What You CAN Do: The Host Survival Guide to Social Distancing
Almost every person on earth has experienced some impact from the Corona virus (COVID-19) pandemic. Depending what part of the world you’re in, the impact could already be months in maybe you’re just days into this. Here in Nashville, it started with the cancelation of the SEC Tournament followed closely by the closure of bars and restaurants to limit capacity. The safer at home order followed just about 2 weeks later. Like many hosts, I have found myself in unchartered territory dealing with a slew of cancelations, OTAs adjusting my policies without so much as communicating that to me and the government and media outlining all of the things I could no longer do.
In a matter of weeks, social distancing has become the new norm. Since my husband is considered essential personnel and has still been going to work every day, that means I have a lot of time with just me (and the dog, June) on my hands. While I am an extrovert in many ways, I do actually enjoy my alone time. However, I have come to realize that my max alone time is about 2 consecutive days. Outside of that, if I am not with other people, I need to be occupied.
Last year I was interviewed by Matt Landau of VRMB for his podcast, Unlocked. He titled the episode “No Time to Waste” which pretty much nailed me to a T. After dealing with the initial shock of all of this and letting myself feel all the feels, I decided it was time to get back to that more normal version of myself and spring into action. For a self- confessed control freak, having a list of things I CAN do and CAN control has helped me feel a sense of normalcy (and kept my boredom at bay) during this unprecedented time. I am sharing that list (well, most of it anyway) in hopes that it will do the same for you.
Take a Hard Look at Finances
Most of my clients have a handle on money coming in, but no clue how much is going out. Costs include: tax (sales, occupancy, property, business, etc), mortgage, utilities, insurance (typically at a premium if you have the right STR coverage), tools and technology, maintenance and more. Thank goodness I spent a fair amount of time last year and earlier this year setting up Quickbooks (new users – that link is good for 50% and a $50 gift card) so I was able to easily see every single penny that was going out as well as recurring charges. I was able to isolate charges that wouldn’t be incurred without guests (rental taxes, cleaning, supplies) versus expenses that would still be there no matter what. From there, I began to call, email or simply cancel where I could. My biggest expenses and calls were in these categories:
Mortgage & utilities
I was considering temporarily shifting my strategy from short term rental to extended stay rentals. Doing the analysis and calling everyone to know my options helped me determine my bottom line number- the number I would need to cover costs without draining our savings. I also plan to do more research on the SMB loans available and will update this when I learn more.
IMPORTANT NOTE: PLEASE do your research on the legalities between short and long term rentals and make sure whatever you choose you are covered for.
Be Strategic not Panicked
I have seen a lot of knee jerk reactions (myself included) that I personally believe people will regret a few months from now. Though no one has a crystal ball, I have to believe that we will get through this. Therefore, I have temporarily adjusted my strategy on a home by home basis.
Personally, I did/do not feel comfortable welcoming just any guest right now- especially with a shelter in place order in Nashville. Therefore, we updated our policy to outline exactly what guests are welcome during this time. Read the policy we posted on our Southbound Stays website.
I was familiar with extended stay (30-90 day stays) laws and legalities because we already have a dedicated home for this. For our smaller homes, I was able to implement these policies rather quickly. Thus far, we have rented 1 of our 3 studios this way and are actively working on the others.
I have decided to hold my pricing (and in some cases increase it) but increased my weekly and monthly discount to attract the types of guests and stay types we’re looking to welcome during this time. Though I have seen some experts suggest lowering rates dramatically, I personally do not feel this is the right move for any of my homes.
I also extended my minimum stays to 2 and 3 days for stays that are 15 days out and 7 and 30 days for stays that are further out. While this may sound crazy, I would rather keep my calendar clear except for longer bookings right now. I explain why under marketing.
With these changes, I needed (and still need in some cases) to adjust my content to focus more on the audiences and stay types I am trying to attract during this time. For instance, instead of focuses on walkability to restaurants and shops, I am shifting to distance to hospitals and proximity to outdoor activities. Pro tip: be sure to save your old content to switch back eventually.
I have added a travel for any reason policy option to my rental agreement, listing and all guest messages to help protect my future guests and myself for cancels.
Stay Active While Being Productive
Trying to balance screen time and physical activity has proven difficult while being home alone for a few weeks. In between guest calls, client work and strategic changes I wanted to work in some physical activities that I could do at the rentals that will help in both marketing (promoting our clean efforts) and welcoming guests safely. These are some things I have found helpful:
Do the “Corona cleanse” on all properties
Using this time for a full inventory (not just my standard monthly) of all items at all properties
Re-laundering, inspecting and taking full Inventory of all linens at all properties
Organize the shit out of everything. While I hit most properties with the label maker last year, I going back through where needed and replacing labels that may look worn
I also plan to complete my Commitment to Safety Certification via Breezeway. After Justin Ford, Director of Safety came to Nashville and gave a presentation on safety, this has been on the to-do list since November of last year but well, time. I even have a page on my Southbound Stays website ready for it! I told Justin I was putting together this post and he provided a code for anyone reading this to get 10% off their safety inspection, MEGANSENTME. NOTE: If you’re a NASTRA member, please do not use this code. We have something special coming for you!
Pro tip: I know it’s hard to justify spending money when rent revenue isn’t coming in. If it helps, create a shopping list with links to items needed that you can slowly purchase during the down time or once things pick back up.
Tweak & Document Procedures
With everything happening in my personal life, I had already been thinking a lot about the need to document my procedures and policies. Right now, I own sole access to everything for our rentals which is scary in the event of an emergency. I had been loosely using Asana, a project management tool but finally converted to the business level (free 30-day trial) so I could REALLY use it. This was a great recommendation from friend and colleague, Alece Ronzino who manages Rest Easy, a property management company in Nashville. This is going to be a work in progress but here is what I plan to build out:
Separate my “business activities” versus “operational activities” lists
Create replicable tasks for weekly, monthly and ad hoc activities behind the screen and operationally
Document “how tos” that I can share with others to help when needed
Move everything living in my head or in an excel sheet out!
In addition, I am going to do a 30-day FREE trial of Breezeway which offers task automation specific to short term and vacation rentals to see if this is something that may be a fit for inventory and property care tasks specifically.
Setup Tools & Automation
With reservations likely not coming in as steadily as they were before, now is a great time to invest your time in setting up tools and automation. If you already have them, take a look at your messaging and see if you should adjust it in light of current circumstances. Below are my top tools but you can see all of my favorites over on my resources page.
I transitioned to OwnerRez, a new property management system/ channel manager at the beginning of this year and I am absolutely IN LOVE with the functionality. It also happened to save me thousands compared to my previous provider.
If you don’t have a digital welcome book. Get one! I personally use Touchstay which I love because of the customizations. For instance, we were able to quickly add Corona virus (COVID-19) information for all active and future bookings.
PriceLabs and their plethora of customizations and settings provide value to me every single day. However, during this time, I really don’t know what I would do without it. I was able to quickly adjust my strategy thanks in large part to their functionality.
Again, I know money is tight right now but what’s amazing is that most of these offer a free trial. Now is a great time to try them for free and determine if they’ll be useful for you when things pick up.
Plan Your Marketing & Communication
I could dedicate a whole series on just this topic so I’ll leave it to highlights for now and come back with a page just for this in a week (or a few).
Regular communication with guests during this time is critical. And no, I’m not talking just another mass email. PICK UP THE PHONE. I have found that phone calls have relieved tension and more times than not resulted in a postpone reservation in lieu of a cancel. If things change, its much easier to then follow up with a text or email.
I use Later to plan and schedule my Facebook, intagram and pinterest posts. I decided now would be a great time to organize and tag my photos and add new content. I am still actively working on this but by the end I should have at least a few months of content to pull from. Speaking of content…
If your town looks anything like mine (aka empty), it’s actually a perfect time to get your daily dose of outdoors and snap some pictures while there aren’t hoards of people in the way. Over the weekend, I was able to get at least 60+ pictures I can use later on. Next, I plan to get into the homes for some lifestyle staging to get interior photos for social media as well.
Start a campaign that shares what’s happening in your community and why you can’t wait to welcome guests in the future. I just kicked off a #NashvilleMissesYou campaign that I am excited to add to.
Update your website. Y’all, I just launched a new site in February and even with that still have so much I could do to make it better. Don’t have a website? Get one. OwnerRez that I mentioned above offers templated versions!
If you learned the hard way what “merchant of record” really means and you’re looking to diversify now is also a great time to add your listings to new OTAs like booking.com, FabStayz and more.
Take Time to Learn Something New
You’re off to a great start if you’ve made it this far! Let’s be real, this is new for everyone and there are absolutely no experts in how to deal with Corona virus (COVID-19). Research what industry experts are saying, be strategic and do what you feel is right for you. Here are some sources I trust and follow (don’t worry, not all are related to Corona virus – this is a great time to learn about plenty of other things, too):
Vacation Rental Marketing Blog (VRMB) by Matt Landau
Here is a great summarization of the inner circle filmed at the vacation rental women’s summit in february 2019 in NOLA
The Distinguished Guest for lists, blogs and more by Alanna Schroeder
New to Short Term Rental FB Group
Vacation Rental Formula by Heather and Mike Bayer
Heather Bayer’s podcast
Vacation Rental Glossary of Terms by Lodgify