Small business owners start an effort to learn from one another.

The vacation home industry, made up largely of small business owners, is setting by regular small business panel discussions to allow owners to learn from one another. (Photo by Michael Freeman).

KISSIMMEE – For the rest of this year, the trade group representing the vacation home industry has a special mission: to help small business owners find ways to succeed in a still-rocky economic environment.
The goal this year of the Central Florida Vacation Rental Managers Association, according to its new president, An Flamand, is to help educate other small business owners and entrepreneurs on how best to operate and build up a client base. And a key way to do that, Flamand said, is for members to use the association’s monthly meetings to reach out to, and learn from, one another.
“It’s forcing people to actually network, and we will be doing it this year,” she said.
Unlike the hotel industry, which represents plenty of large corporations that operate huge resorts, the vacation home industry is still a field made up largely of small business owners – many of them running property management firms that book and maintain homes that owners want to rent out on a short term basis to tourists or business travelers.
This has been a very fast-growing field in Central Florida, particularly in Polk and Osceola counties, where the number of short term rental vacation homes has soared in the past decade. The concept is simple: a fully furnished house that appeals to a family that thinks a hotel room is too small, and would rather spend their vacation in a home with multiple bedrooms, a kitchen and a private pool.
The industry has actually grown during the recession, as people who bought homes at the height of the real estate market between 2004 and 2007, and who couldn’t sell those properties after the housing market crashed, have decided to rent them instead as vacation homes. But not all of them understand how to successfully operate a small business, even in a tourist Mecca like Greater Orlando.
The CFVRMA is the trade association for the industry, representing not just property managers but other small business owners who provide goods and services to this field, including furniture for the homes, cleaning services, and promotional materials.
Flamand said one of her goals this year as the association’s president has been to organize regular business roundtables, inviting members to talk about how they run their own company and what’s key to making it successful. During the association’s monthly meeting, held on Feb. 16 at the Fun Spot theme park on U.S. 192, Flamand introduced the concept.
“We actually have a small business panel here today,” she said.
Jeff Chase, a member of the CFVRMA’s board of directors, served as the moderator of the panel, and, just before it started, he glanced around the room at the large number of members attending the meeting and asked, “How many small business owners are here?”
Virtually everyone in the room raised their hand.
“A lot,” Chase added.
Tim Justynski works for Kissimmee Guest Services, which provides tourists with theme park tickets at a low-price guarantee, and many of his customers, he noted, stay at vacation homes.
“What I’m most proud of is the relationships I have built in the industry,” he said.  “I just think relationship building is very important.”
For example, he noted that many of the tourists who enjoy vacation homes are Europeans who come to Central Florida for extended vacations.  They often respond differently when dealing with business owners than Americans do, he said.
“The European or British crowd is not difficult, but you have to earn their trust,” he said.  “We were never pushy, but we were always there to help. One thing we have learned is you can’t be pushy. You just have to let them know what you do.  It’s important.  You just have to be in front of them all the time.”
Marilyn Pullen, who runs Premier Home Management in Polk County, agreed that finding ways to get guests to remember your business means going the extra mile to please them.
“We make special relationships with our guests, so they will go home and say ‘Hey, did you know they gave me a rose on Valentine’s Day?’ “ she said.
“There’s a good theme here, taking care of the customer,” Chase said, adding that business owners should always rely on direct contact with customers.
“Pick up the phone and make a call rather than emailing someone – the personal touch,” he said.
Jackie Ewing, who provides marketing advice for small business owners through her company Ewing Enterprises, said often the biggest challenge small business owners face isn’t their customers, but themselves.
“It’s people,” she said. “They won’t get out of their own way. Many people know there are a lot of things they need to do, and draw up a priority list. Then that phone rings and the person on the end of the line becomes your top priority.  They don’t do what they set out to do on a daily basis. “
Instead, Ewing added, stick to that priority list, and don’t allow yourself to get distracted.
“Take an hour every day and do not take those phone calls and do not check those emails,” she said. “Instead, draw up that priority list.”
Pullen agreed, saying “You’ve got to get beyond that blockage that says ‘Why am I doing this?’ “
Justynski added that no small business owner should spread themselves too thin.
“I think the hardest part of my job is to see everyone and be in front of everyone all the time,” he said.
Ewing said it’s also important to keep in mind that if you’re able to satisfy your customers, they’ll be your best source of advertising.
“That word of mouth is your strongest marketing tool,” she said.

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