Instant Gratification and Other Guest Expectations – How the Vacation Rental Business is Changing

instant_vacation_rental_gratificationA late night phone call on the Friday of a holiday weekend (Canadian Thanksgiving).

An expectation that there would be ‘instant gratification’.

After all, it’s possible to order a pizza, book a flight to San Diego, and speak to a help-desk person in India to deal with a computer issue, so why not book a vacation rental.

What’s the difference?

So, on Friday night when our call centre paged one of our staff to ask him to call back a potential guest looking to book a rental immediately, there was a conflict of expectations.

On our part, we are a small agency covering a huge area with over 10 hours travelling time between our most easternmost and westernmost properties. We rely on our owners or their caretakers to ensure readiness of the properties under their management, but they generally need at least 24 hours notice of a reservation. Even in those properties that we know always maintain a rental-ready status, we can’t guarantee it without a check first.

On the guests part, she wanted accommodation and wanted it now.

In these days of the Book Now button, it should perhaps be easier all round for everyone to be satisfied, but let’s be practical. We are not Holiday Inn’s or Hilton’s that have 24-hour operations, yet vacation rentals are being touted as just as mainstream and therefore, in the perception of prospective guests we should be as accessible.

The expectation of immediacy of booking isn’t the only one that is impacting owners – demands are increasing and it’s worthwhile being aware of how this has come about and recognizing, it’s not about to go away.

tweetDo your #vacationrental guests expect ‘Instant Gratification'? @Cottageguru explains how to prepare yourself!

 

Where we were…

vintage_campingA decade ago, we were far less demanding and so much more adaptable in terms of what was acceptable in a rental property. I see it this way.

In the earlier days of vacation rental the demographic being attracted were those who were previously ‘campers’. They had spent holidays in campgrounds and housekeeping resorts where amenities were basic and accommodations of a more primitive nature. Self-sufficiency was the key to enjoying a great family vacation – kids bunked in together or slept on the floor in sleeping bags; it was fun making-do with whatever the owner had left in the kitchen, and evening entertainment was playing a game of Monopoly or Clue where nobody cared if there were missing pieces, or if the playing cards were old and dog-eared. Televisions were rare and were mostly of the ‘rabbit ears’ variety. Families created their own fun.

 

 

Where we are now…

welcomemat_lg.jpgOver the years, as our form of vacation accommodation has evolved and been marketed so intensely, the rental demographic has changed. Rentals have been hotly promoted as an alternative to hotels and higher end resorts, and today's clientele have markedly different expectations than those in the past. The phrase ‘that is so last century’ really does apply to many vacation homes that have not kept up with the fast pace of change.

I see this in my own expectations. My family was the camping type, having spent years of family holidays tenting across Europe before transitioning to renting homes in England and Europe. Now, we vacation with our children and grandchildren in high-end rental properties in the US, South America, and the Caribbean and have noticeably higher standards. We choose this variety of accommodation because we like the ability to all be together in one area, to cook and cater for ourselves, and enjoy private amenities. For the price we pay, we expect high-quality amenities, plenty of entertainment options; very comfortable beds and good service from the owners. We want to feel welcomed as ‘guests’ and not ‘renters’.

What’s changed?…

room_serviceWhile we can argue that the very nature of vacation rentals requires some degree of self-sufficiency I’d argue that it is more removed than ever from the guest psyche.

I recently heard of a few incidents of guests seeming to believe they were in a resort or hotel, asking for items to be delivered or a minor repair carried out. The first was a call to a caretaker saying there was no hairdryer supplied and could one be delivered ‘as soon as possible’. Second, was the message left for an owner that a light bulb required changing in a hallway and that it was OK to let himself in as the family would probably be on the waterfront, and he need not disturb them. Finally, we as rental agents were surprised by the family arriving from Saudi Arabia, whose first question on arrival at the property was “Where’s the food?” Their version of a vacation rental apparently included fully stocked cupboards and refrigerator.

While we can shake our heads in disbelief, it’s also important to be aware of the nature of expectations and how the rising popularity of our style of vacation accommodation is bringing a new generation of rental guest to our doorsteps.

We have long been used to guests experienced in renting a vacation home each year; those who accept the quirks and oddities of self-catering, and who enjoy the freedom and flexibility that rental brings. However, as more and more newcomers are being wooed by media reports and articles – those showing how celebrities are turning to rental properties to find more privacy are a good example – we should be aware of the expectations that are being raised and think of ways to inject some realism without turning off the wave of interest.

 

Guest Education

Many owners do offer a concierge service; those who are on site or may have a nearby caretaker are able to deliver additional services, however, for many, this is neither realistic nor practical. A better option would be to educate and inform from the outset, and ensure rental guests are fully aware of the difference between a vacation rental and a resort style bungalow with self-catering options. Here are a few ideas:


Be honest and transparent

Don’t post photographs that could mislead potential guests. It’s fine to focus on the best qualities, but don’t hide the negatives either. For example, posting an image of a beautiful sandy beach is great as long as you make it clear how far they have to travel to get to it. Privacy ranks highly on guest criteria so be careful not to create a false impression that your property is more private than it is. Being completely open about your property will create happier guests.


Keep your guests informed

Let your guests know if you make any changes or if any facility is removed or out-of-order. What may seem unimportant to you could have been the deal-maker to your clients in the booking process so it is imperative you inform them if something they were expecting is no longer available. This applies to anything that is shown in a listing, either in photographs or in amenity lists.


Before they arrive

Prepare your guests for their trip with a concise pre-arrival guide. This should include information on how they will get access to the property, accurate driving directions and what they should expect when they get there. A list of basic supplies is also helpful so guests know what they should bring. Use this document to prepare them for any quirks of the property such as water supply and septic systems, and garbage disposal instructions. In short, if guests will encounter significantly different ways of handling everyday household activities, let them know beforehand.


Cleanliness

Issues with cleanliness are the number one complaint made by rental guests. They expect the property they have rented will be spotlessly clean, inside and out and if it isn’t will be quick to complain about it. Giving this top priority will pay back in positive reviews and repeat bookings. A year-round property should be deep cleaned at least twice a year with a thorough changeover after each rental period. Doing a regular cleaning audit and a using a changeover checklist will help make sure nothing is missed.


Provide tourist information

Many of your guests will have experience of hotels or resorts and not be prepared for the vast differences offered by a vacation rental. While most of the differences are positive, some people can feel like a fish out of water when they have to organize their own entertainment. You can help by supplying a comprehensive Guest Guide that lists everything that is available in the local area – restaurants, shopping, attractions, golf courses etc.


Provide the essentials

Not providing essentials is likely to trigger service calls of one sort or another, so make sure the property is fully equipped so ‘call-outs’ are not required. A spare hair dryer, additional lightbulbs, and a stepstool are a few essential items.


Prepare the way

Write a page on your website or blog describing the differences between hotel/resort accommodation and self-catering. Talk about the great benefits – space, privacy, a home-from-home environment with a well-equipped kitchen; not having to share a waterfront or boats….you know the advantages, so set them out. Then you can humorously mention the ‘drawbacks’ – like having to change the occasional lightbulb or drive out to get some more milk.


Create a great Welcome Guide

Make it clear in your Welcome Guide who your guests should call “in case of an emergency”. It wouldn’t be fair to tell them to only call under those circumstances since they may have questions or concerns that need an answer, however, there are ways to get this across. If you make your Guide really comprehensive, the time taken over this will pay back in reduced service calls. Tell them where they can go to shop, eat, and find local attractions, and provide a wealth of local tourist information.


Set boundaries

If you don’t meet your guests, make a quick call to them on the morning after their arrival to check if they have any questions. Then you can tell them it’s OK to call you with additional questions before a set time – say 6 pm. This will prevent the 11 pm panic call because they can’t figure out how to make the microwave work!

Will you meet all your guests’ expectations. Maybe, maybe not. There will always be the ones who have greater demands than you ever anticipated and throw you off balance. In general though as we know, our guests are wonderful people who we love to have stay, but let’s be prepared for a changing demographic and increased wants and needs.

 

Have you got any examples of the changing nature of our clients? How different are today’s guests to say, 10 years ago (if you’ve been in the business that long)? Let us know as I think we can all learn a lot from hearing these stories.

Ann Delaney

Excellent information. To help the long time owners understand how things have changed, I describe today’s tenants as the “Pottery Barn generation”. If tenants see old furniture and appliances, they assume the house is dirty.

Stay in Montpellier

Guest book our accommodation because of the building history and the furniture being Regency and Victorian original antique. However mattresses and linens have to be 5 star deluxe comparable to a Four Seasons experience. The advent of instant booking websites is great for occupancy – however it puts real pressure on handovers. The distinctions between being a hotelier and a holiday vacation rental operator are being blurred. http://www.stayinmontpellier.co.uk/montpellier-house

Heather Bayer

I love that Ann – I’ll be using the ‘Pottery Barn generation’ in my promotions to owners.

Heather Bayer

You are right – those distinctions are getting blurred, and more so to guests. They are being told vacation rentals are a good alternative to hotels and understand they will get more space, privacy and facilities but also expect the frills that generally an on-site staff can offer.

Ann Delaney

Agree 100%. We just vacationed in France, and I wanted authentic charm, yet with a nice bathroom!

Nick Marshall

The move to mobile and the desire on the part of many to be able to book online and get instant confirmation is an issue that could have very far reaching consequences for the holiday home industry.

The crucial issue is having calendar certainty. Without that, the risk of getting a double booking is too great. With most owners listed on several sites, it is (as Heather points out) almost impossible to do better than give confirmation within a 24 hr period.

I have investigated sites such as bookingsync.com but they cannot give real time syncing because they are dependent upon the listing site’s synchronisation frequency. That can vary from 10 minutes with Flipkey to 6 hrs with AirBnB. No doubt technology could overcome this but there would always be the risk that a server is down and timely data delivery fails.

The only way round this (for an agency like ourselves) is to work towards having exclusive contracts with owners. That would require that every source of bookings is directed through us rather than have the owners looking after some of their own enquiries/bookings. This would mean that an owner might have to pay two commissions i.e. to us and to the other listing site. I think that this would be a small price to pay for the extra bookings that I am sure would come with instant booking and confirmation.

If owners could be persuaded, the consequences for the large listing sites could be huge and negative. I believe that there is a very large opportunity here for smaller regional listing sites because I believe that they have a closer and better relationship with their owners than the giant listers do. Owners are already complaining about the fees they have to pay to avoid being lost in the listings. The power is so one-sided that I do not think many owners would be willing to put their entire holiday home marketing into one set of corporate hands.

The truth is that a corporate like Homeaway, Flipkey, Booking or AirBnB perform none of the agency functions that require human intervention. Owners or customers cannot easily talk to anyone at one of these corporations. Employees at these corporations have no product knowledge other than what has been posted as copy and photos by the owner.

These corporates are really the equivalent of online billboards with a search function. In that sense they are second degree search engines because customers have come to them via Google. I believe that Google is completely aware of this but is caught on the horns of a dilemma.

The dilemma is that the corporates pay Google vast amounts to maintain dominating positions on the first page of search engine results but if they are too successful they will diminish Google’s position and reputation as the search engine of first choice when looking for holiday accommodation. Over time, customers will simply go straight to Homeaway, Flipkey, Booking or AirBnB.

Think about it – how does Google advertise itself as a search engine?
It does not need to because it is the search engine but it involves itself in the public mind through mapping the world, driverless cars and many other new technologies. In the same way, HA/FK/ABB will use more traditional forms of PR to maintain recall in the public mind that they are the search engines of travel accommodation. I would argue that the battle for dominance is more or less over and the vacation rental space is now run by half a dozen large corporations. Those corporations would not need to pay such huge amounts to Google because their reliance on being searched and found is no longer so important because they are household names.

Their weakness will be complacency. In addition, they will most likely be unwilling to release their calendar information to their giant rivals which will make it difficult for them to offer instant booking and confirmation.

A year or two ago I wondered whether a small site such as ours could survive. I now feel a lot more confident about that and it is not because we are whizzes at SEO or have a brilliant and captivating website. But we do our social media and are placing far more emphasis on Google+ now rather than Facebook. So, customers are finding us and we get a high proportion of the total bookings of our owner clients.

I believe that we are being found for two reasons. First, we are on the phone and we have great product knowledge. Many customers come to us because they want help and because they want to avoid trawling through the lists and contacting each owner one by one.
Second, I believe that Google is hedging its bets. It has recognised the threat to its own business and realised that supporting much smaller regional and niche sites may be a safer bet over time. Small sites like ourselves are never going to have the brand awareness that a giant corporate can generate. We will always need to be searched and we will need Google to be found. It will not be for free – we use Adwords and it works really well – but it is a hell of a lot cheaper than a couple of newspaper columns and has far greater reach.

Of course, I may be completely wrong about this but if I am half way right, then the implications for small regional listing sites offering better service than the giants is huge and very positive.

Love to travel 2014

This is so so true. Where we are, maybe 95% or more of the vacation rentals come with onsite staff. We have had guests who will want breakfast served at 7am but then want dinner served at 8 or 9pm. That in and of itself does not sound unreasonable until you think that it is the same people working all day. They have to be up 5:30am at least to have breakfast ready by 7. By the time they wash up the dishes after such a late dinner it is almost midnight. I just don’t treat my staff that way. Of course they don’t want to pay to hire a second crew. I can’t incorporate a second crew without raising my rates. I had one lady act like I wanted to have a curfew. No, no curfew, just show some consideration for our staff or be more self sufficient after hours. We have labor laws too. We are in the Caribbean and a lot of this is driven by the agencies themselves and even some owners, unfortunately. They all want to compete to say they are offering the most pampering and luxurious experience. One agency now wants us to do the guests person laundry included in our rates so they don’t have any dirty clothes to take back home. Great if you as a property can do it but we are not a hotel. We would have to hire more staff to do that. I already have a laundress whose sole job is the villa’s laundry – and it is a lot. With 8 bedrooms and bathrooms we have tons of laundry daily. Some guests want sheets changed daily, yes, daily. I would even be willing to hire the additional staff but the issue is people’s expectations are getting so high that they don’t want to pay for these perks. There in lies the crux of the problem from our perspective.

I could tell you stories upon stories ….That said, I don’t have a problem with the higher expectations … as long as they are willing to pay for it. You can’t want the Ritz experience but want to pay me as though I am the Motel 6.

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