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Hey Vacation Rental Owners, You're Doing It Wrong! A Traveler Tells All

12 easy tips for owners to improve their vacation rentals and make more money, according to an experienced HomeAway and VRBO traveler (and owner)

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I'm an experienced HomeAway and VRBO traveler (and owner), and I want to help you earn more money

Vacation rental management ain’t easy.As a vacation rental owner, frequent traveler using vacation and short-term rentals (STRs) and product manager for the HomeAway VRBO Owner App, I think about this daily.Owners and property managers (PMs) of vacation rentals (VRs) and STRs are constantly balancing the desire to provide an exceptional experience to their traveling guests with the financial and time costs required to do so.In a previous life, I was a soccer coach, and I often found that I got the best out of my players when I responded to situations by considering what would motivate me the most if I was the player being addressed. The same logic is useful for owners and PMs to consider when making decisions about how best to serve travelers while optimizing the value of the rental: what kind of amenities and experiences would you want as a traveler?Having stayed in more than a dozen VRs and STRs in the past year alone, I’ve become hyper-aware of the little details that can make or break a stay. I’ve used these observations to improve the experience we offer to our guests, and I’m sharing them here for your benefit.Investing accordingly can enable you to increase your nightly rates while maximizing your occupancy. Further, you will earn rave reviews from travelers, which of course leads to better placement in search results and thus more bookings.That said, these are just the observations of a 30-something techie. That's my niche, but there are other niches to which to cater. Just create a persona of your ideal traveler and then make the effort to deliver an awesome experience to that market.
This is the best photo the author could find of himself ... sorry :-/

Vacation rental management ain’t easy.

As a vacation rental owner, frequent traveler using vacation and short-term rentals (STRs) and product manager for the HomeAway VRBO Owner App, I think about this daily.

Owners and property managers (PMs) of vacation rentals (VRs) and STRs are constantly balancing the desire to provide an exceptional experience to their traveling guests with the financial and time costs required to do so.

In a previous life, I was a soccer coach, and I often found that I got the best out of my players when I responded to situations by considering what would motivate me the most if I was the player being addressed. The same logic is useful for owners and PMs to consider when making decisions about how best to serve travelers while optimizing the value of the rental: what kind of amenities and experiences would you want as a traveler?

Having stayed in more than a dozen VRs and STRs in the past year alone, I’ve become hyper-aware of the little details that can make or break a stay. I’ve used these observations to improve the experience we offer to our guests, and I’m sharing them here for your benefit.

Investing accordingly can enable you to increase your nightly rates while maximizing your occupancy. Further, you will earn rave reviews from travelers, which of course leads to better placement in search results and thus more bookings.

That said, these are just the observations of a 30-something techie. That's my niche, but there are other niches to which to cater. Just create a persona of your ideal traveler and then make the effort to deliver an awesome experience to that market.

Communication is king

Jhaymesisviphotography / Via Flickr

Communication is king.

First and foremost, be prompt in your replies. If you don’t know the answer to a traveler’s question, reply: “I don’t know the answer off-hand, let me check on that and get back to you shortly.” Whatever you do, don’t delay in responding as soon as possible.

Consider investing in a smartwatch such as the Apple Watch so you are never guilty of missing an important traveler message because your phone was in a bag or purse.

Further, be friendly and courteous in your tone -- imagine you work the front desk at a hotel and use a similar tone. That said, it’s okay to let your guard down slightly by throwing in a smiley-face emoji in your reply :-)

Finally, communicate through whichever channel the traveler prefers. Do not insist a traveler only call, text or email you when they message you through the app. It’s their vacation, so don’t make them work to enjoy it.

Give your travelers an incredible sleeping experience

Your home’s primary bed should be at least a queen-size or larger. Invest in a quality mattress; there are many affordable options from brands such as Tuft & Needle, Casper, Cocoon (by Sealy), Purple and Ikea. In general, it is best to go with a slightly firmer mattress, but not so firm that it is like sleeping on a hardwood floor.But don’t stop there! Outfit that mattress with a sturdy and elegant frame and hotel-quality bedding -- as a millennial with modern tastes, I'm personally a big fan of sheet sets from brands such as Brooklinen and West Elm. I strongly encourage you to go with a duvet rather than a stand-alone comforter insert, as the duvet can be cleaned more easily and travelers will appreciate that. At a minimum, provide two or three pillows per guest -- guests want a luxurious sleeping experience, not a couchsurfing one.On that note, DO NOT give your travelers mismatched or “jersey-style” sheets, and definitely no flannel sheets unless your home is a winter lodge.Don’t forget to complement each bed with some attractive accent pillows to give it that luxury hotel-quality look.Why should you do this? Well, if pride of ownership isn't enough of a motivator, consider the economics. For every bedroom in your home, you can charge at least an additional $25-50/night for each queen-sized bed (or larger) with an attractive bed frame-headboard, quality mattress, quality bedding and nice accent pillows (and don't forget, 2-3 pillows per guest!).
Williams Sonoma, Inc. / Via ir.williams-sonomainc.com

Your home’s primary bed should be at least a queen-size or larger. Invest in a quality mattress; there are many affordable options from brands such as Tuft & Needle, Casper, Cocoon (by Sealy), Purple and Ikea. In general, it is best to go with a slightly firmer mattress, but not so firm that it is like sleeping on a hardwood floor.

But don’t stop there! Outfit that mattress with a sturdy and elegant frame and hotel-quality bedding -- as a millennial with modern tastes, I'm personally a big fan of sheet sets from brands such as Brooklinen and West Elm. I strongly encourage you to go with a duvet rather than a stand-alone comforter insert, as the duvet can be cleaned more easily and travelers will appreciate that. At a minimum, provide two or three pillows per guest -- guests want a luxurious sleeping experience, not a couchsurfing one.

On that note, DO NOT give your travelers mismatched or “jersey-style” sheets, and definitely no flannel sheets unless your home is a winter lodge.

Don’t forget to complement each bed with some attractive accent pillows to give it that luxury hotel-quality look.

Why should you do this?

Well, if pride of ownership isn't enough of a motivator, consider the economics. For every bedroom in your home, you can charge at least an additional $25-50/night for each queen-sized bed (or larger) with an attractive bed frame-headboard, quality mattress, quality bedding and nice accent pillows (and don't forget, 2-3 pillows per guest!).

Cleanliness is godliness

Guests who are paying to stay in your vacation rental will not tolerate “couchsurfing conditions.” They expect hotel-quality cleanliness.Hire a great housekeeper and compensate them well to earn their loyalty.Additionally, make it easy for your travelers to keep up the home during their stay. Place easy-to-find stain remover spray bottles throughout the home so your guests can clean up spilt wine or pet accidents. Have plenty of paper towel rolls and laundry and dish detergent available, and don't forget to provide new sponges for every check-in.Why should you do this? The easiest way to get a bad review is to give your guests a reason to be "icked out," whether it is due to mold in the shower or a cockroach in the kitchen. Alternatively, an exceptionally clean home stands out and will inspire confidence in travelers for their decision to go with a vacation rental versus a hotel room.As for the economics, homes that sparkle -- both inside and outside -- are worth an additional 10-20% in their nightly rate compared with homes that are just "clean enough" (HINT: if it doesn't sparkle, it isn't "clean enough.")
Aerin Aichi / Via flickr

Guests who are paying to stay in your vacation rental will not tolerate “couchsurfing conditions.” They expect hotel-quality cleanliness.

Hire a great housekeeper and compensate them well to earn their loyalty.

Additionally, make it easy for your travelers to keep up the home during their stay. Place easy-to-find stain remover spray bottles throughout the home so your guests can clean up spilt wine or pet accidents. Have plenty of paper towel rolls and laundry and dish detergent available, and don't forget to provide new sponges for every check-in.

Why should you do this?

The easiest way to get a bad review is to give your guests a reason to be "icked out," whether it is due to mold in the shower or a cockroach in the kitchen. Alternatively, an exceptionally clean home stands out and will inspire confidence in travelers for their decision to go with a vacation rental versus a hotel room.

As for the economics, homes that sparkle -- both inside and outside -- are worth an additional 10-20% in their nightly rate compared with homes that are just "clean enough" (HINT: if it doesn't sparkle, it isn't "clean enough.")

Stock your kitchen

Provide basic food, beverages and kitchen amenities.As a rule, you should have twice as many matching dish and drink ware sets as travelers staying in your home. Attractive but inexpensive dish sets can be procured at stores such as Ikea, Walmart and Target. And no, a tall glass is not enough; be sure to also have wine glasses and coffee mugs available as well.Be sure to provide some soda (or sparkling water), beer and/or wine to your guests so they can enjoy a nice beverage upon arrival -- in particular, consider locally-sourced beer or wine for a more authentic and special touch.That said, Carole, an experienced vacation rental owner I know, warns that it is worth checking with guests if they have any issues with alcohol, i.e., make sure you aren't providing booze to a guest battling alcoholism.In addition, orange juice, milk, coffee and tea are absolute must-haves. You might also want to provide some cereal or oatmeal options.Remember that many travelers choose vacation rentals over hotels because they can cook and bake in a home, so do your best to provide clean pots and pans, as well as more niche utensils such as spaghetti strainers and appliances such as an espresso machine, waffle iron or panini press.But don't stop there. Remove the coffee, tea and cocoa from packaging and place the contents in nice glass or ceramic containers for a more elegant presentation.The biggest mistake you can make is to skimp on a provision because you don't have that in your primary home. That's the point! This is a vacation rental, the experience is supposed to be better than what someone gets at their normal residence.Why should you do this? A nice, complete set of dishes, glasses and cutlery from Ikea, Target or Walmart costs as little as about $10/person. A decent bottle of wine serves up to four travelers for just $10-25. In turn, you can charge an extra $10-20/night for each traveler staying at your home when you provide these amenities. So basically, if you invest in nice dishes, and your home is booked for at least 90 days each year, those $10/person dish sets are worth about $900-$1,800 in additional revenue annually.

Provide basic food, beverages and kitchen amenities.

As a rule, you should have twice as many matching dish and drink ware sets as travelers staying in your home. Attractive but inexpensive dish sets can be procured at stores such as Ikea, Walmart and Target. And no, a tall glass is not enough; be sure to also have wine glasses and coffee mugs available as well.

Be sure to provide some soda (or sparkling water), beer and/or wine to your guests so they can enjoy a nice beverage upon arrival -- in particular, consider locally-sourced beer or wine for a more authentic and special touch.

That said, Carole, an experienced vacation rental owner I know, warns that it is worth checking with guests if they have any issues with alcohol, i.e., make sure you aren't providing booze to a guest battling alcoholism.

In addition, orange juice, milk, coffee and tea are absolute must-haves. You might also want to provide some cereal or oatmeal options.

Remember that many travelers choose vacation rentals over hotels because they can cook and bake in a home, so do your best to provide clean pots and pans, as well as more niche utensils such as spaghetti strainers and appliances such as an espresso machine, waffle iron or panini press.

But don't stop there. Remove the coffee, tea and cocoa from packaging and place the contents in nice glass or ceramic containers for a more elegant presentation.

The biggest mistake you can make is to skimp on a provision because you don't have that in your primary home. That's the point! This is a vacation rental, the experience is supposed to be better than what someone gets at their normal residence.

Why should you do this?

A nice, complete set of dishes, glasses and cutlery from Ikea, Target or Walmart costs as little as about $10/person. A decent bottle of wine serves up to four travelers for just $10-25. In turn, you can charge an extra $10-20/night for each traveler staying at your home when you provide these amenities. So basically, if you invest in nice dishes, and your home is booked for at least 90 days each year, those $10/person dish sets are worth about $900-$1,800 in additional revenue annually.

Surprise and delight your guests

Every room should smell great, so consider scented plug-ins with modest tones to give your home that extra-fresh feeling from the moment travelers first enter.Provide a simple, unexpected welcome gift such as a gift basket with wine and craft food items. Another great option are Mouth.com “gift bags” filled with local craft food and beverage items unique to your vacation home's location.Provide quality shampoo, conditioner, soap and hand lotion in every bathroom.Why should you do this? When you surprise and delight your guests, you get better reviews post-stay, not to mention they recommend your listing to family and friends. Better reviews will lift your ranking in search results on sites such as HomeAway and VRBO. Better search-rank means more bookings, as well as the opportunity to charge a little bit more per night, so yeah, do this because you will make more money in the long run.
Mouth / Via Mouth.com

Every room should smell great, so consider scented plug-ins with modest tones to give your home that extra-fresh feeling from the moment travelers first enter.

Provide a simple, unexpected welcome gift such as a gift basket with wine and craft food items. Another great option are Mouth.com “gift bags” filled with local craft food and beverage items unique to your vacation home's location.

Provide quality shampoo, conditioner, soap and hand lotion in every bathroom.

Why should you do this?

When you surprise and delight your guests, you get better reviews post-stay, not to mention they recommend your listing to family and friends. Better reviews will lift your ranking in search results on sites such as HomeAway and VRBO. Better search-rank means more bookings, as well as the opportunity to charge a little bit more per night, so yeah, do this because you will make more money in the long run.

Buy fancy toilet paper

'Nuff said.Why should you do this? Because it's the right thing to do. And yes, travelers notice. And yes, cheap toilet paper can negatively impact your reviews, which will have long-term consequences with regard to search-rank and thus occupancy rates.
Wikipedia

'Nuff said.

Why should you do this?

Because it's the right thing to do. And yes, travelers notice. And yes, cheap toilet paper can negatively impact your reviews, which will have long-term consequences with regard to search-rank and thus occupancy rates.

Don't make your travelers work

This bears repeating: DON'T MAKE YOUR TRAVELERS WORK to enjoy their vacation!Make the effort to provide hospitality information to your guests using tools such as the HomeAway-VRBO "Hospitality" feature of the Owner Dashboard. When I book a vacation rental on HomeAway or VRBO, I rely on the presence of this information in the mobile app for travelers; it is extremely frustrating when owners fail to provide critical content (such as wifi and key-pickup information) in the app.As an alternative to the ubiquitous (and often outdated) plastic information binder that owners leave for travelers, you might consider creating a simple and attractive slide deck using Google Slides, such as this one that my wife and I give our guests: goo.gl/susyNl. These can be saved and shared as a PDF file and easily updated from anywhere, even using a mobile phone.Again, always provide critical info such as check-in and check-out times, wifi information, directions and access instructions, and be sure to call this out in your messaging with travelers so they know where to find it.House rules should be easy to read and understand. If complex, consider a TL;DR summary or a side-panel explanation akin to the wonderful summaries provided by 500px.com on its terms of service page.As my work colleague and frequent vacation rental traveler, Jacob, observes: “having to worry about literally hundreds of rules is a pretty great way to ruin a vacation.”Why should you do this? Owners who truly "host" their guests as opposed to just supply them with a place to stay get much better reviews and, as noted above, this pays significant dividends with regard to search-rank.
Via goo.gl

This bears repeating: DON'T MAKE YOUR TRAVELERS WORK to enjoy their vacation!

Make the effort to provide hospitality information to your guests using tools such as the HomeAway-VRBO "Hospitality" feature of the Owner Dashboard. When I book a vacation rental on HomeAway or VRBO, I rely on the presence of this information in the mobile app for travelers; it is extremely frustrating when owners fail to provide critical content (such as wifi and key-pickup information) in the app.

As an alternative to the ubiquitous (and often outdated) plastic information binder that owners leave for travelers, you might consider creating a simple and attractive slide deck using Google Slides, such as this one that my wife and I give our guests: goo.gl/susyNl. These can be saved and shared as a PDF file and easily updated from anywhere, even using a mobile phone.

Again, always provide critical info such as check-in and check-out times, wifi information, directions and access instructions, and be sure to call this out in your messaging with travelers so they know where to find it.

House rules should be easy to read and understand. If complex, consider a TL;DR summary or a side-panel explanation akin to the wonderful summaries provided by 500px.com on its terms of service page.

As my work colleague and frequent vacation rental traveler, Jacob, observes: “having to worry about literally hundreds of rules is a pretty great way to ruin a vacation.”

Why should you do this?

Owners who truly "host" their guests as opposed to just supply them with a place to stay get much better reviews and, as noted above, this pays significant dividends with regard to search-rank.

Be original

Part of the allure of choosing a vacation rental experience over staying in a hotel is the uniqueness of a personal home. Don't disappoint!Whether you stock your home with fun cruiser bikes in a bicycle-friendly neighborhood or, as we do, feature a guest-curated vinyl record music collection for travelers to enjoy, be sure think about a unique trademark you can put on your home that makes your home stand out from the pack.That said, my friend Greg, another experienced vacation rental owner, warns: "If you provide something, guests expect it to work. So don't provide anything you don't want to maintain."Why should you do this? First, it makes being a vacation rental owner more fun. Second, it makes being a vacation rental guest more fun. Third, you get better reviews and give travelers a reason to book your particular home versus any other similar home in the area.

Part of the allure of choosing a vacation rental experience over staying in a hotel is the uniqueness of a personal home. Don't disappoint!

Whether you stock your home with fun cruiser bikes in a bicycle-friendly neighborhood or, as we do, feature a guest-curated vinyl record music collection for travelers to enjoy, be sure think about a unique trademark you can put on your home that makes your home stand out from the pack.

That said, my friend Greg, another experienced vacation rental owner, warns: "If you provide something, guests expect it to work. So don't provide anything you don't want to maintain."

Why should you do this?

First, it makes being a vacation rental owner more fun. Second, it makes being a vacation rental guest more fun. Third, you get better reviews and give travelers a reason to book your particular home versus any other similar home in the area.

Don't be lazy and don't be a stranger

It goes without saying that this place (an actual vacation rental listing I found on Airbnb) looks terrible. Don't be that owner.Make the effort to show your guests you make an effort on their behalf.Take pride in being something of a concierge (where to get the best pizza in town, etc.). Make yourself available over text when your guests have questions, and please be prompt to reply -- your guests will reward you in their reviews and repeat business.Also, be sure to set up the home to make it feel like this is the traveler’s home for their stay. Get your personal belongings out of sight. Don’t leave a bunch of relics such as used soap or your vitamins in the home that make it feel like the traveler is crashing someone else’s pad -- that’s awkward and demoralizing (and yes, it has happened to me as a traveler).Why should you do this? Again, this impacts reviews positively (or negatively), and the cost to you is just a few minutes of time per booking.

It goes without saying that this place (an actual vacation rental listing I found on Airbnb) looks terrible. Don't be that owner.

Make the effort to show your guests you make an effort on their behalf.

Take pride in being something of a concierge (where to get the best pizza in town, etc.). Make yourself available over text when your guests have questions, and please be prompt to reply -- your guests will reward you in their reviews and repeat business.

Also, be sure to set up the home to make it feel like this is the traveler’s home for their stay. Get your personal belongings out of sight. Don’t leave a bunch of relics such as used soap or your vitamins in the home that make it feel like the traveler is crashing someone else’s pad -- that’s awkward and demoralizing (and yes, it has happened to me as a traveler).

Why should you do this?

Again, this impacts reviews positively (or negatively), and the cost to you is just a few minutes of time per booking.

Invest in quality electronics

Don't be stingy when it comes to the electronics. Anything smaller than a 50" high-def TV in the living room is not gonna cut it. Pair that TV with cable channels and/or Apple TV and some premium channels (Netflix, Hulu, ESPN, HBO, Showtime). Consider providing an old Nintendo 64 or Wii U with Mario Kart and other family-friendly games for rainy daysBluetooth speakers throughout the home are a must -- every great vacation has a playlist, so don't force your travelers to remember to bring a Jambox.If you are worried about the cost, don't worry. Out-of-box discount opportunities abound at Best Buy stores, and there are plenty of good clearance options on sites such as Woot.com and Overstock.com.Be sure to provide instructions for how to use each electronic device in the Hospitality content or your home manual.And yes, your travelers will even be impressed by your smart thermostat such as the Nest pictured above -- take a photo of it and include it in your list photos and description!Why should you do this? I get it, this sounds expensive. Honestly though, it's worth it. If you charge $75/night but then add a high-def, 50" or larger TV, your home is now worth $90-$100/night. So your $200-$400 investment is worth about $1,350-$2,250 in additional revenue for every 90 days that you are booked. That $100 Nest thermostat? You can add about $10/night to your rates. Have cable and/or Netflix and Hulu? That's worth at least $5-$10/night (Hulu and Netflix combined cost less than $25/month).That said, you can also go the "tech free route" and promote your home as a place for digital detoxing (no TV, no wifi, etc.); that will certainly stand out and can be worth a slightly higher rate (assuming you provide board games and books).Either way, my guidance is not to go halfway. A single, tiny TV in the home is arguably worse than no TV at all.

Don't be stingy when it comes to the electronics. Anything smaller than a 50" high-def TV in the living room is not gonna cut it. Pair that TV with cable channels and/or Apple TV and some premium channels (Netflix, Hulu, ESPN, HBO, Showtime). Consider providing an old Nintendo 64 or Wii U with Mario Kart and other family-friendly games for rainy days

Bluetooth speakers throughout the home are a must -- every great vacation has a playlist, so don't force your travelers to remember to bring a Jambox.

If you are worried about the cost, don't worry. Out-of-box discount opportunities abound at Best Buy stores, and there are plenty of good clearance options on sites such as Woot.com and Overstock.com.

Be sure to provide instructions for how to use each electronic device in the Hospitality content or your home manual.

And yes, your travelers will even be impressed by your smart thermostat such as the Nest pictured above -- take a photo of it and include it in your list photos and description!

Why should you do this?

I get it, this sounds expensive. Honestly though, it's worth it. If you charge $75/night but then add a high-def, 50" or larger TV, your home is now worth $90-$100/night. So your $200-$400 investment is worth about $1,350-$2,250 in additional revenue for every 90 days that you are booked. That $100 Nest thermostat? You can add about $10/night to your rates. Have cable and/or Netflix and Hulu? That's worth at least $5-$10/night (Hulu and Netflix combined cost less than $25/month).

That said, you can also go the "tech free route" and promote your home as a place for digital detoxing (no TV, no wifi, etc.); that will certainly stand out and can be worth a slightly higher rate (assuming you provide board games and books).

Either way, my guidance is not to go halfway. A single, tiny TV in the home is arguably worse than no TV at all.

Be flexible about check-in and check-out times

Be flexible about check-in and check-out times. Vacationers want to sleep in, give them that option whenever possible.No check-out should be earlier than 10AM, and really, anything before 12PM is silly unless your housekeeper needs to get in there before noon (but after 10AM!).Why should you do this? Sleep-deprived travelers make for cranky reviewers.
Via Greatist.com

Be flexible about check-in and check-out times. Vacationers want to sleep in, give them that option whenever possible.

No check-out should be earlier than 10AM, and really, anything before 12PM is silly unless your housekeeper needs to get in there before noon (but after 10AM!).

Why should you do this?

Sleep-deprived travelers make for cranky reviewers.

Invest in a smart lock

Don’t be late when meeting your traveler to give them the key!There's really no reason this should occur in an era of smart locks such as the August lock, with which HomeAway recently integrated.Why should you do this?The easiest way to earn a bad review is to start off on the wrong foot with your guests by failing to give them access to the home on-time.

Don’t be late when meeting your traveler to give them the key!

There's really no reason this should occur in an era of smart locks such as the August lock, with which HomeAway recently integrated.

Why should you do this?

The easiest way to earn a bad review is to start off on the wrong foot with your guests by failing to give them access to the home on-time.

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