Short term rental

Changing perceptions of the short term rental industry: The stories we need to tell

This article was first published in VRMA Arrival’s October Magazine

During the month of May, I took five trips.

I stayed in a hotel twice, a youth hostel once (which is all there is at the bottom of Snowdonia, the Welsh mountain I climbed with my kids), an ‘Airbnb’ in Brooklyn owned and hosted by ‘Bob’ and a professionally serviced apartment rental in Malaga.

As a consumer, like many of us, I am lodging-type agnostic. If I’m away from home for more than two days, I like the option of cooking my own meals. I always want to feel that I am getting good value. I prefer to be in a ‘good’ location with a relaxed vibe, and somewhere that is easy to get to.

The point is that whenever I travel, I book the stay that suits me at that particular time and for that specific trip. I don’t care if the bed my head lays on is in a rental, hotel, or otherwise.

The short-term rental industry is at an inflection point.

There are enormous opportunities for the sector. We’ve seen the data, and many of you have experienced the growth and the good times firsthand.

As an industry, we are getting our act together on professionalization. The sector holds immense potential, as evidenced by the numerous discussions centered around industry growth, guest experience, dynamic pricing, loyalty programs, and opportunities to partner with real estate companies and multifamily operators.

It’s an exciting time. But with tremendous growth comes great responsibility.

Why reputation matters

People are looking at the short-term rental sector and many have opinions about what we do and who we are. We have a reputation, and as we all know, it could be better.

The so-called “covid gold rush” has come to an end. Regulation marches forward, with policies often enacted without input or representation from the short-term rental sector. We must look at what happened in Scotland and what is down the line for New York City to see where things may be heading.

Owners are fleeing the marketplace, disappointed by the lack of return. Communities are often weary of our presence in their neighborhoods.

Hotels and multifamily operators are squeezing into the sector, seeing the demand for ‘home-like spaces,’ wanting their slice of the potential, and often finding the perfect blend of efficient hospitality and brand building.

Guests have more and better choices than ever before. Like me, they are lodging-type agnostic with no compelling brand affiliation created or loyalty programs in the STR sector to keep them coming back. .

Increasingly, short-term rentals are deemed the pricier option. Greedy even, with added fees for cleaning or hot tubs.

The sector has shouldered more than its fair share of the blame for the over-tourism and for filling Venice, Rome, and Niagara Falls with ‘rowdy’, ‘disruptive’ tourists. Tourismphobia, a term I heard in Spain this summer, is becoming a ‘thing’ now.

The confusion extends to our own identity. We often default to “Airbnb” for simplicity, even though it does not accurately reflect the breadth of our sector.

But what defines a short-term or vacation rental? Are flexible rentals, corporate housing, and the host market included? Does it cover mid stays, leisure markets and urban?

The hotel sector has it easy. At their basic level, hotels are just a box with rooms. They are in one location, one that is deemed suitable for tourism. They are not rubbing shoulders with a residential community, nor do they pretend to offer the experience of ‘living like a local.’ They are either independent or under the umbrella of a well-known brand. A brand that most adults will likely recognize.

Hotels have been providing hospitality for decades and decades. They aren’t blamed for disrupting a community’s fabric, causing the affordable housing crisis, or bringing rowdy, badly behaved guests to peaceful neighborhoods. They have powerful lobby groups and deep pockets.

The short-term rental industry is up against a lot, and we need to control our own narrative.

Changing perceptions

So, how do we change the perception of short-term rentals in the hearts and minds of regulators, communities, and vitally, voters?

It’s time for us to develop a better narrative of the industry –top-down, bottom-up, using data, local stories, and the voice of the associations. We need a unified message about the opportunity costs of not supporting the industry. It’s important to ask what will get lost if the sector is not invited to help shape the future of tourism.

To have a seat at the table, we need to start telling the story, collectively, of the positive impact that short-term rentals bring to individuals, our communities, and our economies.

The stories about how rentals bring tourists and their tourism dollars to communities all over the world, providing opportunities that would otherwise not exist.

The stories about how second homes, left empty for most of the year,  should instead be used to bring more families to a destination, to explore, experience, spend and then return to spend more. How the industry’s low barriers to entry fosters creative entrepreneurship, allowing women and minorities, with less access to capital, to build successful small businesses that support their families and if they have a team, their families too.

We can talk about how second, third-tier cities and rural communities have enjoyed an influx of new residents that have benefited from the move to remote working. Short-term rentals with their flexibility have facilitated this growth.

Another story worth telling is one of the technological developments in the industry, driven by solving the complex challenges of running short-term rental operations.

We can tell the story of the sector’s significant economic contribution through taxes, wages, tourism and investment.

We can talk about how STRs are often the sustainable choice, emitting less carbon, and how the sector provides consumers with greater choice and flexibility.

How do we use stories to change how we are perceived and how our cities, communities, and governments perceive the value we bring?

First, we must get strategic about collectively positioning the sector. We need to come together with a unified message, a strong voice and strong leadership.

We must use actual data to showcase the impact of STR on the tourism economy and local communities, like VRMA’s recent Oxford Economics study of the US market, and use context to shape stories that make sense for the news agenda and answer the concerns driving the negative publicity.

Because reputation is crucial, and in many ways, it is all that really matters. It allows us to become trusted, included, and lead the conversations driving tourism. We can only do this if we do it collectively with the associations, the managers, the platforms, the tech companies and the hosts, coming together to shape the industry’s narrative. Ultimately, this is the key to the sector’s continued success.

About Jessica Gillingham

Jessica is the CEO of Abode Worldwide, a B2B public relations agency focused on raising the profile of transformative technology solutions and enterprise operators in the global hospitality, lodging and living sectors. Abode sits at the heart of the developing intersection between work, life and play in the property and hospitality markets and partners with the brands playing a lead role in this transformation.

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