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COVID-19 Looking Ahead To Booking Trends

Florida Vacation Connection is coming out of a surprisingly busy summer season and starting to prepare for our winter guests.  We spoke with Meghan, our Operations Manager, who sheds some light on current booking trends and what she thinks the upcoming winter season will look like in terms of occupancy.

FVC: Short-term vacation rentals have been open for business for nearly 3 months.  We heard about changes in cleaning, but what about changes and challenges in bookings?

Meghan: Before we get to bookings, we have to start with cancellations.  Considering short-term vacation rentals were banned in Sarasota County until May 22nd, most reservations were cancelled as we approached summer.  While most of our rentals require a month minimum stay, we do manage some weekly rentals that typically have a busy summer season.  When running a business, of course there is worry about cash flow and staffing in a situation like this.  But I think what really hit me personally in the gut were the conversations with owners following up on cancellations.  Sending notice of a cancelled booking to an owner is bad enough under normal circumstances, but one after another for some of our houses… that was rough.  I will say, however, one of the most wonderful things about our company is with 25+ years in the business and a veteran staff, we didn’t panic.  Don’t get me wrong, there was plenty of stress, and hopefully our guests and owners didn’t see us sweat too much! But with cancellations we’ve been professional and diligent, flexible and probably above all, human.  We were able to retain some bookings, but most importantly, because of how well each situation was handled, we made customers for life.

FVC: Those of us here in the office know it was actually a pretty busy summer! So what happened to all the cancellations?

Meghan: It wasn’t necessarily busy, it was just different than any other summer we’ve seen.  As I mentioned before, with so many of our rentals being month minimums, it’s not like in high season when all of our properties are occupied.  But our short term rentals, especially with the week minimum homes we manage on Lido Key / St. Armand’s Circle, we saw a lot of activity.  The people who cancelled didn’t re-book.  Unfortunately, our over-seas and Canadian guests still have travel bans in place.  Even any domestic, out of state guests had to cancel if they were coming from what were considered “hot spots”.  Then there were people who simply didn’t want to take the risk of traveling while the cases in Florida were still climbing.  Once short term rentals were allowed though, the calls coming in switched from cancellations to inquiries.  Typically, our summer bookings are made shortly after Christmas.  I think families get over the holiday’s, the gloom of winter up north sets in, and they start planning their summer vacations.  This year however, our summer bookings were last minute with most guests coming from Florida and the southern region of the United States.  People still aren’t keen on flying, so they drove.  We actually even had a pretty nice run with some of our monthly properties.  It was a long, stressful spring for the entire country.  People needed a change of scenery and a break.  What better place for beach therapy than Longboat Key?

FVC: I think everyone agrees with the Beach Therapy! But it also brings up a good point about opposing views when it comes to vacation rentals in our area right now. A change of scenery at what cost?

Meghan: Of course there is some opposition to welcoming guests to our area amid a pandemic.  I feel like a broken record when saying this, but as front line workers in the hospitality industry, we are exceptionally sensitive to stopping the spread of the virus and following all CDC guidelines as instructed.  Not only for the safety of our guests, but for our staff and their families too.  We run a very tight ship with our cleaning and disinfecting policies around our office as well as the properties.  Guests are informed in our blog, in-unit communications and arrival instructions as to local laws / restrictions and how to prevent the spread of the virus.  While our arrival and departure procedures have changed to accommodate a contact-less environment, we do reach out to every guest after arrival to insure they are confident in the cleanliness of the unit and to also answer any questions they may have about area restrictions.  Without a doubt, the standards and expectations of guest behavior in our community during this time of extreme caution starts right here, in our office, with guest communication.  We are leading by example.  Bottom line; our guests know we are taking COVID very seriously, and we expect them to do the same.

FVC: What’s your take on booking trends going forward, looking to winter?

Meghan: We have had a lot of cancellations for this winter.  Most of them were repeat guests who usually stay two to three months at a time during season.  While it’s concerning any time we have a cancellation, especially from our incredible repeat winter clientele, it opened the door for guests who want to come for a single month during season.  We have had several inquiries for winter stays in the last month resulting in our calendars slowly, and cautiously filling back up again.  From conversations we have been having with potential guests still on the fence, I think we will be busy here in the office taking new bookings for winter in another month or so.  I really don’t see people pulling the trigger until we get a little further into fall.  I’ve told owners and guests both that I’m not terribly worried about our occupancy numbers not being as high as past winters.  It will happen.  There is still a demand for quality rentals here on Longboat Key and Lido Key in the winter, absolutely.  But it goes without saying that there is much more thought and consideration when making decisions about travel that involve large sums of money, who you will be spending time with, and how the community where you are staying is controlling the situation.  I think society as a whole has moved on from the phrase, “state of uncertainty” and is now living in a, “state of caution.”  We respect and fully support the extra consideration guests will be taking when it comes to making a decision about traveling to Florida this winter.  Anyone in our office is more than happy to ease any worries and answer questions.

FVC: What are some booking trends that are a result of COVID-19, and do you think they are here to stay?

Meghan: Guests are calling and asking about internet speed.  We have an influx of people calling to find out how equipped our vacation rentals are for remote working conditions.  People are still working from home, especially residents from big cities.  With so many states offering the option for distance learning for kids too, we are finding professionals and families are looking for a place to get out of town and take advantage of fall specials and off-season rates.  They want to know internet speed and work space specifications.  It’s interesting… and exciting all at the same time. There is quite a buzz in Corporate America with “working from home” being a permanent option for employees that were otherwise tied to an office.  It would be a great trend for us here on Longboat Key to boost the rentals of our monthly properties that otherwise sit vacant in the fall.

Another interesting point is that guests aren’t necessarily asking about cleaning procedures, rather, they are asking specifically about linens and carpet.  I don’t think this one is going away, to be honest.  If there is carpet, they want to know the last time it was cleaned. Along those same lines, we are finding guests are choosing homes and condos with minimal decor.  They want clear spaces and clean lines. Throw pillows and bulky ornate comforters are a thing of the past.  Less is more.  Guests want to walk into their home away from home and have it feel and look clean.  We are working with our owners to replace bedding with plain down alternative comforters, get deep cleans scheduled for this fall, and get carpets cleaned.  A few of our owners have opted to just have the carpet removed and replace it with tile or laminate flooring.  Given current feedback from guests, it’s a great investment.

For more local COVID-19 coverage and to read more about Florida Vacation Connection’s cancellation policy and cleaning procedures, we invite you to visit the dedicated section of our website by clicking HERE.