Do you rely on Airbnb, Booking.com, Vrbo, and other websites for all your bookings?
Letting the success of your short-term rental business hinge on third-party booking sites is not ideal.
It’s even risky: you’re not in control, and you’re paying astronomical amounts in commissions.
So what can you do to become more independent, and keep more money in your pocket? Direct bookings.
It’s a safe way to diversify your sources of bookings.
In this guide, we’ll cover how to start getting direct bookings, from building your vacation rental website to converting guests and increasing brand awareness.
Let’s get right into it!
What are direct bookings?
Direct bookings are reservations that guests make on your website instead of an OTA (online travel agency) like Airbnb or Booking.com.
In the case of a direct booking, the transaction happens directly between the property manager and the guest, cutting out the middleman.
Benefits of direct bookings
There are many advantages to direct bookings for short-term rental hosts.
First of all, direct bookings have no commission fees. Bypassing third-party bookings sites who charge commission fees of up to 15-20% allows for much greater profit margins.
Independence and control
Secondly, direct bookings let you diversify your sources of bookings and become less dependent on OTAs like Airbnb, Vrbo, and Booking.com.
Why is this important? Because OTAs can:
Raise their commission fees, which messes with your revenue management and pricing strategy.
Change their algorithms, which can cause your listings’ search rankings to drop and your bookings to plummet.
Sometimes even go out of business (like what happened to Bookit.com earlier this year), which can result in the loss of a significant source of bookings.
On the other hand, if you get bookings via your website, you can be in control of your business. You don’t have to rely on other businesses - whose corporate interests may not always align with yours.
Brand awareness and loyalty
Thirdly, by getting direct bookings, you can create your own pool of customers who are loyal to you instead of Airbnb or other booking sites.
You may not have thought of your short-term rental as a brand yet, but it definitely is. It’s the story you tell around your business. The care, thought and detail you put into your rental makes hosts connect with your brand.
Most OTAs don’t allow you to brand your listings (or in a very restricted way). When a guest has a good experience, the credit goes to the OTA - because that’s the brand they know.
But on your own website, you can do whatever you want. You can build brand awareness, which is essential for two things:
increasing your chances of repeat bookings
Just think about: when a traveler books directly with you, they’re more likely to remember your brand and tell their friends and family about it than if they’d booked through an OTA. Instead of saying “I booked a great place on Airbnb”, they’ll associate their positive experience with your brand and point the people in their circle of influence straight to your website.
What’s more, when you get a direct booking, you can ask your guests for their contact details - which is difficult to do when they book via a third party (OTAs prefer that you communicate with guests via their native messaging apps). Once you have your guests’ email addresses, you can add them to your mailing list, send them special offers, and use other retargeting techniques to encourage repeat bookings.
Offering a better deal
Finally, accepting direct bookings allows you to offer a better deal than what travelers would find on OTAs. Since you have no commissions to pay, you can probably afford to drop your prices a little. Your profit margin will still be higher, but this way you’ll also be incentivizing guests to book directly with you.
Travelers like to shop around for the best deals. They know that prices can vary across different platforms. So they compare and contrast listings on different booking sites, and keep googling until they find the best bargain.
And, demand for direct bookings is growing. Guests are more educated now, and they're actively seeking out direct bookings websites because they know it supports property managers.
Should hosts build their own direct booking website?
We’re not advocating that you cut yourself off from OTAs entirely. Websites like Airbnb and Booking.com can provide lots of exposure. But if third-party booking sites are the only sources of your bookings, your business’s success hinges on them.
That’s why we recommend building your own website. It allows you to diversify your sources of bookings, become independent, and increase your bookings and revenue.
Building your own website is not as difficult or complicated as it sounds. Today, there are several great tools you can use to create a beautiful vacation rental website. Plus, it’s fast, cost-effective, and easy.
How to build a vacation rental website
Have you decided to build your own direct booking website? Great. Now it’s time to consider your options.
How you build your vacation rental website is going to depend on your needs and your limitations.
Here are some questions to ask yourself:
What’s your budget?
How much time do you have?
Do you have any technical/coding skills?
What are your future plans for your business and what does that mean for your website?
Answering these questions will help you decide on the means by which you’re going to build your vacation rental website.
Features your direct bookings website should have
Before we get into how to build a direct booking website, let’s take a look at some key requirements that every vacation rental website needs to meet.
Your website should be:
Mobile responsive. Today, a large chunk of reservations are made from mobile devices. This is especially true for last-minute bookings. If you want guests to have a seamless experience, your website must be optimized for mobile.
Able to accept online bookings and payments. Every direct booking website needs a booking engine. This is what allows you to accept online bookings and take payments. Guests expect to be able to book online in a matter of seconds, with just a few clicks - so make sure your website is prepared for that.
SEO-friendly. There are many ways to drive traffic to your vacation rental website - we’ll talk about them later. But one of the most important ones is SEO or search engine optimization. Being SEO-friendly means that your website meets all the requirements to be easily indexed by Google and found by guests using the search engine.
Secure. When purchasing a domain, it’s imperative that you also get SSL encryption. If you have a web address that starts with ‘https’, every browser will recognize your website as secure, and guests will know that it’s a legitimate website and not a scam.
Now, let’s see how you can actually build your vacation rental website.
Option 1: Use a website builder
The easiest way to build a vacation rental website is by using a website builder tool.
These tools have premade templates for mobile-friendly, SEO-optimized (meaning they’re easy to find in Google) websites with booking engines. All you need to do is customize the template and fill it in with the information that’s unique to your rentals.
Website builders are affordable, easy-to-use, and don’t have a huge learning curve. Of course, they require absolutely no coding skills. They offer customer service to help you maintain the website over time, and some have the hosting included in their price, too. They’re the best option for property managers on a budget looking to get a website up and running as soon as possible.
Several property management systems (PMSs) have a website builder feature. There are also companies that specialize in this. We’ll go through the best ones in the following section.
But first, let’s explore another way to build a vacation rental website.
Option 2: Hire a development team
The second option is to contract a web development team and have them build you a custom website.
This option is viable for property managers for multiple units who have a bigger budget and need specific website features that a website builder tool’s templates may not have. For example, if you have multiple properties, you may need a more sophisticated search function.
A professional web development team can design and develop a website that’s specifically tailored to your needs. However, this may take a bit of time, so you’ll have to wait a few weeks before your website can go live.
And remember: websites don’t just need to be built, they also need to be maintained. So if you don’t have the time or the technical skills needed to uphold your website, be aware that it will incur maintenance costs down the road.
Best vacation rental website builders
If you’ve chosen to go the DIY route and build your short-term rental website yourself, the next step is to find a website builder.
You can either choose a tool made specifically for short-term rentals, or a generic website builder that can be used for building any kind of website. They both work equally well.
Here are some of the best vacation rental website builders we know of:
PromoteMyPlace is a fuss-free, cost-effective website builder for property managers who want to do a good job and get it done fast.
Its easy-to-use website editor requires no technical knowledge and offers a plethora of professional designs and color schemes to choose from.
You also get full customer support, and annual hosting is included in the pricing.
Mobile-friendly, SEO-optimized, secure website
Social media integration
Pricing: Around $89.00 per year (single-property website)
Free trial: 14 days
Vevs is a one-stop-shop for all things vacation rental website.
You can use it to build a new vacation rental website or migrate your old website smoothly and effortlessly. Hosting is included in the price.
Vevs has lots of beautifully designed, mobile-friendly templates that you can fine-tune. And, you can ask Vevs to tweak the design if your business has any specific needs.
Mobile-friendly, SEO-optimized, secure website
Set prices, payment options and manage listing content
Display listings from other owners
Advanced property search
Google maps integration
Customization and add-ons (upon request)
Pricing: $39.00 per month (up to 10 listings)
Free trial: 7 days
Boostly has helped its clients double their direct bookings with sleek, professional websites made specifically for the hospitality industry.
The website builder package includes an intuitive, customizable WordPress template, premium cloud hosting, an SSL certificate, your own domain, essential WordPress plugins, and how-to videos to help you get started.
All you have to do is add your photos, content and details, and Boostly’s tech team takes care of the rest for you.
Boostly also integrates with PMSs and channel managers, so you can import your availability calendars. And, they offer support throughout the whole process.
Mobile-friendly, SEO-optimized, secure website
Add any widgets
Google Maps integration
PMS and channel manager integration
Pricing: Starts at around $517.00 plus around $17.00 per month
Free trial: N/A
Wix is one of the most popular website builders out there.
It gives you the tools to create a website exactly how you want - without any coding skills.
You can start from scratch or choose from hundreds of designer-made templates.
And, Wix has a booking engine that lets you accept online bookings.
Mobile-friendly, SEO-optimized, secure website
Drag-and-drop website building platform
Thousands of plugins
Pricing: Packages start at $14 per month
Free trial: The tool has a limited free version that you can use for an unlimited time.
Adding your direct booking website to your channel manager
As we’ve seen, the best direct booking websites have an availability calendar.
But that only makes sense if the calendar is synced with all your other calendars, i.e. your Airbnb, Vrbo, Booking.com calendars, and any others you may have. Otherwise, you’ll be prone to double bookings - which can be an absolute nightmare.
To prevent that, you need to hook your website up to a channel manager.
Channel managers are software solutions that allow you to sync your calendars and availability across all your channels.
Some vacation rental website builders directly integrate with channel managers, so your calendars update once you turn on syncing.
However, if this feature isn’t available, you need to make sure you export your website’s calendar in an iCal format and import it into your channel manager.
The Host Tools channel manager lets you import any iCal link of your choosing - including your website’s - and helps you keep your calendars up-to-date without having to worry about double bookings.
Examples of direct booking websites
Here are some vacation rental websites that you can look to as an example while you’re building your own.
River Rock Retreat
The direct booking website of River Rock Retreat does a great job of showcasing its three properties in Riverside County, California. Each has a different personality, portrayed in high-quality photos.
The listing pages are easy-to-browse and contain all the essential information.
There’s a search bar, a Google Maps page, an availability calendar, and a reviews page. The ‘Book now’ button is displayed prominently in the top right corner.
The only thing that’s missing is an ‘About us’ page where guests could learn more about the hosts. A missed opportunity, in our opinion!
Joshua Tree Oasis
The Joshua Tree Oasis website is excellent at conveying the atmosphere of its two desert properties.
The photos are beautiful and inviting. There’s an activities page that lists all the fun things you can do when visiting.
There are in-depth videos of the rentals and their surroundings; pricing, location, and availability info is displayed clearly; and there’s a page full of raving reviews.
What’s more, there are several links to Joshua Tree Oasis social media profiles, so travelers can follow along and become a part of their community.
All in all, it’s a great website that’s bound to generate lots of direct bookings.
The website of BudaHome Apartments is simple, neat and informative - just like a vacation rental website should be.
The front page has an image carousel with stunning photos of the most famous sights in Budapest, Hungary.
There’s a search bar that lets guests put in their dates and browse among Budahomes’ five apartments.
The listing pages are complete with all the information travelers need.
There are reviews, a Google Maps integration, and even a blog that covers events and must-see places in Budapest.
We especially like the ‘Special offers’ tab, where you can ask for a personalized quote via a contact form.
Marketing your direct booking website
Building a vacation rental website is just the first step. You also need to get it in front of travelers.
Here are the most effective ways to market your website:
SEO. Using search engine optimization to market your website means incorporating the right keywords and serving up the right content to get it to rank in Google search results. Google likes websites that regularly display new content, so consider starting a blog or routinely adding new guest reviews to your website. Your ranking in search engines is also influenced by the number of backlinks you have. Try doing some guest blogging or partnering with local businesses and asking them to link back to your website.
Social media. It’s a good idea to share links to your website on social media with a short message that will get your followers to click. For example, you can offer a flash sale or a promotion. You can also share attractive images of your properties or the surrounding area to tickle travelers’ wanderlust.
Email. Once you start getting some direct bookings, you can start compiling a mailing list from the email addresses of guests who stayed with you. It’s also smart to embed a signup form on your website so visitors can sign up for your newsletter. The emails you send can help drive traffic to your website. For example, you can send out special discounts and include a link to your website where guests can book direct.
Paid ads. If your budget allows, you can experiment with running pay-per-click ads to your short-term rental website. These can be Google Ads (which appear above the organic search results in Google), or social media ads on platforms like Instagram or Facebook. Monitor your ad campaigns and make sure you’re only spending money on ads that bring you bookings.
Getting guests to book via your direct booking website
Once you’ve successfully started driving traffic to your website, you also need to make sure that the travelers who land on it convert - meaning they book your rental.
There are a few tricks you can use in the design of your website that’ll help you increase bookings.
Here’s a non-exhaustive list:
Place the ‘Book now’ button in the top right corner. That’s where our eyesight is naturally drawn. It should be easy-to-find, with bright colors and a decent size.
Include an ‘About us’ section. Guests prefer vacation rentals to hotels because they offer a unique experience with a personal touch. Make sure your website reflects your personality and shows that you’re an attentive host.
Display positive reviews. The testimonials of other travelers are proof that you’re a legitimate business and you provide an excellent experience. Be sure to include some on your websites to help potential guests make their decision.
Upload some high-quality photos. Just like you would with a listing on Airbnb, you should upload as many high-quality photos to your website as you can. Images are extremely important to help travelers visualize themselves spending time at your rental.
Direct booking insurance
Convenience is not the only reason why travelers book on OTAs. Big companies like Airbnb and Booking.com also offer a sense of security, with their lenient cancellation options and policies that favor guests.
So what can you do to provide the same sense of security to your direct bookers?
If you’re a forward-thinking host, you should offer travel insurance to your guests when they book your property.
It’s not uncommon for guests to ask for a full refund on account of a last-minute cancellation. If you don’t provide one, you’ll damage your relationship with that particular guest and they’ll most likely never book with you again. But if you do provide it, you may not be able to book your rental on time. And an empty rental means an empty pocket.
One way to circumvent that is by offering your guests travel insurance. In the event of a last-minute cancellation, the insurance company will cover the cost of the refund, and you get to keep the money that your guest paid you.
This way, your guest will walk away with a good cancellation experience (with high chances of them booking again in the future), and you won’t have lost any money.
Before you decide which travel insurance company you contract, be sure to check what their insurance covers. Trips can be canceled or interrupted for all sorts of reasons!
The bottom line
All in all, building a vacation rental website can help you increase your direct bookings, become less independent on OTAs, and boost your revenue.
Not to mention that if you don’t have a website, do you really exist?
An online presence is crucial for building credibility - and in a world where savvy guests triple-check everything before booking, having a professional-looking website can be the difference between a booking or an empty rental.