5 Tips for Success on the OTAs

For many of us, we began our vacation rental journey using the OTAs such as Airbnb, HomeAway/ VRBO) and still market our homes there today. How to be successful on the OTAs is something that I get asked about often so I thought I’d share my top 5 tips for success.

Assuming you’ve done your due diligence and know your local laws, have gone through any legal setup needed and you’re ready to list (or amplify) your vacation rental game, here they are:

Thes first 3 strategies don't address direct actions taken within the OTA (Airbnb, HomeAway) platforms, but they will limit your ability to be successful. Good actions can only take you so far if you don't have a solid foundation to work from…

1. Know Your Audience 

This is the crux of any successful vacation rental. You must know your audience of guests. Who is your home ideally suited for and, as a host, what type of groups do you want to host? For instance, if you have a home that has a lot of sleeping space, a great kitchen and outdoor space that could easily appeal to a variety of people. As an example, a home like this may be ideal for families and since you, as a host have a family it may be easier for you to host other families because you are able to easily make recommendations on family-friendly activities. 

2. Design With Marketing in Mind

Many people design their homes or have them designed without factoring anything except style and guest count. You must design with marketing to your ideal audience in mind. That approach two-fold. First, you want the style to appeal not only appeal to the audience but to stand out. When a potential guest is searching Airbnb or HomeAway, your "competition" of homes are an inch above or below you and chances are, there going to view multiple homes before making a final selection. What will make someone click to learn more about your home? What will make them remember yours? Chances are it won't be "the house with the beige walls and tan sofa." As you're designing, think of incorporating decor that will be functional but also help your home stand out. For example, in one of our homes we have a Mural that helps the listing stand out, but is also functional because guests LOVE taking their picture on vacation with a great back drop.

Second, are the amenity offerings. Let's continue with the family example. Safety and family-friendly amenities are really important for families (they're also important to the OTAs like AIrbnb and HomeAway, we'll get to that in a minute). You'll will want to load your home with amenities like a pack n play, room darkening shades, high chairs, toys, books, etc. You'll also want to be mindful of furniture and accessories that are easily cleaned and durable (read: get a leather a sofa).  

3. Killer Photos 

Yes, we live in an era of user- generated content where the selfie is king AND queen. But, when it comes to marketing your home, self- taken photos (unless your a skilled photographer) simply do not look professional. There are a lot of hosts that get bookings just fine with these types of photos, but they're not maximizing their potential. The goal with photos is to showcase your key features for the ideal audience, highlight what makes your home unique and tell a realistic story of your space. Vacation rental photographer (and friend), Tyann Marcink has some great tips on her website. She also travels for photography or through her new company, Natty Media, partners with other local photographers in certain areas.

4. Build Your Listings, Adjust Them, Adjust Them Some More

Your listings are not the "Field of Dreams" where you build them and they come. Certainly, you want your listing to be cohesive and appealing from the get-go but it really does take constant work to maintain the status.

That said, one important note if you’re new to Airbnb be sure your listing is well put together from the beginning. When you first go live, you actually get a 2-week boost in your listing search results. The reason they do this is to help new hosts capture bookings and hopefully subsequent reviews. If you’re new to Airbnb, start here by signing up with a profile.

While none of the OTAs completely release their secret sauce, there are certainly things they like and do not like. 

First and foremost, the listing sites all seem to like activity. Frequently being in your dashboard, updating your calendar, pricing and content are among the top actions that I see increase views. 

  • For my calendar, I use a tool called Smartbnb that, among other things has a calendar heartbeat that sends a ping to the Airbnb calendar letting their system know that your calendar is update (that means a guest is less likely to have a bad experience by requesting or booking dates only to be denied). 

  • For my pricing, I use a tool called PriceLabs. This is a dynamic pricing tool that not only helps me in easily managing my pricing and capturing the most opportunity, but also by pricing changing frequently, it triggers the OTAs. 

  • Content includes your photos, headlines, summaries, etc. Once a week, I typically switch the order of my photos and update my headlines. Once again, this signals that I am active. Once a month, I often include references to upcoming special events because I know people will be looking for this. Conversely, on open dates where there isn't a lot going on, I pull together ideas into a photo or blurb within my listing. For instance, in fall, I had an image that said "Fall in Love with Nashville" and included the various sporting events (great for mid-week bookings), the different local festivals and more. While these are necessarily things visitors would know to search for, when they're looking at possible dates, it lets them know things will be happening in town that weekend. 

All of the OTAs like good response times. You may think your fast because you reply within a few minutes. But, seconds matter. The same tool I use for calendar pings, Smartbnb I also use for auto messaging. I have setup an "auto-reply" that reads my calendar availability, can pick up specific questions and replies within seconds of a new booking or inquiry coming through. I personally am often right behind it to answer any specific questions the guest/ potential guest may have but this helps "stop the clock" with the OTAs and records a positive response time which is a strong factor in ranking. 

NONE of the OTAs like cancellations. While there are times this may certainly be a necessity, you should go through all measures to have avoid this. Here are some of the top examples:

  • Make sure your listing is clear in what you allow and do not allow to avoid guests who aren't a match to book 

  • Make sure your calendars are synced across all OTA platforms. This can be done via an iCal link, a channel manager or a property management software. I highly recommend NOT relying on this to be done manually as there is more room for error. If you get a double- booking and have to cancel, that will certainly hurt you somewhere. 

  • Keep your pricing and minimum stays up to date. I hear of a lot of cancels because they forgot to adjust their pricing for the season and a booking was too low. 

Know that EVERY OTA is different (side note: it is critical that you read and understand the T&Cs as they do vary and can be confusing). Many OTAs attract different audiences and types of people. Personally, I tend to get more families from HomeAway/ VRBO than I do with Airbnb for example.

Remember how we said those safety and amenity features matter to the OTAs earlier? Those are important for your searchability. 

  • Many guests will enter their search criteria (wifi, linens, etc) but the more amenities you have, the better opportunity you have to show up in a search. Once again, using the family example. Most families do not want to travel with a high chair and pack n play. They'll likely set this search criteria as an option. Make sure your home is an option for your ideal guest by selecting the amenities you've put in your home to cater to them.

  • On Airbnb, specifically they launched what they call "collections" last year. One of those collections is family. By offering and selecting those amenities and maintaining other rank factors, your home will be eligible to be in that collection. This is meant to help families find homes that are specifically catering to them. There is also a work collection. 

5. Amazing, 5-Star Reviews 

In the end, you can do everything above but if you're not wow'ing the guests you simply will not be successful on the OTAs (or at hosting, in general). Ideally, having a solid foundation already makes for a good guest experience but I have found in order to get guests to leave reviews, you often have to wow them. A few tips for getting reviews: 

  • Communication throughout the process is key. As I mentioned earlier, I always suggest an immediate reply to an inquiry or booking. Additionally, I suggest sending guests another confirmation/ touch base 2 weeks prior to their stay. In this communication, I send them a link to our digital welcome book (I use TouchStay) to help them plan their trip, confirm the number of guests and ask them if there is anything else I can do to help prepare them for their trip. I send another communication 3 days prior reminding them where to find the logistics. All of this is automated, yet personalized via Smartbnb.  Vacation Rental expert (and friend), Alanna Schroeder of The Distinguished Guest also offers an excellent digital download called the “TDGs Ultimate Guest Communication Guide.”

  • Make sure the space is CLEAN. Nothing can start a trip off on the wrong foot more than a cleanliness issue. I personally have a cleaning crew but do an inspection after each clean. If you can't do it, find someone who can. We're all human, things will get missed but a second set of eyes will hopefully catch those. 

  • Surprise guests with the unexpected. We offer individually wrapped snacks, bottled water, mints, local chocolate and little goodies for each guest. I also hand write a card for each guest. This is often unexpected and goes a long way to connecting with the guest and making a memorable experience for them. 

  • The morning after their first night, I send another checkin message (also via Smartbnb) and ask them how things went and to remind them we're available if they need anything to make them more comfortable. This opens the line of communication in case there is an issue and allows you to address it before it shows up in a review. 

  • ASK for the review. I know it may feel weird, but you have to ask. When we send checkout instructions (yes, I suggest that, too) I also include a blurb that lets them know we really value their feedback, we work hard to maintain our 5-start status and would love it if they'd leave a review as it really helps us. Notice how we put that little "5-star" comment in there without asking for a 5-star? We've found that helpful but not pushy. 

NOTE: I have no affiliation with any of the people or tools I recommend in this article, though some links may be referral links (where you receive a discount and we earn a credit if you decide to purchase). I will never recommend a tool that I do not believe in. All of the tools listed are tools I personally use and have used for a minimum of 1 year).

Megan McCrea