Sharon Michie’s family has been in the vacation rental industry for 38 years. In that time, they have experienced hurricanes, 9/11, the BP oil spill, red tide, recessions, and now, the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sharon started her vacation rental property management company, Cottages to Castles, in 1997 in Sanibel Island, Florida. She learned a crucial lesson from these catastrophes: Be prepared.
She has long had a disaster plan in place and a “hurricane fund” that allows her company, which manages around 40 properties, to weather natural disasters and economic storms. Right now, she is using these resources to survive the pandemic and help her community through tough times.
“This is sort of like a hurricane for us, but instead of evacuating, we’re shutting down. But for the rest of the country, it’s like a hurricane hitting for the first time,” Sharon said.
COVID-19 IMPACTS VACATION RENTAL DESTINATIONS
Like most in the vacation rental industry, Cottages to Castles has had a rash of cancellations over the past weeks. Then, on March 27, the Sanibel City Council banned all arrivals to hotels and vacation rental properties until April 25.
Sharon and her staff have been working overtime communicating with homeowners and guests on rebooking and refunds, as well as helping guests with travel insurance claims and heading off guests who were just about to arrive.
But once this flurry is over, she sees the slow time ahead as a chance for some downtime, not panic, thanks to her emergency fund, which allows her to run her business for up to two years
“We established our hurricane fund, and that’s given me tremendous freedom and peace of mind. I’m not worrying, so I can just focus on the steps we need to take right now,” she said.
KEEPING HER COMMUNITY GOING
Sharon plans to use the time to tackle some long-term maintenance and improvement projects. For those projects, Sharon plans to hire local people, especially in the hospitality industry, who have already been hit hard by the pandemic.
“There are plenty of projects that require very little instruction that I would be doing myself, and I don’t mind paying somebody else to do it,” Sharon said. This includes to-dos such as checking smoke detectors and fire extinguishers, marking linens with dates so they can be replaced at the right time, painting, and updating property welcome books.
Sharon’s company is also donating supplies and nonperishable food left over in rental properties to her housekeepers and others who might need them. Her company has donated these kinds of supplies to the local food bank and other community organizations for years, but is now shifting to offer these to people directly affected by the pandemic.
Sharon is also donating all cancellation fees to her housekeeping staff.
“Every cancellation fee that we have is going towards the housekeepers because they’re our most vulnerable. And they’re the ones that set the stage for that first impression. I’ve told each one of them, ‘You will be paid no matter what.’ And that was a big sigh of relief.’”
AN EYE ON THE FUTURE
Although this is a tough time, Sharon thinks the industry can view it as an opportunity to evaluate business fundamentals, from overall strategy to financials and planning for further unexpected events down the road. That can include examining reliance on the major online marketplaces.
“You have to decide who’s in the driver’s seat and who’s running your business,” she said.
Sharon also encourages both property managers and individual hosts to join local associations so that they can help each other and learn together.
ONE DAY AT A TIME
But for now, she advises focusing on the present and taking one day at a time.
“It’s a time to look at the big picture. If it’s too overwhelming, that’s OK. Just start with something small. Think about what you can do today, pick just one thing,” she said.
For Sharon, one of those things has been sending the message to guests that her company is there for them, no matter the situation. To that end, she has mailed hand-picked seashells and personal notes to guests who have had to cancel.
“It took our mind off what was going on. And it feels good to send a little handwritten note that Sanibel will be here. It will be here when it’s safe for you to come back.”
In good times and bad, Sharon takes to heart a lesson she learned at Cornell University’s School of Hospitality Administration.
“We were taught ‘service before self’ and the importance of rising to the occasion. There are going to be hard days out there and you just have to make the best of it.”