As I sit in my office on New Year’s Eve, writing this article for the first VRM Intel Magazine issue of 2021, I am looking back at what has been the most challenging year in the history of the vacation rental (VR) business.
I have just had yet another conversation with a VR management company owner who, like so many others lately, spoke about how beat down her staff has been feeling after dealing with what feels like more disgruntled, unreasonable, or unkind guests than ever before.
These conversations seem to all include a few components. First is how hard things have been for staff, having first endured cancellations and furloughs and then a tidal wave of demand, which fueled an expectedly strong summer season that extended well into the fall. Second, they admit that lately they find themselves becoming more cynical toward guests. And finally, I heard a specific story about one particularly unreasonable guest who had gotten into their psyche.
I am also hearing the same from our clients at traditional resorts. The traveling public seems to be more unreasonable than ever, and it is increasingly difficult not to become cynical.
When I let my clients talk uninterrupted, they seem to self-diagnose their “disease” of cynicism. They end by saying something like, “Doug, I know I need to lead by example, but it is hard; I feel like I need your hospitality training right now!” Besides warming my heart, comments like these let me know that the client company has already begun the healing process.
As they say in virtually all 12-step programs, admitting you have a problem is the first step toward overcoming it. If you are still reading this article, perhaps you have reached the same conclusion, so here are your 12 steps to reclaiming your spirit of hospitality.
It’s Okay to Vent
As an owner or top-level leader, it is important that you have a shoulder to cry on, ideally someone outside of your company. Speaking as a married person, I suggest this also be someone other than your life partner—perhaps a trusted friend or another VR business owner. At work, let your staff fully vent and express their anger and frustration when they encounter unreasonable guests. I know some forward-thinking companies have created a “quiet room” in which staff can enter for a short break of silence and solitude; perhaps on top of that we should create “primal scream therapy closets.”
It’s Okay to Laugh at Situations, Not at People
Allow your staff to laugh at guests’ situations, but encourage them to do so in a way that does not disrespect the actual guests. This is a thin line to cross, but if you lead by example and speak up, most employees will be able to identify the difference. Speak generally of guest issues, without identifying specific guests, and absolutely ban name-calling.
For example, in my trainings I often mimic a guest who calls to say, “I have tried everything, but this remote control won’t turn on my TV,” and then I mimic the staff member, asking, “Which remote are you using?” The guest replies, “The white one with a large blue button in the center. It says Cabana Bay on it.”
It’s Not Okay to Start Venting Sessions by Throwing All Guests under the Bus
A major red flag goes up when I hear venting statements from staff, such as, “Guests these days are all _____” or “They are only complaining in order to get a refund.”
Accept That the Ratio of Guest Complaints Is a “Numbers Game”
How many properties does your company manage? How long do guests stay? How many guests per accommodation? Let’s say you have 100 properties in your rental pool, with four guests per home, for a total of 400 guests. Let’s say the average stay is four nights; that’s 1,600 guests-per-day complaint opportunities. Unlike resorts, which might rent a 300-square-foot room for 1.75 guests for 2.5 nights, VR lodgings tend to be larger and are rented to more people at a time (thus, with much more that can go wrong) for a much longer time. Of course you are going to get a lot of complaints.
Recognize That Pandemics Bring out Both the Best and the Worst in People
As I’ve been saying since March 2020, the “meanies have gotten meaner, while the nice people have gotten nicer.” For every guest that turns the presence of a single hair hidden behind the top of the shower curtain into an all-caps text message that reads, “THIS WHOLE PLACE IS DISGUSTINGLY FILTHY!,” there is another guest who calls at 9:01 a.m. on a Monday, while staying in a mountaintop cabin in the middle of winter, to say, “We are SO sorry to bother you, but last night the heating went out. We didn’t want to disturb anyone then, but when you have time, is there any way you could please get someone to check it for us?”
Admit That the Vast Majority of People Could Go Either Way
I estimate that a certain percentage of the world’s population, let’s say 5 percent, were born as “negative sorters,” who will constantly find fault. These are the ones who complain every day of their stay, present a long list of issues at checkout, and then rebook for the next year! There are another 5 percent that are super kind and understanding no matter what happens to them. In the middle are the rest of us: emotional creatures in a physical world.
Make It Your Job to Bring out the Best in Guests
This step is actually self-serving because when we bring out the best in our guests, we bring out the best in ourselves. In other words, by bringing out the best in our guests we meet a lot kinder, more wonderful people and have a lot more fun at work.
Bring the Spirit of Hospitality as a Leader
As a young college student, I had the privilege of working for Marriott Hotels when it was run directly by the Marriott family. Their mantra was, “We will take great care of our employees, so that our employees will take great care of our guests.” The moment you enter your property and greet your first staff member, you set the tone for the day.
Empathize Before You Apologize
The key to placating an upset guest, staff member, or vendor-partner is to empathize before you apologize. In doing so, you provide them with a sense of validation. Start by saying, “I understand how you feel” and then put it in the context of their situation, for example by saying, “I imagine I might feel the same way too if it had rained every day of my vacation.”
An apology is not an admission of guilt. It simply shows that your intentions were good. When you pair this with empathy, guests often respond, “Well I know it’s not your fault, and you are being so nice, but it has been a frustrating day.”
Use Your Power of Release over Negativity
Of the 5 percent of the world’s population who are “negative sorters,” about 1 percent are downright bullies. As a company owner, you may in fact choose to actually release (as in fire) a guest or homeowner now and then for the greater good, but what I’m talking about here is learning to detach from personal insults. When you go home for the day, remember that out of the 400 guests currently staying at your 100 properties, 380 people at 95 of the properties were happy and never reported any problems. Of the five complaints from those five properties, three of the complaints were legit and were resolved by your excellent customer service team. Do not take the one or two rude, nasty “guest bullies” home with you. Visit that “primal scream therapy room” before you go home or call a trusted friend on the way home. It is often said that you should leave your problems at home before you come to work, but remember to also leave your problems at work before you head home.
Start Your Day with Gratitude
Of all the valuable lessons I’ve learned from this pandemic, the biggest one is to start every day by pausing to be grateful. Upon waking up, before you grab your phone from the nightstand and scroll through Facebook or emails, pause to be grateful for all that you have: for your health, family, job, coworkers, and guests—even those who present as difficult ones—because the universe has placed them in exactly their intended spot on this day as it has placed you.