The short term vacation rental business is merging with the hospitality business. Andy Meddick, Owner of Downtown Beach Rentals – a vacation rental management company at the Delaware Beaches says that S.M.A.R.T. vacation rental hosts adopt the following five lessons from the hotel industry:
I believe that the short term vacation rental industry is morphing into, or at the very least blending with the hotel or hospitality industry. I based my opinion on scouring thousands of online guest reviews and listening to thousands more guest requests during the booking (and post booking) process. I look for consistency – patterns in what guests love, and what they dislike. As a property manager representing the property owner, one can also factor in the owner perspective – what owners like, and dislike. The skill is in discerning the need behind the feedback. From there it’s a distinct choice: one meets/exceeds the need, or one loses the guest/owner to another property/company/host who does.
Consider your own needs when traveling and using hotels. Research suggests that we look for:
- Booking – a simple process.
- Cleanliness and comfort in the property.
- Location – the property has to be situated conveniently for the needs of our trip.
- Price – competitively priced.
- Consistency – in the booking experience and in the property management.
- Human Touch – can I reach a live person when I need to? Do I feel welcome and heard?
When it comes to the above 6 points, there’s definitely a similarity when it comes to vacation rental properties. These points can equally apply to both the hospitality and vacation rental industries. However, there are some notable differences when it comes to the latter. Vacation rental properties are not hotels with hundreds of ‘units’ (rooms), all alike. Here are some unique features of vacation rental properties:
- Uniqueness – each property is different and may reflect the personality of the owner and the locale. In this respect, the property represents a truly local experience.
- Home – the experience of having the run of an entire property as a temporary home away from home.
- Privacy – no front desk or shared spaces.
- Food – the ability to self-cater and cook meals on an ad hoc basis.
So what can the short term vacation rental industry learn from the hotel industry? I think a good starting point is not to see this as an ‘either or’ choice. There are times when a hotel makes sense for our trip. At other times a vacation rental property does the job. The key is to understand one’s market and ‘borrow’ best practices from hotels in order to meet/exceed the needs of the same guest who is choosing either a hotel or a vacation rental property for different trip needs. Hence the answer must lay somewhat in the middle: operate one’s property like a hotel, but make it feel like a home. Easy, huh? If it were that easy, there would be no need for vacation rental management companies!
Here’s my Top 5 SMART lessons, or rules to follow when ‘operating’ a vacation rental home – all best practices that have been adapted from the hotel industry.
ONE: S – Show Them You Care
The best hotels excel because they make the guest feel important. It can be as simple as a welcoming smile (and yes, one can hear a smile over the telephone). Learn your guest’s name. Use it. Often. Ask sincere, diplomatic questions. Listen to what guests are telling you. Take notes. Lots of notes. Nothing validates another like having one’s needs repeated back with a thoughtful solution applied. Remember what guests tell you during the booking process. Is the purpose of the trip to celebrate a family milestone birthday? A gathering before the college aged child leaves for school? A wedding anniversary? Did the guest state that they may arrive late? Here is your opportunity to show consideration – the corner stone of hospitality. Make sure that strategic lights are on at the property for a late arrival, for example. Put fresh bagels, butter, orange juice, and a pound of fresh ground coffee in the kitchen. At least the guest will be able to get a fresh start the following morning before having to run out for groceries.
Part of caring is to show that you value another person’s time and input. Endeavor to make your booking process as simple and efficient as possible. Converse and engage with your guest and solicit feedback. Put yourself in the shoes of a guest arriving late due to bad traffic and with cranky kids in the car. That guest needs a simple, quick check in process. A Vet clinic that I have used, for example, has a check out process that simply does not work for me. The front desk staff look on while I struggle to hold a squirming puppy while signing my credit card slip and completing check out paperwork. That’s a process that could use some hospitality magic for sure!
Caring is not just about process. It’s about ‘inventory’ also. Your product, your inventory, is your property and its amenities. Don’t be cheap! Spend the appropriate amount of money on furnishings and equipment for guest needs. Balance aesthetics with practicality. As property owners, or managers, we sometimes forget what a huge responsibility it is for the registered guest. They alone have the duty to book a property that will use precious vacation time for their entire group. We’re asking guests to take a huge leap of faith whether booking our properties for the first time, or as repeat guests. Imagine checking into a property for a week’s stay and the beds are dreadfully uncomfortable; the kitchen not well stocked with equipment; deck furniture broken, or lacking. Yikes!
TWO: M – Manage Guest Engagement
Look at your process – from inquiry through reservation, check in, stay, check out, and beyond. Script your process. Build in good business systems and policies. These can be technology solutions such as a contact management system to track guest preferences and information. Or it can be a reservation agent (you) with a check list and a clip board! While it is helpful to sometimes wing it with impromptu hospitality, having a well-thought out checklist and procedure in place ensures that you do not miss key information. Guests will disclose their needs, if you listen. Go the extra administrative mile – have a process that elicits a guest need. This will delight your guest and make you look good as a side benefit. Set and manage guest expectations. Once you’ve found a system that works – consistently apply it. Be careful though. Pay attention to your guest and moderate your approach based on guest personality and circumstances. Not everyone is a chatter box for sure. Sometimes people booking vacations really need a vacation! Tailor your approach to your guest. Use the information that the guest has shared with you to personalize their stay. Fresh flowers in the property and a handwritten card can make an anniversary stay so much better. Pause for a moment to reflect on how you would feel arriving for a special trip in a bad mood because of weather delays in travel, for example. Then you arrive at the property to a handwritten note and flowers. You remember the purpose of your trip. Your mood lifts…
Don’t forget a process for reaching out to guests after a check out. Don’t hesitate to build in scripts. This is not disingenuous. You want to ensure you’re tracking consistent metrics. Guest reviews online are essential in contemporary times, not just for search engine exposure. Guest reviews are a gift from one guest to another. They help us all to decide if a property is the right fit for us. Solicit review as part of your post-check out process.
THREE: A – Availability
Be available to your guest (and to your property owners). This is not an easy judgment call. Some guests look for frequent contact. Often the same guest may have alternating demands on your time for information. Consider, for example, a guest booking a property for a Thanksgiving trip. Not only does that guest have the responsibility of making the right choice of property and organizing the trip for their group. That same guest may be cooking a holiday meal in an unfamiliar kitchen. Double stress for that guest! Be available to the guest – even when you feel they’re constantly calling with questions that may seem obvious to you. There are no dumb questions – other than the ones not asked. Once the guest is checked in and relaxing, you may not hear from that guest the entire stay. Two subsequent weekly guests at the same property may have completely different demands on you. One may navigate an unfamiliar kitchen with not a single call. Another may need to see photographs of cupboard interiors to be able to relax into their booking and enjoy their stay. Be available to match the need. We once had an anxious guest who overwhelmed me with their gratitude for what I considered a minor concession. A well-stocked kitchen at a property was missing a muffin pan. I sent an agent to the store who returned with a $12 muffin pan. The guest’s holiday meal was saved. It was a big deal to the guest. This is the hospitality business – people come first.
When staying at a hotel we come into contact with the hotel staff frequently. When staying at a vacation rental home, unless the owner, or property manager is on site (and I would not recommend or like that, personally), the guest may never see anyone responsible for managing their property and stay. You don’t have to make a nuisance of yourself. We have a policy of a courtesy telephone call to the guest the day prior to arrival, then another after check in. Often we get voicemail. The purpose of the call is the same. We have a touch point with the guest and let them know that we’re available per their needs. It doesn’t have to be a telephone call. A handwritten note left at the property for check in can impart the same meaning.
Emergency support – remember that at a hotel, guests have access to front desk staff 24×7. It is imperative to replicate that service level with your vacation rental. Keep regular office hours for non-emergencies. Offer up a 24×7 contact number or re-route to a call service to help guests with off-hours emergencies. And if your guest calls your emergency number for a non emergency (we got a call after hours for restaurant recommendations), be nice and answer the need, while politely reinforcing expectations! Recognize that if the guest is calling – they want help, and it’s important enough for them to have called.
FOUR: R – Revenue
Hotels have long utilized sophisticated business practices and technology solutions that allow them to manage their revenue stream in order to optimize occupancy and income. This is a process known as, “Yield Management,” also known as, “Revenue Management” or, “Dynamic Pricing.” Briefly, this process is a deliberate system of storing, tracking, and analyzing guest booking data relative to the particular property and to local and national market patterns. The result is to lower, or raise rates based on occupancy patterns. The focus is on overall income, not individual rates. Long term this should result in higher overall occupancy and income. This is a hotel industry best practice that is just beginning to catch on in the vacation rental space. Not quite yet a popular practice since it is not easy and is several part science with a good measure of artwork thrown in the mix. However, I strongly encourage this practice. You can get very fancy with apps and other such software. Or you can be one person with an Excel spreadsheet and a good memory! A vacation rental property owner or property manager has one distinct advantage that the hotel chains find more challenging. We have direct local knowledge of our market places. We know, for example, which festivals bring in more crowds. We know the balance between mid week bookings are weekend demand.
FIVE: T – Take Care of the Property
This encompasses several ‘departments’ at a large scale hotel operation: housekeeping, maintenance, construction, information technology and so on. We in the vacation rental sphere need to take a leaf out of the hotel book. Stay on top of it all. Make sure that the property is clean, not just ‘owner clean’ – ‘hotel clean’! As homeowners, we may have a different cleanliness standard and be prepared to turn a blind eye to certain things like dust on blinds. Think instead of your unexpressed thoughts when arriving at a hotel room. Property turnover cleans between guest stays have to be completed quickly, especially in high season. While we are cognizant of the difference in time and cost for a turnover clean versus a ‘deep clean,’ we work with our cleaning crews to set the expectation that the same crew each turnover must pay attention to items not usually considered part of a turnover clean. Ceiling fan blades and baseboards, for example. These are not done every turnover, but our crews will monitor and take care of it as necessary. The cost is averaged out over each clean so that different guests do not see differing cleaning fees. Don’t forget your a/c registers and returns also! Have a detailed check list that you agree with your cleaning crew.
Uniqueness – one of the lovely aspects of vacation rental properties is their individuality – their ‘home’ appeal. This does not mean that the property looks different for each successive guest. It means the subtleties that make this property distinct from others on the market. Make sure the property is reset between guests to reflect the original set up. Check everything. Every guest. Every time. Not every guest may use the kitchen, for example. Don’t forget in your turnover checklist – either you, or your cleaning crew, housekeeping, designated agent, spouse, kids – somebody has to check cupboards, for example. Many a teenager may consider a plate is clean and put it back in a cupboard when told by a parent to clean up. The incoming guest should not find dirty dishes in the cupboard. Trash and recycle management is challenging enough to have its own chapter in the vacation rental guide. As is parking! Do not forget exterior rooms and spaces. Screened in porches can be dust and bug traps, especially during quieter parts of the year when the property may be empty for longer periods between guests. We have a policy of an agent check on every property before a check in and after each check out. The need for a post stay check of the property is fairly obvious. Not every owner, or management company may think to check a property ahead of a guest arrival, thinking that the last check out review was sufficient. Our policy has caught potential issues ahead of a guest arrival. I can’t stress enough how important this is during quieter periods when guest stays are not back to back.
Staging – once a property is staged for maximum guest comfort, practicality, appeal, and revenue, don’t forget a quick check list (including photographs) for the turnover agent (or cleaning crew) to reset the property between guests. Whether it be returning the correct dishes to the correct cupboard, or a quick turnover re-fresh of the beds, the property needs to be consistently appealing to each new guest. Your guest reality must match your listing photographs.
Maintenance – stay on top of routine maintenance before a guest experiences an emergency at the property. Schedule the maintenance when there are no guests if at all possible. Warn guests ahead of time if contractors need to visit the property. We even go so far as to have a supplies closet at each of our properties that is kept stocked with light bulbs, batteries, a basic tool kit, trash bags, paper towels, Windex, ant traps and other such go to items. Preferably we have a staff member stop at the property to help the guest locate and swap out a failed light bulb, for example. Some guests, however, do not want an agent visit and are happy to swap out a light bulb.
Follow these five S.M.A.R.T. lessons from the hotel industry in your vacation rental management and your guests will be happy. You will get great reviews. You’ll get repeat business. This means you’ll be well on your way to maximizing occupancy and revenue. Everyone is happy!