When a four-foot snake slithered through our window, we screamed and hopped around, then chased it out with a broomstick. Next we emailed our host. We were at an Airbnb in Koh Lanta, Thailand. It took 24 hours to hear back. Locals, she wrote, believe “a snake in the home is good luck.” Wrong answer! And wrong attitude. Let’s get one thing straight: For all of Airbnb’s live-like-a-local propaganda, it’s about paying money to sleep in a stranger’s bed. An Airbnb listing is a small business: Guests are clients, hosts are vendors. This simplicity makes Airbnb an instructive space to discover what makes a good business.
I’ve been traveling full-time with my boyfriend for two years, staying in more than 70 Airbnbs around the globe. Each offers insight into why some hosts stand out while others fail. Based on my collective experience, here are seven ways to thrive.
1. Don’t launch until you’re ready.
We’ve seen so many places like this: The dishware and throw pillows are new, but there are no pots in the kitchen and the bed is a sleep-deprivation device. I’m sure our hosts were eager to recoup their investment, but they’ve rushed to market before their service was ready -- and now they’ve disappointed their earliest customers, who are going to alert future ones. There’s a reason Broadway shows have previews and restaurants do soft openings. Imagine if these Airbnb hosts let their friends stay over for a few days and took the feedback to heart.
2. Manage expectations.
No business is under obligation to please the whole world, but it’s important to be up front about your offerings. You’d be shocked at how many Airbnbs we’ve seen that didn’t live up to their promise -- a listing that looked like the Four Seasons turned out to be a moldy hovel, and places listed as “pet friendly” then insisted we tie our dogs up.
3. Price competitively.
Assume your customers are comparison shopping, then either price accordingly or make it clear why you’re more expensive. We’ll always give an Airbnb newbie a go if they’ve set a lower-than-average nightly price and put considerable effort into their listing. But we’ll blow off a well-reviewed host who doesn’t offer a weekly discount if others do. (P.S.: Asking for a $50 cleaning fee when the neighbor charges $15 makes you look delusional.)
4. Get a personality.
Branding matters, even for the smallest of businesses. Ace Airbnb hosts do things like naming their rental, building stand-alone websites and giving it hashtags for guests to use. Then they design with personality (and no soulless IKEA furniture). We once stayed with a host in South Carolina who decked out her cabin in camouflage curtains, stuffed animal heads and baskets of spent casings. I didn’t share her taste, but I’ll never forget it.
5. Anticipate needs.
We checked into a bungalow in Colorado and found a half bottle of ranch dressing and a Hula-Hoop -- but no spoons, TV or working internet. Think preemptively about your clients’ needs, no matter what you’re selling. Is your Airbnb near train tracks? Place earplugs on the bedside table. Rainy day? Set out umbrellas and a list of indoor activities. The less customers have to ask for, the better.
6. Show your humanity.
Would it have killed the couple in Baton Rouge to wave? We stayed in their guest cottage for three days, and they practically drew the blinds on their house anytime we were outside. No matter the business I’m paying, I want to feel like I’m supporting a person. I want a relationship, even if it’s just a hello. It also makes it harder for me to get angry (because you’re human!) or to leave a scathing review (because it might hurt your very human feelings!). Not good with people? Deputize someone likable to do the face-to-face stuff.
7. Don’t lose your cool online, ever.
We’ve left a few bad reviews on Airbnb, and hosts respond in one of three ways: (1) Ignore it (fine). (2) Thank us, then either explain the situation or offer ways to improve (better). Or (3) every so often, they get angry and argue with us in a public forum. Please know: You can never win this battle. It just turns off future clients. There’s only one way forward: Listen, process and respond diplomatically.
The best Airbnbs, like the best businesses, are works in progress. That’s a good thing; there’s always room for improvement.