Steve Barsh wants you to come to his condo in Lake Tahoe next weekend

What would you do if you had a three-bedroom condo all to yourself on the year’s busiest weekend in Park City, Utah? Steve Barsh decided to invite a few of his friends over. And he has a lot of friends. It took no time for Barsh, the chief executive of the vacation rental site PackLate.com, to fill the unit with a several virtual acquaintances. What happened next may become part of social media lore. I asked him to explain.

Let’s start with the rental. How did you end up with such a large unit?

I was in Park City skiing with some of PackLate’s investors. It was Sundance Film Festival and the cheapest hotel I could find was $600 per night.

So I turned to PackLate the day before check-in and got a great last-minute deal on a three-bedroom condo for $400 a night.

Nice. Most people would just say, “Ah, more room for me!” But not you. What were you thinking?

I walked in the door, looked around, and thought, “This is huge, but it’s a waste for just one person.”

So then I thought, “Let me offer the extra space to our Facebook fans for free. Maybe someone will be completely spontaneous and come to Park City to enjoy the great snow conditions and Sundance Film Festival?” Plus, I could get to know some of our customers and fans a bit better.

Who took you up on the invitation?

One fan flew in from outside Orlando. He booked the flight that same morning and that completely blew me away! We had exchanged emails, but had never met. Another couple who were fans from Boulder, Colo., were already in town staying with a friend, but were not happy with his place. When they heard about the offer, they jumped on it. So it started with just me, and 24 hours later, we were four people.

So you’d never met any of these people?

Nope. The only thing we had in common was PackLate, a love for great vacation rental deals, and as it turned out, skiing. And by the way, they were much better skiers than me.

What if one of them had turned out to be an axe murderer?

I think we were all thinking that. Sometimes you just have to take a risk in life. We get such great feedback from PackLate’s customers, I just had an innate trust. It’s a bit like “couch surfing” but in this version, we turned a last minute vacation rental into a great opportunity to meet new people who were all guests.

How did it all turn out?

It was awesome. We all ate breakfast together one morning in the condo. We went to brunch together. And we skied one day together at Deer Valley. One couple enjoyed the private hot tub, and we all had a relaxing, wonderful time and made new friends.

It sounds like flashmob-meets-vacation-rentals. And is it true that you’re going to do this again?

We are, yes. I was speaking to a friend and the people who were staying with me and the idea came up. What if we did this again, on purpose, and a bit more planned? What would happen if we gave people more than 12 hours notice to share in a wonderful last-minute vacation rental?

An interesting marketing concept.

We could get to know our customers better, they could get to meet some of the PackLate team members, and we would all have a great time.

So when is the next one?

It’ll be the weekend of February 11th in Lake Tahoe. We’re inviting anyone to become a PackLate Facebook fan and write on our wall why they would like to join us. We’ll pick six to eight to stay with us for free.

Plus, we’ll ask questions of our fans who are passionate about Lake Tahoe where their favorite places are and arrange for a brunch and a special activity or two based on their feedback. We hope that going forward, this will be at least a monthly event that occurs in different locations which now encompass over 30 destinations.

I find it interesting, how the virtual and real worlds are meeting like this. What do you hope these get-togethers will mean for social media and travel?

I think this is great example of using new channels and avenues to bridge the connection between companies and their customers. As well, these type of get-togethers will enable like-minded travelers to meet new friends when in a new destination.

Also, a core differentiator for our site is having great customer service. Get-togethers like this and leveraging social media both online and to drive off-line meetups deepens our connection with our customers and gives incredible feedback, in market, with our customers, experiencing our product, together.

(Photo: The residents of the original Park City condo, from left to right: Scott and Julie from Boulder, Rob from Melbourne, Fla., and Steve Barsh. Photo courtesy of PackLate.)

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