Cottage Connection celebrates 25 years

Posted:  Wednesday, August 8, 2018 - 8:00am

As Cottage Connection celebrates its 25th anniversary, owners Audrey and Jeff Miller reminisced on its growth.

“It grew by leaps and bounds. We didn't know how to handle it, so we had to sort of regroup … cut back and reorganize and hire more people,” said Audrey.

People call from all over the world at all hours of the day and night, said Audrey. So the Millers moved the business only a few years after starting it. By then, the business had joined Vacation Rental Managers Association (VRMA), a national organization. The business grew and moved into a rental apartment of Audrey's mother's next door to the company's current location, which the Millers bought in 2005.

“It’s a far cry from 1993 when Jeff and I started it in our dining room in East Boothbay, just the two of us."

Cottage Connection set the bar for vacation rental management companies in Maine, said Audrey. She named all the firsts the business achieved: the first printed catalog, 1-800 phone number, website featuring vacation cottages only, use of credit card payments, and being a  local full service company.

“We were the first ones to get a group of vacation rental companies together in the state of Maine and hold yearly meetings to kind of compare notes and help each other. In 2013, we were the founding members of the Vacation Rental Professionals of Maine (VRPOM) which is now an official nonprofit that advocates for vacation rentals and educates people,” Audrey said. She was its first president.

“Audrey was instrumental in pulling the community together as well as the other vacation rental professionals and homeowners here in Maine to defeat the 2013 legislation that would have prevented anybody from renting their house,” said Director of Operations Melba Gunnison.

Gunnison began working for Cottage Connection in 1999, the year Alexis “Lexie” Miller, daughter of the co-founders, was born. Alexis now works in guest services and social media for the business when she is not attending Champlain College.

“(VRPOM) is an organization that she was very instrumental in getting going to ensure that the vacation rentals here in the state of Maine have standards and that they're safe and ethically run so people can rent with confidence,” said Gunnison.

The Millers said because the vacation rental industry has changed so much since they started, they feel responsible for setting and keeping up standards. That is achieved through public education because there are so many facets to professional renting, professional help is necessary, Audrey said.

“That's why we created VRMA to help provide education around health and safety,” said Audrey. “Best practices and ethics – I mean, if you wouldn't stay in the house, nobody else should. That's our motto: 'If I won't stay there, you can't stay there!’”

With properties on all the big rental websites, online booking and all the features they offer in their management, the Millers said they are “matchmakers.”

Gunnison said many owners and guests have been with the company since the beginning. Half a dozen guests have stayed with it the past 20 years and there are many 15-year guests.

“One of the big things that I hear is that people come back because of our service, they come back because of who we are and the personal care that we give them,” said Gunnison. “Our value to our guests is that we help them chill and we help them find the right house.”

In 2013, through VRMA, the business got the television series  “Getting Away Together” to the region. Getting the film crew to Boothbay Harbor cost $55,000 and as a marketing venture to raise the money, locals Doug Gimbel and Ryan Leighton created a music video called “Takes Money.”

“To think about how 300 people and 100 businesses in this community got together for the first time and ponied up to make this happen was amazing,” Audrey said.

What was their most memorable year? Lexie popped into the room and said, “1999. Just throwing that out there.”

A fair answer, both Audrey and Jeff acknowledged, since it saw growth in more than just business. It was the year Lexie was born and Gunnison came aboard the team.

“We have had people from all over the world,” said Gunnison. She said some of the most memorable years included weddings and spur-of-the-moment rents. “We had a wedding where the best man had us put something special together every single day of their honeymoon – dinner one night at a restaurant, food baskets, flowers.”

Years  ago, the business had an arrangement with New England Country Homes out of England, Jeff said. “They would market our houses to our people, so we had a big campaign through the Register saying 'the British are coming!'”

Lexie remembered many British, French and German guests. “We had a Canadian family who spoke English, French and Mandarin, so I got to speak with them in English, French and Mandarin,” Lexie said.

Cottage Connection is Maine-based and community-based, and always trying to find a way to help the community, the Millers said.

Said Audrey, “It's really hard to come up with any particular one (memory) because every year is a new adventure. It's never boring.”