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Short-term rentals: The personal touch remains important

Fifteen years ago, Airbnb launched to little fanfare in San Francisco with a USP of offering travellers the chance to lodge with a local at a fraction of the cost of a nearby hotel.

A few years later, I was heading to San Francisco and the cost of hotel accommodation left me aghast. There was nothing – absolutely nothing – for under $300 a night. As I scoured the web for something reasonable, I eventually found Airbnb. I wasn’t sure how it worked – but thought it must be cheaper than a hotel.

A few days later, I was blown away by how easy it had been to rent a basement apartment near Golden Gate Park, just a stone’s throw from where the exteriors to the movie Mrs Doubtfire were shot. My host let me in, gave me recommendations and was close by if there were any issues as he lived next door.

At a stroke, I had saved money, stayed in a wonderful location and benefitted from invaluable local knowledge. As for the ridiculously expensive local hotels – well no wonder Airbnb was founded in the City by the Bay.

Fast forward to 2023 and the Airbnb boom continues. There are now more listings on the platform than ever before – but the dynamic has shifted. People offering a spare room (or basement) are in the minority. In terms of portfolio size, 26% of hosts manage a single listing, while 28% run 2-5 properties. Sixteen per cent run 6-20, while 31% manage 21 properties or more.

An article published by NerdWallet and containing AirDNA data goes into more detail about the figures and – importantly – outlines the fact that better ratings across the board are achieved by people with fewer properties.

This I can understand from personal experience. Back when I managed a single rental and my mum was heavily involved – as I was living in Qatar at the time – we very rarely failed to achieve a five-star rating. Often, my mum would meet the guests when they arrived, point them in the right direction for pubs and restaurants, and leave her number in case anything went wrong. Months later, when my mum didn’t have the time to meet guests and we had an extra property to run, the reviews dropped a notch here and there.

Now this is obviously on a small scale – but it’s certainly relevant in relation to the data. More properties and more automation are wonderful – but a personal touch still goes a very long way. Of course, many guests prefer a lock box and are happy being left to their own devices. To me, though, it still feels like most people prefer some one-to-one contact. I don’t have data to back this up – just a good few years as a host and manager.

It makes me wonder if travellers will actively seek out small-scale property managers in future, in search of the personal touch. It might also be good news for the many platforms and tech tools trying to increase the number of guest experiences and advising how hosts can go the extra mile in search of more revenue and higher ratings.

Do you prefer the personal touch as either a guest or host? I would love to hear your thoughts. Let me know in the comments.


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