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RISMEDIA, March 21, 2009-As the days get longer (and warmer), more and more Americans turn their thoughts to those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer. In the past, this time of year had vacation homeowners rubbing their hands together in gleeful anticipation of a healthy booking season. But now that the recession has many people staycationing rather than vacationing, you’re more likely to be wringing your hands instead. Compared to last year, the phone is not ringing off the hook, fewer inquiries are arriving in your inbox-and you’re starting to worry that your cottage or cabin might sit empty during those critical peak summer weeks.

Don’t throw in the towel on your summer rental revenue just yet, says Christine Karpinski. People are still renting vacation homes; you just need to be proactive and take steps so that vacationers are renting from you. Instead of grimly tightening your belt another notch, take a long, hard look at how you’re marketing your property.

“Okay, so your property isn’t getting booked as quickly or as easily as it might have a couple of years ago,” says Karpinski, director of Owner Community (www.OwnerCommunity.com) for HomeAway.com (an online vacation home rental marketplace) and author of How to Rent Vacation Properties by Owner, 2nd Edition: The Complete Guide to Buy, Manage, Furnish, Rent, Maintain and Advertise Your Vacation Rental Investmen.

“That’s no reason to assume the party’s over.

“The truth is, the playing field has changed,” she adds. “People are still going to be taking vacations, but rather than passively waiting for them to come to you, you’re going to have to put in a little extra effort. You’re going to have to ramp up your marketing and strategies and-this is important-set some goals. By having a number of bookings or a profit amount to aim for, you’re more likely to stay motivated.”

Goals are essential, says Karpinski, because they keep you taking action rather than giving up when times get tough. It’s a psychological thing. And setting goals also helps you focus your marketing efforts.

“If you’re falling short of your goals for a given month or season, you can adjust your marketing strategy and run a special to attract more vacationers,” she says.

If the strategy you have in place isn’t helping you meet your goals, don’t hesitate to change it, advises Karpinski. The truth is, there is no one-size-fits-all marketing plan. Successful vacation rental owners are constantly changing and adjusting their marketing strategies in order to meet their goals and stay ahead of their competition.

Karpinski offers the following advice:

– Reassess your target market. Knowing who you are trying to attract will help you choose the best marketing options for your property. Do you want to stick to families and seniors or are you open to 20-somethings and college students?

– Consider what demographics your past guests have fallen under. “Keep in mind your target markets can change,” says Karpinski. “For example, you might open your home to business travelers or weekend vacationers, who will book the property for only one or two nights rather than accepting families willing to book for six nights. If you want to stay booked in a down economy, these are definitely markets you should consider.”

– Perform a SWOT Analysis. In case you didn’t know, “SWOT” stands for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. Completing a SWOT analysis will help you determine where your vacation home’s strengths lie, where you can improve, what opportunities exist in the market, and what threats loom on the horizon.

Here are a few things to consider in each category:

Strengths
-What does your home offer that other homes in your area do not?
-Are your rates competitive?
-What do you do as an owner that is better than other owners in your market?

Weaknesses
-What do other homes in your area offer that you do not?
-Are there any areas where your home could be improved?
-How can you improve your ads?

Opportunities
-Are there any improvements being made or attractions being added in your market?
-Does your property cater to any growing market segments like seniors or business travelers?

Threats
-Is your market overcrowded with vacation rentals?
-Has there been a significant increase in property taxes for non-homesteaded homes?
-Is there movement in your market to restrict, limit, or ban short-term rentals?

“Even if you’ve made a SWOT analysis in the past, it won’t hurt to do another one now,” says Karpinski. “It’s likely that you’ve made some changes to your home or there have been some changes to your home’s area that should be accounted for.”

– Size up your competition. In positioning your vacation home, you should consider who you’re competing against for your target travelers, what they offer, and how their pricing compares to yours. After you’ve compiled a list of your biggest competitors, take note of where they currently advertise, which marketing tactics they’ve chosen to implement, and how you can more effectively or persuasively reach the target customers you have in common.

“Don’t be afraid to look to your competition for creative marketing ideas,” says Karpinski. “Maybe you like the way they’ve staged a room in one of their photos, or they’re offering a special you hadn’t ever considered. Just be sure to put your own spin on it to make it true to you and your property.”

– Concoct the right marketing mix. Most marketing activities conducted by vacation rental homeowners fall into the categories of online advertising, offline advertising, and word-of-mouth marketing. While print and radio ads are viable options, you can’t beat online advertising for ease and cost-effectiveness.

“And you can’t go wrong with great word-of-mouth advertising,” she adds. “In addition to asking for referrals, you should consider asking your renters to look you up on social networking sites such as Facebook or LinkedIn. It’s a great way for you to create a network of renters and to give them an easy way of recommending you to their friends and family.”

– Be careful how you position your property. When setting your marketing strategy, it’s important to determine what group(s) your home is perfectly suited for. Many vacation homeowners inadvertently target the wrong travelers, says Karpinski, especially when they start feeling desperate.

– Stay current with events in your market. “Even when the economy is bad, large groups of people will still turn out for golf tournaments and other sporting events, music festivals, and so on,” says Karpinski. “It’s important that you stay abreast of events in your area so you can adjust your marketing strategies accordingly. Consider subscribing to the local newspaper in your vacation home market or set up Google News Alerts to come to your email. Simply making a change in your ad copy to mention the event will help event participants find you more easily.”

People will undoubtedly still go on vacation this year, even with all the bad economic news we hear on a daily basis.

“People need vacations, even if they have to cut their budgets,” Karpinski predicts. “In the same way we get sick of winter, we get sick of scrimping and saving and holding onto every cent. Just wait. The phone may not be ringing yet, but when all the snow melts and the flowers start blooming, the purse strings will start loosening. Make sure you’re ready with a solid marketing strategy to grab some of those vacation dollars.”

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