21 Lessons Learnt in a Summer of Vacation Rental – Part One



It was a long and not-so-hot summer here in Ontario and it seems the trend for staying closer to home caused a boost in interest in cottage rentals as we have had our busiest year ever, which is why it’s been over three months since I last posted to the blog. A sad excuse but genuine, and it’s provided me with material to last for the next six months, at least.

There’s always something new to learn in this business and even after 20 or so years, I can be totally wrong-footed by something an owner does, or surprised by an action or reaction of a renter. This year is no exception and although there’s been no time to post, I’ve been taking notes – and lots of them – and compiling my list of lessons learnt this summer season.

This list has come from my own experiences at Osprey Cottage; from owners I’m in touch with via the blog and forums, and drawn from the sometimes hilarious summer in our rental management office where we have handled nearly 1200 rental bookings. It is not exhaustive and I may just continue adding to it over the next few weeks as new nuggets come to light, but there’s 21 solid learning points so far. Some of them are so obvious that many of us might raise our eyebrows at and wonder at the naivety of the owners that created the situations; others may surprise you with the simplicity in which a potentially major problem could have been overcome. You may have encountered others, and I will be delighted to hear about them, as ever.

Here’s the first 5 Lessons:

1. Always expect the unexpected

We are no longer surprised by the issues that arise over a summer season. From a rental guest who left a cottage early because it rained all week, then wanted a refund because he had not been informed of the forecast, to the one who complained she could not sleep because it was too dark and quiet, there have been frivolous and unsubstantiated complaints all summer long. And no…although you won’t be able to charge your cell phone when the power is out because of a summer storm, you cannot have a refund!

Learning Point #1

Don’t pigeon hole your guests or assume anything. Don’t expect them to know anything at all about vacation rental living; their only experience of holiday accommodation in the past may have been a sterile hotel room. Never label your guests as stupid or be surprised by what you are asked.

2. You can never provide too much information and never assume your guests will read the information you have provided.

We struggle with this one a lot. On the one hand wanting our renters to know everything there is to know about cottage living, while on the other, not wanting to overload them with so much information that they miss the important stuff.

Learning Point #2

Be clear in the documentation you provide. Highlight the points you particularly want the renters to read before they arrive at the property, listing the items in order of importance. Provide the address and telephone number of the property, clear directions and access information, in a prominent place on pre-arrival information. The property guide/manual/handbook should be comprehensive and give all the information your guests will need to know, in a clearly indexed, easy to follow manner. At the front of the guide place a laminated sheet listing the most important details such as emergency numbers, essential instructions etc., and tape a copy of this to the inside of the kitchen cupboard door that is likely to be used most often.

3. Don’t surprise your guests negatively

As I write this post I’m at a campground in Arizona taking a well-deserved vacation. So far this trip we’ve visited 11 campgrounds with a few more to go and we have planned our road trip to include some parks with facilities that others don’t have, such as laundry, wifi, cable TV etc. As in any self-catered vacation, planning is a major part of the event and being caught out by surprises can have a major effect particularly when you are expecting a facility to be there (since it was advertised), and to then find it has been removed. On a camping trip this kind of thing is simply irritating as it’s easy to bail out and move onto the next campground, however when it happens at a vacation rental the upshot can be very annoyed guests and understandable complaints.

Learning Point #3

Inform your guests when you make any changes. I made a decision earlier this year to change the bed configuration in one of the bedrooms in Osprey Cottage. We had a double bed with a single bunk over the top and decided to remove it and replace it with a double and a twin. Since this was exactly the same configuration we didn’t think we needed to let our guests know. That was a big mistake. A family arrived and called to ask what happened to the bunk bed as their child had been really looking forward to the top bunk. Unwittingly, in our attempt to improve safety and create a more aesthetically pleasing bedroom arrangement, we’d caused an upset on the first night of that family’s vacation.

4. Construction – do you know what your neighbours are doing?

On several occasions this summer, there were complaints about construction occurring in cottages neighbouring our rental properties. This is a tough one as, without prior knowledge, it was impossible for owners to forewarn their guests, and as one owner told me, “ If I’d known about it and told my guests, they might have cancelled and I would have been without the income”. There are ethical issues here, and possibly legal implications that I will address in a later article, however the issue is that the more you know, the better you are able to deal with a situation.

Learning Point #4

Getting to know your neighbours and being open about your rental plans can open the door to a mutually beneficial relationship. They are more likely to consider the likelihood of disruption caused by proposed building work if you have shared information with them on how you screen your prospective rental clients. If you show you care about the impact renting your property may have on your neighbours, they may consider more carefully how their construction plans will affect your renters.

5. Jump on the mouse before it has time to breed!

Think back to the last time you complained about something. Did you get an immediate response or were you left waiting not knowing how the situation would be resolved? How did you feel? We live in a culture where instant gratification is the norm – we want a fast response to a problem and even if the resolution takes a little time, knowing it is being dealt with and being given continuous feedback can go a long way to creating good feelings about the issue. This applies to our business in a big way. We’ve had several incidents involving mice this year and the speed of the owners’ response demonstrates that dealing with a problem quickly can be cost effective as well as creating customer confidence. One owner responded immediately to a rodent issue by driving up to the property to assess the situation, laid traps and arranged for a local contact to call in daily. The cost was minimal and resulted in happy renters feeling they were cared about; they subsequently rebooked for next year. In another case, the renters were left to look after the situation themselves; they vacated the property 3 days early and demanded a refund saying they would never return.

Learning Point #5

Way back in my customer service training days, I’d refer students to a book called, “A Complaint Is A Gift”. It invited service suppliers to welcome complaints and negative feedback as this was a great opportunity to put things right and often create stronger and more positive relationships as a consequence. Jumping on a potential issue before it has time to generate into something larger, is the key to developing loyal and returning customers, even if it involves some cost in terms of time or convenience.

Photo on Flickr by Wesley Fryer

Jane Bennett

I can particularly relate to this one, as we were caught out during the summer by mice in our rental home in Gascony, SW France. I had only ever seen one at the property before, just after we bought it five years ago and though we’re slap in the middle of the countryside there was no recurrence – it seems he was just cycling past. However we did take the precaution of installing ultrasonic mice repellents and they seemed to be doing the trick.

Until this July that is, when we had an email from a lovely family of returning guests from the States. They had had a visitor. Her two young sons had dubbed him Gascon. I thought “how sweet” and assumed that as before, it was just a one-off.

Unfortunately on that occasion he wasn’t on a cycling trip and very soon Gascon became “Le Trois Mouseketeers”. We acted but even by then, it was essentially too late to solve the problem quickly, and with back-to-back bookings for the remainder of the season it was not only embarrassing but difficult to manage the problem in practical terms. We did of course, as a matter of have-to, but if only the alarm bells had started to ring sooner.

Fortunately the guests by and large were not conscious of their presence since field-mice are timid little creatures, but one lady who was there with her family to celebrate her husband’s retirement was terrified when, on opening up the cupboard under the sink out leapt two of the little varmints.

She was very kind and has even talked of coming again, but I’ll let you know if they do!

Heather Bayer

Loved that story! We’ve had understanding guests in the past who have named their mouse then got really upset when the traps went down. I have this vision of Gascon on a bicycle though that won’t go away.

We have since found a product made by a Canadian company called Oust a Mouse which does the trick as it sits outside the property and as long as we keep it loaded with the appropriate despatch substance, keeps the furry friends at bay. It is safe to have around other pets, and even the little chipmunks are safe too. Since putting the box outside Osprey Cottage, we’ve never had a problem with mice so I guess its working!


“I have this vision of Gascon on a bicycle though that won’t go away.” That did make me smile Heather. And Oustamouse looks a neat solution so thank you for that!

By the way, I forgot to mention that the lovely US family with two little boys are returning in 2010, as indeed are another mouse-affected family. But yes, I have definitely learned lesson #5. Guests aren’t always as understanding as this, I agree .

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Wow i am never think about what you write above before. “Don’t expect them to know anything at all about vacation rental living”, that is the best quote for me. Thanks

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Michael@mouse traps

“5. Jump on the mouse before it has time to breed!”
Why not eliminate the problem before it happens. It’s not rocket science.

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