By Tim Feran
THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH
Mike Blackwell was a timeshare owner with a problem: Dates assigned to him weren’t always convenient, and swapping them wasn’t easy to do.
Blackwell and two of his friends came up with a solution and, in the process, have launched a business to help others with the same problem.
The venture is Resort Rentals By Owner — RRBO.com — an online marketplace for
vacation rentals of timeshares. It was founded by three former CompuServe/AOL executives: Blackwell, who ran AOL Search; Bob Kington, one-time executive producer of CompuServe online service; and Mike Doel, former chief
Blackwell, one of the 5 million resort timeshare owners in the United States, immediately saw the possibilities of an online marketplace where timeshare owners could quickly and easily offer their resort condos for rent in a “very hotel-like” way.
To solve the problems of exchanging times, the founders of Resort Rentals looked to the example of popular person-to-person commerce sites such as StubHub.com. But instead of trafficking in concert tickets, Resort Rentals offers resort timeshare rentals.
Users go to the website, find the timeshare resorts they like and rent them immediately. The website acts as the intermediary, handling the bookings.
“The owner doesn’t pay to list the rental,” Blackwell said. “We keep 15 percent.”
“The (bad) economy actually helps us,” Kington said. “You’ll see people who have $1,200 maintenance fees and they just want to get that back.”
Indeed, the owners are likely to list the rooms for significantly less than they might be offered on discount travel sites such as Expedia, Priceline and Travelocity.
For example, in a recent comparison of weekly rental prices at the Harborside Resort at Atlantis in the Bahamas, Resort Rentals offered a one-bedroom rental for $1,775, while Expedia had a unit at the same resort for $3,759, Priceline had one for $3,500, and Travelocity, $3,885.
“The consumer wins,” Kington said. “It’s cheaper than a hotel.”
The men have hopes of making the venture a success. The enterprise has in its corner the “opportunity trifecta,” Kington said, consisting of a big market, the Internet’s strength and a consumer “point of pain” that can be relieved by the product.
The founders’ experience with startups also is a plus for Resort Rentals, said Will Indest, vice president of venture development for TechColumbus, a nonprofit group that supports
“The company has an exceptional shot of changing that whole marketplace,” Indest said. “Those guys are experienced entrepreneurs. We have known them a long time. Each has been involved in multiple startups.”
TechColumbus provided initial seed money for the company as well as use of the nonprofit’s offices before Resort Rentals moved to its current offices in Powell.
Among Blackwell’s credits are ShareThis, the company with the little green icon that enables Internet users to share content via e-mail,
Kington was executive producer of the online service at CompuServe, ran his own consulting practice and was CEO of Toobla, an Internet widget
Both are long-term members of the Ohio
The timeshare business began its work in January — the official grand opening was in June — and continues to evolve and improve, its founders say. Every day, the six-person staff meets, discusses changes and swings into action.
“One of our first rules is: Make the complex simple to users,” Blackwell said. “We know you want, ‘Show me the cheapest room at the time I want.’”
But price isn’t always king, Blackwell said the group discovered. “We began to learn that location was important. People would say, ‘Anywhere in Hilton Head.’ ”
Like other travel sites, Resort Rentals provides star ratings to its properties. Unlike many others, it is not user-driven. Instead, Resort Rentals has devised a proprietary system in which it combines various ratings values and room amenities along with other standards.
“We found if we rated these places ourselves, it was much more reliable,” Blackwell said.
The company has taken stock of its competitors and sees that it has advantages over all of them.
One competitor, VRBO, Vacation Rentals By Owner, offers vacation homes from owners and sends users to the owner to work out a deal. “We focus on resorts, not vacation homes, and we manage the transaction so owners/renters don’t have to hassle with payment/contract stuff,” Kington said.
Another big area of competition comes from Orbitz, Expedia, Travelocity, HotWire and all the hotel sites. “We focus on timeshare resort properties and we offer consumers the ability to rent directly from the timeshare owners, and save about 40 percent versus these guys,” Kington said.
Despite its still-low profile, the company is getting eight to 10 calls a day, Kington said. “We’re being conservative with marketing dollars spent right now until we prove market acceptance and get more capital, which will allow us to ramp marketing to levels that are 10 times what we’re spending today.”
Meanwhile, the folks at TechColumbus monitor the progress of
“Frankly, these guys are not typical entrepreneurs. (They) have a lot of ‘been there, done that’ experience,” Indest said.
“Still, it’s a tech startup, and most tech startups don’t survive 10 years. But some become the next