Local bed tax collectors meet to dissuss solutions to VRBO concerns

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WALTON COUNTY, Fla. (WJHG/WECP) - Vacation rentals are a big drive for the local economy and many online travel agencies help keep those rentals filled, however, recent changes to one OTA are causing concern for some Walton County renters.

Wednesday, more than 95 local bed tax collectors met with the Walton County Tourist Development Council officials for a special meeting to voice their concerns and possible solutions.

"Obviously, we need to get all the information form our partners so we can figure out a plan on how we are going to tackle this issue or how we can help them," South Walton TDC Executive Director Jay Tusa said.

"One of the frustrations or the key frustrations that kind of elevated it to where it is now is they continue to make these changes to the way they do business with their partners, which are the property managers and their homeowners, and they do that without warning or without communication," CEO and Co-owner of 360 Blue Ashley Horsley said.

The biggest complaint was increased prices for both the subscriber and renter, tacking on what they say is an additional 20 percent to the rental price.

"With higher fees, it could turn people off if they are looking to come to South Walton," Tusa said, "so... and people might not understand that the fees are associated through VRBO, versus the property management firm or the owner of the condo or home, so I think we need to be careful how we move forward with this and that way we educate the user on how they can book direct and save those dollars."

"Along with that on the guest experience side, to me, which is almost as important as the monetary side, is they've taken away the ability for the traveler that books on their site to contact the property manager or the homeowner directly," Horsley said. "They have to go and reach someone through their own system, which means they are contacting someone that is not in our local economy, someone who doesn't know the area or the home they are inquiring about. Oftentimes they're getting someone in a different country where they're having to communicate with them about an area that this person has never heard of before, much less the house that they are trying to learn about."

According to Tusa, 80 to 85 percent of renters are repeat business.

"In addition, now they are going to start covering up our individual branding. They're going to take away the ability to sell our homes ourselves and they are basically going to become the person who initiates and carries out the entire transaction and carries on the guest experience without us having any say in that. And then ultimately we become a maintenance and housekeeping company rather than a full service, high end property management company, which is what we are and what we want to be," Horsley said.

Promoting booking direct was one of the most widely accepted suggestions made at the meeting, but some pointed out one of their biggest obstacles is making that initial connection.

"Our travelers have been conditioned to go to OTAs, to go to Expedia.com, to go to Homeaway.com, to go to VRBO.com, even Airbnb.com and I think that there are companies out there, particularly in our local economy that rely on this business in order to to be able to stay alive and so I think really being able to drive it home that if they go and search for the source of that rental home, or search for the source of that flight, or search for the source of that hotel book, that they are going to find that they have a much more better experience as a traveler. They have a much more easier and seamless experience through the transaction site as well," Horsley said. "So, my hope is to educate people and just say, 'You can save money, you get a better experience, you get people who are knowledgeable of the local area and you do that by learning to book directly rather than going through an OTA.'"

The TDC is also working on a new website, which they say they hope companies can use as a tool to push their brands and their message.

"[OTAs are] the gorilla and they have deep pockets and they're always going to be able to buy their way to the top of the Google Ads and they're always going to be able to have a presence in our economy and I don't know if that is necessarily a terrible thing, I just want it to be a situation where we rely mostly on our direct business," Horsley added.

Officials said they are taking Wednesday's suggestions to begin forming a plan and hope to have another meeting for more discussion soon.