By Janis Fisher Chan
The Constant Fight for Bookings; Big Guys vs Us
There’s a war going on. It’s between the BIG GUYS and the little guys, and I’m afraid that individual homeowners like ourselves are among the little guys when it comes to short-term rentals. We’re being crowded off listing sites by multi-property owners and companies whose watchword is “SELL!”
When we first began traveling and renting out our home, our listing site of choice was VRBO (then called “Vacation Rentals by Owners”). VRBO was populated mostly by people like ourselves who paid a modest annual subscription fee for their listing and had complete control over the rental process. VRBO’s function was to connect travelers and hosts with one another, enabling the direct communication that builds confidence and trust.
But things have changed, and from our point of view, they’ve changed for the worst. Last year, VRBO’s parent, Home Away, sold itself to Expedia, joining the ranks of home listing sites that have become Big Business. I have nothing against making money. But in today’s new “sharing” economy, making a profit is clearly the most important goal, and connecting people only a means to achieve it.
Hospitality: A means to an End
It seems that relationships no longer matter in the short-term rental world, and communities are experiencing myriad problems as a result. Focused on getting travelers to click “Book Now!” many of the new home listing sites follow the Airbnb business model, putting up a firewall between travelers and host, allowing them to communicate only through the site until the booking has been made – and paid for. Like Airbnb and VRBO, these sites collect fees from both guests and hosts, cutting into the rental that hosts receive.
Long-time VRBO hosts like ourselves are up in arms at the changes: “STOP with the push, push, push…I don’t WANT instant booking!” “VRBO doesn’t care about owners or guests, they just want our money.” “Can anyone believe that VRBO is still a viable short-term rental platform?” “Renting before speaking to someone is a prescription for trouble.”
We know from experience that the back-and-forth of asking and answering questions on the phone is key to a successful short-term rental, for both travelers and homeowners. That’s why we’re switching our listing to Tripz.com, so we can continue to have those vital pre-booking conversations.
- Conversations help you develop a relationship
The guest and host “validation” promoted by sites Airbnb, VRBO, and copycat sites is no substitute for the personal contact you make through phone conversations. One-on-one conversations help to increase confidence and trust for both parties. Guests can ask questions they might never put into an email. By getting an understanding of what they’re looking for, hosts can tell them things they’d never think to ask and give them a sense of what our home is like to live in.
- Conversations help to clarify understandings and avoid disappointments
No matter how many pre-booking emails you exchange through a listing site, there’s always a good chance of missing or misunderstanding something important, such as the fact that the public bus runs only twice a day or the bedroom is actually a windowless alcove. Conversation helps both travelers and guests clarify vague questions and statements to make sure the home is a good fit.
- Conversations may uncover possible problems
Guests and hosts often volunteer details during a conversation that they wouldn’t think to mention in an email, details that sometimes indicate possible problems. As a host, wouldn’t you want to know ahead of time if a guest planned to hold a birthday party for her 17-year-old niece and a group of her friends? If you’re considering a short-term rental, wouldn’t you appreciate knowing that the bar downstairs was boisterous until the early hours on the weekends?
It’s not only what people say. Their tone of voice and the way they respond – or don’t respond – to questions can provide the clues travelers need to determine whether the home is right for them and for hosts to determine they are the kind of reliable, responsible people that can be trusted with their home.
It’s Time for Homeowners to Take Back Control
We can keep lobbying for listing sites like VRBO to return control to hosts and guests and facilitate direct communication instead of blocking it. However, given that those sites make so much money on what are essentially commercial transactions, that’s unlikely to happen. What we can do is move our listings to Tripz and other sites that have as their mission to respect and value both guests’ and hosts’ rights to determine the kind and level of communication needed. It is time to take back control of our rental businesses by removing our listings from sites that only care about their own bottom line. We do have better options. Tripz.com is a great example of a community that not only cares about their hosts and guests, but that puts us back in control of what matters to us the most.
Janis Fisher Chan is a writer and passionate traveler who recently launched TravelontheHouse.com to provide information, tips, and advice about home exchange and short-term rentals. You can reach her at [email protected].