Vrbo's 25th Anniversary: Q&A with Carole Sharoff, Atlantic Vacation Homes

Vrbo is turning 25 this year. Though our business has grown and evolved significantly since the early days, we know we wouldn’t be where we are today without our hardworking, dedicated partners – the vacation home owners and property managers who exemplify hospitality and make amazing vacation memories possible.

To commemorate our anniversary, we connected with a true veteran of the vacation rental industry. Carole Sharoff is the President of Atlantic Vacation Homes, which manages more than 100 vacation homes north of Boston.

It’s tough to imagine what the vacation rental industry looked like in the early days of the internet, so Carole took us on a trip down memory lane and reminisced on how her business has evolved and grown with Vrbo over the past few decades.

Q: When and how did you get into the vacation rental business?

In the mid-80's I owned an antique shop in Gloucester. To my surprise, a lot of my customers would ask me if I knew of any local summer houses where they could rent, and usually I did. I started recommending vacation homes that I knew about, so it really happened organically.

I started seeing vacation homes in the area printed in the Boston Globe and I familiarized myself with available listings. Then eventually, I got my real estate license, formed a company, joined the Chamber of Commerce and started my own small business.

Q: What were the early days of advertising vacation homes like before the internet?

It’s hard to remember what life was like before the internet! We advertised in the Boston Globe and other print media. At the time, the European vacation rental industry was far ahead of where we were in the U.S. A British company called New England Country Homes was recruiting people who managed U.S. vacation homes because they wanted to promote places in the U.S. to U.K. travelers. The company saw one of my ads and asked me to list with them – ultimately, they hired me as a manager on the America side. They had magazines and catalogs with vacation homes and mailed them en masse.

Before the internet came around, the Chamber of Commerce would fax me the names of people who were interested in renting, we’d type up the listing sheet, take photos, develop the film, make copies, glue them to the listing sheet and mail them. It was a labor-intensive and time-consuming process. Before spell check, everything was in print – so you could never correct a typo after thousands of copies were printed and sent to hundreds of people! And there were errors!

Q: Describe what it was like when the internet came around and you brought your vacation rental business online?

The internet changed everything and there was a major learning curve. It forced the entire industry to shift and adapt to the new technology. In the beginning, we paid for a tiered subscription to advertise our vacation homes on VRBO.com and the renters came to us, which essentially paid for the subscription. Now, Vrbo’s more of a booking engine.

It’s amazing how the technology has changed over the years. We were one of Escapia’s earliest customers. Now, we’re able to post more photos and video, show a map of the neighborhood and host virtual tours on our listings. We’ve come a long way since placing ads in the Boston Globe.

Q: Describe what your experience working with Vrbo has been like.

One thing about Vrbo is that it has enabled guests from other markets, that we’d never be able to reach otherwise, to discover our vacation homes. Vrbo’s reach has introduced travelers from around the world to our properties.

Over the years, Vrbo has grown and evolved with us and our changing needs. I remember Brian Sharples and John Suzuki coming to all of our meetings to connect with us and collect our feedback. As property managers, we’d share what we needed to run our businesses successfully and how we could both learn and benefit from the other’s skills and expertise.

Vrbo respects us and understands that property managers have unique needs. We’re working toward many of the same goals, but there is overlap and differences of opinion sometimes. Communication with the property managers is so important and only improves how we work together. It hasn’t always been perfect and there have been some growing pains, but it’s gotten a lot better. We need you.

Q: What’s the most rewarding thing about being in the vacation rental business?

Being part of VRMA has been an extraordinary opportunity for me to meet other property managers - across New England and around the world. I’ve served on the board for years and met lifelong friends through this passionate community. We've even traveled abroad together – VRMA has been critical in connecting me to the industry and people across the globe.

I also love meeting new people and welcoming guests to our vacation homes. I know a few languages, so it’s been a pleasure being able to converse with non-English speaking guests from around the world and helping them have amazing experiences.

Lastly, I have wonderful relationships with the homeowners. I love helping them turn their homes into a profit center which makes them happy! Some of my owners live in Europe. I’ve accepted their offers to visit them in their countries. We have many shared experiences and over the years have built strong, trusting relationships. Last year, a son of one of my owners was planning to propose to his girlfriend at one of their vacation homes. The owner let us know in advance and one of my staff members was able to hide and take pictures of the proposal! It was amazing to capture such a special moment for one of our owners and their family.

Q: Off the top of your head, where is the furthest away your guests have traveled from? Any international guests booked through Vrbo?

I’ve had guests from all over the world stay at my vacation rentals. I’ve had many travelers from the UK, France and Germany over the years. Also, when Logan airport introduced direct flights from Japan, Hong Kong and China, we started welcoming guests from Asia as well. It’s such a privilege to host guests from other countries aand learn about their different cultures – I speak a few languages, so I can converse with some of them too. Any time we have guests from the UK, we make sure we have a tea kettle and teapot available for them. We had travelers from Bangalore who visited during the off-season and did not pack properly for New England winter weather. They were wearing sandals in January! So, we helped them find warm clothes and get used to the ice and snow of New England winters - something they had never experienced.

Q: Are there any memorable guests or families who have stayed with Atlantic Vacation Homes? Any repeat guests? Special occasions they’ve shared with you?

I have more examples than I can name. There have been so many memorable moments and special occasions that have taken place at our vacation rentals. There have been families who’ve celebrated milestone birthdays, and we love to help with ordering flowers or coordinating catering or clam bakes.

There have also been several weddings that have taken place at our vacation homes. It’s wonderful when those couples return for their anniversaries or with their children years later.

I’ve also had some famous guests! Multiple movie stars have stayed at my vacation homes when they’re in town filming a movie, and many of them extend their stays or come back at another time.

Q: What are your hopes for the next 25 years of the vacation rental industry?

My hope is that the vacation rental business is more fully perceived as the professional, established and dependable industry that it is. Most of us in the industry didn’t study to be a vacation rental manager. I fell into the industry, but I’d love to raise the profile of the entire category. Wouldn’t it be amazing if students who studied hospitality in college could learn about vacation rentals alongside hotels? That would improve the workforce at many levels.

I think COVID-19 helped the vacation rental industry and pushed it to the top this year. We had a lot of first-time customers and an incredibly busy summer and fall booking season - in June, we ended up doing 8 months of business in three weeks. Guests wanted to get away after sheltering in place for so long but continued to worry about the pandemic. They realized that with vacation rentals, they could leave their clean house, hop into their clean car, drive to their destination and unpack at another clean house in a new environment; this is a great travel option that still allows social distancing. Or as we like to say, physical distancing. We also saw different types of customers. Some just needed a change of scenery and some extended their stays and worked remotely for a while which meant the houses were used differently.

Lastly, diversity and inclusion in the vacation rental industry is such an important topic to me and I’m glad it’s a priority at Vrbo too. Not only do we need diversity in the property manager and owner category but reaching out and welcoming different types of travelers from every background is essential. I hope the energy behind these initiatives continues.

Vrbo is celebrating its 25th Anniversary by giving away 25 epic vacations! Learn more about how to win at vrbo.com/VrboTurns25.