The guiding principle to follow when marketing a gite or rental property is that it is as lucrative to have one rental property and market it very well, as to have two properties poorly marketed. Having seen the large numbers of properties near us that are empty except for five weeks in July and August I know this to be true. So what do you need to do to increase your occupancy rate?
First I will just make the comment that we can all fill our properties most of the time if the prices we charge are a lot less than our competitors. So the challenge, of course, is to achieve bookings at a market price, not at any price. What we are trying to achieve is maximum net profit ( broadly income, less wear and tear, taxes, and bills incurred). I am suggesting that by increasing marketing spend, or simply spending it more effectively, you can increase this net profit. The main additional 'cost' is the time involved in planning and implementing the marketing.
An internet site is very important, because it provides additional information about your property, answers any questions potential holidaymakers may have, and ensures that people know exactly what they are booking. It also should increase the number of enquiries received that you can convert to actual bookings.
However, your internet site alone will not fill your property. Having your site feature high in the results in Google and other search engines can take months or years to achieve, and may never happen.
Holiday rental listing sites
There are a lot of internet sites where you can advertise your property free of charge. Initial reaction is probably to do as many of these as possible. But you should be aware that these sites will usually have little or no resources to spend on advertising, so will almost always feature below 'paid' listings in the search engine results and in number of visitors.
Some are much better than others. Some hope one day to be successful paid sites, others hope to remain free while generating income from adverts on the site, usually Google Ads, affiliated travel insurance schemes and so on.
The time involved in both setting up your property initially and maintaining it later can be substantial. Therefore I would recommend choosing between two and four free sites and see how they perform. If you find you receive no queries you will need to ask that your details be removed, to avoid receiving queries years later based on incorrect information.
Brochure and newspaper ads
Personally we use only internet based marketing, having found brochure and newspaper advertising to be too expensive for the results that it obtains. You may disagree. It is certainly true that there is a large percentage of the population who would rather find their holiday from a brochure in a travel agent or from a printed brochure than from the internet.
You will need to look at the prices for an advert in your chosen publication e.g. Sunday Times, France Magazine and decide whether it seems reasonable. Usually I think it is not, but there are occasions when it could work - for example if you have a late cancellation and need to find someone at short notice.
Similarly if you are targetting a specific market sector - retired people, young families with babies, gardeners, bird watchers, and so on there may be a suitable magazine where you can advertise more cheaply than in a national newspaper or magazine.
One interesting anecdote in respect of marketing in the Press. I know of one person who wanted to get a few weeks of summer bookings for their rental apartment, and placed one advert in the Lady magazine, and got several weeks of bookings from that one advert. Clearly I am not going to recommend this as the best approach, but there is a possibility that the 'non-internet' world is being neglected as we all rush to advertise on the internet, and that there is still a case for old fashioned marketing techniques.
Internet based advertising / property listing sites
The problem here is always where to spend the advertising pound / euro to get the best results. There are numerous internet sites that list gites, villas and cottages to rent in France. Some are very good, some are not. Unfortunately there is no easy way to know which will work best for you. The best site one year may not be the best the following year, as position in search engine results varies, spending on newspaper advertising varies, competitors enter the scene and so on.
Perhaps the best approach is to identify two or three of your competitors who appear successful, and then find out where they advertise. You don't need to ask them, although this would be a good idea. Run a search on the property name in google or one of the other main search engines and their property should appear. You will then be able to see which sites they advertise on. This will get you started.
Now type into your search engine the phrases that you think someone would type when looking for a property like yours. For example 'gite seaside brittany' or 'villa provence with pool'. Again, see which websites are listed for these searches.
Now you should have a list of perhaps five - seven possible advertising sites. Look at each of these sites. Look at some of the properties advertising on the sites, including their availability schedules if provided. If most properties on the site seem well booked, that suggests a successful site.
A successful site will usually also be clear to use and understand, have plenty of information about the properties and nice clear photographs. Use the site as if you are searching for a holiday yourself - does it find hundreds of properties when you run a search? If so, will you be at the bottom of a list of 200 properties, never to seen by anyone?
Then look at the price of the advertising, and what it includes. Can you change the text and photos when you want? Is there an availability schedule? Is there a 'free trial' period - a few months when you can advertise free to assess the site properly?
Having done all this, you will need to choose at least two sites and proceed to place your adverts. It is generally too risky to advertise with just one site - if they have a bad year, you will have a terrible year. It is probably best to go with three sites in your first year, then hopefully eliminate the least successful in the second year.
Converting enqiries to bookings
We all receive a lot of enquiries that do not subsequently become actual bookings. Not surprising, since someone searching for a holiday will probably send enquiries to several properties. So if the average holiday hunter sends five enquiries to book one holiday, we would expect 20% of enquiries to become actual bookings.
However, it is clear that some people have more success than others with this. Some aspects you might like to consider if you have quite a low 'conversion' rate include:
- was the original advert misleading in some way, or unclear about some key information e.g. price, number of people it holds, whether there is a pool or not?
- do you respond to email enquiries promptly, and have a schedule of prices and availability to hand ready for any phone enquiries? email should be checked at least once a day
- is your response too abrupt? A friendly, chatty type response is likely to be more successful than a 'the period you requested is available, price £500' response
- does your website have plenty of 'sunny day' photographs?
- are your prices competitive?
- are your adverts clear about whether you accept smokers and pets?
Since we never really know what percentage of enquiries should become firm bookings, it is hard to know whether we are doing well or not. Overall I believe a reasonable target is about one in three. This ratio changes a lot if you don't include availability information in your adverts or website, since you should receive lots of enquiries for periods that are already booked, especially for the summer months - hence these queries can be excluded when you calculate your 'conversion ratio'.
Having visitors return themselves, or recommend your property to someone else, is both the cheapest and the most satisfying way to generate business. However it does mean that your property needs to offer value for money and / or something special. We know of people who generate at least 50% of their business from returning visitors and word-of-mouth recommendations. We haven't reached that level yet (and perhaps never will, who knows?), but it is certainly possible.
How to do it? There is no magic formula. Simply a focus on making sure your customers go away happy and feeling there is more to do.
For different people it will be different things: the DVD or CD player, the selection of childrens toys, the comfort of the garden furniture, how well equipped the kitchen is (are the knives sharp?), are the beds comfortable, is there satellite TV in the property, is there endless hot running water for long showers, and so on.
Try and put yourself in your customers position, and think what would make it extra special for you if you were staying in your own property. Further examples include:
1) The cleanliness and comfort of the property are very important.
2) Leave a list of things to do that exceeds the length of a typical holiday.
3) Respond rapidly and enthusiastically to any problems or requests for advice that arrive.
4) Book restaurants or taxis for people if they struggle with the language.