Automation in short-term rentals: Is it killing authenticity?
July 29, 2019
By Kevin Kelsey
Author of AirHost Academy and Smartbnb user
Since the dawn of the Internet, massive hotel and hospitality corporations have been automating their systems, driving efficiency and cutting costs.
Guests can make a reservation online and instantly receive an email with a confirmation code and receipt – payment made, booking: confirmed.
Changes to reservations, cancellations, and requests can all be made online with no human interaction whatsoever.
Society has become complacent to the impersonal nature of automation.
The short term rental market was no exception, with management companies creating their own listing websites and software to save time and, of course, money.
As Airbnb gained traction and secured its foothold in the short-term rental market, and subsequently the hospitality business, it became clear that its users clearly valued the communication and experiences they gained from interacting directly with the property owner – not the landlord or manager, but host.
What is STR automation?
When it comes to the short-term rental industry, the term automation can refer to many things. In the most general sense, AirhostAcademy considers automation to be a process that saves the host time on logistics.
It could mean automation of pricing, availability, messaging, guest access, and so on.
One example of short-term rental automation would be automating listing pricing to match demand - the hotel industry has been doing so for decades.
An owner that uses flat pricing - that is - the same nightly price for every single night of the year is missing out on thousands of dollars of potential revenue.
The amount of automation available to hosts is ever-increasing as the short-term rental industry becomes more and more attractive to property owners, but how are hosts responding to the increasing pressure to automate?
Why are hosts avoiding STR automation?
Hosts can be resistant to automation at first, and the reasons for that are completely understandable.
It’s most likely not because they are afraid of AI taking over and turning their business into the plot of an apocalyptic sci-fi movie.
Hosts feel that guests come to Airbnb for a more personal and familiar experience; they aren’t just a number, but a person or group looking for an amazing vacation experience, or at least a convenient place to stay with the comforts of home.
And it’s true: many guests appreciate being able to ask the host for local tips and lean on their knowledge of the city in order to make the most of their travels.
It’s completely reasonable to believe that automation can undermine the opportunity to create unique experiences, but is it a good idea for hosts to write off automation altogether?
Saving time while maintaining personality
As an Airbnb Superhost that has managed upwards of 20 listings at a time, I can personally attest to the benefits of automating short-term rental tasks.
At first, I was tackling it all manually while trying to also manage my busy personal life.
This was a nightmare, and quickly sucked all of the joy out of running the business.
After awhile, I started to miss messages from guests, mix up cleaning schedules with vendors, and make pricing errors that cost my clients money and impacted my reviews and ratings in a significant way.
To top it all off, I was burning the candle at both ends and the stress was starting to affect my personal life.
I remember once turning my phone off for a couple of hours while seeing a movie. When I turned it back on, I saw multiple angry messages from guests who thought I was ignoring them.
My heart sank, and so did the star rating they left for me.
In my stressful desperation, I decided to finally bite the bullet and try switching over to automation apps.
After a few minutes of Google, Smartbnb seemed to be a good contender and their free trial period was very attractive.
A few hours of setup later, I no longer needed to send guests an initial confirmation message, it was done automatically for me.
Writing 10+ reviews a day that all said more or less the same thing? Smartbnb took care of it.
Coordinating scheduling with the cleaners and spa maintenance vendors was suddenly automated as well.
The vendors loved it, the guests thought I was responding to them instantly, and a weight was lifted off my shoulders.
Automation apathy syndrome
The time I had saved by automating my short-term rental processes probably surpassed multiple hours per day.
Smartbnb’s messaging workflow allowed me to even program answers for some of the most common questions I get.
Suddenly when guests asked for early and late checkout, I could (politely) tell them we couldn’t allow it with an automated response explaining that our cleaning team was just too busy to accommodate it.
One of the most common questions for guests, and honestly at times a major annoyance for hosts, was taken care of in the blink of an eye.
However, I began to lean on this new technology as if it was my own personal AI assistant, causing me to miss some of the guests’ initial questions.
My communication ratings would sometimes take a hit for utilizing obviously automated messages.
My automated pricing also resulted in fewer bookings in rare cases, which I didn’t always notice until afterward.
Allowing automation to take over completely wasn’t an option, and I quickly discovered that there’s no room for complacency in the vacation rental business.
No substitute for a Superhost
Was the drop in communication ratings a result of using automation? It certainly wasn’t! It was my failure for leaning too hard on the automation.
As with all things in life, balance is key.
I began to evaluate what aspects of the process were ripe for automation, and which things still needed a personal touch.
I started with adding guest info to my automation using smartbnb to insert guest names and reservation details into the messaging.
I used friendly and colloquial language in all my automated communications.
Most importantly, I simply paid attention to the automation.
Instead of just blindly allowing it to take over for me, I paid close attention to the guests’ messages and if the automated response didn’t cover their questions or concerns then I would follow up with another message.
This strategy seemed to rescue my ratings while still allowing automation to instantly respond to the guest, buying me precious time to live my life.
With the informality problem solved, I moved onto automated pricing.
My number one secret to maximizing profits as a host is to avoid vacancies as much as possible. Automated pricing would sometimes fail to drop prices enough to book low demand nights. This was another issue solved by paying more attention, but in this case, I just needed to ensure that I studied my calendar every few days.
If there were nights still open less than a week away, I would open up an Incognito or Private Browsing tab and navigate to Airbnb and do a search for my city for the open nights as if I were an Airbnb guest looking for accommodations.
I would then assess the first page of rankings and if my listing wasn’t towards the top I would manually lower my prices, overriding the automated pricing, and instantly increase my search rankings!
My profits were salvaged, but an abundance of my time was still saved.
Saving sanity while boosting scalability
For smaller hosts, automation may not be necessary at first.
I once shared in the same skepticism, fearing that I’d turn off potential guests by not crafting the perfect reply to every single message.
After hundreds of reservations, the monotony can set in and a weary host tediously writing each and every message by hand can be far more damaging to ratings and reviews than any automated reply ever could.
My advice to hosts? Don’t let this happen to you.
Embrace the tools available to you and allow yourself room to scale your hosting business without worrying too much about maximizing authenticity.
Trust me, at the end of the day, a happy host is better than a tired, jaded rental owner.
About the author
Kevin is a Smartbnb user of 2 years, and the founder of Airhost Academy: a leading BnB investment blog. He and his partner went from owning no properties to owning 4, and then managing 30, in a single year. Airhost Academy is packed full of useful, practical advice for property managers - Check it out at https://airhostacademy.com/
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