Manda Maggs

Manda Maggs, Penticton BC

Five Tips for New Vacation Rental Hosts (Airbnb, VRBO) from someone who Learned the Hard Way.

Okay, it's been a while - a year isn't so long, really? What can happen in just a short year? 365 sunrises, 52 Mondays to get through, and approximately 104 hours spent trying to figure out what to do on a Friday night.

Mike and I started a new endeavour last year: a vacation rental. I thought I'd share some of the things we learned along the way. 

Our Airbnb suite did really well in our first year and we learned so much. I wanted to share some of our experiences, and especially the top 5 things we learned about running a vacation rental so if you're thinking of starting one up, or you are looking to improve your reviews, you don't have to learn it the hard way - see what I did there?

Five Tips for running a vacation rental

  1. Be clear. 
  2. Don't put anything you love where strangers can touch it
  3. Be legit. 
  4. You can't make everyone happy.
  5. Busy guests are happy guests. 

LESSON 1: 

People love clarity. List your house rules clearly and concisely right up front. Know what you're willing to compromise on (like off-season or mid-week pricing), and what you aren't willing to budge on (pets, smoking, quiet hours, extra guests). Ask the guest if they read the rules before you book them in. 

Pro-tip: Provide gentle reminders to guests about what your expectations are, and what their responsibilities will be. The review process of vacation rentals leaves a lot of room for uncertainty. Alleviate that by making everything super obvious. Be up front and honest.   

Example: Feel free to help yourselves to fresh herbs and vegetables  from the garden, please ask before harvesting the fruit trees. 

This boundary is clear, and it not only prevents your guests from picking your harvest clean, it invites those who would be too shy to ask about picking fruit to come forward and do so. 

It helps people to know how to treat your space: We noticed that people weren't putting dishes back where they found them, or they put them away dirty, or they didn't bother washing them at all and left them in the sink. A small sign above the sink politely stating that "guests are expected to wash their own dishes for the next guests" worked nicely to solve the problem - not only did our dishes get cleaned more often, if a guest did find a piece of food on a plate, they didn't leave us crappy reviews because it was obvious that the responsibility lay with the previous guest, not us. It passed the entire responsibility of dish cleanliness onto our guests.

cupboard decals.jpg

Make it obvious.  

People will follow, if you provide direction. 

To solve the issue of having guests put things away properly (and be able to find items, I made some fun kitchen decals that not only helped guests locate and put away their coffee mugs, they looked great. 

The icon styling suits our modern kitchen well, and is also suitable for guests who don't speak english. Guests LOVE these! I mean, who wants to get up in the morning and trudge into an unfamiliar kitchen and grope around for twenty minutes trying to find the coffee, mugs, sugar, and filters, amiright? We had guests tell us that it was such a nice touch and made them feel like we had thought of everything to make them feel comfortable in our home.

Did I mention that I like sharing? You can download the full set of kitchen decals on the FREEBIES page. 

This year, I labelled everything in the garden too, since we always had people asking what kind of trees we had, what kind of flowers, etc. They've also been noticed, and now guests are engaging with and exploring the back yard more, making them feel like their suite has expanded and they've gotten more value out of their visit. 

 

LESSON 2: 

Don't put anything you love or can't replace where strangers can touch them. 

Our very first guests turned out to be quite unpredictable, to put it mildly. Among other things, they decided to rearrange all of the furniture - all of it. There was a dining chair in the bathroom. A mirror was removed from the wall and discarded in the kitchen. The couch was moved aside. Books were everywhere (except the book shelf). And our beloved coffee table was in the bedroom, broken, on its side. 

...and that was the last photo ever taken of that magnificent coffee table. 

...and that was the last photo ever taken of that magnificent coffee table. 

We put this coffee table in the suite because it's not only beautiful and fit the space perfectly, it's indestructible - or so we thought. It's 1.5-inch thick glass on a wrought iron frame and weighs more than anything else in our home. Mike's father, a 320lb rubgy guy, stood in the middle of it and it and jumped up and down without even a hint of a creak. It was a custom-built piece from Mike's grandparents, who got the glass as an off-cut from the Vancouver Aquarium way back in the 50s or 60s.

At any rate, our unpredictable guests decided they'd move it out of the living room, down the hall, and into the main bedroom. I guess they didn't realize that it weighed about as much as a small pony - it was dropped it on the concrete floor, breaking off a corner. It's unfixable, unfortunately. We've since replaced it with a cheap table we have no attachment to. 

If you can't replace it, keep it away from guests. Everything in the suite or room should be replaceable and have no sentimental attachment. 

Pro-tip: Use the damage deposit systems offered by Airbnb and VRBO. It's easy. Not only will you be able to replace things that get stained/broken/lost/damaged, your guests will treat your stuff with more care. A guest unwilling to leave a damage deposit is probably not a guest you want to host. 

Guests may not be trying to hurt your stuff on purpose, but accidents happen! 

LESSON 3: 

Be legitimate. Keep everything above board from your insurance, to your local bylaws, to reporting revenues from your rental on your taxes. 

We got on board immediately with applying for a business license. Yes, we had to spend a lot of time educating ourselves about our local laws regarding vacation rentals, made a dozen or so phone calls, and made sure we fit all the rules out there. Yes, it was an added expense - the licence cost $375 and we had to install a new hand railing and fancy smoke detectors (they talk to each other through wifi!), even though our old ones worked great. Yes, we ended up paying more for adding extra liability insurance to our home insurance, too. It was all worth it.  

Here's a little story to illustrate why it's important to be above board with insurance and licenses:

You never know who is coming to stay or what their experience is. They may be delightful, kind, and fun! But also, they may have never learned life skills such as using a BBQ... 
One group of guests were delighted to find that we had a covered patio with BBQ for cooking dinner on those hot summer evenings. They asked if they were free to use it. "Of course!" I said.
I didn't think to ask if they knew how. 
Long story short, their dinner was burnt to black ashes (they went through an entire propane tank with all burners on high) and our irrigation timer ended up melted to the patio.
It could have been worse, the patio is a wood structure covered in ivy and could have gone up in smoke. 

Without proper insurance and a legit business license that lists our activities, we could have lost our home and received no compensation whatsoever for our guests' mistake. Not to mention, I bet Canada Revenue Agency would have some questions if we were forced to declared bankruptcy after defaulting on our mortgage for a non-existing house that burned to the ground by people who weren't supposed to be there but were paying us in undeclared funds...So yes; we have all the paperwork done and we declare our income from it. 

In the end, just the knowledge that you are following the rules as best you can will buy you peace of mind.

LESSON 4: 

You can't make everyone happy: We tried. It was exhausting. Some criticisms were completely valid (we'd like more towels, the suite is too cold, we'll be out of dish soap soon) but other complaints were downright ridiculous:

"I didn't like the colour of the living room, you should change it" - 3 stars
"the weather here is too hot" - 4 stars
"the lake was too cold"  - 3 stars
"The garden was nice but my hay fever flared up terribly!" - 4 stars
"there's nothing to do in Penticton that's indoors, free, and interesting", - 3 stars
"there was a spider in the bedroom and I had to kill it" - 4 stars

....and so on. These reviews were often left by guests who seemed like they were bored, or hadn't really looked into many options before driving here (see the last lesson #5 for more on that little problem).

Most of their concerns we had little control over, and we just had to nod, sympathize, apologize, and agree to look into the matter. 

BUT SERIOUSLY. I don't have control over the intensity of the sun or the temperature of the lake. I don't know why I was apologizing so much about the lack of free indoor entertainment to be found in Penticton. These reviews are concerning, as they do affect our ratings on rental sites and we lost our "Superhost" status due to not have 5-star ratings across the board.      

Sometimes, the attempt to solve someone else's problems just makes more problems for you. And it doesn't always mean they're happy that you tried. 

Sometimes, the attempt to solve someone else's problems just makes more problems for you. And it doesn't always mean they're happy that you tried. 

Overall, we have great reviews, but we noticed a trend: the people whom we tried the hardest to please were the ones least likely to give us positive reviews. 

Finally, we had to take a step back and decide what was reasonable - was it worth it to try and squeeze another star out of a review, from someone who probably isn't going to give you that 5-star rating anyways ? We both work full time. We aren't a hotel, we don't have a 24-hr concierge, and we can't afford to devote more time and energy to this endeavour than we do our own lives. We can't change certain things, like the weather or make allergies magically disappear. 

When we finally started to relax about our guest's every whim, they began to relax around us. This year, we will provide exactly what our guests need and invested our energies in some key areas (see the final lesson #5)...and reserve the rest of our energy for ourselves. Our reviews have never been better. 

LESSON 5: 

The happiest guests are the ones who spend most of their time away from your vacation rental. 

The happiest guests (who leave the best reviews!) are the ones who have things to do: they leave in the morning, come back and sleep at night. These are the people who are going to feel like their vacation was a success - and you, as the home-away-from-home, is going to get all the credit for it even though all you provided a comfortable location and a bed. 

Pro tip: Invest in comfy beds, good pillows, and soft, easy-to-clean sheets. You won't regret it.  

Yes, we provide TV, movies, books, board games, and a patio to enjoy. But these are not the activities that give satisfaction to a vacation. Bored guests do not leave 5-star reviews - whether or not your listing was adequate. 

I can't stress this enough: encourage your guests to get out.

Guests want NEW experiences, new things to see, do, eat and drink. New places to explore, new friends to make. THIS is what will make their vacation memorable, not your perfect decor, or your extensive cable package. 

Spend some time to find out what they want to do well before they're set to arrive, even right at the time of booking. Ask them questions about how much exploring they want to do and casually offer suggestions for activities; it may even encourage them to add a few days to their stay! Go one step further to push them out the door by providing access to sunscreen, bug spray, hiking and biking trail maps (or websites where they can easily find them), a list of beaches and wineries, and information on where they can rent paddle boards or scooters.

There's a lot of work involved in finding out activities to do in a given area, which is made even harder for guests who probably aren't familiar with the layout of the town or region. Make it easy for them by doing some homework yourself. 

I even use it when I'm totally bagged after work and can't face the prospect of cooking myself a decent meal...I check out the appropriate day on the calendar, and realize that I am definitely in the mood for an amazing burger and beer for a mere $10 from one of my favourite eateries (Burger 55). 

So after about the 25th guest asked me "So is there to do today in Penticton?", I had a lightbulb moment and organized a list of regularly-occurring events and put it into a guide organized by weekday. 

Guests loved it! They went to places they hadn't heard of and wouldn't have known about otherwise. It kept them busy, even on weekdays, and I never got asked what to do ever again. 

This year, I took it further and expanded it to food, drinks and deals. Most guests want to do some fancy things - visit a winery, or eat in a fancy restaurant, but they also want to save some cash and eat like locals. Everyone loves a good deal, too.

Anyways, I appealed to the facebook hive mind to fill in the gaps I'd missed, and wasn't disappointed. So, in gratitude for the help I received and in recognition of the wonderful city I call home; I decided to offer the listing of daily deals, events, and drink and food specials for free to anyone who wants to download it. You can find the most up-to-date version on the FREEBIES page. 

The bottom line: Keep your guests busy - it's worth it to take the time and make some suggestions for activities or restaurants. At least throw in some take-out menus and pick up some free brochures from your local Visitor's Centre and leave them on the coffee table or by the bedside. 

That little extra touch makes guests feel like you care about them (and you should care!). Your reviews will speak for themselves! 


Did I miss anything? Any sage advice, or experiences you want to share? As a guest or vacation rental homeowner, do you agree with what I've listed here...? 

Let me know!

One Hour Challenge

I keep thinking, "My life is pretty weird right now". It's true, there's a lot of things going on that are strange, exciting, uncomfortable, weird, wonderful, and terrifying. Some of those things are the same events and depend on how I feel about them in that moment. I've had weeks, months, and years or dealing with new opportunities, anxiety, depression, times when I am unstoppable and on top of the world, really good times and hard times, times when I feel great about where I'm at and other times when I am certain I have made some huge mistakes. I often alternate between regret, stress, anxiety, contentment, joy, and despair without warning and in a completely reactive manner. 

When I try to think back, I can't remember a time when things weren't weird and chaotic. I keep waiting for everything to settle. I'm starting to realize that it isn't going to; life keeps moving on and things change. And that is okay! Life will throw new things my way every single day. That won't change and those things don't matter. What does matter is how I perceive these challenges, my life, and most importantly, myself. My perspective has been off for quite some time and I intend to do something about that, so I have made myself a challenge.  

I know exactly where I want to be. I know how I want to feel, look, and be seen by others. I know how I want other people to feel about me. I know how I want to feel about myself. But how does one get there through the chaos? How can I make a plan for my life when there's too much to focus on? How can I possibly decide what takes priority? How can I control my reactions when things outside my control keep shifting, when my own convictions shake off their foundations? To quote many a soul, but most memorably Douglas Adams, Don't panic. 

I have a plan, a simple one. I don't want to try and do anything overwhelming and unachievable here. I can't just drop all my responsibilities, I have realistic time constraints and things I have to do to be functional - so the challenge has to be simple and elegant. Don't mistake me: It's not about being easy. It will be difficult at times, and that is okay.  

It's about taking one hour

Now divide that up into three manageable 20-min intervals.

Rules: The intervals can be done in any order; they may be broken up throughout the day or done in one continuous time slot. There are no rules about what happens if you miss a day (or three, or ten), or go over the allotted 20 minutes. There are no rewards for doing any of these things, and no punishments for not doing them.

20 minutes: EXERCISE.  Bike, run, walk, pilates, dancing, pushups (well, maybe...we'll see about pushups). Doesn't matter what it is. Just fill 20 minutes with a good solid workout that gets everything in motion, and feel good about it, even if you run as slow as molasses or think you look like a lame donkey shoved into a track suit. Even if you get winded and want to slow down. Even if you get passed by an eighty year old lady and her walker. Even if you think it's not helping you lose weight/get fit, or accomplishing anything. Just be happy that you're out there and moving. Breathe in relaxation, breathe out the tension. 

20 minutes: MEDITATION  (or hypnotherapy, or guided NLP). I made myself a short affirmation of what I want - who and how I want to be, and sometimes spend this time imagining what my life will be like when I am, or being mindful of the good things I did today. Reminding myself that I am grateful. Giving myself perspective of my place in the world. Reinforcing the positive things in my life and trying to build on that. Or just simply emptying my mind and letting all my thoughts float away. Try to get in the habit of doing this anywhere - on the bus, in a park, in the staff room on lunch break. Don't try to make it a ritual. 

20 minutes: PURE ENJOYMENT. Take 20 minutes to do something entirely for one's self. I realized the other day that I don't actually remember the things I do that make me feel good just for doing them - I am always trying to maximize my efficiency, be productive, accomplish something tangible and purposeful. I multitask my recreational time (exercise while watching TV, check my emails while eating...). So instead of enjoying my coffee in the garden just soaking in the sun, I pick up my coffee and load the dishwasher or make a to-do list. It's not the same thing. So for at least 20 minutes a day, I allow myself to do exactly what I want to be doing, guilt-free and without trying to squeeze anything more out of it than enjoyment. 

That's it.

I'll let you know how it goes. 

One-hour challenge:

20 minutes each of exercise, enjoyment, and meditation. Simple and balanced. 

The value of "Failure"

Ok, so remember way back when I described the struggle of putting my art up at a show? Well, it didn't sell. I failed...and I have realized that I am okay with that. Let me tell you why. 

Taste the failure. Embrace it.  

Taste the failure. Embrace it.  

Initially, I was pretty disappointed that not a single painting of mine had sold - I thought I had priced them fairly, the subject matter was equally interesting, tasteful, and broadly appealing. It was a rainy day, and I didn't bother to cover them on my way to the car. I tossed them in the back seat irreverently, I could hear them sliding across the seat as I turned into the roundabout. I guess I was punishing them for not being good enough. When I got home and set them on the kitchen table I looked at them again and remembered a thought I'd expressed in my previous post entitled "The Struggle"

A large part of it is classic rejection syndrome, I suppose. If I put three pieces of art in the sale and they all end up sitting there until I come and pick them up on the final day of the show, that means no one wanted them. My art. Me.

It took two glasses of wine and a soak in a bathtub full of bubbles and self-pity to realize that I was actually fairly relieved that my art had come back home to me. I also had some time to think about how honoured I was just to be able to put them up on the wall of the Penticton Art Gallery. I remembered how grateful I was for all the nice things people said to me on the soup bowls night, and how nice it was receiving compliments from unexpected sources - coworkers, customers, and friends who recognized my work and took time out of their day to make sure that I knew they liked it. What a fantastic opportunity it was.

No, the paintings didn't sell.

Yes, I have learned from the experience. So many things. 

I learned how to price a piece of art, and how to let go of them. I learned that I am still developing and will never achieve 'the singularity' with my art - that's not what art is. I remembered that I can be excited about producing art again, and I remember now how much I enjoy the process. The end result is great, but I really, really love the expression and experimentation. 

So the next time I have an opportunity to throw my paintings up in a gallery I won't be so apprehensive, and I won't out so much pressure on them to sell right away. For now, the three paintings will go on display in our house and I will enjoy them. 

An essential aspect of creativity is not being afraid to fail.   Edwin Land

An essential aspect of creativity is not being afraid to fail.

 

Edwin Land