Zonder.com aims to be a one-stop vacation-rental shop

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Zonder.com, a vacation-rental property search engine, is expanding its inventory of private homes, villas and cabins and adding a booking service that founder Bob Barnes said was the "missing link" between the private vacation-rental market, agents and travelers.

Zonder, which launched earlier this month, carries vacation-rental inventory in the U.S., Mexico, Canada and the Caribbean and then links with property-management companies to book their inventory.

The company is developing its third-party network and has an agreement with Worldspan to make the inventory GDS-friendly, Barnes said.

Barnes said Zonder's unique inventory, coupled with the technology platform that categorizes, maps, illustrates and identifies the rentals by preferred destinations, offers a service not available elsewhere. The use of agreements with professional property managers and the platform's transactional capabilities make it possible for agents to generate commissions from the inventory, which he said was much more difficult today.

It also provides agents or consumers with real-time availability information: Booking confirmations, he said, instantly update availability for each individual property.

Barnes said the platform competes well with the more traditional classified advertising approach to marketing vacation-rental homes, which lacks a commission structure and can leave travelers on their own in dealing with private owners, who may be thousands of miles away, if something goes wrong.

"Professionally managed inventory is better quality, has more consistency, is more uniform in upkeep than what you will find in the classified market," Barnes said. "And there is always a person on the ground in the area if the traveler needs help."

Barnes said the company was continuing to expand inventory through new agreements with property-management companies and real estate offices. He estimated that some 6,000 such offices are in operation in the area the site covers, with some handling as many as 2,000 vacation rentals.

Learning from experience

Barnes, co-founder of Enhance Interactive, a pay-per-click advertising search engine, said he stumbled on the idea of creating a vacation-rental management platform while trying to locate a private home or villa to rent near the beach in Costa Rica for a surfing vacation with friends.

After four or five nights in front of his computer, searching millions of potential hits on Google, Barnes said he gave up and booked a hotel through a travel agent. But when he and friends arrived and walked from the hotel to the beach, they found private vacation rentals at every turn.

"I canceled the hotel room and booked one of the places, but I would have had no way to find them beforehand. I asked the [property owners] we talked to how tourists found them, and they all said 'people just stop by.' "

Stopping by far-flung destinations to find private vacation rentals, Barnes concluded, was an inefficient marketing model. But the alternative, Internet searches that offered a multimillion-to-one-shot of finding preferred private accommodations in luxury markets, was also daunting.

"The way things are, consumers have traditionally collected flyers or ads and gone through lots of telephone calls, maybe talked to 10 owners, and ended up with Post-It notes stuck all over their desks," Barnes said. "It's a real pain. And if they do find a property they want, they have to fill out a contract, send a check or provide a credit card to someone they don't know. It's a huge risk, a 'buyer beware' kind of proposition."

Barnes said when he returned home to Provo, Utah, from his Costa Rica vacation, he researched the private vacation-rentals market again, this time with an eye on a new travel technology opportunity.

"I was sure that someone had already built what I wanted, with check-in and checkout dates, availability, rates, whether it had a hot tub or pool, other amenities, but it was just not available," he said. "So Zonder was born out of that."

To contact reporter Dan Luzadder, send e-mail to [email protected].

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