The Ultimate Guide to Launching and Growing Your Successful Short-Term Rental Business

STEP 5: Create a Core
Guest Experience Plan

'Hospitality first'
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This page is part 5 of a step-by-step guide to get your business up and running.  There’s no fluff here - just information, help, and suggestions for doing it right - the first time!

Everything in this guide comes from experience.

Not a mere 6 months of experience in running an Airbnb, nor a year of co-hosting.

This is from 25 years of being in the vacation rental business, owning 7 properties and owning a seriously successful property management company with over 180 properties.

Our team have attended and presented at countless conferences and we continue our education by sitting in on hundreds of educational presentations, and still do to this day.  So, we can bring you the learning from all those experts as well.

So, sit back and enjoy the ride…or the read!

Contents of this step:

This step of 'The Ultimate Guide to Launching and Growing your Successful Short-Term Rental Business' is written by vacation rental formula business schools own head of education Heather Bayer.

I’ve stayed in a lot of vacation rentals over the years, and remember just about every one of them.

I recall communications with owners; information we were sent (or not); the way billing and confirmations were carried out; the arrival and first impressions; how issues were handled; the experience of living in the home; what departure day was like, and whether we heard from the owner again.

In fact, as I write this, at least a dozen experiences have come to mind – some good, some not so good, and I’m going back over 25 years.

It’s not that I have a great memory across the board, but because each of the experiences was unique.

I’ve also stayed in a lot of standard hotels which is a little like going to Costco or McDonalds.

Once inside there’s little to differentiate one from another.

But a good vacation rental should stand out if the overall end-to-end experience is exceptional.

And a bad one…..On one of our first trips to Canada back in the late 1990’s we booked a lakefront cottage from what would be deemed now, a very dodgy website.  But that’s what they were all like back then.

Grainy photos, an over-the-top, superlative-heavy description, a brief amenity list, and an invitation to wire the rental fee.

We were more trusting in those days, and sent off the money and were relieved to get a confirmation of the payment and a short note with some basic directions and that we’d find the key under the mat when we got there.

That was the last we heard from the owner.

Arriving after a long-haul flight, we got to the cottage in the early afternoon.  True to the description, it was a waterfront property, but that is where the connection to the listing description ended.  Although it was check in time, there was a car outside so we knocked on the door (there was no key under the mat). A man opened the door.

We’d clearly woken him up and from his general state and the smell of stale alcohol on his breath, he’d been sleeping off quite the party.

He was apologetic and suggested we go and do some shopping while he ‘tidied up’, and come back in a hour.

Now, I’m a forgiving type, and even though we’d been travelling 16 hours or so, we took his directions to the grocery store and off we went.

An hour later we got back and the owner was gone.

I won’t go into detail on the mess he left us with as it could go on for pages, but it was bad.

We’d requested linens for the beds and there were none.

We cleared up dozens of empty beer bottles.

The windows were so dirty it was impossible to see through them.

We found a pile of dirty clothing under a bed.

And so much more.

It took nearly two full days to clean the place and make it habitable for the remainder of the week.

This situation would never be tolerated today, not only because expectations are so much higher, but because any guest can hold an owner or manager accountable for delivering a bad experience.  

In today’s world of short-term rentals, the guest experience is paramount and creating positive emotions for them to enjoy is part of this business. 

Creating a consistent and continuous WOW

Before we break down all the elements of a guest experience workflow, it’s important to know that maintaining a protocol of consistent and continuous WOW should be at the core of every short-term rental business.

Hopefully you’ve experienced a ‘wow’ at some point when you’ve stayed at a vacation rental so you get the idea of what we’re talking about.

If it doesn’t come to you, take a few moments to think about the last time you had a great time at a rental and consider what it was that made it exceptional.

The wows should come at every stage of the workflow…here’s some suggestions:

Your website

Your guest finds a listing on your website that has a virtual tour of the property, allowing them to see every detail of the home before booking. You also have videos of the activities they can do and places to go.  A FAQ page covers all they need to know before booking.  The guest says,

‘Wow, they really know what I’m looking for, and have answered all my questions before I had to ask them’.

Initial Communication

You respond to the guest's inquiry within minutes and provide detailed information about the property, including its amenities and location. You address the guest by name and welcome them to ask any questions they may have about the location.  The guest had mentioned bringing their pet and described the dog, so in your response you include the dog’s name and mention a local dog park and pet-friendly restaurant nearby.  The guest says,

‘Wow, I feel this owner is so welcoming not only to me, but my pet as well.  I already love this place’

Making a Booking

You offer the guest something special for booking directly with you, and also provide a list of recommended local activities and attractions the family (and dog)  can enjoy during their stay. The guest says,

‘Wow, I feel special and so glad I booked directly with this owner.’

Local Information

You provide a personalized digital guidebook that includes the guest's name and has recommendations for restaurants, activities, and attractions that are tailored to their interests. The guidebook also includes insider tips and hidden gems that the guest may not have discovered otherwise. The guest says,

‘Wow, this is the best information and has saved me so much research time.  I love the insider tips from someone who really knows the location.  I like how it is presented too!’

The Stay Itself

You  provide a welcome basket that includes local snacks and treats, as well as a personalized note welcoming the guest to the property. You also anticipate the guest's needs by providing extra towels, blankets, and pillows, and ensures that the rental is spotlessly clean and well-stocked with amenities. The guest says,

‘Wow, they have thought of everything – we are going to love being here’

Problem Management

When your guest experiences an issue with the stay (such as a malfunctioning appliance), you respond immediately and provide a temporary solution while the problem is being resolved. Because of the inconvenience you deliver a complimentary bottle of wine and a gift card to a local restaurant as a gesture of goodwill, as well as  following up with the guest to ensure that they are satisfied with the resolution. The guest says,

‘Wow, I never expected that.  They went above and beyond to make sure we were OK. I’ll be telling everyone what a fantastic place this is’

The Workflow 

There should be a seamless process guests encounter when they find your business and book with you.  From creating an informative website to an easy booking process, and a flow of communication that makes them feel confident they have chosen the right place, the period before the stay can be just as important as the time they spend at your place.

At every step think about how you can personalize their experience with you.  As John Di Julius say in The Customer Service Revolution,   

"Personalization is not just a nice-to-have. It is an absolute necessity if you want to win the hearts and minds of your customers."

As the workflow continues to the stay itself, the necessity for meeting and exceeding expectations ramps up.  Guests have anticipated their vacation for a long time, so every aspect of the property has to be as perfect as you can make it.

Of course there are times when things don’t go according to plan, and a problem will occur, so feeding issue management into the workflow means you will have a solution to anything that arises.

The follow-up is an essential component, and this is more the case when the original booking came from an OTA, since your goal is to get them to book directly with you the next time.

7 Stages of the Guest Experience

So, let’s get into all the touchpoints where you can make a difference to the guests experience of booking a vacation.

These stages are true for the majority of travelers regardless of where they will stay so you can generally expect your guests to be experiencing one of them right now.

Each stage is a touch point.  An opportunity for you to make an impact and snag a ‘wow’ reaction.Your potential guests have stayed up late with family and friends, exploring different sites, planning where they will go and what they will do. They make their choice, bite the bullet and book then have the long wait between putting their money down and finally getting to the property.

Once there they trust all will go well and a great vacation will be had by all.  And finally, on leaving they reflect on their experience.

They go through a variety of emotional states during each of the stages:

Excitement at the thought of finding the perfect vacation location and accommodation.
Frustration at the overwhelming number of options.
Apprehension on booking – ‘have we done the right thing?’
Anticipation between confirmation of the booking and the vacation time itself.
Relief at arriving to find all is well and just as expected.
Relaxation in the knowing that everything is taken care of and there is nothing to do but enjoy the vacation.
Satisfaction that it all went as planned and nothing was left to chance.

The way you handle the flow, through your informative website, helpful communication, trust and confidence building, local knowledge, accurate descriptions and images, problem management, and follow-up all contribute to the perfect experience.And if you deliver at every stage, you will have raving fans that will become your marketing ambassadors for the future.It’s all up to you.

Your store window – making your website insanely attractive

I’m always blown away by billboard advertising in the US, perhaps because it’s not a thing in England.  The same with huge shopping malls – although they have caught on in the years since I’ve been away.

When I first went into a large mall, I was like the proverbial kid in a candy store.  I didn’t know where to look next and had a hard time deciding where to spend my money.

Choosing a website for a vacation rental is like being in a mall and walking by a bunch of stores, each one vying for your attention with flashy displays and catchy signs. It's like a game of window-shopping roulette - some stores draw you in with their bold, bright displays while others just don't quite hit the mark.

You might come across two stores selling similar products, but one has a window display that practically screams "Come in and browse!" with its tantalizing visuals and easy-to-navigate layout, while the other has a cluttered, uninviting display that leaves you feeling confused and uninterested. 

Which one would you choose?

Similarly, when searching for a vacation rental online, your potential guests will likely gravitate to a website that stands out from the rest and immediately draws them in with stunning photos, clear descriptions, and an intuitive interface. They want to spend their time viewing a website that feels like a breath of fresh air, not a headache-inducing maze.

In short, choosing a website for a vacation rental is like choosing which store to enter in a mall - you want one that catches your eye, draws you in, and leaves you feeling excited and ready to explore.

The first impression your potential guests will get of you and your properties starts with the platform or website they find the listings on. Since we’re focusing on direct booking this will be your website – your store front.

To wow the guest at this stage, the platform or website should have a user-friendly interface that is easy to navigate. So, what does that mean?

Regardless of how these visitors enter your website – they might have found a link to a blog post, or done a search on your property name, or been referred by a friend – the navigation has to be clear.

A word of caution here.  Most hosts and managers are great at hospitality and ensuring their guests have the best end-to-end experience.  

But most hosts and managers are not web designers.  Meaning that many STR websites don’t make the impact they should because they have been built by enthusiastic amateurs.  

Every day I see sites that could be great.  

But they aren’t.  

They miss vital elements that will get them seen, make visitors stay around and look at more pages.

Budgeting for a web designer who is experienced in creating short -term rental websites could be one of the best decisions you make.

Your website should include professional photos, accurate descriptions, up-to-date availability, rates and a lot of content to drive a visitor deeper into the site.  Remember you are going for the wow impact…on every page.

‘Wow, they really know what I’m looking for, and have answered all my questions before I had to ask them’.

Your guest’s experience with you and your business will ordinarily start with your website, so make it a memorable one.

Of course you want examples….No site is perfect and every one will have room for improvement.  Here are a few that we love.

Mais Oui – Sherry & Darryl have created a beautiful website that delivers on experience on every page.  

One of our favourite property management sites is Moving Mountains in Colorado.  We love the use of video, amazing photos, clarity of listings and a great blog.

Communication & Guest Profiling

This starts with giving your potential guests a choice about how to connect with you.  It could be text, phone, email, What’s App, Facebook messaging or a chat function on your website.

If you have nailed your avatar/persona, you will have a good idea of their favourite method of communication and knowing that, stick with it.

I recall a networking event some years ago where this topic was being aired.  One host was adamant that she would only use text to communicate since this was her preferred method.

She didn’t want to talk on the phone (because she didn’t like talking to people); she wouldn’t use email because it was too time consuming and gave her guests too much opportunity to be long-winded and wouldn’t put a chat function on her site because it had a cost.

Yes, I know, this person wasn’t cut out for this business!  However, it illustrated the importance of setting your own preferences to one side, and understanding that getting on your guests’ wavelength can make a big difference to them wanting to connect with you again.

There is an often-cited gripe on FB groups where hosts will complain about the amount of questions guests ask prior to booking.

They don’t get that the more questions asked, the more information you have about the lead guest and the group, and the greater opportunity there is to create a relationship, and ultimately get the booking.

A number of years ago,  my son Mike and his wife Andrea, went on a backpacking tour of the Far East.  After several weeks of travelling through China, Japan, Vietnam stopping in hostels along the way, they got to Phuket and decided, since Andreas birthday was coming up they would treat themselves to a night in a hotel.  

They checked in on her birthday, then went the spa for an hour or two.  Shortly after they got back to their room there was a knock on the door and  they opened it to a delivery of a birthday cake complete with lit candle and a birthday card from the hotel.

It was pretty easy to figure out where the information had come from since they’d handed in their passports when they checked in.

But to take the leap from there and to deliver the surprise cake took a well-planned guest profiling system.  This would not have been chance recognition of birth date and someone saying ‘hey it’s Andrea Bayer’s birthday – let’s organise a cake’.  

This profiling system would be actively looking for some data about the guests that could be used to enhance their experience.

This type of process is common in hotels and known as guest profiling – it’s all about the rich data.

Let’s look at the type of information you could collect

Birthdays & special occasions such as engagements and anniversaries. Whenever someone stays in your place for  a honeymoon  make sure to send them a note a month or so before their anniversary and remind them of their stay with an offer, if they’d like to come back. 

Comments about dream vacations often yield great data - for example an email came to us mentioning the guest’s new husband wanted to bond with her son by teaching him how to fish.  She asked about fishing from the dock and if they needed licenses.  We sent the guest all the information she needed to buy fishing licenses online and were able to ensure there were a couple of fishing rods ready and waiting for them.

In another email a guest asked about gluten free restaurants in the area so they were left them some gluten-free cookies from a nearby bakery.  

When you get people in conversation they can share a lot of valuable information on their likes and dislikes.  We often ask them why they chose a particular property and that one question alone can deliver a lot of useful data.

So…communicating in the way your guests prefer, and using that communication to create trust and confidence is the right way to get a booking and to preserve the relationship throughout the workflow.

The Seamless Booking

The big advantage OTAs have over direct booking sites or platforms is the ease of making a reservation.

We are so used to making a purchasing decision, and with a few clicks the product is on its way, or there’s a confirmation of a service.  Airbnb have perfected one part of this business, and that is making is super-smooth to make a booking.  I booked a property in England last week (no direct book options), and loved the instant nature of it.

This is the challenge we face as we try to wow an audience that expects instant gratification.

With this in mind, think about your booking process.

Do you ask potential guests to send you an email to receive your rates?

I hope not.

Can they make a booking directly on your website and give you a credit card, without giving up a ton of information on their group or going through additional hoops?

That is what you need to offer.

Then make it more of a juicy deal.

Offer a special deal, or discount for booking directly with you.  It’s easy to do this if you bump up your rate on your OTA listings.  

Provide additional incentives for booking direct.

Hotels do this.  They offer Free Parking, or Free Internet – even a Free Breakfast, for their directly booked guests.

They make them feel special.

A good property management software helps to make the process seamless, and is worth every penny if you select the right one.

Tumbleweed Time

Imagine an old abandoned gas station in the heat of the Arizona desert. The sun beats down mercilessly on the rusted metal gas pumps, their once vibrant colors now faded and peeling. A few broken windows on the old building let in the hot desert breeze, carrying with it the sound of a distant coyote howl.

A tumbleweed bumps against one of the gas pumps before lazily rolling down the road, a solitary movement in this desolate landscape. An old guy leans against the door of the abandoned building, looking down the road with a distant gaze.

It's as if he's waiting for something to happen, but deep down he knows it never will. Time seems to stand still here in this desolate corner of the world. 

The founder of Touch Stay, Andy McNulty has used this image to remind us of the seemingly vast stretch of time that can occur between booking a rental, and the stay itself. He calls it tumbleweed time.

For most guests, it can feel as if they have been forgotten, just like the old gas station has been abandoned and left to rot. The waiting can feel endless, and like the old guy, the guest may feel as if they are just waiting for something to happen that never will.

In the end, just like the old gas station, the guest will eventually have their time in the sun. But until then, they must endure the waiting and uncertainty, just like the tumbleweed that rolls aimlessly down the road.

This period between your guest booking and their arrival at the property is the perfect opportunity to share your local knowledge; to drip feed amazing pieces of information, and to deliver the type of service they will not get anywhere else.

Tyann Marcink, the owner of Branson Family Retreats manages huge properties in what is known as the Live Entertainment Capital of the World with over 400 restaurants and 50 theaters.

She hosts guest groups of up to 36 people in a single property and manages several.

As a maestro of the guest experience, Tyann will send multiple communications to her guests to help them plan their stay.  The amount of communications will depend on the length of time between booking and stay but averages 10 – 12 occasions when she will connect with guests and send them information.  This may seem extreme but with the planning a group leader has to do to get 30+ people accommodated and organized; the help must be invaluable.

Pre-stay information could include:

  • Recommendations for restaurants, activities, and attractions.

  • Trails and parks

  • Things to do on a rainy day

  • Arts tours

  • Places to take a pet

Just take some time and think about what your guests might want to know in advance to assist their holiday planning.  From there you can provide a curated guidebook or personalized recommendations based on the their interests and preferences.

The Stay

So, your guests have arrived, and if you have communicated well with them beforehand, they are super-excited and full of anticipation for their stay.

Sadly, all that work can be wiped out if something goes wrong and it isn’t handled well.  

Good problem management is the key to maintaining good relationships with your guests once they have arrived.  

I learned a key message from a property manager in Costa Rica a few years ago when we were staying at a beautiful villa overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

A day into the stay I contacted him because of a leak from the waste pipe under the kitchen sink.  I said it wasn’t a problem because we’d put a bowl underneath the pipe.  However, he was out within an hour to fix the issue and we got chatting.

He said something that resonated with me that day and has stayed in my memory since.

“For every day a guest spends at your place they may have worked a week to pay for it.  We have the responsibility as hosts to make every day worth every penny.  If a guest has to wait for someone to come out to repair something, or they are without an amenity for any length of time, they are ultimately paying for it.”

Having a plan that covers all eventualities and potential issues is arguably one of the best things you can do to achieve success in this business.

With that, you can respond promptly and proactively to any problem or concerns.  Robust SOPs allow you to offer solutions or alternatives to resolve the problem quickly and ensure the guest's comfort and overall satisfaction.

When you get the guest experience right – every step of the way – you will create raving fans, and raving fans will spread the word. 

As I did with the villa in Costa Rica.

The property was amazing but it was the service that made it one of the most special and memorable vacations ever taken.  After 11 years I still share stories about it, and use the lessons I learned every day.

So let it be with you!