Listing Site Independence: 11 Experts Share Their Tips

No matter whether your business has been up and running for years, or you’re new to the vacation rental game, there is one topic that owners and managers simply cannot avoid nowadays – listing site independence.

What exactly does listing site independence mean?

Listing site independence refers to those vacation rental owners and managers who are doing it on their own, generally with their own website, and who have stopped relying on the big players like Airbnb, HomeAway and (to name a few) to secure the majority of their bookings.

How attainable is listing site independence?

There is no simple answer to this question. For some owners, listing site independence might be viable in a matter of weeks or months, for others, it could take years. But it’s all about knowing your business, having a solid brand and really taking the bull by the horns when it comes to advertising and marketing to get your name out in the world.

We spoke to 11 experts regarding their number one tip for working towards achieving this goal. Have a look at what they had to say below.

1. Use listing sites to drive inquiries to your website

Paola Gheis, Fully Booked Home

“Here is what I do…  I experiment with a new listing site every year to increase the number of windows where each given property is shown. (I know there are channel managers but it is not always possible to use them).

I know it sounds contradictory when talking about listing site independence, but the listing sites are intentionally used as windows to drive direct inquiries to an owner’s website, which is rightfully recommended.

While testing new listing sites as new windows opportunities, I make sure that in the property description, the branding of the property is very clearly communicated. That is: property name appears first in the title, a photo of a postcard with the property and a professional logo suggesting that there is a website (without necessarily showing the URL if this isn’t allowed), so the prospect can more easily find it. Do the best possible job to make the property shine in the eyes of the prospects. That is: professional pictures and a great home styling.

In fact, I think that while the number of users of professional photographers is increasing, the number of users of professional stylists isn’t growing as fast, and this is a great competitive advantage sustaining any other effort towards listing site independence. One of my stylists in Italy is a flower stylist specialist. And this is the type of work I ask her to do when I want to stage a home for success for my clients. And it makes a difference. Maybe because I have a bias for art, design and beauty in general, but most recently, great styling is one of the things I pay very strong attention to. Home styling is one of the fundamental steps to having a website which makes the difference, would distinguish a property from the thousands of other properties and drives listing site independence.”

2. Don’t expect instant results

Kathy Klopp, Palmetto Beach House

“Be persistent! Breaking away is a process and it takes time to build diversity into your advertising.”

3. Create other channels for guests to find you

Adrian Brown, 2be2serve

“Ultimately if you want to reduce the influence of OTAs on your business, you have to create other channels for your guests to find you. I would not advocate completely delisting from OTAs because they have such huge reach, but by building up your own systems and processes you can develop your own funnel for leads to come direct to you.

It is not a “quick fix” and will require effort in all areas of the customer journey, attraction, setting expectations, delivery and nurture. Leveraging the excellent guest experiences you deliver offline in the online world will be key to that, and building really strong relationships with your audience will be key.” 

4. Focus on your niche to sell your experience

Louise Brace, Rental Tonic

“The best way to succeed without the OTAs is to focus on your niche within the market. Ultimately it will still mean spending money on marketing within that niche – using localized or specialist websites, and of course having your own website is vital.

But you’re not marketing to a mass audience; you’re not competing on the same playing field as everyone else. You are choosing to stand out. Guests are looking for experiences and when you aim for a niche you can really sell your experience. It’s easier to keep focus and ultimately more cost-efficient, as you communicate to guests who really want what you have.” 

5. Be sure of your brand

Jessica Vozel, Guest Hook

“To break free of listing sites, you have to have a rock-solid sense of your brand (and your brand voice). That starts with a deep understanding of your target guest, and then branches out to encompass how you write your web content, your property description, your mission statement, your guest communications etc.

If you differentiate yourself in writing, with a clear sense of who you are and what you have to offer, guests will feel like they know you — and like the perfect accommodation option has dropped right into their laps. Even better? You can start honing your brand voice right now, before you officially make the leap away from listing sites.” 

6. Remember the importance of email

Conrad O’ConnellBuildUp Bookings

“Control your own guest email list.

In theory, you could send newsletters to past guests or leads through an email marketing platform, without a website, and still manage the replies and bookings (may be some more admin work).

Controlling your own guest email list means that you can on-demand send a marketing message to all of your past guests and leads/future guests with just a few clicks. No listing site, SEO or PPC strategy can reach directly into your guests view like an email marketing message can. Collecting and sending emails is super-cheap (you can literally spend $0 for 2,000 emails with Mailchimp, or just $29 on a more advanced service like Campaign Monitor) and you’ll earn a great return on your time (putting together a marketing email often takes less than an hour). Just getting one booking per email means it is the cheapest form of marketing you can engage with.

Cultivating and segmenting this list over time will be the key to owning an important slice of data that can serve you well into the future.”

7. Play on the “no fees” advantage

Rebecca Cribbin, Holiday Rental Specialists

“Build the most user-friendly, information-packed website of your own, and work diligently on ensuring that it is easily found by potential guests. Then sell the fact that it is mostly always cheaper to book on your site.” 

8. Use the Independence Trifecta

Antonio Bortolotti, Vacation Rental Secrets

Attraction – Develop a stunning website that makes use of all the key elements of the ideal offer: psychology, persuasion and inspiration. When done right, your viewer will be naturally inclined to contact you direct. Make sure you have a very clear brand and put it everywhere in your advert on as many listing sites as possible – in the headline, in the photo caption, in the description, and so on. Use listing sites as your marketing mix armory, not as your enemies. It is a partnership, not a war and independence comes from playing the game wisely – may seem counter-intuitive, but that’s how we get 73% direct bookings to our own website, while being on several OTAs.

Conversion – A striking first impression makes all the difference. Be unique in the way you reply to your guests and you’ll increase conversions up to 100%, as in our case – more info here.

Delight – Your chance to impact travelers significantly (and your next happy guest) starts the moment they find out about you (on listing sites and on your website), goes on to how seamlessly they deal with you, transitions into an unforgettable impression as they get to your property and turns into the best holiday ever that lasts well after they’ve gone back home.  Get every piece in place, using technology and tools like Skype, WhatsApp, and your own personal touch, and you’ll turn happy guests into raving fans and ambassadors back home, who’ll provide you with returns, referrals and more direct business.

Remember, there is only one thing no listing site can ever commoditize nor scale and that is our own ability to be as unique and fantastic with our own product. That’s how we can’t perish and keep thriving despite all circumstances. Seems like common sense, but if you think about it…common sense is NOT common practice, and that’s why many fail while others thrive.

P.S. This is a very succinct summary of the 45-minute session I focused on at the Vacation Rental World Summit in Barcelona last October. If you want to dig deeper on the above points, get precious insights from respected industry pros and even model what I do to reach 73% direct bookings and convert 100% of the enquiries I get into solid bookings, you may want to get the recordings here.

P.P.S. You  definitely shouldn’t miss this year’s edition of the Vacation Rental World Summit, held in Florence Italy on Sept. 23-24. The last early bird tickets are available here.

9. Good things come to those who wait

Robin Morris, Bookster

“The number one factor is time.

We have a number of clients that you could describe as being listing site “independent”.

It has taken them time to get there and only by building up brand, reputation and website over a number of years. Capitalizing on repeat bookings can help enormously, too.” 

10. Focus on what the OTAs can’t provide, like insider local knowledge

Danny Vaughton, SmartHosts

“It depends on what stage you’re at in the process of building your VR empire! However, it’s about taking back control – not being 100% independent.

So, if I were to epitomise what I think it takes to break free from listing sites, it would have to be branding and positioning (sorry that’s two!).

The reason why Airbnb, HomeAway, VRBO, & TripAdvisor are so popular is because they have an extremely strong brand (which guests trust), a seamless user experience and an enormous marketing budget.

Brands help build repeat business and allow guests to find you direct. They are important for listing sites but they’re also important for holiday rental businesses. What listing sites do not have is a personal and genuine touch, insider local knowledge and marketing spend in specific niches. This is where you strike!

The goal is to match listing sites trust and online user experience, but raise them 10 by building your core brand and positioning around the very things they can’t provide. For example: an amazing guest experience with exclusive perks for direct guests; a niche in your location that can’t be beaten by the “jack-of-all-trades” OTAs; real trust from your guests, gained through your reputation and online reviews.

Additionally, make it as clear as day that booking direct is cheaper for hosts and guests (no commissions or service fees), explain and highlight this in all your messaging. Finally, a seamless online experience on your website is essential – there are plenty of service providers out there ready to help you meet this goal.”

11. Persuade travelers to do a little extra work – it will benefit us all

Keith Digby, Les Lauriers

“The sooner travelers start to realize that they can search through any of the OTAs to find a place they like, Google the house name, the city/town, the owner’s name and any other information they can find (e.g. from reviews), the sooner they will start to understand the benefits of booking direct.

From this Google search you can call or email the personal website. Your website is then the place to let the traveling public know that by doing this, neither the traveler nor the owner will be dinged the often hefty extra fees, and they could save quite a bit of cash and earn the gratitude of their hosts at the same time.

If we can persuade more travelers to do a little extra work so that when they are on holiday they will have a little extra cash to spend, we’ll all benefit in the long run.” 

Whether you diversify your listings across new sites each year, focus solely on your niche and provide insider knowledge, or capture direct bookings with emails and incentives, you’re going to need to remain patient, professional and personal with your guests to start breaking away from listing sites to win more direct bookings

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