After an April 20 explosion and fire ruptured an oil well and sank the BP operated Deepwater Horizon drilling rig 5,000 feet down in the Gulf of Mexico, a travel survey revealed the 150,000 private vacation rental property owners in the area need not be concerned about the impact on tourism.

The vast majority of tourism areas in the Gulf have not been impacted by the disaster -- beyond fledgling fears from travelers that the pristine sugar white sand beaches in the area might be soiled by oil.

The draw of the beaches and vacation home facilities are a major asset for the region's tourism economy, especially in Florida's Northwest region where the beaches and travel accommodations are often assets of individual vacation property owners, rather than hotels and resorts.

Those property owners cheered the Gulf Oil Perception Study, conducted by the Beaches of South Walton (BSW) a Northwest Florida tourism group. It found that most June or July 2009 travelers to the white sand coast area planned to return again this year, with only 1 in 20 changing plans because of the leaking well oil.

"The results of this survey should offer hope to homeowners," says Christine Karpinski, director of Owner Community at HomeAway.com an online vacation home rental portal.

"It indicates plenty of vacationers are planning to come to the Gulf Coast—even if the worst-case scenario happens. The oil spill isn't necessarily a deal-breaker," added Karpinski, also author of "How to Rent Vacation Properties by Owner" (Kinney Pollack Press, $26.00).

Unfortunately, since the survey, the worst-case scenario has happened -- after killing 11 drilling rig workers, the Deepwater Disaster has become the worst oil spill in the nation's history.

Spreading further and further along the coastal region, above and below surface, oil spill conditions have worsened and vacation property homeowners are going to have to pull out the stops to keep guests coming and protect their property values.

• According to scientists, every day, 12,000 to 19,000 barrels of oil are gushing into the Gulf of Mexico, wreaking havoc to environment, sea species and businesses. By day 49 of the oil leak, conservative estimates suggested 600,000 to 800,000 barrels had gushed into the Gulf from the busted well. The last worst U.S. oil disaster was in March 1989 when the Exxon Valdez tanker spilled 250,000 barrels of oil in Alaska's Prince William Sound.

How to keep 'em coming

So how should area vacation property owners keep their vacation rental homes occupied and profitable under such adverse conditions?

"I suggest you take a two-pronged approach," says Karpinski. "First, do everything you can to reassure the guests who've already booked with you, and second, do everything you can to procure new bookings."

• Ratchet up communication with customers, but be transparent. Spend time directly assuaging their worries, without giving false information. Be patient and give them all the time they need to feel comfortable with their decision.

Talk it up. Directly address the condition of the beaches, assuring guests that at this point they're still clean and beautiful (as long as they are). Frequently update online listing photographs of the white sands and pristine waters. Encourage recent renters to send up-to-date photos and write reviews. Also talk up area attractions, including restaurants, shopping, new travel facilities, or your beautiful pool, spa and Jacuzzi.

• Offer concessions. Offer free beach service, knock off the cleaning fee, offer buy-some-nights-get-one-free deals, throw in a gas card or free meal or discount attraction ticket. Do what it takes capture those yet-to-book vacationers.

• Loosen up your refund and cancellation policies. No one wants to accept a June booking in January, only to have the guest cancel on a whim on May 31, but these aren't normal times.

• Have an oil contingency plan. Don't devalue your property by slashing prices. Consider a "clean beach guarantee," that includes a full refund if the beach closes before they arrive; a refund for unused nights if the beach closes after arrival; a per-day percentage refund for guests who come even if the beach is closed.

• Be prepared for last-minute bookings. The BSW survey found that almost half of respondents planning to come to the Gulf Coast this summer haven't yet booked. Be accessible. List your cell phone number on your online listing's home page and or forward your home phone to your cell phone when you're out of the house. Be accessible.

• Also see: "HomeAway Gulf Coast Oil Spill Update" and HomeAway's "How to Mitigate Cancellations from the Gulf Coast Oil Spill".

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