ntrepreneur Heather Thomas of Destin, Florida, along with her husband Chris Thomas, owns and runs Destin Vacation Boat Rentals, CrabIsland Company, and the newly opened seafood restaurant The Edge. Heather credits the BookingCentral platform for helping her run her businesses smoothly day-to-day and scale them into the exceedingly lucrative ventures they are. We caught up with her to hear more about her secrets to business success.
Q: You and your husband Chris started your business back in 2008 as a "Plan B" if he were to lose his job during those uncertain economic times. He wasn’t let go, but you were both energized to launch the boat rental business anyway. Now, fifteen years on, what’s it like to be able to share your passion for boating and life on the water with thousands of people each year?
Heather: It's surreal. We don’t spend much time looking in rear view mirror, but when I do think about it, oh wow, we have come a really long way! It’s a been wild ride. Fifteen years went by so quickly!
Q: How did you handle booking reservations when you first started out?
Heather: Since it was 2008, there weren’t really any online platforms for rentals, so we started with pen and paper. It was an actual day planner. We had 3 boats, and all of our reservations would fit on the little square on the calendar. When we out grew the day planner, we went to Office Depot, and they made us a custom spread sheet that had a column for each boat and time frames. It was the size of an old thick phone book—it was huge, and we’d carry it everywhere. God forbid you didn’t have it with you when someone called. You couldn’t just log in and check availability—you’d have to call them back to book the boat!
Q: What sets BookingCentral apart from other booking platforms?
Heather: The service is more personalized. Other companies are more corporate, and they don’t have the ability to make changes on the fly. But you can call BookingCentral and say, “Hey—I’m having this problem...” If they don’t already have a feature that solves it, the Support Manager will say, “Let me take this to the team, maybe we can figure something out.” It’s amazing.
Q: You book competitors' boats and vessels on their behalf, which means you've got the largest inventory of boat rentals in the Destin area. How does BookingCentral help you manage these multiple resources so you can keep track?
Heather: I can toggle between my locations and theirs as well—each location is almost like its own business, with its own directions to get there, its own resources, its own hours. The BookingCentral platform lets you customize each one so you can toggle between them and also still get the birds’ eye view. (Book a demo of the Calendar feature where you can toggle back and forth and manage your fleet).
Q: What’s your favorite feature on Booking Central?
Heather: Hands-down, it’s the texting feature. We realized that people don’t read their confirmation emails, and we have multiple locations. So people would be calling us from the road as they’re driving to pick up the boat, they wouldn’t know where they were going, and they’d be upset. To solve that problem initially, I started to manually text customers each morning with directions.It took 2 hours every day, and since the first rental is at 8am, the text would have to be sent out by 7:30am. It was exhausting. I’d be on vacation myself and still have to get up at 5:30am to send out the confirmation texts with the directions! Copy/paste/send, copy/paste/send. So when BookingCentral came out with this feature, it was life changing. Boom—I had two hours of my day back, every day! Other booking software doesn’t have a way to do this. (Ask for a demo of the SMS Texting feature.)
Q: You started out with just three boats and no experience as a rental operator. What advice would you give to someone who's just starting out?
Heather: I would say to automate everything you can, so you can work smarter, not harder. Automation will free up your day so you can focus on your customers, your marketing, your bottom line. Identify your pain point, find out how to automate it, and that will help you scale. Being able to automate so many things that I had to do manually before has allowed me to do more content marketing, all the behind-the-scenes stuff, and even gave me the time to start a new venture with the restaurant. I never would have been able to do that before.
"Identify your pain point, find out how to automate it...so you can focus on your customers, your marketing, your bottom line."
Q: Did you notice a spike in interest in renting boats during the Summer of 2020 and 2021, with other vacation activities being shut down or severely restricted?
Heather: Yes! It was overwhelming during the pandemic. In 2020, tour boats were shut down for 6 weeks here in Florida, but boat rentals weren’t. People could still rent boats with family members, so boat rentals carried us during that 6-week time. When things opened back up, it was a tidal wave—we were booked weeks in advance. I would have to tell people to call back to see if we had a cancellation. And in 2021, people still weren’t going back to work or to school, they were still doing everything remotely. So while business would normally halt after Labor Day, we were busy last year until it got cold.
Q: What was the best part of the 2022 season? And what are your aspirations/goals for next year and beyond?
Heather: The highlight of this year was definitely opening the restaurant! It’s an 11,000 square-foot building over top of the water. You can watch dolphins swimming next to your chair! The downstairs is super casual because we want to encourage boaters to come in off their boat and not feel like they’re underdressed. There’s an upscale bar upstairs that opens in the evening, and that has a dress code.
We like building businesses and figuring everything out. Next year we’re going to try to incorporate adding a meal into a tour excursion, so customers can get food from our place to go, rather than stopping somewhere else along the way. We’re starting to use BookingCentral to market the restaurant, by putting some cross-promotions into the confirmation emails.
Q: You’ve been incredibly busy these past few years. Any plans for some down time?
Heather: Yes. The restaurant was in the works all of last year, so we didn’t take a vacation—I’m really feeling that by now. So this year, I’m looking forward to going skiing for a few days this winter, then back to Florida and maybe heading down to the Keys, where we’ll rent a house and a boat for a week. That way we get to enjoy boat life a little bit ourselves!
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