July 2009

Welcome to Hilton Head Island • Short Term

Author:  Paul deVere

“In all the years I’ve been in this business, I’ve never had a guest ask me to make sure our company calls on them at 8 o’clock in the morning or knocks on the door to say, ‘Housekeeping,’” said Bob Hawkins, one of the owners of The Vacation Company, a short-term rental management firm he started 22 years ago. “You ever try to grill a steak in a hotel room?” he asked, laughing. Hawkins doesn’t have anything against hotels. Far from it. In his travels he uses them frequently and enjoys the comfort and convenience. “Length of stay is significant,” Hawkins said. “If you’re only going to be staying a couple nights, pick a hotel.”

There are dozens of short-term rental or property management companies on Hilton Head. It is the branch of the real estate industry that helped define what the island is today—a popular and highly regarded resort and residential coastal community. These companies are the ultimate middleman in the very best sense of that word. They make vacations happen for customers and income happen for property owners. It’s a demanding and always interesting business.

Tom Ridgeway, who owns Hilton Head Rental and Golf, remembers some of his company’s “interesting” guests. “Some of the crazy things include the guest that requested that we do something to reduce the frog noises at night by the pond. Or the guest who called to tell us that he had booked a room with a view of the ocean and all he could see were the tops of houses. We politely advised him to turn in the other direction on his balcony and he was elated to see the ocean. Then there was the guest who arrived late at night, upset that he couldn’t see the ocean from his oceanfront villa. We explained that the ocean was truly there and he would definitely see it in the morning.”

These companies are expected to be everything to everyone (guests and property owners alike) from property maintenance—making sure everything at the home or villa is tip-top shape—to tee times for the guests. “We know this may be their only vacation for the year. It’s nice that we’re able to make it a memorable event for them. If they’re having a Lowcountry boil, we’ll go out and get them a big pot. Whatever they need,” said Linda Maloney, owner of Beach Properties.
The ability to rent beachfront properties isn’t anything new. Beachfront cottages and homes, let out to rent, started dotting the shores of South Carolina’s Grand Strand as early as 1901. But for decades, it remained a cottage industry (pun intended), unplanned and without any real direction.

That all changed in the mid-1950s when Charles Fraser’s vision of community of like-minded individuals, a place called Sea Pines, took hold. People who shared Fraser’s extraordinary vision wanted to retire to this community but weren’t ready. So they rented by the week, and the industry was born.

According to Jim West, owner of Sunset Rentals, the short term rental management business has morphed again in a direction he didn’t expect. “We thought it (short-term rentals) was price point driven,” he said, and readily admits he was wrong. “Our business has changed dramatically in the last few years. You have to offer (guests) nicer bathroom amenities, like thicker towels and softer linens.” He said it’s the Baby Boomers. “They have more time to travel and they want the creature comforts. It’s just the way our society has changed in the past few years.” As an example, he said that his very high-end properties come with optional chef and daily maid service.

According to West, five years ago, view was everything. Now, a villa with no real view, but with designer furniture, marble topped kitchen counters, and extra amenities, is his top unit.

Hawkins has made sure all the properties his company represents have wireless, high speed Internet access. All company owners agreed that the Internet is playing a substantial role in choosing short-term rental properties. Virtual tours of properties are a big ingredient to the vacationer’s decision. “We have people who will spend hours on the Internet going to different sites and different places,” Hawkins said.

The Internet is so strong, West no longer prints brochures. “Everybody books on the Internet,” he said. He also cautioned about Internet bookings. While he thinks it’s great, vacationers can get a little over enthusiastic and forgetful. “They’ll call and tell us they can’t find the property, and come to find out they don’t have paperwork. They don’t have anything whatsoever with them except their family and personal belongings. It’s pretty amazing.”

Linda Roberts, manager for the Vacation Club said that, in the past five years, the Internet has definitely impacted her company’s business, but in a different way: rentals by owners who decide not to use an agent. “We’re seeing a lot of repercussions from independents renting—they who have no face-to-face contact with the guest. They don’t know if it’s four 18-year-olds or four adults. We’ll have guests coming to the desk that aren’t our guests. Because our name is on the building, because we handle regime management, or because we rent a number of units in that building, the other guests will say, ‘Go down to the Vacation Time office.’ And they’ll come and say, ‘We went to check in, but there’s somebody in our room.’ Double booking can be a problem,” Roberts cautioned.

On the benefits of renting private homes and villas, Ridgeway said, “Compare having a complete kitchen, dining area, living room area, washer and dryer and private bedrooms with multiple bathrooms versus the standard hotel room. Add multiple TVs, DVDs, private balconies, pools, spas, free tennis, free Internet and you can see why renting is the preferred form of vacationing.

Hawkins had a similar take. “Even in the smallest two-bedroom villa, there are a couple TVs, one in the living room, one in the bedroom. If you share a hotel room with somebody, you’ve got two people who want to watch different TV shows; what do you do? Maybe it’s just a couple of couples. The guys want to go in one room and have a beer. The women don’t want to watch the guys sitting and having a beer and acting dumb,” he said.

While the fundamental benefits of short term rentals for vacationers haven’t changed since those early days, the concept of “vacation ownership” or timesharing, has played an important roll in the way people vacation. Carolyn Oliver of Spinnaker Resorts, a timeshare development and management company that began on Hilton Head in 1983, said that she has been seeing the same families, year after year, “because they’ve made a commitment to Hilton Head. They love this island.They want to be here and it’s just great to see them.”
Hawkins had an unusual “family” take. The additional space available in private homes and villas is the key, Hawkins said, “especially when the kids get into their teens. They’ll say, ‘Mom, I don’t want to go. I want to stay with my friends.’ So mom says, ‘I’ll tell you what, why don’t you bring Mary with you.’ So you get a family of a certain size and, to make everybody happy, they can bring a friend. It’s just a matter of more bedrooms.”

Ridgeway has noticed another change recently. More property owners are allowing pets. “Just check with your rental company,” he suggested.

All managers concurred that, other than the obvious benefits, like bedrooms, multiple bathrooms, choice of location (ocean, golf course), one of the most important elements is privacy. “In a private home or villa, you ought be able to sit back and relax and smell the roses,” Hawkins said. “In a hotel environment, you’d have to buy the roses.”

Everyone also agreed that private homes and villas offer a bonding environment, where families can just get together in an environment that strengthen bonds that distance sometimes weakens. “Contrast meeting in the hotel lobby to spend quality time together versus the intimacy and privacy of starting the day in your PJs in the kitchen or family room, with your closest friends and family,” Ridgeway said.
Roberts, of Vacation Time, said, “It’s a great business. I’ve met so many interesting people. I’ve got people I’ve been checking in for 27 years. Families have grown up here. You watch the kids grow up, get married, and they bring their kids.”

Hawkins seconded that notion. “Guest come in and say, ‘We had a great time.’ It’s a wonderful business. I’m helping owners with their investment, and I’m helping people have a vacation they can truly enjoy. You just can’t beat that.”

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