With the summer rental season right around the corner, second-home owners hoping to rent out their getaways to travelers and vacationers are looking for creative ways to fill remaining vacancies in their rental calendars.

Vacation-home owners, investors and others seeking to become full-time vacation-home owners and managers gathered recently in Austin, Texas, for the HomeAway Summit to discuss creative marketing, finance and how to lure more customers in a sluggish economy.

For the past three years, vacation-home owners reported calls and reservations for weekly vacations have slowed considerably. Weekly family vacationers seemed to just simply be staying at home, enjoying "staycations." What do owners do to make up for all the lost reservations the bad economy is causing?

"The first thing I did was to start offering what guests seemed to be asking for: weekend stays instead of weekly stays," said Debi Nelson-Maney, who owns three lakeside vacation rental homes. "We went to a three-night minimum in our peak season and holidays, and two-night minimum in the off-peak season. All I did was determine what I was getting for a week stay and divided that by two (to) three nights, discounted it a bit so I could still actually advertise weekly rates as the better bargain."

Nelson-Maney and others also began marketing their properties to groups they had turned away for years: younger renters and larger groups of renters. She has increased occupancy by more than 50 percent by creating lodging and activity packages for family reunions, wedding parties, golf weekends, ski weekends, women’s weekend getaways, and even bachelor and bachelorette party weekends. She also allows each guest to pay a share individually.

"What’s in it for me?" Nelson-Maney asked. "I add a $20 per-person service charge to each package, along with an additional 4 percent overall charge to cover credit card fees. Then, I order pizza for the group on one night and provide bus service for a night on the town the next night. Nobody drives, I get increased revenue, and everybody has a good time.

"The part that intrigues most guests is that they do not need to do the collecting — I handle that for them. In addition, it is all set up for each guest to pay their initial share of 50 percent down to register for the weekend. The balance is due 30 days prior to arrival."

Michael and Angela Smith have also become big believers in renting to corporate groups for weekend conferences, special employee "reward" vacations and large family reunions. They focus their vacation-home purchases close to a specific amenity — like amusement parks — and recently purchased their third sprawling home near Disneyland.

"We chose to look at the upside rather than the downside," Michael said. "And larger groups seem more likely to be repeat guests. We attempt to exceed our customers’ expectations to the point where they wouldn’t consider staying with anyone else, creating customers for life."

The Smiths say targeting corporate groups helps to promote their properties to a larger pool of potential renters.

"If companies bring in their executives for a retreat or a nearby conference and we blow them away with great service and features, chances are they would consider bringing their families back on vacation in the future."

The Smiths have not lowered their rates even though many renters ask for a reduction. Instead, they try to create extra value by offering gaming system rentals, waterproof video camera rentals, and discounted theme park and attraction tickets.

"For some of our deal-seekers, we will offer one of the upgrades at no additional cost during their stay," Michael said.

Marino Tomacelli said he tries to offer something unexpected at his two Mexican properties, comprised of a four-bedroom condo in Playa del Carmen and an ecologically friendly private jungle retreat that can accommodate as many as 35 guests and is only offered in its entirety to one group at a time.

"It can be something very simple," Tomacelli said. "Like offering chilled, soft towels for guests when they arrive. They really appreciate that in a hot climate."

While creative promotions have a made a difference in the present economy, there are still plenty of tire kickers online and on the phone.

"Does every guest book a package? Of course not," Nelson-Maney said. "The whole purpose of trying something different was to put heads in my beds. Do some guests just call to pick my brain and want the entire weekend itemized out per cost? Sure they do. But they also could call back and rent. More than once."

Next week: How to get started in the vacation rental business.

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