One month after moving into a two-bedroom above our budget, my New York City roommate and I explored ways to make some extra money. We had used Airbnb as travelers and wondered about becoming hosts. I would build our online profile, creating a listing and fielding reservations, and Michael would handle the actual hosting in the East Village, welcoming guests and pointing them toward our favorite bodega. If we could lower our $2,525 rent by even $100 to $200 per month, we reasoned, our time would be well spent.
Few people (us included) would rent their room, apartment or house out to strangers if not for such a reward. Since its inception in 2008, Airbnb has wanted that to be more than money — rather, community, where you treat travelers from near and far the way you’d want to be treated on your own trips abroad. Of course, hiccups do happen. Not having air conditioning or a sparkling-clean bathroom would end up costing us with some of our initial visitors.
Over our first nine months, though, Michael and I turned the minor complaints and honest feedback of 42 guests into $9,655. We earned 30 (mostly positive) reviews from singles and couples occupying my relatively large bedroom when I was out of town or staying at my girlfriend’s for the weekend. (We also lucked out because New York City only barred the renting of whole apartments, not single rooms.)
The numbers make it sound seamless, but we made more mistakes along the way. A Puerto Rican couple that had “the best vacation of our lives” was followed by a Chinese toddler drawing colorfully on our walls; a Pennsylvania couple getting enough rest in my bed before running the New York City Marathon gave way to Southern California college girls trying to scam us for a free stay. The Airbnb hosting experience is choppy — it can also be rewarding, particularly if you shorten your learning curve by considering ours first.
Creating a Listing — How Do You Get Started with Zero Credibility?
A neighborhood, even the Alphabet City section of the East Village, doesn’t sell itself. To convince people to stay here without a single host review to our names (let alone differentiate ourselves from the other 11,500-plus private-room rentals nearby), Michael and I started with low prices. The cheapest lodging in the area, St. Marks Hotel one mile west of us, asks $140 per night for a no-frills room containing a full-size bed. We would charge our first guest, an international student named Bohan, $51.
Optimize for search
Offer what hotels do, and more
Identify your ideal guests
Like the nightly rate, the listing itself represented an opportunity for us to stand out. I consulted Airbnb’s reams of online guides as a first step. Optimize your listing for the site’s search function, one such guide advised, by being detailed and incorporating keywords. It’s no coincidence that we changed the name of our listing to “Large private room in East Village, New York City.” (Interestingly, there are differing opinions about including location in a listing title since users are already searching by city.)
Airbnb’s guides, as well as research found elsewhere, also reinforced a larger idea: Set up your listing so that it would attract you, if you were the one looking for a place to stay. Based on my experience as an Airbnb guest, I knew that I appreciated hotel-like options: an “Instant Book” button, a flexible cancellation policy and no fees for cleaning and having multiple guests. We also went above and beyond traditional hotels, offering anytime check-ins and -outs. These characteristics simplified the reservation process, leading to more reservations.
It turned out to be easy to rack up reservations at low prices for single travelers. But Bohan’s $51 one-night stay, and the others that would follow it, allowed Michael and me to pocket only $15 each after fees and taxes. Reasoning that two people (a couple, or friends willing to share a full bed) would pay more for the room than one, we eventually limited our availability to a multi-night stay at a higher price. Targeting a different type of Airbnb user preceded actually learning how to host.
Guest Interactions — Now Comes the Hard Part, Actually Hosting
Airbnb’s next mission, announced in Los Angeles in November, is to connect every step of a traveler’s process, adding flight-booking (eventually) and experience-seeking to the simpler idea of staying in a local’s space. Michael and I were not ready to think beyond welcoming guests into our apartment. Once our guinea pigs made the leap and booked with us, I set up a phone call on the Friday before the Saturday they were to arrive, asking about preferred check-in times; providing directions into the apartment; setting an expectation level about sharing the space with Michael; and ensuring they weren’t crazy. The spiel I gave became hardened in my head.
Our address is...There is a keypad out front and the building code is… I will leave you a key on the ledge above our front door. You can use this to get in and out of the apartment as you please during your stay... Once you’re inside, you’ll see a closed door on the left — that is Michael’s bedroom... On the right, will be a door for the bathroom and the entryway for the kitchen. You’ll have access to both areas... On the opposite side of the apartment will be your bedroom — I’ll leave the door open for you. There will be clean sheets and bath towels waiting for you... Feel free to open or close the two large windows as you see fit... If any questions arise, during your stay, you can reach me at this number..."
Eventually, I learned that this information was delivered more easily in a templated message to guests on the Airbnb platform. Nevertheless, this preparation was in lieu of actually greeting guests at the door, allowing Michael and I to get on with our own days. We figured guests who actually wanted to be hosted would tell us as much, and they did. A couple from France locked their door at all times; a couple from Colorado invited us out for a drink.
Don't over communicate
Create an easy check-in
Don't discount cleaning
But there was more preparation to be done before each guest even arrived. Aside from hiding my personal valuables (laptop and camera) in Michael's room — hosting friends of ours had their Upper West Side apartment robbed — there was cleaning to do. I would survey the apartment’s common areas; Swiffer the bedroom floor; put clean sheets on the bed; and leave bath towels, toiletries, chocolates and a welcome note out in the open. OK, almost always. At times, in all honesty, I overlooked some dirt on the windowsill and some beach sand on the hardwood floor. More often, however, guests would note the small spots of mold in the shower or the occasional cockroach in the kitchen.
Thankfully, we never got roasted in our reviews, partly because we were always communicative and respectful toward our guests. Five-star ratings came in categories like “Check In,” “Value” and “Location” even if our “Cleanliness” reviews started to suffer, dropping our overall score down to a 4.5.
Begging for Feedback — Turning Your Initial Guests into the Promise of More
An Airbnb guest who is happy with a booking may feel compelled to support a host's growing side business. One who is upset may feel responsible to warn other users about a host’s listing or behavior. More often than not, home-sharers have an experience that falls somewhere between these extremes. Why do they offer reviews and star ratings across six categories then? Prodding email reminders from Airbnb help. We found that 78% of our guests, sooner or later, left us at least a one-word response.
Seek feedback, not stars
Make tiny improvements
Of course, a review is different from actual feedback. At all turns that were appropriate — mostly after a stay was completed but before the guest left a review — I reached out to guests seeking specific positives and negatives that we could put into action. Here is what our third guest — Maria, a young professional from upstate New York — told us about her stay.
Over the ensuing eight months, many of our guests would either offer these quick tips or just a few words of praise. But every once in a while, we received detailed reviews containing advice. This one came from Meredith, a middle-aged woman from Virginia.
Things We Learned to Fix, Thanks to Guests
Look at your guests as your customers, who can give you feedback specific to their perspective. It's valuable and shouldn't be discounted. Here are tips, from quick to complex, that we received from our visitors.
- Put a small garbage can in the bedroom: We made the mistake of forgetting that guests would have trash and that respectful guests would not be comfortable leaving it on the floor. After Bohan's heads-up, we purchased a small bin for $10 and now routinely fill it with a small grocery bag.
- Put fans in the bedroom: A couple from Austin, Texas, who is accustomed to the dry heat there, suffered through one especially humid July night. They suggested we have a one-fan-per-one-guest policy. Their second night was a cooler one.
- Put a powerstrip in the bedroom: Maria, our first techie of a guest, made this comment on her way out. Given there were only four outlets in the room, a powerstrip now gives visitors to opportunity to plug in as many as seven devices. The electric bill goes up, but so does their satisfaction.
- Provided WiFi information in advance: Our Internet password is a nonsensical, 16-letter string that is best copied and texted. Unfortunately, it took a half-dozen guests texting or messaging us upon their arrival for us to finally get the picture. Providing the login before check-in made it easier for both them and us.
- Included transportation details on the listing: We have had guests with their own cars; guests who are confused by the New York City subway system; and guests who didn't trust Google Maps to get from the airport to the apartment. For each of them, we provided details on five different modes: subway, taxi, car, bus and bike.
- Included restaurant tips on the listing: Perhaps because of Yelp and the like, very few guests have actually asked for this kind of local-only advice. To appease the few that have, we included our favorite restaurants for 18 different cuisines, plus how long it takes to walk to each from our place.
- Deep-clean the bathroom before arrival: Multiple guests have complained about the conditions of our bathroom. To make them feel more comfortable — and, yes, chase more five-star reviews — we now make spraying down our shower and wiping away toilet grime a matter of practice. It's more work for us, but the guests appreciate it.
Being responsive to past guests improved the experience for the next batch. And getting four- and five-star ratings meant Michael and I could begin charging more, cutting into our monthly rental statement.