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The New Micro Hoteliers

A new breed of vacation-rental owners is taking a page from hotels and bringing more polish and professionalism to the industry.

Two years ago, when Jeremy Braud started renting out his shotgun house in the Algiers neighborhood of New Orleans to Super Bowl fans, the property was simple and spartan. Braud used his own sheets; he stocked the bathroom with big bottles of shampoo and conditioner. But now that vacation rentals have become more popular and competitive through online-booking sites, Braud has refined his approach. He now offers small, single-use shampoo bottles and high-thread-count Egyptian-cotton sheets. On the living room table, there’s a fan of tourism brochures and a free bottle of wine for his guests. Braud’s house is no longer just a home. Nor is it a short-term rental in the old-fashioned sense. It’s now a competitor to the B&B down the street.

Braud is on the leading edge of vacation-rental entrepreneurs who are starting to adopt the manners and methods of the hotel industry, blurring the line between traditional hotelier and anonymous property owner. It’s a strategy aimed at expanding their potential client base beyond the budget traveler and into a much broader, and more lucrative, market—one that even includes people on the road for business.

Online rental agencies have started to adapt their tactics, too. Airbnb brought in hotelier Chip Conley, founder of the Joie de Vivre group of hotels, to head up global hospitality and strategy. Conley’s goal is to help rental owners deliver some of the consistency of a hotel by standardizing things like communication, cleanliness guidelines, and amenities. (Airbnb’s instant-booking feature is especially hotel-like.) HomeAway, meanwhile, is offering a batch of new tools to create a more seamless experience, including integrating its app with Uber and the grocery delivery service Instacart, and populating it with information about the property a guest has rented and its surrounding area (sort of like a hotel-room directory).

A slew of third-party tools have emerged to address the rise of peer-to-peer rentals. Sites like Huitly, Guesty, and Rentingyourplace help hosts with the process of researching and managing vacation properties so that they can charge the right price and align their services with nearby hotels. It’s even possible for renters to compare Airbnb properties with hotel rooms when planning a trip, thanks to the online travel agent Hipmunk.

New companies and services are also helping to emulate the hotel experience for renters. BeMate, a rental-listing site from the Spanish hospitality group Room Mate, combines the amenities of a hotel (concierge, luggage storage) with the uniqueness of a vacation rental (see page 56 for more). Ancillary apps like Gymsurfing and Spinlister help travelers bypass hotel and resort fitness centers, while others provide everything from valet to spa services.

All of this has put the hotel establishment on notice. So far, the response from individual brands is anecdotal (Marriott CEO Arne M. Sorenson reportedly talks about the rental industry all the time). But in cities like New York and San Francisco, the hotel lobby has supported regulators in some bitter public battles with rental companies over issues like taxes and zoning laws. While global regulation of the vacation-rental business is unlikely, location-specific legislation will continue to roll out over the next several years. But even if tomorrow’s host has to follow a stricter set of rules, it’s clear that vacation rentals have been fundamentally transformed. Hosts like Jeremy Braud will continue to compete with hotels—and the costs for consumers will continue to fall.

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