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In Search of the Smoking Guest

Published by Carolyn in the blog Carolyn's blog.

My new Airbnb listing is a flop.

I’ve had my studio on Airbnb for two years, and it’s been a successful run. I’m booked at least 20 days a month, I have 5 star ratings in all areas, and I’ve got wonderful reviews.

Recently, I had to reduce my work schedule for health reasons, but making up the lost income seemed easy. I could list my second bedroom on Airbnb! Now, mine is not a grand house. It’s a modest duplex, but it’s in a great area and features a lovely yard. I love hosting, and I’m generally great with people. Still, I knew my room would be a tough sell, for several reasons.

My duplex is small, and it’s 90 years old. The front stairs are sturdy but uneven, and inside, the stucco walls have cracks. The ceiling shows the effects of water damage. All this is what realtors politely refer to as “cosmetic” damage. My house won’t fall down on me, but it shows its age.

Also, I only have one bathroom, so the setup lacks that jewel in the Airbnb crown: the private bath. With just the one bathroom, I’d only feel comfortable accepting female guests. That cuts my booking opportunities in half. And, I’ve got three cats and a dog. They’re all very friendly, but how far does friendly go if you’re allergic?

Now, I’ve saved the worst for last, because I can hardly confess it, but here goes: I’m a smoker.

Any guest staying in my home would be a smoker, or at least someone who doesn’t mind cigarette smoke. My “good fit” guest is female, has no pet allergies, and probably smokes. I’d say I’ve got a potential guest in about eight percent of the human race.

I realized that the biggest hurdle was the cigarette smoke. I hope to quit the habit, but I couldn't promise I would soon. Yet, I also figured that I could tap into a niche market. I know there are travelers who smoke! I prohibit smoking in my studio, but I have hosted many smokers; they just have to smoke in the upper yard. The Smoking Guest exists. Many countries have higher tobacco use than the United States. Don’t we always hear how common smoking is in Europe and Asia? And, as a smoker, you appreciate the convenience of being able to light up in your room.

I knew I could make it work. I had the confidence of two years’ hosting and the strength of more than 200 stays behind me. I would succeed - as long as I planned carefully and found that niche.

I also knew that, aside from the smoking, I had a lot of company on Airbnb. Many hosts list small, humble rooms in older houses. A great host with a so-so room can succeed. Great hosts are warm, welcoming people, and they can make even modest rooms appeal to budget travelers who like living in a casual, friendly environment.

I set to work on my house. I did small repairs, patched up some wall cracks, bought new flatware, and got a TV for the guest room. It took weeks to organize the guest room well enough to photograph, since I’ve mostly used that space for storage. You may have a room like this too: it’s where scraps of gift wrapping go to die. I plowed through boxes of baseball cards, stacks of photos waiting to be put in albums, shoes I never wear.

I wanted to list in time for the summer season. So, I cleared out rooms and added fresh touches to photograph them. Professional Airbnb photos yield the best results, but you wait three weeks to get them. If I wanted bookings for July and August, I needed to get the listing up!

Like any good host, I looked through the eyes of a guest as I walked around my house. I reviewed my listing as if I were a traveler looking for a place.

To me, my home is comfortable and cute. I’ve got some nice mid-century furnishings and lots of decorative touches, items I’ve picked up at vintage stores as well as the local Goodwill. When I bought the place in 2000, I hung 50s style flowered wallpaper in the kitchen to go with my classic O’Keeffe and Merritt stove. I didn’t realize just how sad that wallpaper looked until I saw the photographs for my new listing. Once a lovely cream and blue, the wallpaper now had a brownish cast that I could attribute to tobacco and occasional cooking.

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Not lovely. Yet, accuracy is key in your Airbnb listing. We receive star ratings for accuracy, and we want our guests to know what they’re getting. We need to meet their expectations. I would keep the wallpaper photo.

I knew I had to list the room at a low price, so, toward the end of May, I posted it at $48. Two days passed. Nothing, nada, zip. No interest. I de-listed the room and re-worded some of my captions. That sad looking wallpaper? I called it “vintage.” Not a lie. I posted the listing again, this time at $44.

I left it up at that price for a week, and again I got nothing, not so much as an inquiry. I changed the rate to $39 – and I’m in an area where, on Airbnb, the private room rate averages $80 per night. Boy, I expected a lot of interest at $39! Days passed, and once again – nothing. I needed a new plan.

I realized I had to go further to counteract the negative qualities in my home. Instead of studying similar listings, I decided to see what the high-end rooms were up to. With so many shortcomings, perhaps my little room needed the luxuries and special touches usually found only in $120 per night en-suite master bedrooms. Could I keep the price low, but do more to offset the negatives? Maybe the secret lay in those complimentary bright white terrycloth robes that some hosts provide. I couldn’t afford that. They would cost more than a two-night stay. Nor was it cost effective to provide spa-quality shampoo and hand-made soaps. I couldn’t manage daily luxuries, but could I invest in some permanent improvements? Could I find a meeting place between dingy and brilliant?

I examined some of those pricey room listings, focusing on successful ones. Besides a private bath, I found these common attributes:

*Swimming pool

*Seating area in the guest room

*An array of spices in the kitchen

*Original artwork

*Two-story house

I couldn’t build a swimming pool, much less add a second floor to my house, just to capture that $39-per-night guest. I certainly couldn’t knock out a wall for more seating space –that would extend the room into my neighbor’s driveway. That left the spices and the artwork.

I’m not one to believe that if I wish upon a star, my room will be booked. Yet, I think there’s some truth to the idea of putting positive energy out into the universe. That positive energy, in my case, would come from my wallet. I decided to upgrade my kitchen spices and to invest in some good quality cookware. I really liked the idea of photographing a prepared meal, but I knew I couldn’t cook well enough to offer meals, and I didn’t want my listing to be misleading.

I’ve done some painting over the years, and my first thought was to do an abstract painting for the guest room, something simple but with colors that picked up the cheery yellow and green walls and the wildly patterned quilt. Here’s the abomination I came up with:

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It's even uglier in person.

No. I had to invest in some nice wall art, a good quality reproduction of something by an actual artist.

So, today I ordered a great wall hanging for the guest room. I found a cute spice carousel at a great price. Tomorrow I plan to buy some new cookware. And, I made an appointment with an Airbnb photographer. I’m going to take down my listing until the professional photos can go up. I wonder how that old wallpaper will look? I won’t have the listing back up until mid- summer, but it’s been made clear to me that I’m not missing out. My new little touches will turn this listing around!

I hope.

Perhaps I can cut down on cigarettes, and by this time next year I’ll be hosting in a smoke-free home!

Maybe.

I’ll keep you posted.


Carolyn is a teacher & host.
c. 2015 by author
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