Smart vacation rental property management with Dawn Buckler of Catalunya & Caribbean Casas

Recently, owner and managing director of Caribbean Casas, Dawn Buckler, was interviewed by Kigo, a vacation property management software company, regarding how vacation rental managers can deliver a great guest experience. Here’s what she shared:

Tell us about Catalunya Casas and Caribbean Casas. What is the mission behind the sites?

Catalunya Casas has been in operation for nine years. Caribbean Casas is two years old and was created out of a need for a winter sun market for our clients. Both offer full-service vacation rental property management. I truly believe that guests feel more confident knowing that there is an agency behind the product – ensuring that service standards will be guaranteed. Privately managed properties with great reviews and testimonials help a lot with guest trust, but this takes years to build up a healthy reputation. As a respected agency, when we contract a new and unproven villa, our clients trust our brand.

 

What have you found travelers tend to steer clear of when it comes to vacation rentals? What causes them to pass over a particular property?

Shared pools. We will only contract a property with a shared pool if it is within 1 km of the beach. For Northern European tourists, private swimming pools are rare and a luxury.

How can property owners/managers make their vacation rentals more appealing to travelers? What should they be doing to not only attract new guests but also keep previous ones coming back?

Without a doubt, owners and managers should be looking for direct ways to market their vacation rental websites. With all major listing sites now adding a “booking fee,” guests are looking for the lowest price. If they can find you directly and avoid paying the booking fee, they will do so.

With all of the recent negative hoopla over listing sites adding guest booking fees, I find this a positive and direct advantage to any villa company. Conveniently, for this very reason, listing sites are trying to encourage advertisers to remove their property name from their listings. Do hotels do this? No. And vacation rentals shouldn’t either!

Also, as we are the ones who have the direct contracts with the property, we have an advantage over booking sites. If you look at it in terms of “direct from the manufacturer (villa owner),” we have the lowest prices.

How should property owners approach creating listings for their vacation rentals? What are best practices for making a listing that will increase bookings?

I think it’s a given that great professional photos and descriptions are the number one draw for vacation rentals, but in the end it all comes down to price. Many Spanish property owners overvalue their properties (it’s the same with the property sales market here in Spain). They demand a ridiculously expensive rental price and then complain that they don’t have any bookings.

Yes, the first two weeks of August will always sell regardless of the price but outside of these dates, it’s a competitive market and no matter how wonderful the property is, there are plenty of others just as wonderful with lower rates. A lot of owners do not understand that rates absolutely need to be on a sliding scale depending on the month of the year – and that includes lowering rates in June, July, and September. We are constantly educating our property owners on the concept of “supply and demand.”

What doesn’t seem to work as well in property listings? What are the “don’ts”?

Don’t take a “do it yourself” attitude just to avoid management commissions. It’s a lot of work and investment in managing and marketing a property and professional services exist for a reason. We are not here to “take your money.” As an agency, we have no problem sharing calendars and working together in unison to make your property the best it can be. The bottom line is to increase bookings and increase revenue for the owner’s “business.” We are not the competition, rather a collaborator. Doing it together is a win-win situation.

Can you talk about a property or properties that you think have done an exceptional job of attracting vacationers and delivering a “wow” experience? What can we learn from these property owners?

I think client attention is the number one formula for delivering a great experience. Spain has always been a bit behind in areas of customer service. Born and raised in Canada, a country very focused on excellent customer service, I find it difficult to educate many owners on maintenance and cleaning standards. We lose many a property because our requirements are too “demanding.” However, what owners fail to realize is that it’s not us that is demanding – it’s the guests, and rightly so! No, it’s not ok if the electricity trips when it rains, if there is a daily limit on WiFi use, if there is a window handle that does not shut properly, or if there is a “trick” to getting the coffee machine to work. We find that our owners from other countries are much more accepting and understanding of our requirements because they have a longer history of customer service standards.

What trends or innovations are you following in the world of vacation rentals today? Why do they interest you?

Programming rates are the bane of our existence so rate management systems continue to interest me. Unfortunately, I think that many of these programs need a lot more work. They are useful for capital city center apartments but for villas, they need to take into consideration a lot of other aspects including location, seasonal occupation, distances to amenities and transport, individual property features, etc.

Also customizable maintenance and cleaning technology for full-service management agencies. We have a large staff covering property care. It’s very labor intensive to provide an excellent service while maintaining client satisfaction from two sides (owners and guests). We have tried various programs, but keep returning to manual control due to each property having its own very specific set of requirements.


Where to stay in central Havana

If you want to rent a villa or apartment in one of the central areas of Havana, then you have two great choices: Habana Vieja, and Habana Centro. But what’s the difference, and which area is the best?

These two central areas are located next to each other, and you’re not going to notice a significant difference when walking from one to the other. Both areas are remarkably similar, and both are great places to stay. However, there are a few subtle differences between the two, listed below.

Habana Vieja

‘Old Havana’ is home to some of the city’s main attractions, like El Capitolio and Central Park. It’s the ideal choice if you want to stay in an apartment, possibly with a rooftop terrace in Havana as there are a few dotted around the area. Old Havana tends to be a little more ‘touristy’, but this can actually be very beneficial, especially if you’re visiting Cuba for the first time and aren’t too sure of the language or the customs.

Habana Centro

‘Central Havana’ is not too different from Old Havana: It does have slightly more of a local feel to it, and it’s not unusual to see Cubans here doing their shopping. If you’re a confident traveller or have taken a holiday in Cuba before, then there’s no reason why you wouldn’t feel comfortable staying in Habana Centro over Habana Vieja. Be sure to stay here if you love museums!

Which is Best?

Both neighborhoods have their benefits, and both are generally considered to be very safe for visitors. Your choice really depends on what you’re looking for from your Havana vacation. Do you want hustle and bustle, shopping, and an on-the-go atmosphere? Then choose the Old Town. Do you want something a little quieter, a little more local, and with more cultural and historical attractions? Then opt for Central Havana. The choice is yours!


Three great day trips from Havana

Jibacoa

Located right on the country’s northern coastline, Jibacoa is a place of pure luxury. From opulent Caribbean vacation rentals with private pools to world class resorts, Jibacoa is a place to relax and unwind away from the hustle and bustle of Havana. It’s one of the best places in Cuba for diving, snorkelling, and other types of watersports, and the good news is that it’s not too far from Havana!

Getting There: There are three convenient ways to get from your Havana villa to Jibacoa and back in one day. You could rent a car or take a taxi, as the journey takes just one hour by road. The third option is to take the historic Hershey Train from Casablanca, although this will usually be a much slower option.

Las Terrazas

This beautiful nature reserve is situated amongst the stunning Sierra del Rosario mountains, which were given UNESCO status in 1984. The village is home to about 1,000 people, but despite its small size, it caters to visitors very well with great restaurants, cafes, shops, and some of the most comfortable vacation rentals in the Caribbean. Be sure to check out the breathtaking lakes, rivers, and waterfalls.

Getting There: Getting to Las Terrazas from your Havana accommodation is easier than you may think! You can rent a car or take a taxi, which takes just one hour by road, or you could even hop on the bus! There is a daily Viazul bus between Havana and Vinales, which stops off at Las Terrazas along the way.

Soroa

Situated close to San Cristobal, Soroa is a little further than the other destinations listed above, but it is worth taking the time to see this stunning place, which is famous for its crashing waterfall. Said to be the ‘Rainbow of Cuba’, Soroa experiences heavy rainfall, which means it’s a very lush, green area filled with tall trees, thick shrubs, and more than 700 different species of beautiful, colourful wild flowers. 

Getting There: It takes slightly more than one hour to get from most villas in Havana to Soroa by road, so renting a car or taking a taxi is usually the most convenient option for visitors. If you want to take public transport, get the bus from Havana to Las Terrazas, then hop in a taxi for the remainder of the journey.


A self-guided walking tour of Havana

Many people who take a holiday in Cuba book a walking tour to ensure that they see the very best that Havana has to offer. But why not do a self-guided walking tour instead? On your own tour, you can take things at your own pace, make detours if you see something of interest, and personalise your experience.

It’s actually easier than you’d think to create your own self-guided walking tour of Havana. Here’s a basic route that takes in many of the city’s main sights and attractions, as well as some of the most breathtaking and notable homes in the Caribbean. Feel free to tailor this route to your liking and preferences.

Begin at the Fraternity Park Houses, which is right in the heart of Havana. This makes it easy to reach from your Havana villa. From here, head north to Colon, where you can turn right towards the Museum of the Revolution. On your way, you’ll walk along the scenic Paseo del Prado and pass by the historic and ornate Gran Teatro theatre, as well as the El Capitolio building and the Teatro Marti.

After visiting the Museum of the Revolution, head south down Avenida Bélgica, past the Bacardi Building, until you reach El Floridita Bar. El Floridita is one of the most important historic landmarks in the city, and was a firm favourite of Ernest Hemingway. Pop in for a refreshing frozen daiquiri before strolling along the pedestrianised Obispo, where you can experience the ‘real’ Havana, complete with street vendors, musicians, artists selling their masterpieces, and all sorts of colourful characters.

Head south on Mercaderes to Sol, stopping for some photographs at the Old Square, and then walk towards the ferry terminal to watch the boats sail across to Casablanca. From here, head north to the Plaza de Armas, which is the city’s oldest square, and home to some of Havana’s best restaurants, and then stop by the 18th century cathedral for some more photo opportunities. Make one last stop at the Castillo de San Salvador at the end of the Malecón before ending at the Castillo de la Real Fuerz fort.

Your feet may be hurting and your legs may be aching by the time you get back to your vacation rental in Havana, but it will have been worth it to see so much of this historic city!


Tips for renting a car in the Caribbean

If you book a holiday in Cuba — or anywhere else in the Caribbean — you may be wondering whether or not you should hire a car. The answer really depends on the sort of Caribbean islands vacation experience you’re looking for, and how confident you are as a driver, navigating foreign roads.

Why Hire a Car in the Caribbean?

If you’re not planning on venturing too far from your Caribbean holiday rental, then you will probably be able to manage just fine on foot, or using local transport. However, if you’d like to visit some of the more out-of-the-way places in the Caribbean, such as Coco Beach in Puerto Rico, Cole Bay in St. Maarten, or Sulphur Springs in St. Lucia, then having your own vehicle really can be much easier and enjoyable.

Legal Requirements

The legal requirements of Caribbean car hire vary between the different islands. Some will rent a car to travellers as young as 18 years of age, like St. Maarten, while others, such as St. Lucia, often impose a strict 25 year minimum age. For all islands, you’ll need to hold a full driving licence from your home country, although you may also be required to obtain an International Driving Licence prior to travel, or purchase a local driving licence at the time of hire, which is usually somewhere between 20 and 30 USD.

What Side of the Road?

It’s very important to check what side of the road they drive on in your chosen destination. If you’re booking a villa in Cuba, if you rent a house in the Dominican Republic, or if you’re visiting St. Maarten or Puerto Rico, then you’ll drive on the right. However, if you’re visiting St. Lucia or St. Kitts & Nevis, you’ll be driving on the left! It can be confusing, so make sure you stay alert on the roads at all times.

Car Hire Tips 

One of the best tips for car hire in the Caribbean is to book early. Just like booking a Caribbean holiday rental, you’ll have a much larger choice if you make arrangements in advance, prior to travelling. If you leave it too late, you may have a car that you’re not entirely comfortable with, or no car at all!


Buying fresh produce in Havana

If you’re staying in a beautiful family villa in Havana, you may not want to dine out every night since you will have a fully equipped kitchen at your disposal. As such, you may wish to try whipping up your own meals using fresh Cuban produce. So where is the best place to shop for fresh food?

Where to Buy Fresh Fruit

Although you may be able to walk from your vacation rental in Havana to a local grocery store for fresh Caribbean food, things are a little different in Cuba’s outskirts. In fact, most grocery stores don’t sell fresh produce at all! Instead, you’ll need to visit one of the island’s agropecuarios, or agros.

There are two types of stores: the standard agro, which sells fruits, vegetables, and meats, and which is often state-run with a price cap on goods. You’ll get a great price here, but selection may be limited. Organopónicos often have a better selection, but are privately run with prices dictated by supply/demand.

How it Works

If you’re staying in a casa particular in Havana, you may wish to accompany your host to the local agros to see how the shopping is done. However, if you’re heading off by yourself, don’t worry — it’s actually very simple. Bring your own bags if possible to reduce waste (although there will usually be some Cuban ladies selling plastic bags outside if needed), pick your foods, and take them to the cashier where they’ll be weighed and you’ll pay. You’ll usually need to pay in the local currency, so you may need to exchange some CUCs at the airport upon arrival or at a local bank.

After you’ve paid, head to the Area de Consumidor, or consumer area, where unofficial ‘staff’ re-weigh your items to see if you’ve been overcharged. If you have, simply head back to the seller who will rectify the issue. While the concept is certainly very unethical, it has become a very normal part of life for many Cubans, who are accustomed to checking that they have been charged the correct price.


Four ways to have a romantic Cuban vacation

Although Paris is often considered the romance capital of the world, it would be remiss to overlook Havana as a romantic destination. Simply strolling around the city and taking in its old charm can be quite dreamy, and there are plenty of other ways to bring out the passion and love in this enchanting and magical city. Here are four great ideas for a romantic vacation in Havana.

Enjoy Your Own Private Space

It can be hard to feel like it’s ‘just the two of you’ when you’re amongst the hustle and bustle of the city, so it’s important to have your own private retreat to spend some quality time together. A great idea is to book a villa with private pool in Havana, where you can relax in your own, peaceful surroundings.

Soak up the Atmosphere

Part of what makes Havana such a romantic city is its laidback, informal, and somewhat random atmosphere, and you can experience all of this in Havana’s oldest square, Plaza de Armas. Visit during the warm, balmy evenings for a chance to hear some of Havana’s finest musicians playing street performances.

Take a Classic Car Ride

Classic American cars have become a symbol of Havana, and it’s arguably one of the most romantic ways to get around the city. If you don’t feel comfortable driving on the streets of Havana, arrange for a classic car ride through one of the local companies, who can pick you up at your Havana villa.

Picnic at El Morro

Pack some snacks and cold drinks and take a walk to El Morro Castle, where you can make yourself comfortable on the cliffs and stare out over both the sea and the city. If possible, try to arrange to be at El Morro in time for sunset, which is definitely one of the most magical times of day in Havana.


Visual arts in Havana

From the moment you step off the plane and start making your way to your Havana vacation rental, you’ll notice that visual arts play a very big role in Cuban culture. So what are the best locations in Havana to really explore these arts and learn more about the island through paintings and sculptures?

National Museum of Fine Arts

The National Museum of Fine Arts (Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes) has two locations in the city, but perhaps the most interesting for visitors is the Palace of Fine Arts, located close to the 19th-century Great Theatre of Havana, and many city centre vacation rental homes. This is where Cuba-specific arts are housed, with everything from historic colonial artwork to pieces by more modern Cuban artists, like René Portocarrero.

Museum of the Revolution

In addition to the museum itself, there are many buildings throughout Havana that exhibit the same sort of jaw-dropping façades as this building, including the National Capitol Building. These structures combine all sorts of American and European influences, and the best part is that you don’t even need to go inside to enjoy their beauty; simply stroll past!

Museum of Decorative Arts

If you’re staying in Havana accommodation in the city’s Vedado district, you can enjoy proximity to the Museum of Decorative Arts. Primarily housing works from French artists, there are also exhibits from other places around the world, including China, England, France, and Germany. There are more than 33,000 works, so plan to spend a bit of time here, and leave time to appreciate the Parisian architecture, too!

More Options 

No matter where your Havana villa is located, you’re sure to be within easy reach of one of the city’s many visual arts museums. As well as those mentioned above, why not consider checking out Asian-inspired works at the House of Arabs or House of Asia, colonial furniture at the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales, or amazing early 20th-century Cadillacs at the Museo del Automobil? There’s never a dull day in Havana!


Mouthwatering dishes to try in Cuba

When you’re on holiday in Cuba, why not immerse yourself in the local culture and eat like the locals eat? Cuban cuisine largely consists of meats, vegetables, and rice that are prepared, cooked, and served in many ways.

Here are three very popular Cuban dishes that are not to be missed during your trip:

  • Moros y Cristianos

This simple yet delicious rice and bean dish is served practically everywhere in Cuba. You’ll find this on the menu in many Cuban restaurants, and if you’re lucky you may even be able to sample a plate at your casa particular in Havana. There’s a similar dish in Puerto Rico, and it’s a meal that’s served up in many homes in the Caribbean, but some say that the Cuban version really is best!

This national dish is yet another that is served up across the country. It consists of shredded beef cooked with tomatoes and vegetables, and is often served with white rice and sometimes fried plantains. If you decide to whip this dish up yourself in the kitchen of your vacation villa in the Caribbean, be sure to make up a double batch; Ropa Vieja tastes amazing the next day when the flavours have developed!

  • Ajiaco

Three countries count themselves as the creators of this soup-like dish, but much of the evidence points toward an origin in Cuba. Ajiaco is popular in Cuba, Peru, and Colombia where it is the national dish, but each country prepares the dish differently. In Colombia, it is very similar to a soup, while in Peru it’s made with more intense flavours. Cuba’s version is very stew-like thanks to the use of starchy vegetables.


Ethical travel to Cuba

Whether you’re taking a holiday in Cuba, a trip to Europe, a Caribbean islands vacation, or seeing the sights Down Under, all travellers should travel ethically to help protect these beautiful holiday destinations. This is all the more important in Havana, where there’s a vulnerable community and environment that is currently relying heavily upon income from tourism in order to thrive.

So what can we do to ensure we behave responsibly during a holiday in Cuba?

Support Local Businesses

Rather than staying in a chain hotel or resort, why not consider staying in a casa particular in Havana? Or how about eating at paladares? These small, privately-run businesses are operated by local Cubans, and are an essential part of the growing tourism economy in Cuba.

Use Water Responsibly

Cuba is facing a severe drought, which has significantly affected fresh produce supply to the island, as well as affecting exports. There are also a number of homes in the Caribbean that do not have running water. Always take care to turn the tap off at your vacation rental in Cuba when you are not using the sink.

Say No to Bottles

In this small island nation, more plastics are disposed of than can reasonably be recycled, leading to a growing landfill. Try not to buy water in plastic bottles unless necessary. If you’re staying in a casa particular in Havana, it’s very easy to boil water for drinking, or treat tap water with a sterilisation tablet.

Adapt

Like most homes in the Caribbean, a casa particular in Havana can get hot, especially in the middle of summer. Instead of leaving the air conditioning running all day because you’re accustomed to doing so, try to adapt to the local climate and environment, and turn the AC unit off when you’re not in the room.