Industry Reflections at the VRMA National Conference

This year’s VRMA National Conference brought over 1,500 professionals to Orlando to celebrate the joy of vacation rentals. With over 300 more friends, colleagues, and strange bedfellows attending the show than ever before, attendees had the opportunity to look in the mirror and do some thoughtful—and at times uncomfortable—reflecting on our rapidly changing industry. Walking the show floor, I wanted to know what they thought of the view.

It’s Wednesday morning. The show’s wrapping up and I’m sipping coffee between the final sessions with the venerable Dagmer Chew and her associates.

“It’s been crazy to see the vendor booths evolve over the past 10 years—especially this year,” says Dagmer, owner of Homestead Real Estate’s Cape May Rentals, which manages luxury vacation homes along the Jersey shore. “It’s like they’re doing full stage production now.”

Debra Donahue from Homestead is attending the show for the first time. She marvels at the demographics. “There’s all these smart young kids here selling apps and I’m still using this flip phone,” she laughs.

While our industry has been around for decades, it’s only recently started having its moment in the limelight. According to a Skift article that came out during the conference, vacation rentals are being recognized as big business worth an estimated $138 billion in 2016 and expected to grow to a value of $194 billion by 2021.

The exhibition hall was abuzz with fresh faces offering software and other newfangled solutions to old problems. Exploring booths boasting various levels of production and pomp, you could almost feel the divide between old and new—the established and the disruptive.

Representing both the youthful set and Vacasa—a high-growth national brand that announced $103.5 million in investment funding during the show—I’d been anxious that I’d meet only cold shoulders at the conference. If this VRMA National Conference was the physical manifestation of our changing industry, would the Vacasa team be shunned as agents of chaos?

“You seem okay to me,” laughs Dagmer between sips of coffee. “Honestly, I’d never even heard of Vacasa until today. Some people were talking about you in a session but I thought they were saying “Picasa.”

Despite a rapidly changing landscape that’s creating new opportunities and bigger challenges, those of us in attendance have more in common than not. And that’s good, because now more than ever, we need to work together.

“The frustrating part for us isn’t the changing technology. We like that and we try to keep up. It’s the regulations that threaten us most,” Jim Morris told me during lunch on Tuesday. Reaching into his pocket, he produced a newspaper page, which he proceeded to carefully unfold before slapping it down on the table beside my plate.

Jim his wife Melinda have owned and operated Lake Tahoe Accommodations—the largest vacation rental company in Lake Tahoe—since 1979. I snap a photo of the article with my phone so I can reference it later.

The story is an editorial written by the mayor of South Lake Tahoe. He’s advocating votes for a new ordinance. The proposed regulation would cap the number of vacation rental homes in Tahoe and require that any new vacation rental homes not be within 150 feet of a pre-existing rental.

At the show, Jim and Melinda hoped to tap VRMA and other attendees for advice on a local legal battle that will enable them to continue to grow their business. Like many others, they wish the decision would be made on the state level instead.

Communities such as South Lake Tahoe are increasingly passing ordinances that limit homeowners’ rights to market their properties to short-term accommodation seekers. In the session, ‘Fighting For Your Right to Share Your Home,’ Christina Sandefur, Executive Vice President at the Goldwater Institute explained how to fight back. According to her, we all need to work together, stay informed through VRMA, and—before it’s too late—share the economic impact of vacation rentals with our city councils.

From happy hours to lunches, the conference featured no end of opportunities for companies to put aside their differences and talk about how to move the industry forward. I can attribute at least three learnings and one hangover to Rented.com (thanks, Andrew). Competitors on some fronts and in partnership on others, our teams had fun intermingling at the show, even going out for dinner at Disney Springs one night.

“Are you guys talking about Vacasa? I know all about Vacasa,” says Kristen Kasinski, pulling up a chair to join my coffee chat with the Homestead ladies. “Your sales team seemed a little pushy trying to buy VRMs at the San Diego conference, but everyone I met was really nice this time. I’m glad you’re out there.”

Kristen is a no-nonsense vacation rental manager for Naples Florida Vacation Homes. She drove to the show primarily to catch Phocuswright President Simon Lehmann’s presentation, ‘Is There a Future For Property Managers?’ This was her fifth VRMA National Conference, and she enjoyed it. But she was left wanting more in one regard.

“VRMA has given me everything by giving me the opportunity to be among my peers. But I didn’t love the loud parties. I wanted to have a glass of wine and talk with other VRMs who manage similar-sized portfolios.”

Others came to the show with different takeaways in mind. Rometa Dorsey, a broker for Signature Properties in St. Thomas, traveled from the U.S. Virgin Islands to attend the conference. In the fifth week of recovery after Hurricane Irma, the Caribbean islands where she once operated vacation homes are still without power.

“We don’t have refrigerated meat you can trust,” she explained, smiling to make light of the heavy topic. “We’re getting pretty sick of FEMA soup.”

Hurricane Irma laid waste to vacation homes across the U.S. Virgin Islands. Rometa was attending the show in hopes of finding investors interested in a real estate opportunity that would help the islands return to their former tourism glory.

At the ‘Disaster Preparedness for Your Vacation Rentals’ seminar, Floridians Jennifer Frankenstein-Harris from Great Ocean Condos and Vacasa’s Key West community manager Rick Haskins shared their own hurricane stories. A crowd of VRMs from around the world gathered to hear the presenters’ advice on how to prepare for the worst. Their tips included: Bring a computer with all your files and guest contacts you if you evacuate, invest in a GPS communications device, and locate all your staff.

Our coffees nearly gone, I ask the Homestead ladies and Kristen from Naples Florida Vacation Rentals about their biggest takeaways from the conference. Dagmer plans to work on Homestead’s official story and “hire a college kid to text guests and do push notifications all summer long.”

Her associate Debra had a great time at her first VRMA National Conference. She’s excited about how many women dominate the industry and is now committed to getting a smartphone.

Kristen  is motivated to further solidify her owner campaigns and focus on what she says is her most important job: growing inventory.

We say our goodbyes and as the conference comes to an end, I walk one last time past the exhibition area en-route to my room. Packing the leaf-shaped jar of maple syrup from my new Canadian friends at ClearBanc, I think back to all the vendor stories I’d heard at the conference.

Despite the fact that the business of vacation rentals is changing, business across the board in our industry is good. Really good. In talking with a variety of vendors—from mainstays such as PointCentral to new kids on the block like Key Concierge—one theme emerged: 2018 is going to be a banner year.

Indeed, more guests than ever before are opting for vacation rentals. And if the predictions that Airbnb co-founder Nate Blecharczyk shared at the conference are correct, we are about to experience an influx of foreign travelers. Bookings will rise and we will collectively generate more income to spend on tools to make the vacation rental experience better for all of our guests, staff, and clients.

“I think everybody should stop worrying so much about changes,” Jim from Lake Tahoe Accommodations had told me as he folded up the newspaper and put it back into his pocket. “What I love about our industry is, there’s plenty of pie to go around.”