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    Meeting the Rising Expectations of Modern Guests

    When Kevin Knight started his career in 2014, guest experience in the vacation rental world felt primitive. Knight, then one of Vacasa’s first employees, recalls hit-or-miss listing information alongside photos of inconsistent quality. He also remembers guests needing to call to find out answers to now-common questions, such as whether the property has Wi-Fi or the size of the beds.

    In turn, guest expectations were low. People raved when they found hidden gems and groused about roughing it in worse-than-expected properties—there was no Wi-Fi! The beds were all twin-sized!

    But in less than a decade, Knight said that guests have adopted a higher set of standards that have forced vacation rental managers to do the same. “Their expectations have evolved as management companies have focused more on hospitality,” says Knight, who founded Patriot Vacation Rentals, then left in 2022 to start Vet X Ventures. “As we’ve learned and grown as an industry, best practices are being pushed to the top. Guests don’t need to be met at the house in most markets because they can use an automated door code. And messaging has been refined where they’re not needing us to reach out as often.”

    A recent survey bolsters what Knight has seen. According to Breezeway’s 2022 Property Operations Report, 54 percent of vacation rental managers have noticed that guests have become more demanding over the past two years. And 31 percent of managers believe that rising guest expectations have made it harder for them to deliver services.

    In addition to expecting more, guests are now smarter, according to Bob Zev, founder and managing director of Los Angeles Luxury Furnished Housing. Guests research more before they book to ensure the best possible experience, he says. Often, as part of their research, guests message Zev with specific questions: Does the property have blackout curtains? Is there recycling? And we know there’s Wi-Fi, of course, but what’s the internet speed?

    “Our obligation to provide a superior product has been challenged by client expectation,” Zev says. “And, therefore, we continue to enhance the experience.”

    This trend of greater expectations and more well-informed guests started just before the pandemic in 2020, Zev says. Since then, he’s seen the trend grow immensely, with guests expecting even more from their stay. People want workspaces, customized experiences, and the exact amenities they desire.

    “People’s personal and professional lives have converged, with a lot of people working from home,” Zev says. “Even if they’re on vacation or temporarily relocating, they’re still going to be working. We need to not only be a residence but also to be a place that they can conduct business.”

    Guest expectations will always evolve. But Zev says that one thing will never change: This is the hospitality industry. Providing superior service is the gold standard, now and forever.

    “Getting guests to come back is the reward of providing superior service,” Zev says. “That’s our overall goal.” Superior service starts with clear communication, Zev says, which is weaved throughout the guest’s stay.

    Before They Book: Provide All the Info Guests Need

    From when a guest researches a home to after they’ve booked a stay, vacation rental property managers must be clear and transparent. This starts by creating a listing page that answers essential questions, allowing guests to research and compare listings.

    “A big part of this work is managing expectations and making clear right away that what you have and what you don’t have,” says David Jacoby, president and co-founder of Hostfully. “Having good photos, being very accurate about details, and not hiding the cancellation policy. If you have a strict cancellation policy—which is oftentimes different from what people expect from hotels—make that clear.”

    Jacoby, who has been hosting guests as a vacation rental manager for 10 years, noticed how important it was to clearly communicate and address customer expectations. Marketing and communication technology made everything easier for his properties, he saw, so he and a friend founded vacation rental software company Hostfully to help other vacation rental managers.

    Jacoby and company CEO Margot Schmorak wanted to help other managers improve how they marketed their properties. Vacation rental mangers should write listings that give guests precise details about a property, they believe. And when guests are booking, managers should work to understand what a guest expects from their stay with pre-arrival questions. These features are a big part of Hostfully, Jacoby says.

    And managers should provide guests with a guidebook for their stay, which is another big part of Hostfully. Jacoby and Schmorak wanted Hostfully to help managers create a digital guidebook for each property, with information about the property, Wi-Fi passwords, key codes, and local recommendations.

    “What we’re seeing our power users do is integrate reservations with a smart lock company,” Jacoby says. “A code will get created, and that code will go into the guidebook. And the property manager will send the guidebook to the guest. And this is all automated through email templates and triggers.”

    The email may say, “Here’s everything you need to know about your trip” and include a smart code that opens the home. These books also feature house rules, local recommendations, and the vacation rental company’s branding.

    The guidebook also gives property managers a chance at another revenue stream. Jacoby says that managers can partner with travel aggregators, like Viator, to connect guests with local experiences—tours, classes, dinners—through the guidebook. When guests book an experience after clicking the guidebook’s link, managers make a percentage of the cost.

    Good software allows property managers to automate time-consuming processes, such as taking calls or giving important details about the stay. It also allows for easy communication when a guest has booked, an essential factor to creating a great guest experience.

    Before the Stay: Ask Good Questions

    There’s a reason why Jacoby wanted to include pre-arrival questions in his software. Zev says that when a guest is booking their stay, asking good questions allows vacation rental managers to understand what a guest needs to have a good experience.

    Some guests want you to meet them at the property for a tour of the amenities, Zev says; others simply want to be left alone and only receive information via text or email. This is where pre-arrival questions make life easier for everyone, Zev says.

    If a guest is booking a stay to have a medical procedure, for example, Zev will ask if they need addition services, such as a concierge, car rental services, or food delivery. If a guest wants to be left alone on vacation, Zev will back off on communication and allow them to enjoy their stay.

    That’s why Zev says that he takes first inquiries seriously, taking time to learn a bit more about guests and why they’re staying. If they can understand what a guest needs early in the guest’s experience, managers can provide for their needs throughout the stay.

    “We try to be a one-stop shop as much as possible to enhance the experience of the guests,” Zev says. “We want to make their stay as comfortable and easy as possible.”

    During the Stay: Adopt Tech with Guests in Mind

    While some vacation rental managers have worried that technology takes away from their personal touches, Jacoby offers a mindset shift.

    With new technology, ask yourself: How can I use technology to enhance the guest’s experience?

    Adopting uniform smart locks across properties, for example, doesn’t mean that managers never meet guests at the home. Instead, it means that guests will have an easier time checking in at whatever hour, while also providing a good experience to guests who want no contact.

    And digital guidebooks don’t spell the end of interactions with guests, Jacoby says. Instead, they allow rental managers to focus on the fun and personal parts of the interactions with guests. They give managers more time to ask good questions, to go the extra mile for guests in unique ways.

    Managers can also use QR codes in the properties, Jacoby says. For example, they can place a QR code above a washer and dryer that will link guests to a video on how to use the machines, something people from other countries often struggle with. A simple scan of the QR code can reduce confusion, cut out the need for an extra phone call, and improve the guest’s experience.

    Whether or not vacation rental managers love technology, Zev says that it’s the core of the modern guest’s expectations. Guests want internet, he says, but also ask if there’s backup internet in case there’s an outage. They ask about smart thermostats and digital security systems. They want smart TVs and the ability to log into their own Netflix and Spotify accounts.

    But more than anything, Zev says that technology is a tool to improve responsiveness during a guest’s stay. When a guest messages with an issue or complaint about their stay, Zev says that it’s important to message back as quickly as possible to let the guest know that a technician is scheduled for service and on the way.

    “It’s not about saying, ‘We can get the fix within 24 hours’ anymore,” Zev says. “It’s about saying, ‘We’ll get a technician out there immediately and do some immediate troubleshooting over the phone if need be.’”

    Zev says that a manager’s reward for meeting guest needs—technology, personal touches, increased responsiveness—is return visits.

    That remains true after the stay: Keeping up with guests after their stay keeps guests coming back.

    After the Stay: Stay in Touch

    Guests give vacation rental managers a lot of information about themselves. Jacoby says that managers should store this information in customer relationship management (CRM) software, as this will allow managers to send better messages after guests leave.

    Storing data about guests—such as what hosts learned through their pre-arrival questionnaire and during the guest’s stay—can help managers turn one-time guests into return visitors.

    Jacoby says that managers can set up custom, triggered emails for each guest. “Try having triggers that send guests an email seven days after they left to say, ‘Thank you and please book with us again,’” Jacob says. “Then set up another trigger up about 180 days after the guest has left targeted for that customer. ‘You stayed with us last year. Next year, please keep us in mind. Here’s a special code coupon for you to get a discount.’”

    Vacation rental management owners should also make a point of calling guests to ask for feedback, Knight says. They can ask about what went right during a guest’s stay and what went wrong.

    Making these calls requires emotional intelligence, Knight says. A manager must be able to listen for how a guest felt about their stay. If anything went wrong, managers could work to make it right for guests—and this kind of responsiveness will likely make guests think twice about writing a bad review.

    “Early in the company, you should be the one calling to get the real feedback,” Knight says. “A big part of it is understanding and caring about how they feel—reaching out to them personally and asking them, ‘What could have made your trip better?’ If you’re the owner of a company and not reaching out to almost every guest for the first few months, then you’re going to miss a lot of opportunities.”

    Always Move Toward a Better Guest Experience 

    When Knight planned out his company’s guest experience plan, he kept two empty chairs nearby. One represented the guest; another represented the homeowner. Every decision he makes affects both, Knight reminds himself, even though he’s the only one making the decisions.

    “You need to begin with the end in mind,” Knight says. “If you do that, you’re going to have the most comfortable pillows, the best sheets, and a great overall experience for guests. And when everything is elevated, now you can charge more, which gives a better return to the homeowner. Keeping guests and homeowners in mind is the golden ticket.”
    Knight puts it simply for how he wants guests to feel: “The guest doesn’t want to feel like a burden on you. They want to feel like a celebrity.”

    Jacoby says that vacation rental managers must also ensure that there’s consistency across their properties. This means consistent amenities at the properties, clear photos of each property, and modern technology to ensure guests can get information about the stay and link their technological lives into the property during the stay.

    Managers who want to improve their guest experience must make communications the heart of their effort, Zev says. Ensuring good communication is the first and last step of improving the experience for guests.

    “Even afterwards, when following up, asking, ‘How was your stay? Is there anything we could have done differently? Is there anything you would like to have in the future?’” Zev says. “When we know specific things about repeat guests, we can really start enhancing their experience.”

    The Future

    In the future, Zev believes that customized experiences will become the norm, especially for repeat customers. If a guest has visited before, vacation rental managers would be wise to remember even their simplest preferences. For example, what coffee maker does the guest prefer? Do they like to have a bathroom with a bathtub? Guests will notice when managers remember these details.

    Zev also believes that customer loyalty programs and making stays more sustainable will become important with guests in the next few years. “We’re in the process of building a loyalty program to incentivize our existing guests to continue to come back to us, because we know that there’s so many different options,” Zev says. “And we’re finding that being able to offer sustainable products to clients is something we’re seeing more demand for now. I imagine we’ll see more of both in the future.”

    Jacoby believes that artificial intelligence will soon play a bigger role in bolstering guest experience during their stay. ChatGPT, an artificial intelligence platform that gives detailed responses to questions and prompts, could be used to build itineraries for a guest, Jacoby says. Vacation rental managers could enter data they’ve learned about the client into this program and ask it to create a customized local experience for the guest.

    “Then it can help answer some basic questions,” Jacoby says. “If you get a question from a guest, knowing that that information is already in the guidebook, ChatGPT can access that information, understand the question, and provide the detailed response right away. That will save time for the property manager.”

    Guests will flock to listings that provide unique experiences as part of the booking package, Knight believes. Guests booking property along the California coast could be given a free wine tour during their stay. In ski towns, managers can include ski passes and rental equipment at the property. This would save guests hours of their own time, Knight says.
    “It’s such a smooth experience for guests,” Knight says. “Their expectations will continue to rise here. Companies that are able to create a consistent, elevated experience for guests will be the winners.”

     Hal Conick is a Chicago-based writer and regular contributor to VRMA Arrival magazine.

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