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"Oh, You're Like an Airbnb..."


If I had a nickel for every time I've heard this since I started working for my company (Natural Retreats) about 5 and a half years ago, I'd have at least enough to buy a candy bar - almost certainly a King Size.

I heard this again recently at church, so I thought I'd do my own sort of PSA for anyone interested in hearing it.

My company is a luxury vacation rental property manager (PM); in our case, this means we manage the marketing, sales, inspections, cleaning, maintenance, upkeep, and general rental operations of a portfolio of short-term rental homes for the individuals that own them. There are many other companies like us around the country/world; some manage all of the things I mentioned above for their owners, and some only take on certain facets (like maybe just listing the home for sale on their platforms, but then outsourcing things like maintenance and cleaning).

Like hotels (and airlines and car rental companies), many vacation rentals distribute some/all of their inventory on third party sites, or Online Travel Agents (OTAs), like, Expedia, Vrbo, and yes, Airbnb. These OTAs are often viewed by their users/suppliers as "necessary evils" because they command some pretty high commissions and fees (some higher than others). But for a lot of companies, it's a necessary evil because, well, these platforms have considerable market penetration. In 2019 alone, Expedia Group and Booking Holdings spent a record $11B on marketing, compared with $2B which is a gracious rough estimate of the marketing spend all of the major hotel brands combined that year. So as much as the suppliers wish they didn't have to pay the (in some cases, exorbitant) commissions/fees, it's still sometimes worth it to do so - particularly during slower times of the year. And because some OTAs disallow or penalize you if you pick and choose when you let your inventory sell through, selling on one of these platforms during a high demand season is particularly painful for the supplier.

If we property managers (and hoteliers and airlines and car rental companies) had our druthers, we'd be able to market and sell directly to our guests so as to avoid the commission costs... Which, yes, sometimes do get passed on to you when you book via those channels. Additionally, some channels charge the guest a fee (that you wouldn't pay if you booked directly) just to book on their platform (I'm looking at you, Vrbo and Airbnb). But as mentioned above, none of us really have the marketing power of the OTAs (who can generally reinvest up to 40% of their revenue into marketing vs. suppliers who, after accounting for all of their operational costs, can maybe afford 5-6%).

So why do so many people book on these third party platforms? Well, they make it easy and convenient, you can look at and compare a bunch of different companies and products all in one place, and then book on a site that is reputable thanks to its "big box brand name" (versus booking with a smaller company that you've never heard of). But mostly, they have convinced travelers that they're getting the cheapest rate if they book with them... I mean, when you spend as much as they do to "educate" travelers via marketing campaigns, you can pretty much create and control the narrative. I can certainly understand the behavior even if I don't love it.

So given all that, it may be easier to understand why I die a little inside every time someone says, "Oh, you're like an Airbnb..." We (and other PMs) work really hard to be more than and better than a transactional site like Airbnb. We work hard to truly partner with our guests and our owners. We don't just take peoples' money and wish them well with a toll-free number and a customer service email address to contact if they have any troubles. We greet you when you get to town. We answer your questions... Like ALL of your questions - not just the basics. We WANT to talk to you and be your advocate when you're in town. We will take your group photo so you don't have to take a crooked selfie that crops out grandma. We'll give you the lowdown on where to dine/play/gawk. And yes, if something goes wrong, we'll be there to make sure it gets fixed and your vacation goes on as smoothly as possible. Airbnb won't do those things. I mean, yeah, you can rent a house on our site. But that's about where the similarities dry up. And maybe that's ok with you. And that's cool. But no, we're not really "like an Airbnb" beyond that.

That said, major props to Airbnb for building such amazing brand recognition... But when you're investing billions into building it, I guess you'd BETTER have it.

So what will you do with this knowledge? Maybe you'll do absolutely nothing differently. That's ok. We, and many other property managers (and hoteliers and airlines and car rental companies) make the choice to use OTAs, but if you love me (or at least don't dislike me), at least think about this the next time you think about booking travel on a third party site. We made the choice to include third party distributors in our strategy, but it doesn't mean we won't appreciate you a thousand times over if you find us on one of these sites and then contact us to book with us directly. #bookdirect

Oh, and it's election day. So go vote if you haven't yet. :-)

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