Vacation Rentals: Are Agents Leaving Money on the Table?

Just a few miles down US-98 from the neon-drenched tourist haven of Panama City Beach, but worlds away as far as volume and tempo, lies Port St. Joe.

A sleepy little beach town of scrub palmettos and dune grass, Port St. Joe represents a rarity in Florida: a beachfront town that doesn’t want to sell you T-Shirts and knick-knacks at every corner. It simply wants to give you the chance to breathe salt air, get sand between your toes and relax.

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It’s a beauty that whispers, rather than shouts.

Country music stars Brothers Osborne recorded their new album here, far away from the hectic music scene of Nashville among the winding dunes and gently waving seas. They named the album Port St. Joe in its honor.

It was only fitting, then, that they host their album release party at WindMark Beach, a waterfront resort community right along the dazzling turquoise waters of Saint Joseph Bay. WindMark Beach resort echoes everything that makes the town of Port St. Joe so unique. A laid-back pace, an unapologetic love of nature’s quiet charms and a spectacular view of the Florida panhandle’s gulf waters.

As a community, WindMark Beach represents an interesting opportunity for travelers. Built around the rolling greens of its Town Center (and we mean that literally—a unique, rolling landscape echoes the look of ocean waves among the grassy hills), its roads stretch away among the maritime forests to unique “boardwalks” that front many of the houses.

Evoking the rustic beachfront charms of New York’s Fire Island, these walkways connect many of the stunning homes built by D.R. Horton in a variety of styles that allow for ample creativity while adhering to a distinctly modern beach vibe.

WindMark Beach represents an interesting opportunity for travel agents. Throughout the community are condos and homes that were sold to buyers from as far away as Texas, primarily to serve as vacation rentals. In short, when the owner is not there, the home is available to rent for a few days or weeks at a time.

Zach Ferrell was running a boutique vacation rental company nearby when he was brought on by the developer to handle real estate sales. When WindMark Beach made the decision to engage a new vacation rental company, they invited Ferrell to look at their numbers.

“I had no idea they were getting that kind of volume,” he said. “We took it over and have been growing it ever since.”

His company, No Worries Vacation Rentals, now handles WindMark Beach’s rentals. From charming beachfront homes and cottages with names like “Pure Sol,” “Summer Dream” and “Once Upon a Tide” there are also condos sitting atop retail and restaurant space in the architecturally intriguing buildings in the Town Center. Along with securing a rental, No Worries handles every aspect of the experience from providing kayaks, bikes and chairs to golf carts and baby cribs.

“If you name it, we’ll probably rent it,” he said.

WindMark Beach is unique among vacation rental communities, but it also faces the same issue many rental communities face: exposure. Several years ago, the big vacation rental sites under VRBO’s banner began imposing a traveler fee, and Ferrell said he saw bookings from those sites drop from 45 percent into the 16-18 percent range. Now, nearly all of their bookings come from his company website. “We’re constantly reaching out, trying to find new ways and new means to find these travelers.”

Could that new way include travel agents? The answer gets a little murky. A search of Travel Leaders’ website, by way of anecdotal evidence, yields 297 agents who list “vacation rentals” as one of their specialties. Calls to several of the top-listed agents among them yielded the same answer across the board: they used to do more, but they’re not anymore.

Jim Buckley is the owner of Island Travel based on Hilton Head Island. A town similarly rich in vacation rental properties, Buckley said he doesn’t do much with vacation rental firms. “We get calls from people outside the area looking for vacation rental companies and we refer them to the chamber of commerce, which is our DMC.”

At issue, Buckley said, is the fact that agents tend to be wary of any destination they haven’t seen with their own eyes. “An agent’s reputation is based on being able to send people on a cruise or a tour that we know, based on our experience or their reputation. When it comes to rental properties, we have no way to validate the destination,” he said. “There may be avenues, I’m just not aware of them.”

Sites such as Redawning and Travel Rental Network do skew toward B2B vacation rentals for agents, offering up 10 percent commissions, but it appears to be a long road ahead for the two industries to connect.

Until then, you have the vacation rental industry looking for new ways to get people into their properties and the travel industry always looking for more opportunities for their clients and more ways to open revenue streams. For the savvy agent, it could be worth looking into.