(Or 6 Ways Vacation Rental Agencies Can Improve the User Experience)
Sometimes you don’t “get what you pay for.” It completely stinks when what you’ve paid for is a week at a condo on the beach through a vacation rental agency that isn’t as advertised. What recourse do you have?
(Although, technically, “functional electrical outlets,” “mildew-free,” and “recently cleaned” weren’t advertised.)
But, seriously, what can you do? I mean besides calling the agency within 15 minutes of entering your unit and making requests. Or calling again the next morning. And the next. Then writing a negative review on the agency’s website that may or may not appear. Oh, and determining you won’t use that particular agency again.
Note to rental agencies: Don’t make me use my words to fight you (online). I will.
My husband and I are staying at an oceanfront condo in a complex where we’ve rented three times previously. The agency only manages a handful of condos at this site, and this is the fourth unit we’ve rented in the complex — and this is not our favorite! The complex is relatively small (fewer than 70 units), quiet, and located near enough to walk to restaurants we like.
With an ocean view, miles of beach to walk at sunrise, and a well-maintained complex, we should be perfectly content. We’re not.
Well, I’m not, anyway. Mine is the voice the vacation rental agency hears. Mine is the phone they call. My smiling, polite face is the one who opens the door to housekeepers and maintenance men. Precious vacation moments wasted.
We arrived late afternoon on Saturday with a van heavily laden with groceries, our luggage, as well as my husband’s bike and fishing equipment. Our unit for the week is below a unit we’d rented a year and a half ago. We parked, claimed two shopping carts, loaded them to the max, and took the elevator to the third floor.
At #315, we were greeted by a rusted front door and, instead of a welcome mat, the remnants of the mat that had welcomed too many days, its black rubber backing stuck to entrance surface. Salty sea air, rust, makes sense that it would happen, makes more sense that the owner or the company would routinely provide maintenance to keep it looking fresh.
Inside, the condo seemed dimly lit. I turned on the lights in the kitchen to see an aged, yellowy domed light treatment — the plastic cracked. I opened the blinds, eager to see the balcony overlooking the ocean, but the sliding glass doors were opaque, encrusted with sea salt.
The overall ambiance was dreary and dismal, despite the ocean view and the nautical, attractive decor.
The toilet seat had circular patterns of light green — which might have been a nice touch, had the green not been mildew. The toilet bowl likely had been cleaned a long time ago.
(That observation prompted my first call to the agency, which sent out a pair of housekeepers who cleaned the toilet and the sliding doors.)
It wasn’t until they’d left that I noticed that the furniture on the balcony was mildewed. The clothing racks in the closet sported powdery mildew. Little spider webs graced a number of the corners. A brown splotch puddled around the bottom of the refrigerator.
The only cutting board in the unit was part of the cabinetry, pulling out like a drawer just below the counter. Ingenious, except that previous users didn’t realize you could remove it to clean it. A lemon seed and some sort of insect casing made me leery of using it to cut some vegetables.
When it was time for an evening glass of wine, I found one wine glass, even though the themed wallpaper in the kitchen area depicted vineyard crates. When it was time to clean my teeth, I plugged in the WaterPik in the master bathroom — and had no power.
The ground fault interrupter outlet might have been tripped, but the button to push it back on was missing.
When my husband wanted to blow dry his hair, he found no blow dryer — but since the bathroom had no working electricity, perhaps the owner thought no dryer was necessary.
I called the agency the next morning to report the electrical problem.
That was before my husband said the ice tasted funny, and we decided to dump the old ice and start fresh. Emptied of ice, the ice maker revealed it wasn’t “old” causing the odd taste; it was “rust.” The apparently not-so-stainless steel coil moving the ice toward the dispenser in the door was rusty, and bits of rust were breaking off the coil into the ice.
I went to the Dollar Tree for ice cube trays, a cutting board, and some wine glasses.
I might need to go buy an air mattress for my husband to use because the bed is so spoon-shaped he’s gotten a bad back.
The Booking Experience
I might have known that the rental agency was a problem if I’d looked at their reviews, but I had used them for so many years without a real issue that I didn’t think to look.
When I saw our favorite unit at the complex was already booked, we went for this one, which had great reviews and had the same overall rating as the other. It, like the other, had been remodeled.
I almost daily get emails from the company telling me to “book now and save!” with a variety of tantalizing offers. When you go the website, however, to view availability and rates, attempt to book and use the coupon code for one of those tantalizing offers, you get a message of “Good news! You have already received the maximum discount available for this property. Thank you!”
This last time, I refused to be denied. I didn’t book — then got an additional “10 percent discount” emailed to me to coax me back. I tried that coupon code; same story. I called to speak with a human, got voicemail, and I explained what had happened and that it sure seemed like “false advertising to me.”
I got a call back. The woman reluctantly gave me that extra 10 percent discount, and I didn’t hold my ground for the rest of it. I booked this unit.
By the time the booking fee, cleaning fee, damage protection fee, and the tax is added, the rental costs 1.5 times the original advertised fee for the unit.
I’m fairly certain I will leave this place better than I found it (of course, that isn’t saying much, is it?), and I’ll still have to pay all those fees despite that.
Another grumbling point is this. The woman who handled my call knew that I was a repeat customer — but she didn’t know how many times I’d rented, over how long a period of time, or how many times I’d rented in this particular complex. Any good CRM would allow an employee to see my history to make recommendations — and maybe provide incentives so I’ll choose them again.
For instance, if they kept a record on me as a tenant, they might know that I leave a unit in great shape, could they lower the cost ($175) for housekeeping after I leave? If they realize I take good care of a unit, could they choose not to charge the damage protection fee ($95)?
If they kept a record on me, they might know that I don’t typically complain — and then they might know to act quickly when I do have a complaint?
Could I earn a bigger discount by being a faithful customer?
How to Remedy the Situation
The rental agency has shown fairly good customer service. The day we get into the unit and I made my initial complaint, housekeepers came to clean the glass doors and one toilet. Had I realized we had a bigger problem before calling, I might have gotten a more complete clean, too.
In addition, the agency — after I called a third day in a row — did send an electrician to fix the outlet problem. He appeared at my door with a screw driver. Luckily, I had found some new GFI outlets in boxes under the kitchen sink, so a screw driver was all he needed. I explained the problem to him, handed him one of the boxes, and he went in to fix it.
After he replaced the outlet, he turned the breaker on and left — without checking the outlet. Yes, you’re right. It wasn’t fixed.
I called the agency again, who sent him again, and this time he used his screw driver to remove some corrosion before reconnecting the outlet — and we tested the outlet with the coffee maker before he left. It now works.
However, the agency could have avoided all of this. Why wouldn’t they know that the unit hadn’t been rented for a month (or however long)? Had they simply sent a housekeeper to do a light cleaning before my arrival, my perspective might have been changed.
Why not store the patio furniture inside the climate-controlled unit when not in use?
Why not stop the ice machine from working when the unit isn’t being used? (Although why would a stainless steel coil mechanism rust?)
Why not have the housekeepers make a note of light bulbs that aren’t lit, electrical outlets that aren’t functioning, light fixtures that are cracked, doors that appear rusted, sliding doors that don’t slide correctly, tears in the window screens, faulty blinds, saggy mattresses and couches, anything that compromises the appearances and/or guest experience?
And then why not fix it before the guest uses the unit — or at least have a plan for when the item will be fixed and communicate that to the guest?
Maybe It’s Better to Rent from a Complex?
Have you ever got seated in a restaurant at a table nearest the bathroom or the kitchen or the drink station? As the host leads you there, you see another table more to your liking and ask if you can sit there. Typically, you can.
If you book a room at a hotel and you find something amiss, you simply return to the front desk, say the room is unacceptable and request another room. Typically, you’re given another room.
But when you rent from a booking agency that doesn’t manage an entire complex, you’re fairly stuck.
Plus, when you rent from an agency that manages units owned by individual owners, nothing is consistent (or so it seems). I’m delighted when I rent a unit owned by someone who clearly likes to cook and has the gadgetry I like to use. I don’t expect that, so I have a list of items to bring “when traveling to a condominium” that includes good knives, kitchen shears, spatulas, frying pan and more.
But a hair dryer? That seems a fairly standard accommodation.
6 Ways Vacation Rental Agencies Can Woo Repeat Customers
Know your customer.
- Invest in a CRM or other tool that allows you to record customer interactions.
- Have your housekeeping staff review the condition of the unit when a customer leaves — and record that in the CRM.
- Reward repeat customers (well, if they’ve left the place clean and haven’t broken anything).
Make the booking experience more transparent.
- If a rate is marked as the rate for a specific week, then any discounts you offer via email or site landing page should be discounts from that rate.
- Along with the rates and availability, include the extra costs. Sure, list them as itemized fees and taxes, but don’t make a user enter an email address and begin to book before they see the real cost of the vacation.
Routinely inspect units for quality assurance
- If you have a multi-week gap between guests, send someone to do a quick clean and mini-inspection.
- Create a checklist for housekeepers or another staff person to inspect each unit. Make sure light bulbs work, entry ways are clean, electrical outlets work, etc.
Check with your guests to be sure all is well
- In a restaurant, a server delivers your food or beverages and then returns to your table a few moments later to make sure all is to your liking. Rental agencies should do that. Make a phone call, send an email, communicate through an app. However you normally communicate with your guests before they visit, do once they’ve arrived and gotten situated.
- If a guest has made a complaint or requested maintenance and you send someone to remedy the problem, follow up with a call or however your guest reached you. “Did we fix the problem?” would make a difference.
Spend on the small stuff
- Lavish your guests with the items you do have at your disposal and don’t cost you much. Give them fluffy towels and plenty of them. Purchase a better quality paper towel that actually absorbs wetness. Supply kitchen trash bags, dishwasher packets, dish soap, a new sponge, multiple kitchen towels. Heck, put chocolates on the pillows!
- Paint the door and add a welcome mat. Take that literally (if you’re my rental agent for this condo) or metaphorically. Make your guests’ first impression a positive statement of what they should expect. (Trust me, a first impression can also make a negative statement that provides the lenses through which your guest views everything else.)
Those are small things that make a big impression.
Spend on the important stuff
- How many complaints does it take before an owner foots the bill for a new king-size mattress? If a couch and chairs look good but aren’t comfortable at all, replace them. If a light fixture is cracked, replace it.
- I’m not sure how it works for rental agencies that manage properties owned by someone else, but if you can’t get the owner to make the purchases that will ensure visitors want to return, stop managing the unit.
To the Vacationer
At a certain point, you need to close your eyes to the imperfections and look at the positive so you can enjoy your vacation. Vacation isn’t heaven. If your location has no flaws, some remnant of your real life is likely to touch you and remind you that you can’t really “get away from it all.”
A few days into my vacation, I found a survey on the Hospitality app the rental agency suggested. It asked if I had any issues, and I expressed thanks for solving some issues but indicated three others – the mildew on the balcony furniture, the rust in the ice maker, and the divots in the bed, because I figured it might take more time to remedy those issues and they had other guests scheduled for the unit.
That prompted the corporate office to call me, saying the local office would call me soon to schedule maintenance. I did not want to wait for calls or visits by maintenance crews. I was on vacation, and my son and my daughter and her two children had arrived for a couple of days. Enough! I was here to enjoy the beach with my husband and family.
When the local office called, I indicated, again, that I didn’t expect them to come fix the flaws immediately but wanted them to know so they could fix them, perhaps before the next guest arrived. I’m sure they breathed a sigh of relief.
No matter how imperfect the unit seemed, the beach was perfect in October — not too hot, not too cool. Goldilocks would have approved. We could enjoy the ocean water and the pool without sweltering in summer sun.
Each morning I awakened well before the sun rose and hit the beach at the hint of first light. My favorite time to walk was when it was almost too dark to see and I could watch the whole of the sun’s opening act for the day.
Usually, when I arrived at the shoreline, I tested the wind to determine which way I should walk. Since I’d be hotter on the second half of my walk, I chose to walk with the wind for the first half and against the wind for my return walk. This particular morning, I walked north.
It was dark. I could see the white sand but barely tell how far up the beach the water was reaching. In the distance, I could see the flashing beam of the lighthouse as it circled its warning along the harbor.
A few scattered dark forms walked toward me, silently. It was too early for the customary nod or morning greeting. I was on guard, suspicious, not friendly as I tread through the fear-inducing darkness.
But then I happened to glance over my right shoulder and saw light. The waning length of daylight hours in autumn meant the sun was angled more to the south. I changed direction and began to walk south, and the change in perspective was dramatic.
Instead of a dark sky with the penetrating flash from the lighthouse, I was viewing what my grandson called “a sweet potato sky.” Spaces between the layers of clouds were beautifully glowing red and pink and orange. It was beautiful and, more important, lit my path before me.
I walked in that new direction with peace and joy and complete confidence. It was a dramatically different change in perspective.
In refusing to let the issues of the condo – well, other than a steamy blog post I had to complete – consume my vacation, I changed my perspective too. I let it go.
In Theory, Anyway
While my husband and I enjoyed my grandson at the beach and pool, my daughter remained in the unit as my granddaughter took her morning nap. A maintenance man came to the door, explaining the 15 stack of units (Numbers 115, 215, 315, 415) had an undetermined water leak flooding the bottom floor. We were in #315.
They’d done all they could in the bottom unit but still had a leak. The plumbers would have to shut down the water for all the units to locate the problem.
“Could your mom call me to let me know a good time for us to shut off the water tomorrow?”
It was a full-day job in which we’d not only have no water but we’d also have plumbers in our unit breaking through walls to install new pipes.
But what choice did we have, really? Emergencies happen, and we did our best to accommodate the plumbers.
Unfortunately, we had our own emergency. I started feel nauseated that morning and by noon I was vomiting violently — into a toilet I couldn’t flush, beside a sink that offered no water to rinse my mouth.
Ah, good times! It was pure misery, and Steve started feeling sick soon after. We stayed in bed, away from the kitchen and laundry room area that the plumbers had commandeered.
This morning, still feeling fragile, I opened the freezer to get some ice – and found a bowl of water.
The refrigerator isn’t working, prompting yet another call to the rental agency. It probably died yesterday, and not wanting to risk another bout of illness, we have tossed the perishables and put the rest in a cooler with bags of ice.
The rental agency just called to say the owner lives in town and will bring a replacement refrigerator this afternoon. Too late for our food, but I’m sure the new guests will enjoy all the improvements.
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” the rep from the rental agency said when I told her. “I’ll let my manager know. I’m not sure if we can recompense you for the food or not…”
She had no idea of the other issues we’ve had this week.
The perfect ending to an imperfect vacation.
The next morning, we packed the van — during the feeder bands of Tropical Storm Nestor. (The Weather Channel would have improved its ratings if it had a film crew in St. Augustine that day recording our experience.)
Though the eastern coast of Florida wasn’t in the direct path of the storm, Nestor’s large feeder bands littered in radar red empowered the Atlantic Ocean and swamped Steve and me with the wind and rain.
I’m sure we were quite a sight in the parking lot as we tried to contain errant shopping carts that blew every which way as we attempted to empty their contents into our van.
That seemed an appropriate, true end to our vacation.
My wise husband pointed out that the vacation rental agency really did attend to our issues and the fault lay with the condo itself (or, since the condo is relatively powerless, its owner). That is true.
However, as the management agency for the condo, any problems we encounter in a single unit — as well as how the agency handled our complaints — are a direct reflection of the manager.
As I’ve returned to normal life (saying “Home sweet home!” and “There’s no place like work” in such contrast to this “vacation from hell,” as I’ve billed it), my friends are asking me about the refund I surely got after this experience…
I think that’s a question I need to ask.
Meanwhile, I sum up vacation to those who ask with: “On my vacation, I dealt with housekeepers, an electrician twice, a plumber, a water outage, and an appliance man.”
That’s no vacation.