Business Plan Challenge

Even vacations can be hell for autism families. A new website is here to help.

The number of families dealing with autism is growing — from one in 68 to one in 59 in just the past two years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

One need often overlooked: autism-friendly vacation homes. For a state awash in sunny retreats, this represented an opportunity for Alice Horn, the founder of online vacation marketplace VillaKey, formerly known as Resort Homes of Florida.

"One day I was looking at our reviews and saw a review from a mom that had a child with autism," she said. "And she was just so grateful that she had been able to find a place on vacation that was safe, nurturing and that she felt comfortable traveling with her child."

Horn, who also has experience with autism in her own family, saw an opportunity. By outfitting vacation homes to address the needs of people with autism, she could help those families and create a business.

The 2018 Miami Herald Business Plan Challenge judges agreed, awarding VillaKey second place in the 2018 competition's Community Track.

Because people with autism can have unusual physical sensitivities, "regular" vacation lodgings can be problematic. (Think bright lights, scented cleaning products, scratchy sheets, food sensitivities, and even crowded situations like hotel lobbies. ) "For many affected families, it's impossible to stay in a regular hotel," Horn said.

Many popular vacation options, including Walt Disney World and many cruises, are already equipped to handle children with autism. And many websites cater to niche vacation markets, from hikers to cruisers. (One is Miami's own Oasis Collections, which offers luxury homes for business travelers and recently received investment from Hyatt.)

But few vacation home rental groups provide services specifically geared to families affected by autism. And the autism community is active online, according to Horn — meaning there's a receptive audience that will be easy to reach.

"Given the size of the market, it's surprising that there are very few other vacation rental companies doing this," she said. ​The vacation rental industry continues to experience rapid growth and is expected to reach $167.9 billion by 2019, according to the Vacation Rental Management Association.

VillaKey only works with professionally managed residences. It looks carefully at photographs of a home to make sure there is no risky furniture or bright colors for a child with autism. Properties also must be pet friendly and free of loud alarms that could prove upsetting.

It already has 220 homes ready to handle special needs families in Orlando and Davenport, Florida, near Winter Haven. The company is recruiting additional property management firms, and aims to make at least 25 percent of the 780 total homes it advertises online autism-friendly.

Previously, Horn was executive director of the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship. She began working with her husband and son at VillaKey in 2016.