To say this year was a bad year for vacation home rental owners in North & South Carolina would be quite an understatement. The upheaval in the marketplace by HomeAway / VRBO has turned a once thriving industry into a mesh of confusion, with owners now feeling the full pinch.
In February 2016 HomeAway / VRBO rolled out a new service fee, charging travelers who book through their websites. Some homeowners were lucky, they were already booked for much of the summer when the fee came to play, so they would not feel full effects right away. But now, as booking season is upon us for summer 2017, owners are seeing a dramatic decrease in listing views, views to contacts and contacts to bookings. Based upon an analysis of 150 random listings through North & South Carolina, listing views are down an average of 45%, with some owners seeing as much as an 80% decline. Booking aren't faring any better, with the average rental seeing a 50% or more decline in bookings through HomeAway / VRBO.
The way HomeAway / VRBO has identified (or hidden) the service fee has left travelers with a bitter taste in their mouths. The service fee is not made evident to travelers without them having to search for quote details. And then, it only say's service fee, with some travelers assuming the owner is charging the fee. Owners who have sought to clarify that it is not their fee in their responses to inquiries have been chastised by HomeAway / VRBO and some have been de-listed for being what HomeAway / VRBO calls bad actors.
With the new service fee in place, many rentals listed in HomeAway / VRBO are now priced higher in total cost than rentals of competitors (rental agencies) as homeowners most often have priced their rentals to match those listed with with the rental agencies. This has led to some owners reducing their rates in order to stay competitive. So, the service fee does not necessarily come out of the travelers pocket.
While the implementation of the service fee and how it was mismanaged from the start is certainly a driving factor, other moves by HomeAway / VRBO have proven just as disastrous and have contributed greatly to the booking declines, which have been seen across the board.
The "Best Match" search that was implemented by HomeAway / VRBO has made searching for vacation rentals by travelers a daunting, if not impossible task, and has thrown owners so far down the rabbit hole that some cannot be found at all. Areas that once had just a few hundred rentals listed now thousands with best match search including rentals fifty or more miles from where the travelers are looking to go, with listings for the area buried beneath those for other areas. Owners who previously showed up on page one are now showing on page 27 or deeper, with some not showing at all. This is frustrating for both travelers and homeowners.
Of course, the overall goal for HomeAway / VRBO is to essentially force everyone to accept online bookings so they can collect their service fee. To accomplish this they put in a series of "warnings" to travelers throughout their sites and on listings that the only safe way to book is through HomeAway / VRBO. The number and placement of these warnings has varied as HomeAway / VRBO continues with their changes, but they have essentially demonized homeowners trying to scare travelers into thinking everyone is a scammer, making travelers distrustful of home owners from the start. Couple that with their hiding owners information and telephone numbers from some rental listings (it is happening sporadically as HomeAway / VRBO does constant A/B testing and confuses everyone as some listing show some thing and other different) So, the only way renters are be able to some contact owners is through the HomeAway / VRBO system.
The A/B testing itself has been and continues to be a total disaster. HomeAway / VRBO continually changes layouts and information displayed on some listings but not others, going back and forth between layouts. So, as travelers search for homes they see different things on different listings. Such inconsistencies are detrimental as travelers want a consistent experience when browsing a site and deviations lead only to frustration.
One of the most conspicuous (and ludicrous) things HomeAway / VRBO has been A/B testing is removing the rates and calendar from the listings. I mean, seriously? What on earth are the folks at HomeAway / VRBO thinking? Travelers want to see the seasonal rates for when they plan to vacation and what dates are available at the vacation rental.
Most frustrating to homeowners has been an absolute lack of communication from HomeAway / VRBO regarding changes. They implement changes without forewarning in a hap hazard fashion, only to hear the outcry from homeowners and travelers as the changes become apparent. HomeAway / VRBO is obviously out of touch with reality and lives by the motto "It is easier to ask forgiveness than to ask for permission".
The result of all of the decisions by HomeAway / VRBO has been felt far and wide by vacation rental owners. Some have just given up and sold their properties. Others have turned their rentals over to agencies to manage. And then there are some owners who are totally oblivious to the changes. Believe it or not, there are some owners who aren't even aware there is a service fee. Yup!
So, as 2016 ends on a low note, one can only wonder what is in store for 2017. We can certainly hope for better, but that is most likely out of the realm of possibility. HomeAway / VRBO is already planning to increase subscriptions by $50 on January 1st. So you can pay more, for getting less.
We cannot tell you what HomeAway / VRBO will do in the coming year, because we have to wait until after they do it to find out. But, you can bet your ass it will not be good. There are rumors of commissions on bookings taken from homeowners, or auction type bidding for higher rankings. Of course, we can only speculate as they offer no advanced notice of anything. We can only say, the best of luck to all you homeowners and travelers. Buckle up, the road is going to be bumpy.