How (and Why) I Built a Mobile-friendly Website for Our Vacation Rental
[Update September 1, 2018: Interested in creating your own direct booking vacation rental site? I took everything I learned from my own website and created a new direct booking site that you can use, too! Check out GRUPZ.com Vacation Rentals and the embedded vacation rental calendar service I built there (now joined by an embeddable vacation rental booking widget… and the Elrod Villa listing there… it’s like having your own private “Airbnb” site. While much of the strategy expressed in this article is still very relevant and I still hold the same opinions about why one’s direct channel is an extremely important one, some of the advice on the technical front is out of date.]
After my wife and I bought Elrod Villa — our Palm Springs home which we operate as a vacation rental when we’re not able to enjoy it ourselves — I resisted creating our own dedicated site for it for quite a while. At the outset, VRBO was getting us as many bookings as we wanted (sometimes even more), I was still making decisions about which other vacation rental websites we might want to be listed on, I wasn’t really thrilled with the prospect of working on a web design project with traditional tools (been there, done that), and my general opinion was that “nobody wants to visit your crappy small business website these days, anyway.”
You can find the current version of our site here, by the way:
Elrod Villa: Luxury Palm Springs Vacation Rental. Experience Palm Springs in this amazing vacation rental home…www.evillapalmsprings.com
Technology and the Single Vacation Rental
This isn’t to say that I wasn’t trying to use technology in innovative ways to improve our marketing or customer experience. For example:
- As I realized it would be helpful to have our home listed on other vacation rental sites, I started running into issues with keeping rates up to date across multiple venues — which is one of the things that drove me to investigate dynamic pricing solutions (mostly, I use Wheelhouse, which I highly recommend — you can try it for free using that link and receive three free bookings).
- Of course, I also made our contracting process 100% electronic (using Adobe Sign — which I already had because I’m an Adobe Creative Cloud user).
- I had done essential “small business”/local search things like set up a Google My Business listing. (At the time, I used our VRBO listing URL as our “official” web page.)
- In order to have an accurate floor plan for our rental, I had a local vendor do a Matterport scan of the property, which also nets you a really cool 3D “virtual tour” (in most cases, this only costs a couple hundred dollars — you can see our virtual tour at tour.evillapalmsprings.com).
- And as I started to do more social media and content marketing, of course, I ran into situations where I needed a “deliverable” or landing page besides our VRBO listing.
“All I Need is a Simple Web Deliverable, not a Full-blown Site”
But I was still resistant to the idea of having a true standalone site. I felt like the negatives (ongoing maintenance, general challenge of learning to design for mobile, and on and on) outweighed the positives. I was well aware of advice from various vacation rental industry experts (such as Matt Landau) about the benefits of being listing site independent (see his excellent blog posts on this topic at his “Vacation Rental Marketing Blog” — such as “Take the Listing Site Independence Challenge” and “Expedia Buying HomeAway Should Inspire (Not Frustrate) You”)…
But my feeling was still that what the web is about now is lightweight, portable, sharable content (that serves as the deliverable for your content marketing efforts — that is, you’re pointing prospects to these destinations, you’re not relying on passive search activity for prospects to find you)…
If you have ways of creating such content through simple tools, it’s OK to rely on a listing site for the heavy lifting — things like having a master calendar, and processing payments (somebody’s gotta do that, right?) and such. At least, that was my thinking at the time. (EDIT: Jan 2018 — such sites that might provide these heavy lifting features no longer exist.)
And, especially with an independently operated vacation rental, it’s not like SEO and SEM (search engine marketing) are particularly viable or cost-effective marketing methods. The big (and even many small) listing sites (i.e., VRBO/HomeAway, Airbnb, and Trip Advisor Vacation Rentals/FlipKey) are already paying exorbitant cost-per-click rates to grab that search traffic (and serve as giant content repositories that suck all the SEO air out of the room, so to speak). So, rationally, you don’t buy that directly yourself — you get that as one of the many features of being listed on the major sites.
First Stop: Adobe Spark Page
Obviously, I eventually changed my tune about having a dedicated site, but the story behind that is a long-ish one and it’s best told in terms of some of the stops I made along the way.
As I started to do more social media marketing for our rental, I started using the excellent (and fun and free) web/app-based tools that Adobe publishes under the “Adobe Spark” umbrella. Spark Post, for example, is a cool way to add text/animation to Instagram posts. (I probably wouldn’t have discovered those on my own, but Adobe regularly promoted them as new components of Creative Cloud… And I finally paid attention.)
One afternoon, I figured I’d take a closer look at Spark Page, which Adobe promotes as a way to “create beautiful web stories.” I figured this might be a cool way to present both the photography of our home (in a bigger/better format than on the VR listing sites) and our excellent reviews (again, in a more prominent way than on the listing sites) and tell a little story… So, here’s what I created with a couple hours of work:
I should note that the current version has a couple of tweaks from the version I originally published… most notably, it linked to our VRBO listing for calendar/rates/booking (now those point to our own site). But otherwise, it’s essentially the same.
“Holy Crap, I Think I Just Made a Website”
Well, almost. I felt that the result told a compelling story about our rental in a way that’s superior to how we’re forced to present it on the various listing sites. And that got me to thinking: How great would it be if, instead of having to link out to our external calendar at VRBO, if I could embed it right in the page? And maybe sexier sharing links, etc.
But I couldn’t find an option for those things… However, I was really happy with the result, shared it with the Adobe Spark team, and used it successfully as a deliverable in an Instagram PPC campaign that cost about $50 and netted several inquiries and at least one successful booking. So, success. (And I still use this “digital brochure” in my marketing efforts.)
Additionally, it just so happened that the Spark team was interested to hear from users who had used the Spark Post tool to create “microsite” types of deliverables. I eventually had a call with them where I explained the hows and whys of my approach to marketing our rental and a lot of the same stuff I explained previously in this article.
And I made it clear that, with the addition of HTML embeds (so I could add functional components like a calendar, etc.) this might even be something that could actually serve — for all intents and purposes — as our standalone website… and a lot of other small businesses might find the same.
A couple of things I learned from that interaction with the Spark team: (1) they had heard similar feedback from other users, (2) while those particular features might not make it into Spark Page, they might find expression in future Spark products (hint, hint, stay tuned) and (3) I might want to take a look at how Adobe Muse had matured — which could definitely do what I wanted and might not be too much of hassle to learn, given that I was familiar with other tools like Dreamweaver (ugh).
Anyway, I highly recommend Spark Page as a way of quickly creating mobile-friendly, web-based content when you need to. It doesn’t at present have everything you’d need to create a robust vacation rental website or “website alternative” (mostly due to lack of integration options with functional tools like calendars and web forms and the like), but it’s close… And I’ve recently seen a preview of some still-in-development Adobe Spark features that might just take it to that level in the near future.
[Update 3/27/28: Adobe Spark may be getting enhanced with features that
Next Stop: Rethinking the Website Thing
After having a successful experience with Spark Page, I got a bit more excited about the prospect of possibly building my own site. It seemed like web design and development tools had advanced quite a bit and, after checking out Adobe Muse a bit more (which had recently gained “real” responsive web design capabilities and a had developed a robust community of users and developers of add-on “widgets” to make designs even easier) I decided it might be worth taking some time to at least experiment.
While I found that it might be easier than I thought — from a technical point of view — to build a good-looking site, there was still some question in my mind about whether one could build a site with all of the functionality and features that at least approximate — if not exceed — the booking experience provided by the big three vacation rental listing sites (i.e., Airbnb, VRBO, Flipkey).
But the same time, there were some market changes going on (as always, of course) that also led me to rethink having a dedicated site. As I mentioned before, at one time, VRBO felt like a reasonable substitute for a dedicated site — not only did it provide some of the business functionality we needed (such as processing payments at a reasonable cost), but it also seemed to convert lookers into bookers pretty well. But over time, some things changed:
- When VRBO/HomeAway started charging a booking fee to users, our guests were no longer paying the same rate as they would pay if they were to book directly (they would end up paying slightly more). It was no longer essentially the same as booking direct with us (which to me, was one of the major advantages of VRBO over the other major listing sites).
- I noticed that conversion rates were dropping. That is, fewer lookers were turning into bookers. I’d experimented with advertising (using things like SpaceAgent) to drive increased visits to our VRBO listing. In the early going, I found that this netted us a worthwhile increase in inquiries and “book it now” requests. Over time, however, conversion rates dropped (we were generating good amounts of traffic, but a smaller and smaller percentage of those visitors were turning into prospects). Possibly “leakage” had become an issue (visitors were inquiring with other properties) or perhaps design and/or policy changes had generally hurt the performance of VRBO listings. I suspect the issue was a combination of all of those factors — none of which I could control.
- I didn’t find that conversion rates were dropping with Airbnb. On the contrary, they were staying the same or improving… Despite that service having policies that are less VR-friendly (I’ve written about that at length in this previous Medium article) — for example, generally higher booking fees, more limited pre-booking communication, and requiring guests to pay the full booking amount up front — and presenting similar risks of “leakage” to other properties. I suspected that this was primarily due to that site offering a better mobile experience and more modern web design, informed by a better sense of how today’s traveler behaves.
You Can See Where this is Going
Ultimately, I came to the conclusion that having our own, dedicated site for our rental had finally become a necessity if I wanted to maximize the performance of our marketing efforts and have more “control over our own destiny.”
Everything I’ve said previously still applies: I wasn’t setting out to “win” the SEO battle with the major listing/booking sites — I don’t expect to be a top result for a search for “Palm Springs vacation rental.” (But I did want our site to be found if a guest searches for us by name, e.g., “Elrod Villa” or “Elrod Villa Palm Springs” — in case it’s not obvious, here’s why). I needed a place where I have full control of our content and its presentation.
And, if I was going to invest the time in doing all of that, I’d have to find a way to at least approximate the features that guests expect when visiting any of our listing pages on the major sites.
The rest of this article focuses on the tools and services I used to make that possible.
My Vacation Rental Website Requirements
Building a site that allows us to book business directly was a fairly tall order. It took a little more effort and lot more research than I would have liked, but I finally found a combination of tools that enable it. Here were my requirements:
1. Mobile-first design: Today, I’m sure that the vast majority of travelers are researching their options and booking their trips from a mobile device. And, in my case, the venues that I use to promote our rental are accessed primarily from mobile devices: I’m talking about Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google Maps. People learn about us in mobile, so any link they’re going to follow is going to be viewed on mobile.
Additionally, booking a vacation rental is often a social/group experience: Guests compare different options with their friends by texting/messaging links to other members of their group, or in person… by passing a phone around!
So we needed a responsive design that not only looks good on mobile but with functional components that work on mobile. (Our Google Analytics data confirms all of this, BTW. More than 70% of our website visitors are on a “mobile” or “tablet” device!)
2. Calendar/availability widget: At a minimum, we need a way to show what dates are booked versus what dates are available, using iCal/.ics integration, because that’s how all of one’s listing site calendars get synchronized. I wanted something that looks good on mobile and that is free of any competitive branding.
[Edit 08/17/2018: I’ve got a new solution for that… I built my own that you can use too: https://grupz.com/vacation-rental-calendar]
3. Request a quote feature: We need a way for guests to inquire quickly and easily, without filling out a massive form and without having to write an email, similar to how it works on any VR listing site. Ideally, guests should be able to get an idea of the cost right in the web page (either a detailed quote or a quote summary).
4. Integration with dynamic pricing: Further to the previous point, since we use dynamic pricing (I use Wheelhouse, which I highly recommend, to do this for our major VR listings), I really wanted to be able to feed the calendar and/or quote tool with our current pricing. Not everyone would have that same requirement, of course, but it was an essential for me.
5. Simple web hosting: I didn’t want to have to mess around too much with finding a web hosting provider and managing backend site stuff. Simplicity and cost-effectiveness were key.
6. Additional backend features: Since I was moving toward doing more direct business, I also wanted to research online payment solutions. For my direct bookings, I’d been using PayPal for payments, but was interested in other options (whether or not those features would really be customer-facing on my site).
Whether you’re thinking of designing and developing your own site (as I did), or whether you’re thinking of contracting with a web developer, or utilizing one of the VR management solutions that include a website component (I’m thinking of things like MyVR), these are all issues that I think vacation rental owners should consider.
How We Met those Requirements
Here’s a quick-ish rundown of the tools I used to meet our requirements and develop our site.
Responsive Design (and Web Hosting): Adobe Muse & Business Catalyst
For the mobile/responsive design part, I just dusted off my own web development skills and used Adobe Muse (which as I mentioned previously, has gotten really pretty cool, easy-to-use, and powerful) as my authoring/design platform for the site. And I already had access to that software since I’m an Adobe Creative Cloud subscriber. What’s more, since Muse is well integrated with Adobe’s Business Catalyst web hosting (again, included with Creative Cloud) it was a “one stop” solution for me.
In terms of basic site design, some Muse templates from MuseThemes.com got me a lot of the way there very quickly. That site is a really great resource for Muse designers and I ended up using a lot of their cool widgets in our site — including their Cinch slideshow, Rapid Reveal, Google Analytics and Instagram Feed widgets.
In designing our site, I took a lot of inspiration from Airbnb’s overall mobile experience. While there are some aspects of the Airbnb experience that I haven’t yet been able to emulate, the main idea was to keep things simple/clean/modern, have a good balance between visual and text elements, and deliver an “app like” kind of feel when viewed on smartphones.
By the way, I realize not everyone has web design experience or wants to muck around with things at this level of depth, but most of the rest of my tips will be helpful to users of any other web authoring tool. That’s because I met most of my other web design requirements with embedded HTML snippets, which could be used (for example) even in web-based website design solutions like Squarespace.
Calendar and Quote Tool Challenges
Meeting these two requirements took a lot of research. Even just a good-looking, mobile-ready, iCal/ics-powered calendar was shockingly difficult to find. I’d thought that good solutions would be all over the place. Most of the solutions that I found suffered from one or more of the following problems:
- Most are completely (for lack of a better term) fugly and not very good for modern, responsive web designs.
- Furthermore, they usually have competitive branding or might have advertising on them that requires a subscription to remove (and usually that price for that seemed way too high). The VRBO calendar is the classic example of an embeddable HTML vacation rental calendar that is both ugly and tries to take your direct business right back to them (their embeddable quote tool widget has the same issue, too, of course):
- While there are some good looking calendar widgets for Adobe Muse (including a couple from MuseThemes), none of these could simply be fed by iCal/ics. They all relied on either third-party back-ends, or were powered by Google Calendar. That’s fine if you already use Google Calendar as your master VR calendar, but I don’t and I didn’t want to.
- Even if you find one that doesn’t look horrible, none of them support fancy stuff like dynamic pricing or have an accompanying quote tool.
In fairness, if you just need an embeddable, iCal-powered calendar, the one provided by AccomodationCalendar might work for you. It’s reasonably good looking, can be styled to work on mobile (but it’s not fluid-responsive), and is reasonably customizable. The free version comes with non-competitive advertising on it, but that can be removed with a $19/year subscription. (I might have gone this route, but ultimately I found a better solution for my requirements…)
[Update 9//26/18: If you’re interested in my new solution for calendars which I designed to meet all of the requirements I wrote about here, check out this Medium article on GRUPZ Vacation Rental Calendar and Booking Widgets…]
As for a quote tool, I figured that I’d probably have to build one myself. Initially, I had hoped that the folks at Wheelhouse (my dynamic pricing tool of choice) would secretly have an embeddable version of their calendar and/or an API that I could use to query our rates and then display a customized quote. That turned out not to be an option, but I did put the idea on their radar as perhaps a future enhancement.
And, yeah, doing that much backend web programming kind of stuff probably would have pushed the limits of my skill set (and possibly would have caused the loss of the remainder of my hair). So, I was very happy to eventually find a great calendar and quote tool (and a lot more).
Calendar and Quote Tool Solution: Orbirental
[Edit: I built my own version of this, too. Go sign up at https://grupz.com to know when it launches.]
After much research, I managed to find Orbirental — it’s an online property management system and, frankly, I didn’t think I’d want or need all of its features. It’s the type of thing that could easily scale to a medium or even large-sized property management firm.
However, they have options including free (gives you a great-looking, stylable calendar!) and the “Starter” subscription level ($49/month if paid annually) gives access to some really extensive property management/central reservation management features, a customizable quote tool (again, very modern in design that works on mobile), various ways to take online payments and a lot more. I find myself using more and more of its features as time goes on.
The price might seem steep to some, but it solved so many issues for me in one fell swoop. It basically gives our dedicated site all of the features that we need to give users the same type of easy booking experience they expect from a platform like Airbnb, but completely under our control.
And these are features (including calendar, quote tool, secure online payments, email response automation, it also captures inquiries from not just our site, but all of the major listing sites as well) that would be impossible or very costly for me to develop myself. (And, an added plus, their technical support has been amazing.)
Again, these are simple HTML embeds, so they could just as easily be used in nearly any type of site, regardless of how it was authored.
Orbirental also supports integration with dynamic pricing systems. [Edited 7/5/17: Orbirental now supports dynamic pricing via both PriceLabs and Wheelhouse.] Initially, there was no integration to Wheelhouse, so I had used PriceLabs to provide dynamic rates for our dedicated site. Now that Wheelhouse has completed their integration to Orbirental, I’m using that solution for dynamic pricing both on major listing sites as well as our direct site.
I’ve written a fairly detailed review of Orbirental on software review site Capterra, and you might find the reviews there helpful in understanding the various things Orbirental can do. As far as I’m aware, it’s more-or-less unique in the vacation rental technology market.
Some Additional Nitty-gritty Web Pro-Tips
Local SEO is a big issue for any small business website and, while a deep dive on those issues wouldn’t be appropriate here, the homepage of your vacation rental site should incorporate a special type of metadata called the LocalBusiness Schema. I found this excellent article about an easy way to add that to any site using simple <script> tags here, “The JSON-LD Markup Guide To Local Business Schema.” (BTW, that site has many excellent articles about local SEO should you want to learn more.)
Optimizing speed and performance of one’s site is essential to a good user experience, and to being ranked well by search engines such as Google. While there’s only a limited amount of tweaking you can do to ensure a fast-performing site when using a tool like Adobe Muse and a basic hosting platform like Adobe Business Catalyst, I’ve had pretty good success in using a managed DNS service to improve our site’s loading time, availability and security. Check out Cloudflare for more info. I use their free level of service.
Fluid-responsive HTML embedding: When building a vacation rental site in Adobe Muse or any other tool, you’ll likely find yourself embedding media such as image galleries, videos, iframes or other types of externally-hosted content. If you’re shooting for a “fluid-responsive” type design, you may run into cases where you wished that the embedded content would automatically scale itself in a responsive way (but doesn’t). A great little site/web tool called Embed Responsively lets you paste in a non-responsive embed code and returns a modified embed code that is styled in a responsive way. I used this with the iframe that holds our Matterport virtual tour and it works great. (Muse-specific comment: At least, the Matterport content resizes responsively within our site’s various breakpoints. One still has to resize the Muse Embedded HTML widget at each breakpoint, however, as that widget doesn’t allow you to select the “Responsive Width and Height” resizing option in the Muse editor — not sure if that’s a “bug” or a “feature”, but it’s something to be aware of.)
Results and Conclusion
Creating a dedicated website for our vacation rental on my own took quite a bit of work and research — and I hope that by sharing my experiences and the tools and services I used will help other vacation rental owners that want to do the same.
Our site hasn’t been live for even a year yet, but it’s been very helpful already in several ways:
- We do get direct booking inquiries through our site. Sometimes these are people that have become aware of us through our social marketing efforts. Other times they are “smart shoppers” who find us on a major listing site and then look for our direct contact info. Some have been even been via organic search results or “local search” such as Google Maps.
- By adopting tools like Orbirental, I’m able to quickly respond to inquiries from our site but also to inquiries from “pure marketing” type listing sites (such as VacationHomeRentals.com) in a fast and professional way.
- I’ve made an investment in the long-term success of our vacation rental efforts that makes us less dependent on the whims of the VR listing sites… which keep changing their business models in often owner-unfriendly ways.
If you’ve built your own vacation rental website and have any tips, tools or techniques that you used, I’d love to hear about them in the comments! And I’m happy to answer any questions as well!