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

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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