As I relax back in my poolside lounger, armed with a glass of free happy hour Merlot and super fast free WiFi, I’m forced to face the truth: This is a hotel and I’m rather enjoying it. Coming from a die hard holiday rental advocate this realisation is more than a little unnerving. So I set to thinking about the choice of holiday rental versus hotel. Specifically our experience of looking for a vacation rental in Key West. As frequent travelers, we almost always seek out a self-catering villa or holiday rental in preference to a hotel stay, but, in the crowded USA vacation rental market, this is not always easy. Choosing where to stay in Key West with my wife (and then actually experiencing the choice) underlined what is important for potential holidaymakers looking to book a recommended vacation rental in America. They want an easy way to search and book a property that sings with character, from an owner that goes the extra mile for them.
I’m staying in Key West with the family, our first trip to the Keys. It’s always been a lifetime ambition of mine to come here, drawn by the romantic cliches of palm trees and tropical island laid back living. And so far it hasn’t disappointed, it’s a beautiful place. But our search, like anyone planning a holiday, started months ago on a PC in our living room (also with a glass of red wine!).
Researching Holiday Rentals
Like all experienced travel planners, we had a shopping list of requirements. It began well, the usual excitement of relaxing somewhere warm. We had some banter about where to go, my wife opting for her usual Floridian habits, me wanting something different. She won of course but the concession to me was the Key West dream. So, destination set, we got to finding a holiday rental…
Only we didn’t! More than a few hours later, lethargy and frustration had won the day. Bored with scrolling through hundreds of options we gave up. Decision time. With just 6 nights away we wanted to make the most of our down time and decided self catering wasn’t critical. We also knew that, although tropical, February is still winter in the Northern Hemisphere, so a heated pool was top of the list. We’ve experienced way too many freezing pools and, as with anyone who has kids knows, that means trouble for the adult relaxation zone.
So we decided to try our luck with a hotel search. TripAdvisor sprang to mind immediately. We punched in Key West and then sorted by ranking. Within a few minutes we settled on Santa Maria Suites, #1 ranked on TA with hundreds of reviews. And, whilst expensive, it wasn’t way off the price of a 2 bedroom holiday rental matching our shopping list of requirements in this part of the world. Best of all it solved the age old hotel issue when travelling with a family: Lack of space. We bagged ourselves a 2 bedroom, 2 bathroom, full kitchen, high speed WiFi, heated pool, intimate, hotel holiday rental. Job done.
Reflections on the Vacation Rental Search Experience
Hours searching for a holiday rental. Minutes finding a hotel. If I think about it, that’s how it’s always been. Every holiday I can remember over the last 15 years has started with hours of searching. It starts with selecting the holiday rental site (and of course only ever page 1 of Google). As soon as I land on the homepage I decide instantly if I want to proceed. The bad ones are obvious. Almost always we end up firing off a dozen or so enquiries through a few different sites. But that’s just the start because most holiday rental sites then handover the booking process to the owners. What ensues are further hours (spread over days) waiting for owners to respond, finding out the place is already booked, swapping emails to ask questions not answered on the listing, probing to gauge whether the owner is legitimate, I could go on. Trust me this is a renter’s reality. I have rented for nearly 15 years and it’s the same drill every time. And I’m not alone, family and friends tell me the very same thing. Using TA for hotels, all of that disappears. You invest time in highly ranked hotels with a sufficiently large number of reviews. You then book instantly with confidence.
Reflections on the Concierge
Having Derek the concierge on standby for anything we might need is the standout feature of this hotel. Need a bike rental? Want to know the best place for breakfast? Where do the locals go for take out? What’s the best jogging route? Every single question is answered by Derek, who also tends the poolside bar and makes the kids complimentary smoothies. I wonder one day if a virtual Derek is possible, what do you think? Let’s face it, in an unknown place, having reliable, local recommendations is like gold dust. I read somewhere recently that having the best experiences on holiday is always about experiencing something local (I’m assuming common sense prevails when I say this!).
Reflections on the Holiday Accommodation
Daily maid service, chocolates and muffins left each day (the kids went crazy), dishwasher stacked and run, clothes and shoes tidied up, bathrooms cleaned, all the little touches. And, whilst they didn’t do our laundry, we still had the holiday rental style amenities: Washer and dryer. This place had the lot.
The $64,000 Question: Holiday Rental or Hotel?
Holiday Rental. No doubt. Everything I said above stands. But it’s still a hotel. Allow me to explain…
The Search Experience. I actually love the hours of searching for a holiday home. Yes it can be frustrating and time consuming. But this is part of the art of finding a holiday rental. Believe me, as you start trading emails with owners, it becomes obvious the ones you’d really like to rent from. They are quick to respond. Polite. Courteous. Often witty. Never tired of answering the endless and sometimes absurd questions. Happy to send more photos. They do what hotels don’t. They offer the personal touch and the inside track. The hours spent searching end up as a great investment.
The Concierge vs the Holiday Home Owner. Derek you were great, you helped make a perfect holiday for us. But you come with a salary and my room rate reflects it! And of course I’ll tip you because you went above and beyond! What’s interesting is that I usually get something very similar from holiday home owners (the good ones) who know the area very well and have tried and trusted experiences over time. Granted it’s not real time (there we go again, the virtual concierge…) but self catering holiday makers tend to be more resourceful and independent (unlike our lazy hotel frequenters!) so can live with that. And if all else fails, Yelp helps out. It’s a kind of virtual concierge come TripAdvisor. But it still falls short of the tried and trusted owner recommendation.
The Accommodation: Hotel Homogeneity vs Vacation Rental. It’s great but it’s still a hotel and you can feel it. There is no character, no life. And don’t get me started on the miniscule coffee maker or the weird fridge (basically 3 drawers). Chocolates and muffins are great, but somehow the owner who leaves a couple of bottles of good local wine on arrival is the one I remember. Perhaps that speaks to my love of wine over sugar. Besides, the kids get as many kicks out of shopping the local store for sugary cereal on arrival, something we ban at home! And as for character, every holiday rental I’ve ever stayed in has had all the personal touches and often quirky owner style decor (I remember one with dolphin murals on the wall, not quite my taste, but the ceiling to floor windows overlooking the ocean more than made up for it).
What Does it all Mean for Getaway Earth Holiday Rentals?
For starters, all of you currently listed with us need to imagine yourself as Derek the concierge! Seriously, you have the knowledge. Share it! Us holiday makers will lap it up. Go and check out the POI’s on Getaway Earth. Next, work on those descriptions and photos. Put yourselves in my shoes. I’m impatient. I have a wide array of options. TripAdvisor beckons…
Finally remember that the future of Getaway Earth is going to be less about mass vacation rentals and more about niche vacation rentals from owners that actually give a 4X about the holiday maker’s experience. Us renters are people with power and we’ll walk on by anything sub standard. Let’s build a site that respects that reality.
We’re working on our end of the bargain, together with a new partner and new funds: Coming soon is a quality algorithm which will weed out the good from the bad and the ugly. We’ll follow that later this year with a full site redesign. And all the while we’re building our search presence (some great progress made in the last month). I’d love to know if you’re with us…