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Hotels vs holiday rentals = no matchy-matchy

I ran a poll on LinkedIn – just a quick 1-day poll – to gauge how my network preferences hotels versus holiday rentals. I was spurred to ask because I’m torn by the holiday rental industry’s musing around guest experience and the prevalence of hotels as the target gold standard.

In short: I disagree.

Personally, hotels are always plan B:

  • Can I be guaranteed a warm welcome or a disinterested receptionist?
  • Can I bear to walk into yet another mono hotel room with its uninventive design and choice of fabrics, and horrid carpet or bland tiles?
  • I really don’t want to share breakfast with anyone else, or more importantly at a time dictated by the hotel
  • I never want to drink percolated coffee, or to have to pay extra for a flat white that still won’t be made well
  • I don’t want to have to queue up for a sunlounger
  • Does the concierge really care about where they send me for dinner or are they just recommending where their friends and contacts work?
  • Do I have to cry or get the general manager involved to get the room I actually booked?

Those are all personal hotel experiences by the way. 

But personal circumstances and experiences also determine that it isn’t as simple as hotel vs holiday rental, is it? No winner takes all – but holiday rentals did win the vote in my LinkedIn poll by 68% to 32%.

There was a lot of fence sitting in the comments though – bringing the subjectivity point to life:

  • “There’s a time and place for rentals and it depends on what kind of holiday I’m booking.” 
  • “It really depends on the destination, purpose of the trip and who I’m with.”
  • “I think that very well run & organised rentals can in essence provide a ‘boutique’ hotel experience. It’s all about attention to huge amounts of details and a real understanding of hospitality. Some rentals are still just rentals; the owners have clearly never ever actually lived in the place and experienced what it’s actually like to do so.”
  • “Easier to relax in a holiday rental. You can make yourself feel at home.”
  • “Rental for UK breaks and longer hols abroad. Hotel for shorter family hols and when away without the kids!”

Why do we compare holiday rentals with hotels?

Aren’t we all too long in the tooth for this ‘them vs us’ to and fro? Especially now that vacation rentals are deemed mainstream…

Well, holiday rentals have always been the poor kid or the underdog. 

And the challenge – for the reputation of holiday lets – is that the void between the two is still there. Yet gloriously so, in my humble opinion. 

I’ve written before about the basic origins of self-catering accommodation in the form of granny annexes. And it frustrates me to see that some such accommodation – with its drab, leftover furniture and little consideration for the paying guest – still exists. But it is in the minority now.

Professionalising, standardising and yawning

Industry friend Wil Slickers appeared on The Guest Cast recently, bringing his perspective on where the vacation rental guest experience falls down. For him, it’s in the risk factor that comes with an historically amateur industry. Wil prefers to book with a well-known hotel brand because he knows exactly what he can expect. He perfectly expressed the quandary the industry faces: what does it mean to professionalise holiday rentals and bring them in line with levels of hotel provision?

But this is where I disagree. The sheer joy of renting a holiday home is having a unique experience every single time. There is no one way to layout rooms in a holiday home, there will never be one type or design of furniture that fits every room within one rental let alone in every rental out there. Property is wonderfully individual and unless you’re purpose building vacation homes, that individuality partly determines where the sofa goes rather than building the walls around the sofa.

Yes, we all want to sleep between quality cotton linen in well made beds, but I personally don’t mind whether the linen all came from the same store or bears the same edging as long as it’s clean and of great quality.

Imagine if every Florida villa with its covered pool, tended garden, spacious living area and roomy rooms, and stated proximity to the parks suddenly all had the same sofa, bed linen, wall colour and pool towels. How would guests possibly choose where to stay? It’s tough enough as it is!

Woe betide the day when millions of listings cannot be picked apart for their individuality

Standardisation and professionalisation are opportunities, for sure. And we should be seizing chances to educate and guide vacation rental owners on how to fit out a property for guests. And there are many of those chances! But without a personal, subjective touch and an independence of style, presentation and service, holiday rentals will lose their appeal and their reliability for experience.

And I don’t believe that hotels are where the lessons will come from. Rather from staying in other places and in genuinely seeking to learn from what guests tell us in their reviews and private feedback. Plus, learning and acting on that feedback provides ample excuse to remarket your place to a previous set of guests.

Guest experience isn’t just about bed linen

Whether an owner, host or manager is marketing a fresh-from-the-building-inspection pad or a decades old cabin on the shoreline, what it looks like, how it’s fitted out and finished isn’t where the holiday starts and stops. 

Honest listing presentation, realistic pricing and regular guest communication all apply to any and all holiday lets in the delivery of guest experience. In fact, get those first three things right and you’re on your way to managing a guest’s expectations brilliantly, so that when they arrive they know exactly what to expect, are ready to relax into it and have a wonderful time.

I had my worst and my best Airbnb experiences in Nelson, New Zealand:

The first place hadn’t been stayed in or cleaned for some time – there was dust everywhere, cooking grime on the decorative plates hanging on the kitchen wall and a puddle of long forgotten ketchup on the floor next to the dishwater. The owner was difficult to get hold of and then obtuse to communicate with. Ultimately I had to turn to Airbnb to get us our refund while we found another place in town. 
That second place was run by the loveliest of gents who communicated like an old friend – always quick to respond, always helpful in his answers. And he went out of his way to get us into his apartment within hours of us enquiring. He also checked in with us on day two to ensure we had all we needed.

The communication lesson in all this

Guests want to be made to feel at ease and communication is the easiest way to achieve this, truly. So a disinterested hotel receptionist is as bad as the worst holiday home owner. And it doesn’t matter whether the linen is the same on every bed if the rest of the experience is falling apart at the seams. 

A Premier Inn aside, it’s been a while since I stayed in a hotel. But in the spirit of mixing things up a bit, I have one booked for this summer – it’s no ordinary hotel so my expectations are high. The communication so far? Long, small font emails that fail to inspire. Let’s hope it gets better from here!

People will always have their preference. I merely urge you to try out a bit of each when you can and be open minded to the reality that one doesn’t have to trump the other – perfection would be yawn-worthy after all.