MIRAMAR BEACH — With the short-term vacation rental business in Florida now released from the restrictions imposed by governmental efforts to help control the spread of the new coronavirus, Brittany Blackman nonetheless finds herself looking back into the very recent past.
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Blackman is operations manager for Gibson Vacation Rentals, which manages vacation rental properties in Okaloosa and Walton counties. As COVID-19 started becoming problematic, Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an executive order halting short-term vacation rentals, under the logic that they presented an attractive option for people escaping stay-at-home orders elsewhere in the country.
In mid-May, DeSantis allowed counties to reopen vacation rentals, as long as they meet certain safety and health standards related to COVID-19
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In the wake of the governor’s closure order, Blackman found herself dealing with nearly 700 vacation rental cancellations. She learned a lesson she says is going to stick with her as business returns to normal.
“Compassion,” she said. “You can have the best properties, but it’s the human aspect that makes the difference.”
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In a purely business sense, Blackman is optimistic about the future. One thing she’s seen short-term is people who canceled reservations in the early spring now rebooking for fall.
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Blackman also noted that Northwest Florida has long had a built-in advantage over other parts of the Sunshine State. This part of the state, she explained, is a “drive-to” destination as opposed to the “fly-to” destinations farther south. As a result, she said, Northwest Florida has the advantage of being a less expensive place to travel than elsewhere in Florida.
Also optimistic about the future of the short-term vacation rental business is Trevor Ladner, who operates White Sand Vacation Rentals, with three rental homes in the Crystal Beach area of Okaloosa County.
One of the reasons for that optimism is that COVID-19 has brought Northwest Florida to the attention of a new group of vacationers, he said.
People who would normally take an international vacation, according to Ladner, have been opting to travel by car domestically, rather than risking a flight to a foreign destination. It’s possible, Ladner hopes, that people who have vacationed here for the first time as a result of concerns about COVID-19 could become repeat visitors.
With regard to the business of tourism, David Demarest of the Walton County Tourist Development Council, points out that it can be a very stable basis for an economy.
Also, Demarest suggested, given the concerns created by COVID-19 in terms of being in crowded places, vacationing in Northwest Florida, where state parks, biking trails and beaches provide an opportunity to stretch out, may become an even more attractive option.
Like Blackman, Ladner believes that business practices reinforced by the threat of COVID-19 will be a key component of the ongoing vacation rental business.
Ladner weathered the recent difficulties in short-term vacation renting with strict adherence to a policy of giving full refunds to renters or allowing those renters to reschedule.
“It’s not their fault, it’s not our fault,” Ladner said. Besides, he added, “It’s bad business to suggest that somebody put themselves in harm’s way.”