretting over that unrented vacation home. That’s right. T.S. Eliot may think that April is the cruelest month, but for many vacation property owners, any month between Labor Day and Memorial Day would qualify. That cabin or condo that renters clamor over all summer tends to sit depressingly (and expensively) empty all winter. If there was something you could do to make your off-season not quite so, well, off.
Actually, says Christine Hrib Karpinski, there are many things you can do. The author of How to Rent Vacation Properties by Owner: The Complete Guide to Buy, Manage, Furnish, Rent, Maintain and Advertise Your Vacation Rental Investment (Kinney Pollack Press, 2004, ISBN: 0-9748249-0-9, $26.00) says it’s often the little touches that draw “winter renters,” delight them, and keep them coming back for more.
“Obviously, more people vacation during peak season,” she says. “That’s why it’s peak season! But there are still plenty of people who prefer to travel during the cooler months. Maybe they want to avoid the crowds, maybe they want to take advantage of the lower rates, or maybe they just want a break in the February doldrums. Your mission is to make your vacation home stand out from the many others that are available to potential renters. It’s that simple. You have to go the proverbial extra mile.”
Here are some of Karpinski’s tips for making your vacation property appealing to winter renters:
First and foremost, “winterize” your marketing.
It won’t matter how perfect your place is for a mid-winter getaway if people don’t know about it. If you’re like many vacation property owners you’re already listed on at least one “rent by owner” website. Make the most of it. Play up features like hot tubs and fireplaces. Sprinkle copy with words like warm, cozy, cocoon, snuggle and cuddle. You might even paint an inviting verbal picture such as “Envision yourself gazing out the tall picture window, a cup of hot cocoa in hand, as fat snowflakes drift lazily through the pines.” Finally, add a few “off-season” photos of your property to your website. Photos of the home framed in brilliant autumn leaves or dusted with snow will speak louder than a thousand poetic words.
- Consider off-season specials.
Everyone loves a bargain, and in the winter, they expect one. “My favorite off-season booking magnet is ‘rent three nights and get one free,’” says Karpinski. “Or, when you get a call for someone looking to book next spring or summer, offer them a winter special—say, half-price off a weekend stay—so they can come check the place out early. That would be tough to resist.”
- Get as much mileage as possible out of from the holidays.
Early November is not too soon to put up a Christmas tree or twine the banister with garland or set out a selection of seasonal DVDs (It’s a Wonderful Life and Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer would please guests of all ages). Holiday trappings delight almost everyone’s “inner child” and can really add to your renters’ enjoyment of their vacation—which, of course, is likely to result in another visit in the future.
- Add “warm cozy” touches.
Put thick, warm comforters on the bed and fleece throws on the sofa. Place a few spice-scented candles on tables or countertops. Leave savory winter treats in the kitchen: cocoa mix & marshmallows, spiced apple cider, ginger cookies, chili fixings and a crock pot. (Ask the housekeeper to replenish edibles.) You might even consider leaving an extra coat or two in the closet, along with toboggans, gloves and scarves—chances are they won’t be used but guests will appreciate the hospitality.
- Plan for snow!
If guests should happen to get snowed in at your home, you want to make the experience as pleasant as possible. Make sure to have a snow shovel, ice melt and a windshield ice scraper on the premises. The possibility of inclement weather is a good reason to have a selection of nonperishable foods on hand, as well as movies and books. You certainly don’t want a houseful of hungry, stir-crazy, cranky renters who are cursing their vacation experience (and by association, you)!
- Consider adding a hot tub, sauna or ventless gas fireplace.
If your vacation property is a “summer home” with no winter appeal, such additions can make a world of difference. You may be thinking that these are pricey upgrades, but you’ll be amazed at how fast they pay for themselves via increased off-season bookings. One caveat: if you install a ventless gas fireplace, be sure to get a carbon monoxide detector as well.
- Make your home baby- and toddler-friendly.
You’ve probably noticed that people with very young children are more likely to travel off-season. (After all, they’re not constrained by school schedules.) Appeal to these people by including baby and toddler paraphernalia. A high chair and a porta crib should cost less than $150 combined, and can drastically increase your off-season bookings.
- Accept pets.
Vacation properties that accept pets increase their occupancy by 10 to 50 percent. When you accept pets, it’s okay to take an additional $20 to $25/night or $140 to $175/week. This extra (which pet owners would have to spend anyway on boarding fees) is enough to pay for any carpet cleaning that needs to be done. “I spoke with a woman named Jennifer, who owned a nice cabin in the mountains of Colorado,” says Karpinski. “She was within driving distance of 3 ski resorts, but not really close enough to any of them to advertise that her place was associated with any of them. She was only booking her cabin 2-3 weeks per year. I advised her to start accepting pets, and the minute she did, her bookings started to flow in. Two years later, she is booked for the whole ski season, 3 or 4 weeks during the summer to hikers, and she rents 10-12 long weekends through the year. She has never been happier!”
- If all else fails, offer a “customized” special to repeat guests.
If you’ve tried everything and you still have lots of weeks unbooked, it’s time get creative (perhaps even a bit assertive). Consider calling or e-mailing prior “VIP” guests and offering them discounted off-season stays. You might even link the stay to a special event in their lives. For instance, if you know that John and Jane Smith have an anniversary in March—thanks to the detailed file you keep on them—call them and offer a special celebratory weekend at a reduced rate. When they accept, have a champagne gift basket waiting for them in the bedroom along with a handwritten “Happy Anniversary” note.
- One final tip for Florida property owners.
Sometimes we find ourselves in the fortunate position of helping people in need and making a little money besides. If you have a vacation home in or near the areas that sustained damage from Hurricane Ivan, this may be one of those times. FEMA is still looking for rental homes that can house displaced residents. Call 1-800-621-FEMA (3362).
- Not sold on winter renting? Consider it “damage insurance.”
All of that said, some people actually prefer to lock up their place for the winter. Maybe they don’t think renting is worth the effort, or maybe they make enough money during peak season to pay their mortgage for the year. If this is your mindset, Karpinski suggests you reconsider—winter renting can ward off property damage. “I’ve stories of locked-up properties that have been ransacked by families of raccoon, and of broken furnaces that have led to burst pipes,” she says. “Houses that are empty for long stretches of time, especially in freezing weather, tend to have problems. If renters had periodically visited such homes, these issues could have been avoided or at least discovered early, before things worsened.
Now that Karpinski has shared all these great ideas, she offers a word of caution: exercise moderation.
“It’s great to spend some money on things to attract winter renters,” she says. “Just don’t go overboard. I knew a guy who would tons of extra advertising and equip his place with all these bonuses for his off-season renters. Yes, he ended up booking the place for all of January through March—but his bottom line for all three months was only $500! My advice is this: a little effort goes a long way. Do one or two things on the list, not all of them. Otherwise, do a good job with the basics and be a friendly, hospitable host. As word gets around and your guests become ‘regulars,’ your off-season problem will solve itself.”
About the Author:
Christine Hrib Karpinski’s first and most important job is as a stay-at-home mom. She fell into teaching about vacation properties only by chance. Realizing that there was no way she could afford to buy a vacation home using a management company, she started “renting by owner.” Not only was she successful, others wanted to know how to do it too. She started writing a column in Gulf Coast Condo Owner Magazine. From there, the rest, as they say, is history. Today she's the most respected voice of vacation property investing. She’s been featured on CNNfn, CBS Marketwatch Radio, Good Day Sacramento, MSNBC TV, RealtyTimes.com , Bankrate.com, Kiplinger’s Magazine, The Chicago Tribune and many others
When she’s not teaching or taking care of her family, you’ll find Christine in a pottery studio creating with her hands, singing in her church choir, or relaxing on the beach in Destin, Florida. She currently resides in Woodstock, Georgia, with her husband, Tom, son, Zachary, and two Nova Scotia Duck Tollers, Trumpet and Piccolo.
About the Book:
How to Rent Vacation Properties by Owner: The Complete Guide to Buy, Manage, Furnish, Rent, Maintain and Advertise Your Vacation Rental Investment (Kinney Pollack Press, 2004, ISBN: 0-9748249-0-9, $26.00) The Vacation Rental Organizer ((Kinney Pollack Press, 2004, ISBN: 0-9748249-1-7, $19.00) is available at bookstores nationwide and all major online booksellers, or directly from Christine's web site: www.HowToRentByOwner.com
US Vacation Real Estate Directory
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