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"Operation "Winter Renter" Nine Tips for Attracting Off-Season Guests to Your Vacation Home"
byline:  Christine Karpinski

Time to build crackling fires in the hearth, bundle up in your warmest sweaters, sip hot cocoa while you watch the snow—and start fretting over that unrented vacation home. That's right. T.S. Eliot may think that April is the cruelest month, but for many vacation property owners, any month between now and Memorial Day would qualify. That cabin or condo that renters clamor over all summer tends to sit depressingly (and expensively) empty all winter. If only there were something you could do to make your off-season not quite so, well, off.

Actually, there are many things you can do, it's often the little touches that draw "winter renters," delight them, and keep them coming back for more.

"Obviously, more people vacation during peak season, that's why it's peak season! But there are still plenty of people who prefer to travel during the cooler months. Maybe they want to avoid the crowds, maybe they want to take advantage of the lower rates, or maybe they just want a break in the February doldrums. Your mission is to make your vacation home stand out from the many others that are available to potential renters. It's that simple. You have to go the proverbial extra mile."

Here are some of tips for making your vacation property appealing to winter renters:

·First and foremost, "winterize" your marketing. It won't matter how perfect your place is for a mid-winter getaway if people don't know about it. Play up features like hot tubs and fireplaces. Sprinkle copy with words like warm, cozy, cocoon, snuggle, and cuddle. You might even paint an inviting verbal picture such as "Envision yourself gazing out the tall picture window, a cup of hot cocoa in hand, as fat snowflakes drift lazily through the pines." Finally, add a few "off-season" photos of your property to your website. Photos of the home framed in brilliant autumn leaves or dusted with snow will speak louder than a thousand poetic words.

·Consider off-season specials. Everyone loves a bargain, and in the winter, they expect one. "My favorite off-season booking magnet is 'rent three nights and get one free. Or, when you get a call from someone looking to book for next spring or summer, offer them a winter special—say, half-price off a weekend stay—so they can come check out the place early. That would be tough to resist."

·Add "warm cozy" touches. Put thick, warm comforters on the bed and fleece throws on the sofa. Place a few spice-scented candles on tables or countertops. Leave savory winter treats in the kitchen: cocoa mix & marshmallows, spiced apple cider, ginger cookies, chili fixings, and a crock pot. (Ask the housekeeper to replenish edibles.) You might even consider leaving an extra coat or two in the closet, along with toboggans, gloves, and scarves—chances are they won't be used, but guests will appreciate the hospitality.

Plan for snow! If guests should happen to get snowed in at your home, you want to make the experience as pleasant as possible. Make sure to have a snow shovel, ice melt, and a windshield ice scraper on the premises. The possibility of inclement weather is a good reason to have a selection of nonperishable foods on hand, as well as movies and books. You certainly don't want a houseful of hungry, stir-crazy, cranky renters who are cursing their vacation experience (and by association, you)!

Consider adding a hot tub, sauna, or ventless gas fireplace. If your vacation property is a "summer home" with no winter appeal, such additions can make a world of difference. You may be thinking that these are pricey upgrades, but you'll be amazed at how fast they pay for themselves via increased off-season bookings. One caveat: if you install a ventless gas fireplace, be sure to get a carbon monoxide detector as well.

Make your home baby- and toddler-friendly. You've probably noticed that people with very young children are more likely to travel off-season. (After all, they're not constrained by school schedules.) Appeal to these people by including baby and toddler paraphernalia. A high chair and a porta crib should cost less than $150 combined, and can drastically increase your off-season bookings.

·Accept pets. Vacation properties that accept pets increase their occupancy by 10 to 50 percent. When you accept pets, it's okay to take an additional $20 to $25/night or $140 to $175/week. This extra (which pet owners would have to spend anyway on boarding fees) is enough to pay for any carpet cleaning that needs to be done. "I spoke with a woman named Jennifer, who owned a nice cabin in the mountains of Colorado; she was within driving distance of three ski resorts, but not really close enough to any of them to advertise that her place was associated with any of them. She was booking her cabin only two or three weeks per year. I advised her to start accepting pets, and the minute she did, her bookings started to flow in. Two years later, she is booked for the whole ski season, three or four weeks during the summer to hikers, and she rents ten to twelve long weekends through the year. She has never been happier!"

·If all else fails, offer a "customized" special to repeat guests. If you've tried everything and you still have lots of weeks unbooked, it's time to get creative (perhaps even a bit assertive). Consider calling or e-mailing prior "VIP" guests and offering them discounted off-season stays. You might even link the stay to a special event in their lives. For instance, if you know that John and Jane Smith have an anniversary in March—thanks to the detailed file you keep on them—call them and offer a special celebratory weekend at a reduced rate. When they accept, have a champagne gift basket waiting for them in the bedroom along with a handwritten "Happy Anniversary" note.

Not sold on winter renting? Consider it "damage insurance." All of that said, some people actually prefer to lock up their place for the winter. Maybe they don't think renting is worth the effort, or maybe they make enough money during peak season to pay their mortgage for the year. If this is your mindset, reconsider—winter renting can ward off property damage. "I've heard stories of locked-up properties that have been ransacked by families of raccoons, and of broken furnaces that have led to burst pipes.  Houses that are empty for long stretches of time, especially in freezing weather, tend to have problems. If renters had periodically visited such homes, these issues could have been avoided or at least discovered early, before things worsened."

A word of caution: exercise moderation.

"It's great to spend some money on things to attract winter renters. just don't go overboard. I knew a guy who would do tons of extra advertising and equip his place with all these bonuses for his off-season renters. Yes, he ended up booking the place for all of January through March—but his bottom line for all three months was only $500! My advice is this: a little effort goes a long way. Do one or two things on the list, not all of them. Otherwise, do a good job with the basics and be a friendly, hospitable host. As word gets around and your guests become 'regulars,' your off-season problem will solve itself."
 


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