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@Work: Vacation Homes

Sept. 23, 2004 – Hop off the ferry late any afternoon and you're likely to see Kathy Demar at the Cruz Bay ferry dock with a sign in her hand that reads "Vacation Homes."
Demar, 53, and her husband, Dennis, 56, run just one of the 30-plus small companies that manage the island's more than 350 vacation villas. Like Vacation Homes, most meet their guests at the ferry dock, escort them to the car rental company and show them the ins and outs of their vacation villa.
"I like meeting the people best," Kathy Demar said as she discussed what makes her business tick.
Demar, a former first-grade teacher, is often called upon to put her people skills to good use when guests who don't understand the vagaries of island living complain. For example, if the phone doesn't work, the guests expect her to get it fixed pronto. This being St. John, phone repairs can take several weeks. Guests find that information hard to understand.
"It makes me nuts," she said.
While Demar prefers dealing with her guests, she also puts in hours at her desk organizing bookings, paying bills and keeping tabs on the cadre of about a dozen full and part-time folks who clean the villas, tend the gardens and do whatever it takes to keep Vacation Homes on track.
Dennis Demar, who owned a drywall company before the couple moved to St. John, keeps up with repairs.
The Demars have owned Vacation Homes for 17 years. They took over the business from Don and Ruth Wilford, who were ready to retire.
They moved to St. John 18 years ago from Lunenburg, Mass., after their son Michael, now 35, went off to college. He and his wife, Emily, 36, and their two children, Noah, 6, and Quinn, 3, live in Evanston, Ill.
The Demars head to Evanston about every three months for family visits. And in the slow fall season, you're likely to find them at the beach or out hiking.
"This is the time of the year when you remember why you moved here," Kathy Demar said.
The busy winter season is far too busy for leisurely afternoons spent snorkeling or sunning.
In the 17 years they've been in business, they've seen the vacation villa business explode as St. John became a hot destination. Kathy Demar said that in the early days, she sent out brochures and waited for people to decide. Today, most make up their mind on the spot.
Unlike many of their colleagues, the Demars don't book via the Internet. Instead, they rely on word of mouth from repeat guests and villa-booking Web sites.
The villas have also changed. All now qualify as luxury properties, and most have hurricane shutters. Kathy Demar said that differs from the early days when she and her husband had to personally screw plywood onto all the windows of their vacation villas when a hurricane threatened. Now, she strongly encourages owners to install shutters when they're building. The couple also has to drag in all the porch furniture and other outdoor accessories from the properties they manage to prepare for an approaching hurricane.
Hurricane season always poses problems. Kathy Demar said she has to judge when to put up the hurricane shutters and when to make guests leave for home.
"You don't want to wreck someone's vacation," she said.
While the business has changed a lot since they first went into business, the bottom line is still the same. The Demars' main job is to make sure the guests enjoy their stay.

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