Cabin fever is an inevitable result of the COVID-19 lockdowns—a good thing, of course, for owners of vacation rentals—but an attention-grabbing online presence is still necessary to get a leg up on the competition. That’s where arranging rooms for eye-catching photos comes in. Designers and marketing pros call it “staging.” This process has long been a top sales tool for selling homes, but staging for a vacation rental is different, warns designer Anastasia Laudermilch of Annville, Pennsylvania.
“Once a house is sold, everything can be disassembled,” explains Laudermilch. “But rental property stagers have to keep in mind that everything shown in photos and videos has to stay. When the vacationers arrive, they’ll expect to see those pillows on the sofa, the orchid on the vanity, and the fireplace basket full of birch logs. That makes vacation rental staging a special challenge.”
Washington, DC, designer Mary Douglas Drysdale feels the best bet is giving a rental the feeling of home. “Comfort and function are obviously the top requirements,” she says. “But include a number of small luxuries as well, and make sure they are part of your online presentation. These small luxuries will make the guests feel the property was designed for their enjoyment rather than to provide income to the owners.”
A vital part of staging is simply decluttering and cleaning up. There should be no trash cans, dish towels, magnets on the fridge, or dog dishes, advises Joal Derse, a home-staging consultant in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. “Put away small appliances as well, leaving only one out—and if it’s stainless steel, make sure it’s highly polished,” urges Derse.
Drysdale agrees. She believes nothing devalues a space more than clutter. “Don’t crowd the rooms with too much stuff, put away collections, and keep furniture in small spaces to scale,” she advises.
Renters won’t give outdated spaces a second look, so if a property seems sad and worn, it’s definitely time to upgrade, say the pros. The good news is that upgrading needn’t eat up all the rental profits.
“There are many ways to make small upgrades to elevate rooms,” notes Kristie Barnett, stager, color expert, and author at The Decorologist in Nashville, Tennessee. “Paint, for one thing. Painting a wall is a big wow factor. Paint is also a way to upgrade dowdy, wood-toned kitchen cabinets or vintage furniture.
“Traditional thinking favors neutral colors and is the correct way to stage a home when selling it because buyers want an easy palette to move into. But renters are different. They want a unique experience—something different than their own home setting. Often, that means something more colorful, exciting, and eclectic. So I say: Don’t be afraid to introduce pops of color into your spaces.”
Lighting is outdated in many rentals, and Laudermilch thinks pendant lighting delivers a dramatic kitchen upgrade. She suggests going to a big box store for adapter kits that will allow pendants to hang from recessed lights. “Hang the pendants over an island, sink, or table,” she says.
Should you invest in new appliances? High-end appliances aren’t necessary for short-term rentals, say the pros. Just make sure they are clean and easy to use. A microwave is a necessity, and a coffee/ tea station is always appreciated.
In the bathroom, a nice new shower head will take a rental up a notch, and fresh, new sink features and cabinet hardware are relatively inexpensive. “Above all, cleanliness matters,” says Barnett. “If the finishes are too worn to appear clean, it’s time to upgrade.”
Should you invest in high-end furniture? Barnett says no. “You may not be able to recoup the investment of an expensive sofa, for example,” she explains. “A stylish, mid-range sofa in a performance fabric will do. Inexpensive sofas may look cute at first but won’t be inviting to sit on and will wear out quickly. And because renters like quirky touches, don’t hesitate to mix new and vintage pieces.
“I do think investing in comfy mattresses and bed pillows is worth it. They may not show up in photos, but guests will give you rave reviews if they get a good night’s sleep. Conversely, they will give you a low rating if they toss and turn on a cheap mattress.”
Other recommendations from designers include adding versatile pieces, such as a cocktail ottoman that can move around easily and double as a chair. Also, consider sleeper chairs that can be used as extra beds for children or teens and a small desk for conducting business during the stay that could double as a bedside table.
All designers and stagers warn not to skimp on art and accessories.
“They make all the difference in photos and influence the way guests will feel about the place when they arrive,” tells Drysdale. “I often use pottery or serving pieces as decorative elements on coffee and end tables. Dining tables that have an attractive centerpiece are more inviting than bare ones. Framed art prints can create a sense of luxury and taste. Throw pillows can also do a lot for a room, but only if they are attractive, clean, and coordinate with the overall scheme.”
Barnett likes art that reflects the local culture or flavor of the area. “This also provides great Instagram backdrops for guests, which in turn results in social media exposure,” she explains. “And provide a few games, books, and magazines featuring local hot spots and attractions. These are small, thoughtful touches that make an impression and set your rental apart from the typical cookie-cutter hotel room.”
Finally, remember the outdoors. Stagers say outdoor spaces are this year’s number-one upgrade. Adding cozy outdoor rooms for entertaining and spreading out pays off in a big way. Stamped concrete or inexpensive pavers can create an outdoor dining room, whereas a fire pit and Adirondack chairs will create a year-round atmosphere.
“And don’t forget curb appeal,” urges Laudermilch. “Maintenance should be pristine. No shaggy lawn, no weedy beds. Lighting and front door entrances are also important. If the front door is worn and dingy, paint it a nice, welcoming color. Hang a wreath appropriate for the season on that door and dress up the entrance with a container or two, brimming with colorful annuals, ornamental grasses, or small evergreen plants.
“Remember, if the front of a home is visually appealing, guests will feel drawn in and look forward to their visit. A closeup of that front entrance could be the needed online hook to reel in all the guests you’d ever want.”