A precautionary tale for vacation rental operators post COVID-19

As a professional Airbnb manager, I’m a member of a lot of Facebook groups filled with other hosts and managers.

Some of them are very helpful and offer a wealth of knowledge; some of them I’m a member of more for the entertainment factor that anything else.

But I’ve been seeing a LOT of hosts lately making comments that concern me. They’re all along the same vein, but here is a paraphrased quote of one of them (I removed all the swearing and typos) :

“I didn’t pay my rent on my Airbnb unit in March, April or May. I’m not planning on paying at all until August at least. That’s the earliest the complex would be able to evict me based on current eviction bans because of the virus. Until then I’m just going to ride the gravy train. Plus the lease isn’t tied to my SSN, so I won’t even have the eviction on my record. Yay, me – I’m so smart!”

Really?

Do people really think this is ok?

There are so many things wrong with this statement. Where do I even start?

The blatant violation of a contractual agreement? The outright stealing? The bragging about said stealing? Comments like this (of which I’ve seen many the last few months) make me physically sick.

Many hosts complain that bad guests are making things difficult for them. But not many of them say anything about how other hosts are also making things difficult for them. If I was a landlord, I sure wouldn’t want to rent to someone who might sublet my place out and then plan on not paying me for 6 months or more!

Many Airbnb hosts jumped on the gravy train when bookings were easy to get, overextending themselves because it was “easy money,” and now they (and everyone they’ve rented or purchased from) are paying the price.

But it’s more than that, too. I’ve seen a consistent trend of Airbnb and other short-term rental hosts proudly exploiting loopholes in the system or even outright violating the rules so that they can operate. They seem to have no regard at all for respecting the rules of the community within which they’re trying to operate.

Thus they operate where they know they’re not allowed, lie to landlords, refuse to pay rent, and all sorts of other illegal or unethical practices.

If this is your business plan, your exit strategy, if you’re even considering doing this or anything like this, let me be clear: you’re not a business person, you’re a con man.

You’re a thief, a common criminal. And you should not be proud of this. You should be ashamed.

That woman entered into a contractual agreement that she is choosing to flagrantly ignore. It’s not even that she doesn’t have the money. She just wants to hold onto it “just in case.” She hasn’t bothered talking to her landlord and working out some sort of deferred payment plan. She’s just giving the middle finger to the person who’s enabled her primary source of income for the last several years.

People, this is not right.

If you want to start a business with Airbnb….make it a business. Make it legitimate and honorable. Do your best to pay your bills and honor your obligations. If you’re unable to do so because of unforeseen circumstances, talk to your creditors. (And yes, a global pandemic that cripples the world economy definitely counts as an unforeseen circumstance.) Be honest with them and tell them what’s going on.

More often than not they’ll be understanding and willing to work with you, as long as you’re upfront with them.

That is the only way to create a business that will survive the long run.

Now I know that if you’re in the situation right now where you have multiple properties and can’t pay the rent or mortgages on many of them, there’s not much that can be done in hindsight to change that, although I’d still recommend you talk to the landlords.

But hopefully this can serve as a precautionary tale for vacation rental operators moving forward.

I know that it can be tempting to just buy, buy, buy (or rent, rent, rent), to expand your empire as quickly as possible and bring in the moolah. But rapid growth like that isn’t healthy. We’ve seen this over and over again throughout history – it’s called an economic bubble, and it always eventually bursts.

I encourage you – I entreat you, I beg you – for your sake as well as all of ours, restrain your growth goals. Don’t gain new properties quicker than you’re able to manage them responsibly. Keep a healthy financial safety net to get you through the unexpected bad times.

There’s no question that COVID-19 threw a nasty and unexpected wrench into vacation rental operators’ plan everywhere. But there’s also no question that if they had been operating their businesses more responsibly and ethically in the first place, a lot of them would be in a much better place than they are now.

Let’s do better next time. Our guests, other hosts, and the landlords or banks who are entrusting their resources to our care deserve it.

How to survive COVID-19 as a STR host – webinar replay

Are you freaking out because of the uncertainty that COVID-19 is throwing into your life? Are you struggling to find a new equilibrium for your STR?

You’re not alone.

Across the globe, hosts everywhere are struggling with the challenges that the virus has thrown their way. Many of them are having a hard time.

That’s why at the end of April I hosted a live webinar – How To Survive COVID-19 As A STR Host – with my friend Katie Adkins.

Katie is a leadership development coach, and the founder of Adkins Talent Solutions. She excels at helping people to think creatively to maximize their full potential.

So on the webinar, we did a little coaching session with me as her subject. My hope was that the insights she pulled out of me as an STR host could help other STR hosts think creatively and get out of their ruts, as well.

It was a great hour! In fact, I had so many people follow up and ask me about it that I decided to make the recording available to everyone. Enjoy!

If you have more questions, you can always follow up with either me or Katie.

The best direct booking property management tool

There’s no doubt that COVID-19 has thrown an enormous wrench into the short-term rental market. Consequently, a lot of hosts are looking for opportunities to diversify and pivot their listings.

One of the most obvious ways to pivot is to start accepting direct bookings.

These are simply reservations that are booked directly through you, rather than through a booking channel like Airbnb or VRBO.

Direct bookings hold a lot of appeal. Especially because the policies of Airbnb and other large booking sites seem to be a moving target right now. Hosts are eager to get their eggs out of the single basket that they really have no control over.

But opening yourself up to direct bookings opens the possibility for a whole new slew of problems.

One of the most obvious – and important – problems that needs to be addressed is that of guest vetting and payment management.

Normally, if a guest books through a booking channel like Airbnb, the channel has already done that work. They have their own guest vetting procedures (admittedly some more stringent than others). Things like ID and background checks can give hosts confidence that the guest is indeed who they say they are. Booking channels also generally have payment processors built in, so you don’t have to worry about failed credit card payments or chargebacks.

In exchange for these services, they of course get a cut of the booking fees, and hosts don’t have a lot of input regarding system and policy changes. But it’s a price that most are willing to pay for the ease of mind that it brings.

If you decide to start accepting direct bookings, the first thing you’re going to have to is figure out a way to handle these problems on your own.

The best tool that I’ve found to do that is Cozy.co.

Cozy is a nearly 1-stop shop for everything you need to efficiently manage your direct bookings. Here are a few of the many features it has:

  • Rental application portal that includes credit reports and background checks of potential renters.
  • A payment portal that can take rent payments, as well as other incidental charges such as security deposits, cleaning fees, etc.
  • Listing links that you can share with prospective renters, including space for both photos and a video walk-through. I’ve found this to be particularly helpful, as many people want to see more than just photos of the place before they book.
  • You can also track expenses, keep a record of maintenance requests, and store important documents like lease agreements, all directly within the app.

The only downside I’ve been able to find of Cozy is that it does not have a mobile phone app; however their website is mobile-friendly, so even that really isn’t a big deal.

If you’re looking for help collecting more direct bookings safely and securely, definitely consider checking out Cozy.co. I promise you it will save you lots of headache and stress!

What are you doing to stay mentally healthy right now?

I just started my 7th week of social distancing / home quarantine. It’s been brutal. It’s likely that you’re in a similar boat.

The last few months have been unlike anything we’ve experienced in recent memory. As the world continues to grind to a halt, many people are starting to become less concerned about physical health and more concerned about mental health.

Of course physical safety is also still important, especially for the millions of elderly and immunocompromised people out there. But we cannot focus on that and completely ignore the mental health aspect of it, which is just as important.

Over the last few weeks I’ve been feeling myself slowly going crazy. The lack of physical interactions with people, the added stress with work that COVID-19 is wreaking on my industry (as well as so many others), the pervasive sameness of every day…it’s all piling up and over time becoming more than I can take.

I know I am not alone.

Over and over again, people I speak with are mentioning similar challenges. We are simply not made to live in isolation, and months on end of pervasive, global isolation is taking its toll on all of us.

So I want to challenge you, in these difficult days, to think of what you can do to keep your spirits high. Go for walks when the weather is nice. Turn off video on your next call if you’ve got Zoom fatigue. Do a puzzle. Garden.

But you also don’t have to stay home if you’re dying to get out. Go strawberry picking. Take your hammock to a local park. Go for a drive. Do what you need to to keep yourself sane and not only physically healthy, but mentally healthy.

And if you want a bit of an extra bonus, try injecting some creativity into your activities! Over the last few weeks I’ve done things like made a pie blindfolded, recreated famous paintings with things from my house, pranked my houseguests, and more. It’s been so much fun seeing what I can come up with, and I feel so much better for it!

At the same time…if you’re feeling blue and don’t want to do anything, give yourself permission to not be productive. Feel the sadness. It’s ok to be down. Just don’t stay there.

P.S. Want some help with learning how to not only survive, but thrive in these challenging times? Sign for a FREE webinar I’m hosting this Thursday here!

When the customer is not always right

You know the old saying, the customer is always right?

I’m a firm believer that that is not always true. In fact, sometimes it’s patently false. 

Case in point. 

I had a guest check in last week. Arrived without any problems, everything seemed hunky-dory. 

Then I get a text from him asking to raise the heat. Ok, no problem, he could have done it himself, but I also have remote access, so I raise it to 76 for him. 

A few minutes later he messages again. “Can you turn it up to 85?” 

“Are you sure?” I asked him. “85 is really hot.” He insisted that he was sure. So I raised it to 85. 

About an hour later, I got another message from him. “We’re still cold,” he said. “Can you raise it to 92?”

Are you kidding me?? No one in their right minds needs the thermostat set to 92 degrees. Something about this was starting to sound really weird to me. So I politely told him that, unfortunately, we were already outside the window we normally allow guests to set the temperature, so I wouldn’t be raising the central heat any more. However, if he was still cold we had plenty of blankets and space heaters he could use. 

Then I went to sleep. Around midnight I got another text from him. “Hey it’s really hot. Could you lower the temperature?” 

Well, gee. No surprise there. What did you expect when you wanted the temperature to be in the nineties?? 

This story illustrates an important aspect of hosting in my mind. 

Customer service is, of course, a critically important aspect of this business. But good customer service doesn’t always mean kowtowing to a guest’s every whim.

Sometimes people don’t know what they want until you show it to them. And sometimes what they think they want isn’t really what they want. 

As the professional, it’s your job to draw the line on what’s acceptable and what isn’t acceptable with your guests. It’s your job to decide what requests you will accept and what you will deny. And if you decide to accept the request, it’s your job to do it with a good attitude. If you didn’t want to do it you should not have said yes. I’m so tired of hosts saying yes to a nitpicky guest’s every whim and then complaining about it online! 

Remember that you are the businessperson here. You get to decide what’s ok and what’s not ok. And once you’ve decided, stick with it. Don’t let someone bully you into doing something you don’t want to do. You may find out, in the end, it wasn’t actually what they wanted, either ;).

How to increase your Airbnb listing search rankings

If you’ve been hosting for any amount of time, you know that the only thing that really matters at the end of the day is your search ranking. 

Your search ranking is going to affect your bookings in a major way.

If you consistently show up on the first page of Airbnb search results, you’re going to be consistently booked. If you’re buried in the back, you won’t be. It’s that simple. 

There are all sorts of tips and tricks out there about how to increase your search rankings. Change your prices daily. Make 1-day price much lower than the rest. Professional photos. Bullet point descriptions in the listings. Mentioning local hot spots by name. Respond to inquiries ASAP. Get and maintain superhost status.

These are all good and important things to maintaining your listing in good standing. But if you’ve already dropped lower than you want to be, they’re not going to pull you back up to the top of the listings. 

There is, however, something I’ve found that consistently does do that. 

Paid advertising. 

Doesn’t have to be a lot of money. In fact, it really shouldn’t be too much money – just a dollar or two a day. Any more than that and you’ll screw up the algorithms. But it’s really incredible how just a few dollars every month can help improve your listing ranking. 

Now, of course, there’s a bit of science to this. You can’t just throw money at it and hope it’ll stick. You need to either figure out how to do it properly or hire someone who already knows. (And let’s be real, we both know you don’t have the time to figure it out yourself). 

That’s where my friend Renee comes in. 

Renee is the founder of Bnb The Smart Way, a company that specializes in marketing Airbnbs and increasing search ranking results for existing listings. They are incredible at what they do, and truly care about their clients and their success. 

I suppose at this point I should clarify. This is not just my old college buddy’s business I’m trying to get you to buy into. Nothing like that. I was Renee’s client before I was her friend. I hired her to boost some of my listings, and she’s done such a good job that we’ve also become friends over time. 

Anyway, I digress. 

I asked Renee for a discount code for my students and readers, and she happily obliged. 

So head on over to https://www.bnbthesmartway.com/adevaluation to schedule your free evaluation. And use the promo code bnbmadesimple for 10% off her setup costs!

How to grow stronger in the midst of COVID-19

If you’re like most of the globe right now, your world has probably shifted for the most part to online video calls from inside the safety of your home. As we all battle the infamous COVID-19, more and more countries and states are issuing stricter and stricter lockdown measures to try to combat the spread of the virus.

I and my family are no different. Everything we do regularly has either been cancelled or gone virtual. This includes my ESL (English as a Second Language) class, which I now meet with twice a week from the comfort of my own living room.

Every time we have met for the past 2 weeks, I’ve made a point to ask a simple question: what’s something good that’s happened to you since we saw each other last?

At first many of them said that nothing good had happened to them. They were stuck inside, with nothing to do, sometimes without a job, etc. I don’t need to elaborate anymore. We all know the havoc this virus has wrecked on everyone’s lives.

But I continued asking the question, and will continue to do so until we meet again in person. There are only 2 rules: everyone has to answer, and no one can say “nothing.”

Why am I doing this?

Simple. Right now the world looks bleak. It’s easy to focus on the negative, even if you’re a naturally positive person.

But there are still good things happening in the world. There are still good things happening to you.

Some of the answers that have come up on my calls with my students have been things like:

  • Helped my uncle pick out furniture for his phone
  • Baked bread today for the first time
  • Cut my husband’s hair (badly)
  • Worked on a home improvement project
  • My son got accepted into a good daycare
  • Played yard games in the backyard
  • Went for a walk
  • Finished a puzzle
  • Got my first sprouts in my new vegetable garden

Most of these things are small, insignificant things. But they are important to name because they help us to focus on the right things.

If we only focus on the bad we’re all going to go crazy before this thing is over. We’ve got to be intentional, now more than ever, about intentionally seeking out good.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not minimizing the horror of the corona virus. I know things look awful. I can personally attest to this.

I’ve lost thousands of dollars of business within just a few days. I have family members who are completely out of work. I lost a family member and was unable to hold a funeral for him. Trust me, I really do get it.

But there are also bright spots. If nothing else, you are still alive, which thousands of people no longer are because of COVID-19.

So I challenge you this week, to do one of the hardest things you might have had to do in a long time: be happy. Be positive and persistent. Be optimistic and creative. I promise you…this too will pass. And I hope on the other side, you will be stronger than ever. But that strength starts now.

Looking for more things to do while under lockdown? Check out this list that USA Today has put together of 100 activities to keep you occupied while you’re stuck inside!

A hard-earned lesson about Airbnb’s claim center

I recently learned a lesson the hard way about navigating Airbnb’s claims center. 

Airbnb’s Terms Of Service require that you submit any damage claims to them within 14 days of a guests’ checkout, or before the next guest checks in, whichever is greater. I’ve known this for a long time. If you’ve ever filed a single reimbursement claim through Airbnb this is one of the first things you’ll learn. 

However, what I didn’t know is how Airbnb calculates “time of check-in.” 

As I mentioned in last week’s blog, I recently had an emergency garbage disposal that had to be, well, disposed of (pun intended). Since it was a same-day check-in, I had to get things done as quickly as possible. 

I had reached out to the guest arriving that day, asking when she planned on getting there. She said between 5:00-6:00 pm. Great. That would give the plumber a little more time past the 4:00 pm check-in time to get things done. He wrapped up and gave me an invoice, which I promptly submitted to Airbnb for a damage reimbursement claim. 

The claim was submitted at 4:15 pm. 

A few days later, I got an email from the Airbnb case manager: “we’re sorry, but our TOS require that you submit a claim before the next guest checks in to be eligible for a damage reimbursement. Since your guest checked in at 4:00 pm, and you submitted this at 4:15 pm, you’re not eligible, yada yada yada.” 

What…the…heck. 

I was so angry. Despite the guest stating in writing in Airbnb that she wasn’t checking in until 5:00 or 6:00, and despite me sending screenshots of the smart lock and outside video camera showing her arrival time, the case manager wasn’t budging. 

I mean, I guess in a way I get it. Airbnb isn’t responsible for the success of their individual hosts; only for the success of them as a company. Like any insurance company, it’s in their best interest to deny claims whenever possible. 

Eventually, I was able to escalate my case and get the claim approved. But through the process I learned 2 important lessons. 

First, if at all possible, always submit your damage claims before your posted check-in time on the day a guest checks in – even if the guest has told you they won’t be checking in until later. 

It will just make your case so much easier to win if you don’t have to argue about when the damage was reported, who’s responsible for it, etc. 

Second, if you do for whatever reason have to submit the claim after your posted check-in time, go overboard on the time-based evidence to prove that it was still before the guest actually checked in. Send screenshots of smart locks, cameras, and whatever else you might have installed that will help your case. Make a note in the case file that you can submit more evidence as needed. Make it as difficult as possible for Airbnb to reasonably claim that you have not complied with their TOS. 

In my case, I even quoted the TOS back to my case manager, showing them that the Terms Of Service explicitly say that I must file a claim before the next guest checks in…not before my next check-in time. 

Although I was eventually successful, it took hours of talking with various case reps and is not a situation I ever want to be in again.

I’m grateful that my lesson was learned on a relatively small case – I’d much rather potentially lose a $300 claim than a $3,000 one! 

So many hosts these days complain about how Airbnb is so not helpful to them in their hosting businesses because of X, Y, or Z. What those hosts have forgotten is that they are not business partners with Airbnb. Airbnb has their own best interests at heart – and they’re not always the same as yours. 

Don’t be insulted or upset by this. Accept it as a fact of life and learn to play by their rules. Either that or close down shop and go do something else.

The one thing as an Airbnb host that you need to make crystal clear to your property owners

I recently had a cohosting situation that put into stark reality the importance of making expectations crystal clear. Let me explain what happened and a few important lessons I learned from it… 

I got a call from the cleaner on a Saturday morning, right after a guest had checked out. She said that the garbage disposal was broken and was backing up into the sink and smelling up the whole kitchen. Of course, we had a guest checking in later that afternoon (isn’t that always when problems happen?) 

I have been hired by my clients to take care of problems as often as possible.

So I made a judgement call and took care of it. I found a plumber who could do an emergency replacement that very day. He went, got it fixed, and the next guest checked in without being any bit the wiser. The total cost, including the cost of the new garbage disposal, was about $300. 

Later, I told my property manager, saying something like this: “hey, we had an emergency this weekend. I took care of it and filed a claim, but just in case the claim gets denied, it’ll cost about $300. FYI.”  (but of course, I said it a bit more tactfully than that)

She was not pleased. 

From her perspective, nothing matters more than the bottom line, and she was understandably upset that I had made a decision which could potentially cost her $300. But from my perspective, the top priority is our guests’ satisfaction, and if it costs a little bit of money to achieve that goal, it’s worth spending. Plus, in this case, it wasn’t really something that could have waited…you’ve got to have a working sink if you’re going to advertise a kitchen! 

This brought up an important conflict of interest that I think is always going to eventually rear its head in a cohosting situation. 

As a property manager, your priorities are going to be different from the homeowners’. 

So you need to make crystal clear when you start working with them what the expectations are. 

How much money do they need to make every month?

How much in the way of maintenance do they want you to handle without consulting them?

How much money are you authorized to spend in a month without getting their permission?

I know it’s awkward to talk about some of these things. But you’ve got to be upfront from the get-go. If not, you’re just going to get yourself in trouble and frustrate your homeowner. You won’t be able to keep your clients very long if you’re not clear on what their needs and expectations are. 

But the flip side is also true. You need to be very clear with your clients about what your expectations are. 

In my case, I had to be very upfront with the homeowner: I won’t manage a place that’s not kept up. If it’s at all in my power, I’m not going to let a guest stay in a place that doesn’t have a working sink (or toilet, stove, fridge, whatever). Those are my standards of hosting; if they do not want to comply with those standards then it is better that we don’t work together. 

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not being flippant. I know that being this upfront and direct is incredibly hard for some people. But the fact of the matter is, it’s a requirement for being a cohost. If you can’t do that, then you probably shouldn’t be in this business.

A direct booking site with no fees, gimmicks, or surprises

I talk a lot in my paid courses about how important it is to have a direct booking site that you can send to people. Something that cuts out the middle-man of Airbnb, Booking.com, VRBO, or any other channel that you choose to list with. 

If you’re using Your Porter, they already have a built-in direct booking site. It’s clean, looks good, and is VERY easy to set up and use. So if you’re already a Your Porter customer, their direct booking site is definitely the way to go. 

But what if you stop using Your Porter? Or never use them in the first place? That’s where Houfy comes in. 

Houfy is a platform that allows you to directly list your space to customers without paying any third-party commission fees. Best of all, the platform itself is absolutely free! So both you and the guest literally pay nothing more than the price that’s listed (plus credit card processing fees). 

That’s it. No hidden fees, gimmicks, or surprises. 

I’ve been using Houfy for a little while now and I have to say I’m very pleased so far. 

It’s super easy to import your existing listings from other major channels, so you don’t have to go through the headache of re-creating all of your listings from scratch. You can create guidebooks that can be easily shared with other people. It’s a clean and easy user interface. And of course, it’s free – always a plus :). 

Houfy isn’t perfect and doesn’t pretend to be.

It looks like it’s mostly run at this point by a single person, who is honest about the presence of bugs and other issues on the platform. However, as it reaches critical mass (it recently hit over 50,000 listings), I suspect that it will rapidly improve to meet the demand. And frankly, it’s already pretty good as is. 

So I encourage you to hop on the Houfy bandwagon today – or at least give it a try. You can always back out later if you decide it’s not for you. 

But the market is changing. Laws are getting tighter around Airbnb, restrictions are getting tougher, and there is a lot of uncertainty in the air. Hopefully I don’t need to remind you that if you’re relying solely on third-party booking sites, you’re in a precarious position. A single change could really devastate your business. Don’t be caught unaware. Prepare now before it becomes a crisis.