As coronavirus pandemic restrictions ease and people begin to feel more comfortable traveling, one trend is becoming clear to Vrbo: People want to get out, but many aren't willing to go far.
That's why the short-term rental service is fitting the bill for customers who are looking for close-by getaways, Vrbo president Jeff Hurst told USA TODAY in an interview. Summer travel plans might have involved longer flights or trips to island destinations. But now families feel stuck where they live and are looking to take a break and are hesitant to take longer trips.
The option to use Vrbo is paying off, literally:the company is proving a boon to parent company Expedia's business during the pandemic.
"A bright spot for us has been Vrbo, where we have seen really markedly better performance, and that clearly seems to be around people who have been stuck in their city dwellings or wherever and are looking forward to being able to get away from those cities to some place for a vacation with their families this summer," Peter Kern, Expedia vice chairman and CEO, said on a recent earnings call. "We are pleased to see the demand," he added.
The short-term rental business, like the rest of the hospitality industry, is dealing with the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.
Vrbo started to see U.S. traveler demand tick up in mid-April, particularly in regard to longer trips for the end of summer. The number of people searching for trips on the site has hit its highest since March and are now outpacing this time a year ago.
New bookings for both Airbnb and Vrbo hit 807,000 in the U.S. the week of May 18 to May 24, up from a low of 252,000 April 6 to 12, according to short-term rental data company AirDNA.
Once stay-at-home restrictions hit in mid-March, "everyone was canceling and no one was booking," Hurst said. The company was in crisis mode, trying to make sure its travelers and hosts, which it calls "partners," knew what to do.
In March:Vrbo plans to ban rental owners who dismiss severity of coronavirus threat to travelers
As government restrictions have eased, travel has begun to pick up – slowly. And whole home rental may be seen as more contained and secure. Vrbo's highest booking demand is where restrictions have eased, like in the Southeastern U.S.
"More and more people have adjusted to working from home and have confidence that they can have a Monday or a Friday and extend a weekend but actually still plug into their profession," Hurst said. He also said that people are booking throughout summer all the way into the holiday season.
Where is the future of travel going exactly? Hurst thinks the trend of Instagrammable moments, like going to the most well-known or iconic spots, will dissipate. People are going to explore a lot of beauty in their own backyard, though he empathizes with those still hesitant to travel.
Vrbo exec defends refund policy
In March, both Vrbo and Airbnb were inundated with complaints regarding their cancellation and refund policies.
The short-term rental services faced hits from opposite directions. People canceling reservations have criticized Vrbo for a refund policy they consider too weak.
Ashley Gordon of New York, who was part of a group that made a four-day April reservation in Scottsdale, Arizona, for her bachelorette party, says the rental service's refund policy lacks teeth. After initially being denied any refund of the $5,700 due, the property owner finally agreed to cancel the Gordon group's final payment, leaving them with a $3,100 loss.
"Vrbo is deflecting responsibility, making their customers chase the money and not requiring a 50% mandated refund. I don't expect the homeowner to lose everything, but Vrbo has made it clear they are standing behind their properties and not their customers," she said.
When people feel pressure to travel because of refund rejections, that threatens public health. "In many cases, the owners have been aggressive or dismissive of COVID-19."
In response to complaints that some property owners were dismissing the coronavirus threat to discourage cancellations, Vrbo told unit owners in mid-March not to downplay the crisis and threatened to ban those who didn't comply.
Vrbo published guidelines in March to encourage hosts to offer more flexibility with their booking policies. Hurst said the company has tried to create more incentives to those that are more lenient with their policies – to be rewarded in both review methodologies and in its rankings.
One Arizona rental owner in March said coronavirus concerns were "being pushed by the media," while another reportedly denied a cancellation, explaining that "my beliefs are contrary to what the public and media see it as."
The company's policy applies to bookings made before March 13. It has extended the policy until June 30 to bookings canceled due to government restrictions regarding travel or stays in vacation homes.
Travelers outside the cancellation window can receive a full credit to be used within the next year. But if travelers are not eligible for a 100% refund and doesn't accept credit, hosts are encouraged to give at least a 50% refund.
As for the refunds themselves: "There was a period where we had essentially had an operational challenge keeping up with all of the money flow and the refunds and so they were taking longer for a period of time than we would’ve liked, but we’re starting to catch up to that," Hurst said.
The company has taken a different approach than competitor Airbnb, which has played intermediary when travelers and hosts can't work out the refund. If Vrbo hosts and travelers don't reach a resolution, the host is subject to penalties.
"Ours has been more of a balanced approach, trusting our partners to do what’s right and providing rewards and repercussions on both sides of that equation," Hurst said.
Guests concerned about cleanliness should look to the company's hygiene policy, informed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization and Cristal International Standards. There are directives for disinfecting surfaces, ensuring time between bookings and keeping homes stocked with antibacterial hand soaps and hand sanitizers.
Homeowners and property managers will have the ability to report whether guests can check-in and out without person-to-person contact or if the property can't accommodate 24 hours between guests. Guests will be able to see this information on the Vrbo app and website once hosts detail the information to the company.
Contributing: Bill Keveney
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