TORONTO — At a time when hotel and resort development has come to a standstill in Kissimmee, one thing in particular continues to see growth: vacation homes.
As the Vacation Home Capital of the World, Kissimmee’s inventory of these privately owned and professionally managed homes runs the gamut, with over 60,000 of them in total. Offering privacy and enough space for entire families to spread out, vacation homes have continued to perform well throughout the pandemic, with more coming in the pipeline, says DT Minich, President and CEO of Experience Kissimmee.
“We haven’t had a lot of hotel and resort additions this past year but our vacation homes are still continually being built and added to inventory,” he tells Travelweek in an exclusive interview. “We’re seeing a lot of families wanting to book and spend time together, as well as first-time vacation home renters who have discovered the value and convenience of a vacation home.”
Minich is quick to note that the vacation homes of today are vastly different from those from a decade ago.
“These are not single homes in the middle of a residential neighbourhood that people own and rent out on their own. These are custom-built homes in custom-built neighbourhoods, specifically designed for a rental,” he says. “They’re all professionally managed, sanitized and cleaned, offering the convenience of a home with all the amenities of a resort.”
As an example, all 800 vacations homes at The Encore Club are available to rent, each featuring a pool and barbecue grill. Available to all guests at the centre of the complex are a swimming pool with slides, food and beverage pool service, restaurants, bars, a fitness centre, babysitting service, a Disney desk and a concierge that can arrange transport to/from the theme parks and outlet malls.
“Instead of staying at a big resort and have your kids in a swimming pool with 300 other kids, you can have your own private pool in the backyard of your vacation home and your own kitchen where you can cook meals if you want to,” adds Minich. “And for added health and safety, many vacation home companies are building in a 24-hour period in between rentals to let the house sit for a full day with nobody in it.”
Travel agents can book vacation homes directly with management companies. Minich also notes that vacation homes are available to book with most tour operators that offer Kissimmee, Florida product.
Minich, who was in Toronto last week to host Experience Kissimmee’s first in-market visit since the start of the pandemic, says that the organization is targeting Canadians specifically “because it’s a really important market for us, both in terms of regular visitation and snowbirds.” When asked how the continued closure of the U.S. side of the border will impact tourism, Minich says there are two main issues to keep in mind.
“One, the border affects the snowbird visitor mainly because they typically like to bring their cars and drive down,” he says. “And two, there’s a lot of confusion among consumers because they hear the border’s closed, not realizing it’s the land border. They don’t realize that they can still fly down. But I think as airlines continue to add capacity and frequency, I think that will help with the misconception.”
Though the border closure will certainly impact visitation, Minich says Kissimmee is still seeing a lot of both last-minute and long-term bookings, particularly ahead of the holidays.
“The booking window has drastically changed, from pre-pandemic to now. People are booking and coming right away, but they’re also booking ahead for Christmas and Hanukkah holidays in December, and even into February and March for spring break,” he says, crediting the flexible cancellation and change policies from airlines, tour operators and vacation home companies for the uptick in long-term bookings.
Also trending as a result of the pandemic? Longer stays, particularly for vacation home rentals. According to Minich, Canadians typically book these homes for seven days or more but “we’ve seen length of stay from Canada and from other fly-markets increase a little bit because people are saying if they’re going to go through the hassle and the added cost of testing to travel, they’re going to stay and have as much time in the destination as possible.”
Prior to their visit, Canadians are encouraged to check out Experience Kissimmee’s new Safety Hub, launched in collaboration with AdventHealth, Central Florida’s largest healthcare provider. Here, travellers can read up on the latest health and safety protocols in the destination, including which businesses have implemented mask mandates and modified hours, and which restaurants offer outdoor seating. This, says Minich, is particularly useful in the absence of a state-wide mask mandate in Florida.
“Unfortunately there isn’t a consistent policy across the board with everyone, so with this Safety Hub we wanted to make sure that everyone felt comfortable ahead of their visit to Kissimmee,” says Minich. “Our team is constantly reaching out to our 900+ partners to check in with them about their safety procedures. We want to be sure we’re staying on top of things so that people can plan ahead and feel comfortable in the places they’re visiting.”