The Beginner’s Guide to Online Travel Agents (OTAs)
Marketing broadly is key to running an efficient vacation rental business. Generating traffic to your vacation rental website through pay-per-click ads, SEO, blogging, social, and referral and repeat marketing is important for your vacation rental business because this generates direct bookings, which are the most high-profit bookings. However, creating a successful marketing campaign and website can take years, and relying on only direct bookings can hurt your business and profits tremendously. Using online travel agents (OTAs) like Airbnb, Booking.com, or HomeAway is an effective way to supplement your direct bookings and increase your profits. If you’re just getting started, OTAs are a great way to earn quick profits — over time, think of them as insurance to make sure you always hit your revenue targets.
At Vacation Rental University, we provide detailed lessons and tools to help you master the marketing of your vacation rental properties on OTAs, but here is a quick overview of our favorite OTAs that you can use to improve your business today.
Generally considered a “lower-priced market,” Airbnb is a great OTA that has become very popular in recent years. The original idea started as air mattresses in a more bed and breakfast style at someone’s house, hence the shortened name “Airbnb.” This concept was definitely for a budget traveler and, based on market data, that remains true today. While they continue to evolve and expand, in general, lower priced or unique listings will do best on Airbnb. A major plus of Airbnb is the amount of contact you have with guests. Their business model is very personable, and they make it easy for you to contact guests before their stay, ask screening questions, and deliver any instructions or rules for the property. You’ll even be able to see a guest rating. They also charge their commission fees directly to the guests, so you don’t need to worry about adjusting your rates (if you’re not familiar with net-rates or rate parity, you should sign up with us right away!).
Also known as VRBO and various other sites that they purchased over the years, HomeAway has been in the vacation rental marketing space much longer than most other OTAs and as such, they have a good following of loyal guests who statistically book for a higher price — those guests also usually have a great understanding of what a vacation rental is, which makes your job easier! They also integrate listings very easily with most property management software platforms (see our lessons on PMS systems for more info). Like Airbnb, HomeAway charges most of their fees directly to guests so no rate adjustments are needed on your end, but there are ad fees and recently some commissions can get charged back to you for what is considered an “off-platform booking” or a booking that came to you through HomeAway, but you closed on the phone and not through their website. If you are in a resort market, chances are that HomeAway is a very lucrative channel for you.
Even though Airbnb has been the big topic in recent media, Booking.com is also a massive player in the OTA market — possibly the largest in many markets. In Europe, around 80% of all vacation rental bookings come from Booking.com, and they have a huge and growing market in North America as well. Booking.com has a wide market range from budget travelers to luxury and all that falls in between, and the marketing dollars to continue to expand that reach. While they will bring in lots of bookings they also have a high cancellation rate and give you very limited information about the guest, so be sure to watch out for that as you get started and make sure you understand exactly how to communicate to guests through their platform. Also, keep in mind that when listing on Booking.com that they charge you a commission and not the guests, so you’ll need to adjust your rates accordingly to cover those costs.
Listing your properties on OTAs is essential for any small vacation rental business to succeed today. Relying only on pay-per-click and direct bookings is an expensive and time-consuming way to manage your business, and OTAs are great resource to boost your business’ success right away. Airbnb, Booking.com, and HomeAway are the 3 largest players in the industry, but marketing broadly is always a smart idea — so explore all other channels, especially local and region players!
At VRU, we have lessons on how to maximize your use of OTAs, how to keep costs low, and the best practices to widely market your vacation rental business. Join VRU today and leverage our decades of experience and hundreds of lessons to help you succeed in the vacation rental industry!