RISMEDIA, November 6, 2010—It’s almost time to start thinking about building fires in the fireplace, bundling up in your warmest sweater, sipping hot cocoa while you watch the snow, and start fretting over that unrented vacation home. While T.S. Eliot may think that April is the cruelest month, for many vacation property owners, any month between now and Memorial Day would qualify. That cabin or condo that renters clamor over all summer tends to sit depressingly (and expensively) empty all winter.
However, Christine Karpinski, director of Owner Community for HomeAway.com 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 Investment believes that it’s often the little touches that draw winter renters, delight them, and keep them coming back for more.
Here are some of Karpinski’s tips for making your vacation property appealing to winter renters:
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, so make the most of your exposure. Play up features like hot tubs and fireplaces. Sprinkle copy with words like warm, cozy, cocoon, snuggle, and cuddle. 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 from someone looking to book for next spring or summer, offer them a winter special—say, half-price off a weekend stay—so they can come check out the place early. That would be tough to resist.”
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 and marshmallows, spiced apple cider, ginger cookies, chili fixings, and a crock pot. 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. 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 10-50%. When you accept pets, it’s okay to take an additional $20-$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.
Offer a “customized” special to repeat guests. If you’ve tried everything and you still have lots of weeks unbooked, it’s time to get creative. 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.
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.