There’s a battle raging: short-term rental hosts and guests against huge, well-funded companies like Airbnb and Home Away (VRBO’s parent) that block direct contact between hosts and guests before booking.
Airbnb’s business model has been clear from the start: you list your home for free and take a cut of your rental income. That’s fine for hosts and guests who don’t think it’s necessary or even desirable to talk to one another directly.
But VRBO was different. Founded as a way for vacation rental owners and travelers to connect with one another, hosts like me paid an annual fee to list on the site. In return, I had control over our booking process and had the option of talking directly with guests before they booked. Sometimes, an initial phone call was enough for both a guest and myself to realize that our place wasn’t right for them.
Then VRBO’s parent, Home Away, sold itself to Expedia. The company rushed to replace subscriptions with online booking and add hefty fees for both hosts and guests. Today, VRBO is essentially a clone of Airbnb, Flip Key, and similar sites: hosts and guests can communicate only through the site until booking (and payment) is made.
Then came instant booking
To make matters worse, VRBO now aggressively promotes instant booking, which lets guests book a home without asking hosts a single question.
I recently saw what a problem instant booking could be. We were searching for an apartment in New York City and found what looked like the perfect place. Great location, newly remodeled, the right size. Costly, but this was New York.
Fortunately, we found that apartment on a site that allows direct contact. We talked with the owner and arranged to see it. Only when we arrived for the viewing did we discover the two very long, very narrow flights of stairs that led from the street to the apartment. The listing hadn’t mentioned them, and if we had used instant booking, we would have been unpleasantly surprised by the stairs when we arrived.
Why listing sites keep hosts and guests apart before booking
VRBO says that they say they control host-guest communication to keep everyone safe.
Uh-huh. Does anyone doubt that the real reason is to make sure they can collect their fees? After all, they put a lot of money into site construction, maintenance, and advertising. If they allow hosts and guests to exchange phone numbers and email addresses, they’ll sometimes bypass the site entirely.
I understand that short-term rental sites need to make a buck. What angers me (and lots of other hosts, judging from the community discussions) is that without a subscription option, I’m left without the most important tool I have for managing our short-term rental: direct communication.
Why hosts and guests need to communicate directly
Here’s why I consider direct communication super important for both hosts and guests.
To avoid endless back-and-forth emails
Before booking a short-term rental, guests usually have a number of questions: how firm is the bed? How far is the home from….? (I always ask “Has a cat lived there?” because we’re very allergic.) Even a long list of questions can be easily answered in a single phone conversation. But when the listing site blocks phone calls, you and the guest are forced to spend a lot of time sending emails back and forth.
To make sure your home is right for the guests – and vice versa
Guests who are unhappy with a short-term rental often complain that “It wasn’t what I expected.” The back-and-forth of a phone or Skype conversation about the home and its location helps you learn what’s important to the guest so you can make sure the home is the right one for them.
When possible, to let guests see the home before booking
We often rent to people who live in our area or who have relatives or friends coming to visit. We’re always happy to let them check the house out for themselves (we get a chance to check them out, too). Blocks on direct communication make showing the home impossible.
To screen potential guests
Talking directly with guests is the best screening tool I know. You can listen for nuances that are completely missing from email messages. You can also probe for more information if a guest says something like, “You don’t mind if our teenage son invites some friends for the weekend, do you?”
To build trust
Trust between hosts and guests helps to build confidence and makes it far easier to solve any problems that might come up.
So how can you bypass blocks on direct contact?
There is one excellent way to bypass blocks on direct contact with guests: list your home on a site that allows direct communication.
The problem is that those sites get far fewer visitors than mega-sites like Airbnb and VRBO. That’s led hosts who want to reach large numbers of potential guests to come up with various strategies for bypassing listing site blocks.
Please note: These strategies come from a range of frustrated hosts who want more control over their short-term rentals. I’m not endorsing or promoting any of them. It’s up to you whether to try them yourself.
Strategy #1. Ask guests to book for one night
Once a guest makes a booking, the listing site will release their direct email and phone number so you’ll be able to get in touch. That’s why some hosts suggest that you ask guests to book for one night. If your place turns out not to be right, it’s worth paying a fee to cancel.
What to know: Be sure to check out your listing site’s cancellation policies. If you cancel too often, the site might demote or even remove your listing.
Strategy #2. Help guests find your home on another site
Many hosts now list their homes on several sites, some of which let them exchange phone numbers and email addresses with potential guests. One suggestion I’ve seen is to use the same photos, headline, and descriptive text in all of your listings so guests can find you on a site that doesn’t block direct communication.
Strategy #3. Try to connect with guests on social media
If a guest’s inquiry includes personal details such as their full names and hometowns, you might be able to find them on Facebook, LinkedIn, or another social media site. Then send the guest a direct message, and ask whether they’d like to have a conversation “so you can meet one another and answer questions about your home.”
What to know: If you’ve already responded to the initial inquiry through the listing site, contacting the guests directly and bypassing the site might get your listing removed.
Strategy #4. Google the guest’s name
This is a long-shot, but it worked for me about 20 minutes ago. After receiving an inquiry for a long-term stay in my home, I put the person’s name and town into a Google search bar, and voila! There was a phone number. I called and left a polite, friendly message. Ten minutes later the potential guest returned my call and we had a very pleasant and productive conversation.
Strategy #5. Mention another site on which your home is listed
This strategy also doesn’t always work, but it’s worth a try. Some hosts tell guests that they can “also find us on….” and then mention a website that allows direct communication. The listing site’s algorithm is likely to catch popular sites such as Craigslist (CL), Facebook (FB), and Google, but less well known sites might slip by. Hosts who use this strategy say that you shouldn’t include a hyperlink, and you should use only the site’s name, without “www” “http” or “.com”
Have you ever felt frustrated by being unable to communicate directly with guests – or hosts – before booking? What steps did you take? Please share them in the comments or on our Facebook page.