The Power of APIs and Content


2014-12-08 10:55:42 by: Sean Harvey

I don’t have to tell you the world is different. You know that. Like many industries, the vacation rental management industry has been revolutionized in recent years by mobile and Internet technologies. These changes make our lives easier. They also make our lives a bit more complicated. They have changed the way we do business and, most importantly, they have expanded the opportunities available to us.

Big stuff. However, romancing about the disruption doesn’t help on a daily basis. It simply leads to questions. How do you harness these new opportunities? How do you integrate them into your business? How do you build an effective strategy to grow your business using the new tools available to you? What obstacles stand in your way?

In this article, I won’t be answering all the important questions, but my goal is to give you a basic understanding of where you can start.

The World Is Content

You’ve heard the notion that “content is king.” It’s true. The better content you produce the more opportunity you have to drive business, traffic and revenue using that content. It’s true for radio, television, publishing and the Internet. It’s also true for vacation rentals.

Each property, each destination, each guest review is content. Each has the potential to drive business your way. Why? Because this content is in high demand. Renters want to know. They want to see beautiful pictures, read about family-friendly destinations, learn about others’ experiences. This content is powerful. As a vacation rental manager you are the gatekeeper to this content. 

Yet, how do you get this great content from your software system to channels of distribution where it can be seen, consumed and, ultimately, transacted upon?

Fortunately, in our digital world, content, such as listing information, availability, etc. is simply data. To fully maximize the potential of this data, businesses need a strategy to move, make and mold this information using the power of online services known as APIs and data feeds. 

Implementing an API/feed strategy can be a complex and involved topic for non-developers. Yet, having a small understanding of data, data management and APIs can improve your business and your customer relationships. I’ll tell you how.

What is an API?

As online and mobile listings/bookings grow, we hear the term API more and more. But, what does that mean? If you’re not steeped in Internet culture or familiar with software development, API can be a strange, amorphous concept.

API stands for Application Programming Interface. Plain and simple, an API is a common point of entry defining common sets of actions or routines related to a system. An API allows users to communicate with systems in a standard way.

Still confused? It might be helpful to think of an API as a foreign translator. Imagine you travel to a distant land and you need to take a bus from the airport to your vacation rental. If you don’t speak the native tongue, you need a translator to communicate your requirements and intentions to the bus driver. Luckily you found a translator (the API). You communicate your request to the translator (the API): “Can you please take me to my vacation rental? It is located at 555 Paradise Ln on Paradise Beach.” The translator in turn communicates your request to the bus driver (the system). After a quick second and some things you don’t understand, the translator turns to you and responds, “Okay.” Before you know it, you’re departing the bus, suitcases in hand, staring at the beautiful bungalow where you’ll spend the next 10 days.

In this example, you communicated a fairly complex request using terms familiar to you. You sent the request to the translator (the API). The translator (the API) then passed the request to the bus driver (the system). After a response of, “Okay,” the bus driver (the system) transported you and your belongings to the correct address.

Without the translator acting as an API or a common interface you would be stuck. Your vacation goes nowhere and you probably end up doing things the hard way. 

The example above illustrates how APIs can make your life and your business work better. For many of us, RentalSpot included, communicating data such as rental listings, customer records, inquiries, and booking information can be a challenge. With hundreds of thousands of records needing to be imported and exported or moved from point A to point B, APIs are the only way to go. We use APIs to connect our internal systems and website to various systems and services around the web. Using APIs means our developers don’t needs to learn another company’s systems. They simply read the documentation, write some code, and connect our systems to other systems around the web. It’s easier said than done.

Examples of relevant API services:

Understanding How to Use an API

If you have hundreds or even thousands of listings, it’s in your best interest to make those listings as visible as possible. Increased visibility is achieved through listing sites, social networks, or other advertising venues driving traffic to your main site or to individual listings. Working with APIs allows a business to do this with relative ease.

In the old days, listing information would be entered by hand or moved by large cumbersome exports to spreadsheets or formatted text documents. Now, thanks to the internet and API ready services, moving, molding and adding to that data can be done automatically.

This is great, right? We’ve taken the mask off the mysterious term everyone keeps throwing around. We have a basic understanding of what APIs do and how the can help. Let’s build something!

If you’re really excited and you scoured the web for all the great APIs your company could implement: Pause. It’s misleading to think you simply flip a switch or update your in-house software to plug into an API. Understanding the application of the knowledge is key. Applying that knowledge is a little more complicated.

Every API you connect to takes thought, planning and work.

Where the Rubber Meets The Road

There is one very important clarification. If you decide to embark on this journey, you will not build an API. Remember, the API is the “endpoint” or translator. It’s the doorway you pass information through to achieve a certain outcome. This outcome could be posting a rental listing, updating a calendar, or even sending a booking approval.

In some instances, you might pull information from one API and push the same information to another API. Regardless, very rarely will you build an actual API. What you will build (or contract to build) is a feed or a process that takes your data (your listings, your transactions, your customer records) and transports it to an API for consumption.

I spoke with Steve Milo, owner of Vacation Rental Pros and VRMA board member. Steve manages almost 1000 properties in Florida. He needed a way to market these properties online that didn’t require hundreds of hours of data entry every month. Because of his volume and his needs Steve hired a web developer to build feeds to distribute properties to various APIs allowing Vacation Rental Pros to further market properties on listing sites such as FlipKey and Booking.com

Here are some lessons Steve shared.

1. Each partner requires a different feed

As mentioned above, each API is different. Booking.com is not the same as HomeAway and is not the same as FlipKey. Each requires a different feed built to a different specification. It took developers and Vacation Rental Pros approximately 60-90 days to complete each feed.

2. Feeds eliminate (greatly reduce) manual entry

Computers are great. They work round the clock and don’t get tired. By developing an automated feed for each partner Vacation Rental Pros was able to significantly reduce manual updates on listing sites.

3. If you don’t have in-house developers, outsource it.

If you don’t have developers in your office then hop online and find one. There are numerous sites such as elance.com, odesk.com, or guru.com. The key to success with these services is to list your requirements, be specific, get bids and pick the best company.

4. Quality Assurance is Key

Test. Test. Test again. Feeds are routines producing the same output time after time after time. For a feed and API connection to work, every single field or data point has to meet the requirement of the API. If the feed sends a phone number where the API expects an address there will be an error. If the feed sends text where the API expects a number there will be an error.

Be detailed in your review of the feeds. Do a lot of testing. 

Internally, RentalSpot uses spreadsheets to view a feed’s output. This is a very user friendly way to determine if the data is correct and correctly formatted.

Regarding #3. Every API comes with documentation. Review the API documentation yourself. Do not expect the contractor to do it for you.

5. Create a Content Policy & Style Guide

Remember: Content is King. Listings typically originate from your in-house software system. Examples of such systems include Escapia, Maxxton, Barefoot Software or Streamline. Your feed(s) push the content contained in each to the respective API. If a listing appears incorrect or is poorly edited in your in-house system it will appear the same way on popular listing sites like Booking.com, Flipkey, VRBO or RentalSpot.

Sadly, poor listings or mediocre listings are all too common. With a little attention and consistency a good listing can be great. By implementing an in-house style guide and content policy you can avoid inconsistencies and errors in property names, descriptions, addresses, image quality, etc.

 

It’s Not Just About Listings

Implementing an API/Feed strategy is not just about the listings. Obviously listings and distribution are the primary reason to implement an API strategy because they create the most potential for revenue. APIs can also be used to supplement content, market your content and grow your audience and potential customer base.

Aside from social networks like Twitter and Facebook there are numerous API services that can be integrated to improve customer experience and marketing efforts. Below are just a few:

 

 

The Day After

The day after a project is complete is exciting. You have new technology. You have an in-house content policy. You’ve tested, tested and tested again. You’re ready. If lingering issues crop up, don’t sweat it. If you defined your feed requirements, the scope of your project, and partnered with a great developer the hard work will pay off.

There are several key points to keep in mind moving forward.

1. APIs Change

It’s true. As partners and companies change software or upgrade websites, APIs change. To be exact, the data or data format APIs require change. This means your feed must change too or it will break.

When a feed breaks it means your properties won’t be updated in a timely fashion. Customers might book a property that is already reserved or be charged too much - or not enough.

Most providers will alert you when changes will be made. Appoint one person in your organization to be in charge of this information and plan accordingly. It’s also wise to budget for a certain number of developer hours to maintain your feed(s).

2. Measure conversion by channel

In the first three months of your feed strategy, be mindful of the conversion. Some channels convert better than others. Take this into account when planning maintenance or adding new feeds. 

If a feed isn’t converting well, review the information on the partner website. Perhaps the feed is incorrectly passing data or there is a bug in the API. Or, maybe you need to fix they way content is created in-house.

If you find a new channel, test it before committing the dollars to build a feed.

Off & Away

You have braved the new connected world of APIs. While complex, it’s really not that scary. With a solid strategy and appropriate resources, your business can harness the power these new tools provide.

As with any new technology, implementation comes at a costs and requires commitment to succeed. While the learning curve can be steep the rewards can be plentiful - for those willing to take the risk.


RentalSpot.com to Attend VRMA Annual Conference


2014-10-02 17:02:17 by: Sean Harvey

RentalSpot is headed to sunny San Diego for the Vacation Rental Managers Association Annual Conference Oct. 26-29, 2014.

With more than 900 of the industry’s top leaders in attendance last year, the VRMA Annual Conference is the largest event in the professionally managed vacation rental industry. It offers the latest tips, information, and strategies available through educational sessions and networking opportunities. The ideas and techniques we learn at the VRMA Annual Conference can be immediately implemented to improve our business, provide better value to homeowners and boost guest satisfaction.

We can't wait to share all the great ideas we pick up there!


5 Reasons To Book Your Summer Vacation Now


2014-09-30 16:24:42 by: Sean Harvey

5 Bedroom home near Santa Rosa Beach FL

Chances are you just got back from vacation. You’re still basking in the not-so-distant memory of lounging by the pool and listening to the waves crash upon the shore. Take a moment to relish...nice isn’t it?

So why not book your next vacation now? Crazy, huh? Not necessarily.

Studies show that taking vacations lead to healthier, happier people. You exercise. You diet. You do all the proactive things experts tell you to do. If there is one thing to be proactive about it’s rest and relaxation.

Here are the 5 reasons you should book your next vacation today and not tomorrow.

1. Google Says So

Using the power of Google Trends, we analyzed the search pattern for terms such as “vacation” and “vacation rental.” The result is a summary view of the number of times a particular search query was used.

As you can see from the figure below there is a definite seasonality to searches for vacation related topics. Searches peak from January to July with a corresponding decline from August through December.

If we assume the early bird does indeed get the worm, the best time to book your next summer vacation is September through November. By doing this you’ll have the very best destinations and vacation homes to choose from.

2. Strike While the Iron is Hot

Take a moment and think back to your most recent vacation. Hopefully it wasn’t that long ago. Remember the feelings of relaxation and calm? The immediate time following a positive experience is the time one is most likely to continue with good habits and actions. As time rolls on, these feelings will become less and less memorable and, consequently, your need to revisit these emotions with another vacation will become more and more diminished.  

Vacations make you feel good. Keep those good feelings alive by booking your next vacation destination now and not later.

3. Cash Flow

By booking your next vacation earlier in the year, you give yourself more time to absorb the total cost of the vacation*. For instance, if a July vacation costs you $5000 and you pay for it in February. You’re essentially paying $1000/month prior to the vacation. If you book that same July vacation in October, you’re now paying $555/month. Nearly half.

*This concept applies whether you pay for your vacation with cash or credit card. Either way, you’re still giving yourself enough time to save more for the next vacation.

4. Your Boss Will Appreciate It

Trust us. Your boss will appreciate the long notice, and you’ll most likely get your vacation time approved.

Being proactive about your vacation time allows your employer and clients to better plan projects throughout the year.

5. Pre-Trip Happiness

As we previously mentioned, studies show people who take vacations are happier and healthier than those who do not.

It’s because of a unique phenomenon researchers call “Pre-trip Happiness,” a general sense of happiness, excitement, and anticipation that increases as the vacation date approaches. “Pre-trip Happiness” can stay with an individual for months before a planned vacation.

In summary, by booking your vacation rental 8-9 months in advance, you beat the crowds, manage your money better, make life easier for your boss and, most importantly, you’ll be happy doing it.

Thanks for reading,

Team RentalSpot


How to Write a Vacation Rental Listing


2014-09-23 15:12:58 by: Sean Harvey

In our third, and final, piece about creating a great rental spot we’re going to cover what could be the most overlooked aspect of any great rental listing - the vacation rental listing description.  Do you want to know a secret? Nobody reads your description. It’s literally overlooked.


What?


Yup. Potential renters visiting a property on RentalSpot.com or FlipKey or HomeAway rarely read the property description. It’s true.  Potential renters surfing online for that next great vacation rental skim a listing in mostly this order:

 

  1. They look at the property images

  2. They look at the location map

  3. They look at the price

  4. They skim the policies

  5. They go back to the images

  6. They go back to the map

  7. Then they might read your Shakespeare of a description

So the description you slaved over for 3 days and poured your heart and soul into is a waste of time?


No. Hope is not lost. Descriptions are an incredibly important ingredient in creating a great vacation rental listing.  Let’s think about why.



Creating a Narrative

Just like a great Hemingway novel, we need to paint a picture. We don’t need to go overboard, but we need to provide the potential renter with a few juicy tidbits (1-3) about why they should choose your rental over the next one.  Going back to our post on great titles, you need to think about what makes your rental special. You’ve already done great work in coming up with a title. Use this as a starting point.  Do you have a great location? Large porch? Great view? Write down 1-3 key phrases that highlight these special points.


SEO

There is that word (err abbreviation) again? It’s true, if the listing site has done it’s best to structure a page well - like we have at RentalSpot.com - the description is a very important element in how the page ranks online and onsite.  If you include some great adjectives, hit the high points and inject juicy keywords you stand a better chance of having your listing rank well.


Authenticity

The description of your property gives you a chance to be yourself and demonstrate your knowledge of not only the property, but also the destination.  This is your chance to share some insider knowledge.


Legitimacy

The description of your property is a clear indicator as to whether or not a renter can trust you. If you skimp on a description or use bad grammar, the potential renter might perceive an element of “sketchiness” and click to the next property.

 Now that the blinders are off let’s create a great description.

Writing Your Description

Before we begin, we need to steer clear of a couple common mistakes.

  1. Do not use excessive punctuation in your description. Avoid exclamation marks (!). Avoid using a lot of them (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!). We know your rental is great. Let’s not scream it. 
  2. “Can” versus “Will” - Actively sell your visitor. Yes, they CAN have a great time, but we think they WILL have a great time. Use this difference in language to hook your visitor and actively sell them on your property.

Keep the length of your description between 150 - 180 words. No more. In a 12 point font this creates a nice paragraph and should give you enough room to cover the juicy essentials.

First, revisit your list of interesting key phrases. Perhaps they’re:


Great Trails & Great Food

Awesome Trails Outside Your Door

Large pool with built in bar

 

Make sure that you include some of these phrases in your description. Let’s try it, shall we?


Great trails and great food are right outside your door at this great property in [location here]. Located near the cities downtown area, you will enjoy the nightlife and then retire to the pool after dinner. Did we mention the pool has a built in bar? (bartender not included).


Well that’s a great start, but we have a few more elements to put in. We’ve covered our key phrases and could probably put in some more - don’t be afraid of a little repetition.  Next, we need to inject some SEO magic.


Sometimes it’s always easiest to write a full description and then tailor it for SEO.  The keywords and phrases you need to always write for are:

  • vacation rental
  • {location} vacation rental (example: Breckinridge vacation rental)
  • vacation rental in {location} (example: vacation rental in Breckinridge)
  • vacation rental {property type} (example: vacation rental cabin, etc)
  • {Geographic feature} vacation rental (example: Beach front vacation rental)
  • {Geographic feature} vacation rental in {location} (example, Lake front vacation rental home in Lake Tahoe

Before:


Great trails and great food are right outside your door at this great property in [location here]. Located near the cities downtown area, you will enjoy the great cuisine, nightlife and then retire to the pool after dinner. Did we mention the pool has a built in bar? (bartender not included).

 

After:

 

Great trails and great food are right outside your door at this beautiful {location} vacation rental home. Located near the cities downtown area, you will enjoy the great cuisine, nightlife and then retire to the pool after dinner. Did we mention the pool has a built in bar? (bartender not included).


Notice how we replaced the phrase “great property in [location here]” with “beautiful {location} vacation rental home”. This is a good first start to inserting some SEO magic in our description. It’s best to make sure you use one or two variations in your description. Don’t be afraid to embellish with some more adjectives.


The author admits to not being an English major, however, the grammatical style is sufficient and thus conveys legitimacy. You can pick-up very quickly that 1) I know what I’m writing about and 2) I’m not some scammer sitting in a dark basement half way around the world.

Now we need to add some Authentic elements in our description. We need to demonstrate our authority on the location and the destination.  Travelers embark on journeys to experience something new. More importantly they want to have an Anthony Bourdain style experience that includes experiencing something off the beaten path.  Give them some help!


Before:

Great trails and great food are right outside your door at this beautiful {location} vacation rental home. Located near the cities downtown area, you will enjoy the great cuisine, nightlife and then retire to the pool after dinner. Did we mention the pool has a built in bar? (bartender not included).

After:

Great trails and great food are right outside your door at this beautiful {location} vacation rental home. Located near the cities downtown area, you will enjoy the great cuisine, nightlife and then retire to the pool after dinner. Did we mention the pool has a built in bar? (bartender not included). Our favorite spot is called the Happy Pirate just 2 blocks away on Main Street. Everything on the menu is great, but the lobster roll is to die for. Just two blocks away! Did we mention the great selection of microbrews? You will enjoy dinner at the Happy Pirate and then wake early for a great ride on Great Steam Roller trail. This 10 mile ride takes about an hour and is of moderate difficulty. The trailhead is directly across the street from the house.


Do you see what we did? We nearly doubled the length of our description with intimate knowledge of our location. We informed the potential renter about our favorite place to eat and a little recreational insider knowledge. Knowledge is power and by providing more knowledge about your vacation rentals particular destination, you increase your chance of the potential renter renting from you than someone else.  You’ve immediately given them multiple reasons why your rental is better than the other guy’s.


When trying to think about what information is important it is very helpful to understand who your renter is.  The Cottage Blogger has a great post about creating a customer profile. This is something we’ll cover in later posts.


Last Step : Edit

Before you submit your property description you need to edit and probably edit again.  Review the description for grammar and spelling. Perhaps you can squeeze in another key phrase for SEO value. Perhaps you can sweeten the description with some choice words that really paint the picture.


Let’s add some sugar.


Great trails and great food are right outside your door at this beautiful {location}
vacation rental home. Located near the city’s bustling downtown area, you will enjoy the great cuisine, hopping nightlife and quietly retire to the pool for an after dinner cocktail. Did we mention the pool has a built in bar? (bartender not included). Our favorite spot is called the Happy Pirate just 2 blocks away on Main Street. Everything on the menu is great, but the lobster roll is to die for! Don’t forget to sample the large selection of microbrews on tap.


At the {name of vacation rental}, you will enjoy dinner at the Happy Pirate and then wake early for a great ride on the Great Steam Roller trail. This 10 mile ride takes about an hour and is rated moderate difficulty. The trailhead is directly across the street from this vacation rental home.  

 

There we have it. It’s not Shakespeare. It’s not Hemingway. It is concise, SEO friendly and paints a brief, but authentic picture about all the great experiences a renter will have.

If the potential visitor is skimming your page and just so happens to read your description they will be impressed. They will also be excited about chance to experience an aspect of the destination only residents know about.


If the potential visitor only skims your page, Google and other search engines will key in on some very popular phrases and phrase patterns.


Happy Travels,

Team RentalSpot

 


RentalSpot.com Offerings Expand with HomeAway Software Distribution Partnership


2014-08-15 10:53:21 by: Sean Harvey

Charlottesville, VA ­ - August 13, 2014 ­ RentalSpot.com®, the online listing site for independent property owners and renters, today announced a distribution partnership with HomeAway Software®, the professional management software arm of HomeAway, Inc. (NASDAQ: AWAY),which brings properties distributed through HomeAway Software to be listed for rent on RentalSpot.com. The partnership is a milestone that further establishes RentalSpot.com as a popular nationwide vacation property listing service in the U.S.

RentalSpot.com will add an estimated 8,000 properties to their quickly growing catalog of vacation rental listings through the partnership with HomeAway Software, giving RentalSpot.com customers access to more prime vacation rental properties in Hawaii, South Carolina, Florida, and the western U.S. RentalSpot.com is adding new properties on a daily basis and anticipates this rate to increase in the coming weeks as owners and renters begin planning for fall and winter vacations.

“RentalSpot.com has grown immensely since we launched the service in 2010,” said RentalSpot Founder, Tobias Dengel. “Our partnership with HomeAway Software is not only exciting because it marks another positive step forward in our growth, but also because of the increasing number of new vacation properties now available to our RentalSpot.com community of users.”

 "We are pleased to partner with RentalSpot.com and provide our customers with more distribution opportunities" said Bill Furlong, vice president of HomeAway Software.

About RentalSpot.com

 Founded in 2010, RentalSpot.com is the only free online vacation property listing service for independent homeowners and renters. Rentalspot.com hosts over 15,000 properties in the US and internationally. Community members and users enjoy RentalSpot.com’s free­to­list advertising model, map­based property searching functionality, and the ability to collaborate with friends and family when choosing their desired vacation destination online. Properties syndicated by HomeAway Software® are subject to a 10% commission.

About HomeAway Software

HomeAway Software is the leading provider of property management software for professional vacation rental managers. HomeAway Software solutions consist of powerful productivity tools that automate key vacation rental management tasks, streamline operations, and help vacation rental managers maximize their online potential through world­class websites, booking engines, and the industry’s leading distribution programs. HomeAway Software is part of HomeAway, Inc. (NASDAQ:AWAY) the world’s leading online marketplace of vacation rentals. 

 


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