3- Months in to Airbnb Plus: My Take To-Date

In September of last year, several Nashville hosts got the long-awaited email announcing that Airbnb Plus was coming to town. At first, the invite seemed like a badge of honor. Hosts were buzzing and excited. 

 

Quickly, the excitement turned into skepticism. Stories began surfacing that included things like: “Airbnb Plus photographer was a no-show for my appointment”; “you should see the laundry list of fixes they want me to make”; “Plus guests have higher expectations and leave lower reviews”; “my photos are awful”; “don’t do it- they hijack your listing”; and the list goes on.

 

I felt like much of the feedback were simple misunderstandings that I often see in general when it comes to Airbnb. I did some of my own outreach to others who were already on the Airbnb Plus program in other cities. That included Darik Eaton, owner of Seattle Oasis Vacation Rentals. I can always trust Darik to give me the real scoop and he convinced me it was worth a go.

 

My first Airbnb Plus listing went live on December 7, 2018. That means earlier this month, I celebrated my 3-month Plus-iversary. This first listing happened to be a great test case because I own 2 other studios in the same building that were not invited to Airbnb Plus (despite offering the same exact amenities and having similar design qualities). 

 

I have monitored the results of the Airbnb Plus listing compared to the other 2 non- Airbnb Plus listings in the same building closely since going live and I’d like to share with you a month-by-month look.

 

Important Notes Before Reviewing the Data

·      The occupancy & rates are JUST Airbnb numbers. They do not reflect my total occupancy rates for these properties as I did have bookings from other sources like HomeAway/ VRBO/ my own website.

·      January and February are the slowest months in Nashville for me so there is natural uptick month over month moving into the busy season.

·      Standard Airbnb Listing 1 and 2 bookings were predominantly only weekend bookings the first 2 months. Since Average Nightly Rate is an aggregate of all nights NOT broken out by weekend versus weekday, those numbers are a bit skewed. The February and March To-Date data are more accurate representations of rate comparison for this reason.   

For comparison, here are the links to all listings:

As with anything new, this is still something I want to monitor closely. However, based on these early results, here are my initial observations on Airbnb Plus:

 

·      Increased Visibility: You certainly cannot argue that the Airbnb Plus listing is getting much more visibility when it comes to number of page views. Between the advertising and search result placement, this definitely does not come as a surprise.

·      Increased Airbnb Rates & Occupancy: In every month, the Airbnb occupancy and rates are higher with the Airbnb Plus listing compared to the standard listings- and those numbers continue to rise. I am not sure how I feel about this yet. The strategy for my own rentals is diversification of booking sources. As you can see for March to-date, I am at a 100% occupancy with strictly Airbnb. That certainly doesn’t lend itself to having availability for other booking sources. However, the rate increase is certainly nice so for now, anyway I am okay with it.

·      Better Photos (depending on your photographer- and opinion): This one is debatable for some, but I personally like the style of the Airbnb Plus photos. They’re shot in HDR with less of a “real estate listing photo” look and more of an “Architectural Digest” look. I think my photos turned out lovely and were an improvement.

·      Expect More Guest Questions: Using the description area and my own photo order, I was able to explain the important aspects of the space. While I certainly still got the occasional question about the space previously, I get it a lot more now. The two questions I get most “I see you sleep 4 people, is there a second bedroom?” and “do you have a picture of the pool?” You cannot add your own photos for Airbnb Plus. In my case, they won’t allow ones of the sofa bed pulled out and the pool was closed during winter so no photos were taken. You also cannot send a photo in Airbnb messenger until after a guest books. So… I now have to direct people to my other Airbnb listings to see those pictures. Luckily, I can do that because they’re in the same building and a similar layout. Others may not be so fortunate.

·      Communication is Difficult with Airbnb Plus team: I have one other listing (in a different Nashville location) live on Airbnb Plus and another that was actually the first to go through the interview process on September 30th. I received my “fixes” (had to show a pic of my closet and guest book) back in December and the status still says they’re editing photos. I’ve emailed them to follow up a few times and it takes about 2-3 weeks for them to reply. Their reply? We’re still reviewing the photos. *sigh* Getting any information that is not part of the email confirming your appointment is incredibly difficult as well.

·      Be Wary of the Increase Claims: My original email stated a significant revenue increase. Every home has a max value and if you’re already at the top of the market, it’s pretty hard to increase that dramatically. Their website now claims 7x more listing views and 70% more nights booked. The 2 listings I have live on Airbnb Plus were already at an 88% and 89% occupancy last year. I am not sure how they’re calculating the base but 70% more nights booked would be impossible for me as we all max out at 100% occupancy. While I am certainly happy with the increase in views and occupancy, those types of increases certainly aren’t possible for me given my current position. Moral of the story? Know your market and have realistic expectations about your property.

·      Make Your Own Assessment: Remember those skeptical claims I mentioned earlier? There were two things that personally concerned me the most that I have personally not found to be true.

o   First, was my concern of a higher guest expectation resulting in lower guest reviews. My studios are budget-friendly accommodations. We offer a lot for the price point and the interior has been redone. However, they’re in a 1950s building that in places shows its age. I was concerned guests would book expecting a luxury accommodation based on how Airbnb is marketing the Plus program. However, I have not had this experience at all (knocking on wood as I type). In fact, the Airbnb Plus guests have been really complimentary and I’ve maintained 5-stars for all reservations made post- Airbnb Plus.  

o   Second, was losing total control of my listing. While I don’t like that I cannot add photos that are needed (like the pool and sofa bed I mentioned), I still have control over my summary and title.  You also still control your booking settings, house rules, etc.  The biggest difference is that you do not get nearly as much space for verbiage. That can prove quite challenging but has also been a good exercise in prioritization for me.  

 

Overall, I am pleased thus far and with the promotion behind Airbnb Plus, the added exposure is worth it for me right now. That said, as I continue on my journey to diversification of booking sources, it may be something to reconsider down the road.

 

You’ve heard my experience and seen my stats. Now, I’d love to hear yours. Feel free to share in the comments!  

AirbnbPlus vs Standard Airbnb Listing Results.jpg

Airbnb Plus vs Standard Listing Data Chart

Three months of data comparing 1 Airbnb Plus Listing to 2 Airbnb Standard Listings all in the same condominium building, same amenities and similar design style.

5 Tips for Success on the OTAs

For many of us, we began our vacation rental journey using the OTAs such as Airbnb, HomeAway/ VRBO) and still market our homes there today. How to be successful on the OTAs is something that I get asked about often so I thought I’d share my top 5 tips for success.

Assuming you’ve done your due diligence and know your local laws, have gone through any legal setup needed and you’re ready to list (or amplify) your vacation rental game, here they are:

Thes first 3 strategies don't address direct actions taken within the OTA (Airbnb, HomeAway) platforms, but they will limit your ability to be successful. Good actions can only take you so far if you don't have a solid foundation to work from…

1. Know Your Audience 

This is the crux of any successful vacation rental. You must know your audience of guests. Who is your home ideally suited for and, as a host, what type of groups do you want to host? For instance, if you have a home that has a lot of sleeping space, a great kitchen and outdoor space that could easily appeal to a variety of people. As an example, a home like this may be ideal for families and since you, as a host have a family it may be easier for you to host other families because you are able to easily make recommendations on family-friendly activities. 

2. Design With Marketing in Mind

Many people design their homes or have them designed without factoring anything except style and guest count. You must design with marketing to your ideal audience in mind. That approach two-fold. First, you want the style to appeal not only appeal to the audience but to stand out. When a potential guest is searching Airbnb or HomeAway, your "competition" of homes are an inch above or below you and chances are, there going to view multiple homes before making a final selection. What will make someone click to learn more about your home? What will make them remember yours? Chances are it won't be "the house with the beige walls and tan sofa." As you're designing, think of incorporating decor that will be functional but also help your home stand out. For example, in one of our homes we have a Mural that helps the listing stand out, but is also functional because guests LOVE taking their picture on vacation with a great back drop.

Second, are the amenity offerings. Let's continue with the family example. Safety and family-friendly amenities are really important for families (they're also important to the OTAs like AIrbnb and HomeAway, we'll get to that in a minute). You'll will want to load your home with amenities like a pack n play, room darkening shades, high chairs, toys, books, etc. You'll also want to be mindful of furniture and accessories that are easily cleaned and durable (read: get a leather a sofa).  

3. Killer Photos 

Yes, we live in an era of user- generated content where the selfie is king AND queen. But, when it comes to marketing your home, self- taken photos (unless your a skilled photographer) simply do not look professional. There are a lot of hosts that get bookings just fine with these types of photos, but they're not maximizing their potential. The goal with photos is to showcase your key features for the ideal audience, highlight what makes your home unique and tell a realistic story of your space. Vacation rental photographer (and friend), Tyann Marcink has some great tips on her website. She also travels for photography or through her new company, Natty Media, partners with other local photographers in certain areas.

4. Build Your Listings, Adjust Them, Adjust Them Some More

Your listings are not the "Field of Dreams" where you build them and they come. Certainly, you want your listing to be cohesive and appealing from the get-go but it really does take constant work to maintain the status.

That said, one important note if you’re new to Airbnb be sure your listing is well put together from the beginning. When you first go live, you actually get a 2-week boost in your listing search results. The reason they do this is to help new hosts capture bookings and hopefully subsequent reviews. If you’re new to Airbnb, start here by signing up with a profile.

While none of the OTAs completely release their secret sauce, there are certainly things they like and do not like. 

First and foremost, the listing sites all seem to like activity. Frequently being in your dashboard, updating your calendar, pricing and content are among the top actions that I see increase views. 

  • For my calendar, I use a tool called Smartbnb that, among other things has a calendar heartbeat that sends a ping to the Airbnb calendar letting their system know that your calendar is update (that means a guest is less likely to have a bad experience by requesting or booking dates only to be denied). 

  • For my pricing, I use a tool called PriceLabs. This is a dynamic pricing tool that not only helps me in easily managing my pricing and capturing the most opportunity, but also by pricing changing frequently, it triggers the OTAs. 

  • Content includes your photos, headlines, summaries, etc. Once a week, I typically switch the order of my photos and update my headlines. Once again, this signals that I am active. Once a month, I often include references to upcoming special events because I know people will be looking for this. Conversely, on open dates where there isn't a lot going on, I pull together ideas into a photo or blurb within my listing. For instance, in fall, I had an image that said "Fall in Love with Nashville" and included the various sporting events (great for mid-week bookings), the different local festivals and more. While these are necessarily things visitors would know to search for, when they're looking at possible dates, it lets them know things will be happening in town that weekend. 

All of the OTAs like good response times. You may think your fast because you reply within a few minutes. But, seconds matter. The same tool I use for calendar pings, Smartbnb I also use for auto messaging. I have setup an "auto-reply" that reads my calendar availability, can pick up specific questions and replies within seconds of a new booking or inquiry coming through. I personally am often right behind it to answer any specific questions the guest/ potential guest may have but this helps "stop the clock" with the OTAs and records a positive response time which is a strong factor in ranking. 

NONE of the OTAs like cancellations. While there are times this may certainly be a necessity, you should go through all measures to have avoid this. Here are some of the top examples:

  • Make sure your listing is clear in what you allow and do not allow to avoid guests who aren't a match to book 

  • Make sure your calendars are synced across all OTA platforms. This can be done via an iCal link, a channel manager or a property management software. I highly recommend NOT relying on this to be done manually as there is more room for error. If you get a double- booking and have to cancel, that will certainly hurt you somewhere. 

  • Keep your pricing and minimum stays up to date. I hear of a lot of cancels because they forgot to adjust their pricing for the season and a booking was too low. 

Know that EVERY OTA is different (side note: it is critical that you read and understand the T&Cs as they do vary and can be confusing). Many OTAs attract different audiences and types of people. Personally, I tend to get more families from HomeAway/ VRBO than I do with Airbnb for example.

Remember how we said those safety and amenity features matter to the OTAs earlier? Those are important for your searchability. 

  • Many guests will enter their search criteria (wifi, linens, etc) but the more amenities you have, the better opportunity you have to show up in a search. Once again, using the family example. Most families do not want to travel with a high chair and pack n play. They'll likely set this search criteria as an option. Make sure your home is an option for your ideal guest by selecting the amenities you've put in your home to cater to them.

  • On Airbnb, specifically they launched what they call "collections" last year. One of those collections is family. By offering and selecting those amenities and maintaining other rank factors, your home will be eligible to be in that collection. This is meant to help families find homes that are specifically catering to them. There is also a work collection. 

5. Amazing, 5-Star Reviews 

In the end, you can do everything above but if you're not wow'ing the guests you simply will not be successful on the OTAs (or at hosting, in general). Ideally, having a solid foundation already makes for a good guest experience but I have found in order to get guests to leave reviews, you often have to wow them. A few tips for getting reviews: 

  • Communication throughout the process is key. As I mentioned earlier, I always suggest an immediate reply to an inquiry or booking. Additionally, I suggest sending guests another confirmation/ touch base 2 weeks prior to their stay. In this communication, I send them a link to our digital welcome book (I use TouchStay) to help them plan their trip, confirm the number of guests and ask them if there is anything else I can do to help prepare them for their trip. I send another communication 3 days prior reminding them where to find the logistics. All of this is automated, yet personalized via Smartbnb.  Vacation Rental expert (and friend), Alanna Schroeder of The Distinguished Guest also offers an excellent digital download called the “TDGs Ultimate Guest Communication Guide.”

  • Make sure the space is CLEAN. Nothing can start a trip off on the wrong foot more than a cleanliness issue. I personally have a cleaning crew but do an inspection after each clean. If you can't do it, find someone who can. We're all human, things will get missed but a second set of eyes will hopefully catch those. 

  • Surprise guests with the unexpected. We offer individually wrapped snacks, bottled water, mints, local chocolate and little goodies for each guest. I also hand write a card for each guest. This is often unexpected and goes a long way to connecting with the guest and making a memorable experience for them. 

  • The morning after their first night, I send another checkin message (also via Smartbnb) and ask them how things went and to remind them we're available if they need anything to make them more comfortable. This opens the line of communication in case there is an issue and allows you to address it before it shows up in a review. 

  • ASK for the review. I know it may feel weird, but you have to ask. When we send checkout instructions (yes, I suggest that, too) I also include a blurb that lets them know we really value their feedback, we work hard to maintain our 5-start status and would love it if they'd leave a review as it really helps us. Notice how we put that little "5-star" comment in there without asking for a 5-star? We've found that helpful but not pushy. 

NOTE: I have no affiliation with any of the people or tools I recommend in this article, though some links may be referral links (where you receive a discount and we earn a credit if you decide to purchase). I will never recommend a tool that I do not believe in. All of the tools listed are tools I personally use and have used for a minimum of 1 year).

Megan McCrea
#BookDirect Day: Why Every Host Should Care

What is #BookDirect?

Championed by Amy Hinote and the team at VRM Intel, the Second Annual #BookDirect Guest Education Day, recurring on the first Wednesday in February, is set for today, February 6, 2019. With a multitude of new travelers searching for vacation rentals, vacation rental managers and homeowners will join forces for one day with a singular message to let travelers know that there are many advantages to bypassing third-party channels and booking directly with management companies and homeowners.

Why Every Host Should Care

There’s been a lot of chatter over the last year in regards to the inaugural  #BookDirect day. Some say it became a movement all about price while the originators maintain it’s all about educating guests on the benefits of booking directly.

To me, I have to agree with the later and personally feel like the movement is bigger even than that. While I do feel that some have been a bit quick to make booking direct ALL about price, I think the spirit and intention behind the movement is what we need to stay focused on. With that, here’s my perspective on it all:

 I am a big believer in doing what is right for you when it comes to owning a vacation rental. I hear from a lot of owners who simply cannot understand why anyone would list their home anywhere but Airbnb. I hear from those who refuse to work with Airbnb or HomeAway and only accept bookings on their own website. I hear from those (and personally fall into this camp) who do a combination of it all.

While people tend to have strong opinions on this, I personally don’t believe there is a one size fits all approach to where you market your home. The key is making sure you understand the upside and risks of all options and then make an informed decision that works for you (don’t worry, that’ll be a post for another day). However, regardless of how and where you market your home, the fundamentals of marketing still apply. One of the biggest is to know your value and what you bring to the consumer. In this case, that’s the guest.  

I’ve spent my entire career teaching other businesses about this principal yet, when challenged to really think about it for my own rentals early on, it was hard.  But, it’s something you simply have to do. If you can’t tell potential guests why they should book your home over the others in your area, how are they supposed to? On days like #BookDirect day, it challenges us all to think about this. That’s just one benefit of today.

Beyond the actual booking source is something greater, though. YOU. It’s all of the time and effort you put into your vacation rentals- whether they’re your own or you manage them for others. Even if you choose to solely market your home using Airbnb or VRBO, once that booking is made their involvement usually ends and your hard work begins.

 On my own vacation rental website, I wrote a blog directed at guests about what #bookdirect means to my husband and I. In it, I shared what goes into our process: “Behind every reservation we’re in the background taking notes on why each guest is coming to town; our rock star professional cleaning crew is cleaning every crevice in the home whether it looks like the last guest touched it or not; I am going behind them fluffing pillows, restocking coffee, making sure the key code works; and during your stay, waiting on the ready to answer questions like ‘where can we get chicken and waffles on a weekday?’. It may be a lot of work, but making sure our guests feel welcome from the moment they walk through the front door of our homes is something we love and take pride in.”

With all that goes into making your vacation rental successful, why would you let an OTA booking website own your identity as an owner or manager? Let me share with you an example not related to the vacation rental space to showcase that point:

A few weeks back I wanted a gluten free donut (pre-New Year resolution, for the record). I have my go-to places but I wanted to try something new. I searched “gluten free donut Nashville” on google. I found a place right around the corner from one of our rentals called East Park Donuts & Coffee. They ended up having amazing gluten free donuts AND matcha green tea. Of course, I took pictures, posted them on Instagram, tagged East Park Donuts & Coffee and told everyone about the amazing donut and tea I just had because it was basically like a little slice of Heaven.

 Now, imagine for a minute that since I initially found East Park Donuts & Coffee on google, I took a pic, tagged google and told everyone they need to go have a google donut and tea. You’d probably be scratching your head, right?

I know this may seem like a far fetched example but its really not. In this instance, Google was the marketing platform that connected me to my donut but East Park Coffee & Donuts made the donut and the experience. Now that we all want donuts, let’s bring this back to vacation rentals…

Airbnb, VRBO, your own website, referrals from past guests… they are all the marketing platforms that connect you to guests but YOU and YOUR HOME are the experience. YOU and YOUR HOME are the brand. Make #bookdirect day today about that!

For my own vacation rental homes, I debated whether or not to do a special offer for the day or to simply drive awareness using the #bookdirect hashtag. My concern was falling into the “price is the only distinguisher” trap. In the end, my advertising brain won and I decided to offer a free night stay for any 4+night booking in 2019 if they book between today and Sunday on our website. Here was my logic:

1) People are more apt to share when you have a compelling offer. More shares equals more awareness and that is what today is all about.

2) We just re-launched our website with a new design and fresh content so I wanted create momentum to drive traffic.  

3) On our website, we already reiterate why a guest should book directly so I felt like the foundation was in place to do it right and let the promo serve as an urgency incentive rather than the only incentive. And yes, price is one of the benefits we list for booking direct because let’s face it, it’s true.

I encourage you to think about what #bookdirect really means and to participate in some way today. Once you’ve done that, share with your family, friends and guests in whatever way you can: social, email, your website. I’ll post next week about how our promo goes. In the meanwhile, I’d love to hear what you’re doing to make the most of today.

All the best,

Megan

PS -

It’s not only important for guests to see you as independent but for you to be seen locally as independent. If any of you have heard me speak in regards to advocacy, you know it’s one of my little pet peeves when owners refer to themselves as an “Airbnb” or “VRBO.” You are a vacation rental (short term rental) owner. As lawmakers across the globe are considering short term rental laws, have YOUR voice and let them know how it impacts YOU. Don’t give them more ammo to make this fight about Airbnb and VRBO by calling yourself that.

Megan McCrea