LAKE BUENA VISTA – More than a decade ago, John J. Suzuki noted, it was still considered a small industry that had a lot of growing up to do.
The times, he added, have changed.
“We’re about to see an explosion of opportunity,” said Suzuki, the vice president of sales at HomeAway, a firm that provides software for professionals. “The industry is growing, and that is a good thing. You want to be an industry that is growing, rather than shrinking.”
Suzuki was referring to the vacation home industry, which has truly grown by leaps and bounds in the past decade, particularly in Osceola and Polk counties. What it represents is an alternative to anyone who wants to spend their vacation in Central Florida, but would prefer to stay in something larger than a hotel room.
The vacation home industry rents out homes that have multiple bedrooms, a fully furnished kitchen, a game room and a private pool – an appealing alternative for larger families with kids. The industry has its own trade group, the Central Florida Vacation Rental Managers Association, which meets once a month and sponsors an annual trade show. It was held today at Disney’s Coronado Springs Resort Convention Center, where Suzuki was a guest speaker, offering advice to the property managers on smart marketing techniques for the future.
The growth in the vacation home industry reflects the increased popularity of these specialized short term rental homes, said Jeff Chase, a member of the CFVRMA’s board of directors and the moderator of the trade show.
He noted that the hospitality industry has a much larger trade group, the Central Florida Hotel & Lodging Association, which represents the numerous hotels, time shares and resorts in this region. But this year, the CFHLA invited the vacation home industry to add one of its members to their existing board of director – indicating the two sides would start working together in the future to promote all of Central Florida’s hospitality businesses.
“We’ve got a great relationship with the Central Florida Hotel & Lodging Association, and we now have a member on their board of directors,” Chase said.
Suzuki said the vacation home industry is maturing, and quickly.
“Disney is now in the business of doing vacation homes. Is there anything more mainstream than Disney?” he said. “Vacation rentals, folks, like it or not, have hit the mainstream. You guys are now in the mainstream. The kind of exposure you have now is unprecedented.”
Still, just how rapidly the industry will continue to grow, he said, will depend on how effectively they learn to market themselves. The property managers, he said, need to jump on every new technology available to them to maximize their full potential.
“Something around 20 percent of the vacationing community even knows how to spell vacation rental,” he said. “This is a market that not all of us in this room have been serving.”
Reaching those tourists, he said, means being smarter about how they advertise and build up a client base.
“Yesterday’s ‘Huh?’ are today’s ‘Huh!’ “ Suzuki said. “Part of this goes back to guests’ expectations. You have to plan for any problems. It’s easy to have satisfied clients. It’s hard to have delighted ones. To get them delighted, you have to know what your guests want. They want selection, they want convenience, they want to trust you.”
It begins, he said, with making it easy for them to find members of the vacation home industry where they shop today – on the Internet.
“They want you to be where they shop,” he said. “You may think you have a great web site, but if they can’t find it, they won’t shop with you.”
Investing in the most sophisticated ways of reaching people pays off, he added, and it’s also important to ensure your web site is easy to navigate and use.
“Today’s luxury is tomorrow’s expectation,” he said. “If I have to click 16 pages before I get to the place where I need to put my credit card in, I’m out.”
Every year for the past seven, Suzuki added, there’s been a new hot trend in this industry. In 2004, he said, vacation home managers began accepting credit cards online. By 2005, they were taking online bookings.
By 2006, they began developing their own web sites, and a year later, were using specialized web software.
By 2008 they were integrating guest reviews on their site, and in 2009, they were employing someone to manage revenue investments.
In 2010, vacation homes were moving to social media sites like Facebook. This year, he said, they’ve started adopting security measures to protect themselves.
“One of the things we have to do as an industry is be very careful about our clients’ data,” Suzuki said. “Security is very, very important. We’re a bunch of small businesses. We’re easy targets. Make sure you do everything you can to bullet-proof your systems.”
New trends will continue to allow the industry to expand, he added.
“In the next 24 months, you’re going to see an explosion of mobile applications,” Suzuki said. “By 2013, you’re going to see homes that are as easy to book and trust as hotels, cruises and airline seats. We have an opportunity to transform what is a good little industry into an extraordinary one.”
Most of all, Suzuki said, property managers need to understand that keeping up with changing technologies means not being afraid to learn more about it.
“The world is changing,” he said. “My son grew up with video games. He recently said to me, ‘Dad, I’m excited, I got this new video game and you can play it with me.’
“Thirty minutes later,” Suzuki added, “he said, ‘Dad, you suck.’ And I did.”
That reflects the different ways that young people view new technology, he added.
“Have you seen kids texting?” he asked. “We say, ‘Just pick up the phone and call them.’ Do you know why they don’t pick up the phone and call? Because it’s too slow.”
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