Through tears my cleaner Lesley said “I’m leaving, so sorry”.  Yikes, this was very bad news!

She knew she was the only private cleaner in town, and other private cleaners are simply not available, leaving us in a bind.  She and her husband were leaving town to tour the country in their caravan, living slow and stress free. She told us a month ago, but now they leave in 2 weeks.

We have had a valuable partnership over the last 5 years.  Lesley cleaned quickly, handling tight changeovers easily.  The presentation after cleaning was great – despite us doing 35 extra things our competitors don’t.  We stayed the most booked property in town year after year.

But now this was serious.  We are away a lot so we can’t clean, and we don’t want to anyway.

After some soul searching, we decided to switch to Holiday GOR, the local managing company who bring cleaning teams from out of town to our tiny village.  They are an excellent company who we have known for many years having used them a decade ago when we were based remotely in Melbourne.

But there are a few hitches.  They need control of the guest flow to coordinate cleaning, and they need to be fairly compensated for that control.  They came up with the bright idea of lifting our rental prices to offset some cost changes.  Hmm, good idea if it works.  We’ll give it a go and retune if necessary.  It’s now September 2019.  In time I’ll let you my readers know how that experiment goes, stay tuned.

I also want to drive DIRECT bookings separately from the OTAs like I do now, which provide over 50% of my rentals.  No problem, I’ll still do that, sending bookings to the manager via my online booking engine so I can measure my success.  So far, so good.

A side benefit from the change is that it frees up more of my time, and my wife and I are more free to travel.

Training new cleaners

Now normally changing cleaners is no big deal if they are experienced.  It becomes more tricky if, like us, you offer 35 extra little details that have to be perfect.  The extras are important, and our guests often tell us how we have ‘thought of everything’, they loved their experience, and they will tell their friends. However 35 extra details are too much for a cleaner to memorise with a once off walk through.

Memory and repetition can take literally months. We don’t have months, we have a week.  It is also human nature to be embarrassed if you forget something, and they can be reluctant to keep asking or worse, just guess.

The solution is a good training manual cleaners can refer to as often as they like.

What does a cleaner training manual look like?

It needs lots of photos and notes the cleaner can look at initially and when they need to check later. Photos show all those little details. Instantly.

An index helps. Finally a quick checklist helps the cleaner to do a final walkthrough testing the critical points, long after the training has been done.

I prepared our training manual this week. It took about four hours to prepare, but time well invested.  It has 14 pages, with 44 photos just for one studio and ensuite. Here is how it is structured:

  • Index and General guidance
  • Pics and notes for each part of the rental
  • Quick checklist

Here is an extract from a typical page:

Extract from cleaning manual

Extract from cleaning manual

Revealing all

The full document and those 44 photos also contain the hidden anatomy of our Sea Zen rental which achieves our ongoing 90% occupancy.  I’m happy to share it with my readers.

YOU CAN DOWNLOAD THE CLEANER TRAINING MANUAL HERE (1.2MB) 

The new cleaners are being trained next week. They will watch Lesley do her last clean, and they’ll also have the training manual.  Easy.  I’ll let you know how it goes, also how the new partnership with the management company goes.

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Sometimes, vacation rental owners have to know the really important question to ask your guests.

This came to me when I was speaking to a switched on audience at Yarra Valley tourism in late August 2019. I was correctly challenged when I said Tripadvisor seemed like a waste of time – owners in the area were all using it but getting almost no bookings from it.  The challenge to me was – “Maybe prospective guests researched on Tripadvisor, but booked direct!”  My response was that owners should KNOW whether or not prospective guests actually researched Tripadvisor and booked direct, because owners should ASK.

The critical question of guests who book direct

You need to be asking guests this critical question: “How did you find us?” 

 

Maybe they responded to your newsletter.

Maybe they found you on Google Maps.

Maybe they clicked your Google Ad.

Maybe they were referred by a friend and found you via your website.

Maybe they found you at the top of Google.

Maybe they were looking for something specific like Pet Friendly.

Maybe they researched Tripadvisor, found you and then went off and found your website. (If that is the case, you need to keep your Tripadvisor listing, but I’d be surprised if that was the case)

Maybe they found you on other OTAs like Airbnb, then went to your website.

Maybe it was random.

 

Maybe, maybe, maybe.  Lots of maybes.  But they shouldn’t be unknowns.  You MUST be asking guests how they found you, when they book direct.  Then you can exploit that and do it some more and grow your direct bookings.

Are YOU asking that question?

 

The other big question

You should also ask – “Why did you choose us?”

It could be because of your photo, your name, your location, your price, a specific service you provide (like Pet Friendly), your reviews or some other reason.

Once you know the answer, you know your strength, and you can build on it.  You also know the other attributes that are less attractive, and you can make them better.  For example if folks usually choose you because of your reviews, but are silent on your photo, perhaps you should be getting better photos.  You can always improve.

Keep asking those questions!

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360 degree photos get you to the next level of quality in displaying your rental property, giving your future guests an amazing immersive experience.

Trust in reality

The curious guest wants to know if they can trust you before they book. They know the usual images can be very misleading, maybe taken with a wide angle lens that makes a tiny room larger, or with ugly features hidden by omission.

In contrast, your 360 degree photos can help your guest see the honest beauty of your property. They click on the 360 view and they can rotate around the complete room as if they are really there. No distortion, everything in its honest place. If the images and lighting are done well, it is almost like being there. People can fall in love with the experience, before they even book.

Guests can also hop from location to location, for example they can jump from the living room to the balcony and see the view. They can step into the bathroom, and they can even go up and down the stairs.

With 360 degree photos, your prospective guests have all those trust fears dispelled, they can go ahead and book with confidence.

I decided to have 360 degree photos taken for Sea Zen. This is my experience.

The Sea Zen 360 example

Just click on the image above to get the 360 experience, rotating a full 360 degrees inside the Sea Zen example. Drag a point on the image and it will rotate.

Once you have your photos done, you can display the viewing window on your website, or have a clickable link on your website. You can also email your clickable link to someone who is enquiring but hasn’t quite booked.

You can also show your interactive images on your Google Maps / My Business listing site. However, the OTAs don’t make it easy to show the images – more on that later.

Moving between viewing positions

The guest can jump to the next viewing position with a click, just as if they are walking around the room.

Floor Plan

You can also get the contractor to provide a smartened up floor plan showing all the rooms and furniture. Another layer of reality and trust for your guests. This is the Sea Zen example.

Floor plan

Floor plan

Dollhouse

If you can’t wait a few days for the tidy floor plan, the software automatically stitches the various viewing positions together and generates a ‘Dollhouse’ image, just like a model in space that you can spin to get different perspectives. Here is the one that the system generates.

3D Dollhouse

3D Dollhouse

Making a simple video for youtube

You can make a simple rotating video tour for youtube.

Here is the example I loaded for Sea Zen.

To make this youtube video tour, you start with an image called a  ‘photosphere’ from the contractor, a condensed 360 image.

A handy free site (360photo-to-video.com) converted that image to a simple rotating video in a standard .webm format. Then I uploaded that to Youtube in a few seconds.

Loading images to your Online Travel Agency listing

Homeaway allows you to upload a Youtube video tour, such as the example above.

Booking.com say they allow you to upload a photosphere. (It didn’t work for me).

I couldn’t find a way of uploading a matterport view to Airbnb.  Apparently they are still doing experiments they started a few years ago, so don’t hold your breath!

All three OTAs allow you to upload simple images such as the floor plan.

Having the photos taken

You choose a contractor. In my case I was approached by a company (virtualinspections.com.au) that travels around Australia taking photos and I liked their product examples and prices. (Disclaimer: I get no affiliate benefit from Virtual Inspections.)

Google has a global list of many vendors that work with the lesser quality needed for google maps, and their quality varies widely. Choose your contractor carefully, and get examples of their work before deciding.

On the day of the shoot, you need to set up the presentation, just as you need to before any photographer arrives.  Clutter removed, wires removed, lights on, blinds open, maybe some red cushions and flowers.

Matt, my photographer from Virtual Inspections uses an automated ‘Matterport’ 3D camera system, taking photos from about a dozen locations. In the final product, the guest can jump from location to location.

Duration of the shoot

It takes about 45 minutes for the contractor to take images from about a dozen different locations. The finished views were available for me to view the next day.

Cost

It cost me A$300 for the images I’ve shown in my example, plus another A$100 for the floor plan and A$100 for loading images onto Google maps.

How the Matterport Camera works

Matterport camera

Matterport camera

It is a black box mounted on a tripod used by the contractor. At each location it takes 6 images, rotating automatically from angle to angle. Each shot uses HDR (high dynamic range) to balance the light so you can see the bright parts and the dull parts clearly without being washed out. The software then stitches the images together into one high quality 360 degree image of 130 Megapixels.

The image is stored on a server and when guests click on the viewing window on your website, the viewer gets a seamless experience as they rotate through the images sent from the server.

The camera is 230 x 260 x 110 mm and weighs 3 kg.

Alternatives

There are many alternatives out there. In some a professional takes shot from one location using HDR and stitches them together using alternative software and hosting. The result can be excellent.

Beware scams

There are some low quality scammers out there. I was scammed by a pushy salesman with big promises. They used a tiny rotating camera that wasn’t able to take good images. Bright areas were washed out and low light areas were barely visible. The result would have trashed my brand, so I made them remove all traces of their work from my Google maps listing, and asked for a refund. My current contractor Virtual Inspections was the opposite, very professional.

What is your experience with 360 Photos?

Have you used a vendor you can recommend? Send me a message.

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Creative cockroach?

The Airbnb founders were from design school where they learned to be creative.  Their early inspiration to make money from hiring airbeds soon morphed into creative ways for home sharing.  When they were failing, they used their creativity to make enough money from funky breakfast cereal to survive, leading a startup advisor to say they were like cockroaches – ‘nothing will kill you guys’. It was a compliment!

This illustrated the theme of creative change they used over and over to survive – free photos, owner reviews of guests and a ridiculously easy website to make bookings. When facing shut down by community lawmakers they came up with creative changes and compromises to continue operating.

They became the ultimate unkillable creative cockroach!

Vacation rental fee increase?

This continuing creativity struggle may well affect vacation rental owners this year too, with a fee increase driven by changing models.

Creative struggle for growth

So are Airbnb struggling now?  They announced that they will raise money with a public share issue in 2019, and its success will be built on growth prospects.  The problem is their growth flatlined in 2018, so the struggle is  – how to get growth? They decided in recent times to add hotels, China, ‘experiences’ and new tools for property managers.

Foray into new models

The most relevant to us VR owners is the foray into hotels and property managers, and they are creative there too, with lots of experiments.

They have partnered with boutique hotels, they have had special apartment buildings built by partners to be marketed via Airbnb.  They have partnered with hotels and property managers to list on Airbnb, and this is where it gets interesting.

The growth will add supply and this may mean more internal competition.  It will also probably mean extra host fees.

Changing host fee model

A few weeks ago (May 2019), news emerged via Skift that Airbnb are experimenting with some hotels and property managers with a simple host-only fee.  Of course the fee for hosts jumps from 3% to around 14% to compensate Airbnb for the loss in guest fee.  It is very close to the booking.com model.  Some data shows this simple model is preferred by guests.

So now Airbnb has a hybrid model.  Some hosts pay the old 3% commission with about 11% paid by the guest, and some hotels and property managers pay a host only-fee of  around 14%.

Presumably, it will all feed into extra listings and extra Airbnb revenue. The creative cockroach will be well placed to go public with its public share offering this year.

Your Airbnb fees will probably increase dramatically

If data emerges that there is strong guest preference for the host-only fee, expect that Airbnb will progressively introduce a high host-only fee for most owners.  Expect your host fee to rise from 3% to 14%!

The net revenue to you need not change, because you can increase the base price to compensate for the change in fee structure. It can mean the same total fee for the guest, and the same net revenue for the host. That is complicated, but doable.  The big point here is to expect a fee hike!

There has been no official announcement yet, but don’t be surprised when it happens!

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A vacation rental colleague told me a surprising story of how a return guest declined her direct booking discount, and made a more expensive booking through an OTA!  Thank you Helen for this story, with some messages for us all.

Helen is doing all the right things for direct bookings.  She has her own website, a presence on Google My Business/ Maps and a clear discount in a voucher she sends to previous guests to book direct.

Discount declined

Imagine her surprise when an enquiring guest said she was returning and declined  Helen’s 9% direct booking discount, but instead chose to book via booking.com – “for the cashback to my credit card”.

It turns out that booking.com is advertising to previous guests that they can get an (unstated) cashback in May if they book with booking.com.  On signing up to the discount company so you can check the discount, you find it is just 4%, well under the 9% Helen offers!

Irrational behaviour

People behave strangely.  Some motorists backtrack 10 km so they can get a 4 cent per litre fuel discount, costing far more than they get for the fuel discount! Some vacation rental guests can behave the same way.  Maybe they have spent so much time finding a discount, they will pursue it irrationally to justify their wasted time.

Here is the booking.com offer, offered by shopback:  https://www.shopback.com.au/booking-com. The long sign up process to find the offer is followed by a tacky email talking about other offers, and there is NO unsubscribe option as required by privacy legislation!  Says it all really.

So what can you do to attract direct bookings?

I continue to send out monthly newsletters to my past guests and keep reinforcing the discount for past guests booking direct – it works!

Helen’s winning strategy

Helen doesn’t have a newsletter, but she has actually solved the problem better in her overall strategy.  She goes out of her way to make personal contact with 95% of her guests – and they love it.  Many become regular repeat guests.  One Singapore couple have been returning for 26 years.  And overall about half her bookings are repeats!  Who cares if one person is distracted by the 4% irrational booking.com discount?

She also now has a story to tell her guests – make sure you book direct for a genuine discount and don’t be sidetracked by other gimmicky discounts!

 

Email me if you have some other direct booking tactics.

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