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How To Make A Killing On Airbnb

Two Airbnb experts offer tips to make your property rain money.

[Photo: Flickr user Thomas Shahan]

There is perhaps no greater example of how lucrative the sharing economy can be than Airbnb. In the six years since its launch the website that lets anyone rent out their homes has propelled its founders—Brian Chesky, Nathan Blecharczyk, and Joe Gebbia—onto this year's Forbes billionaires list with estimated fortunes of $1.9 billion each. That’s to say nothing of the company’s rumored $20 billion valuation, partly due to the fact that Airbnb now has over one million listings in 190 countries.

But Airbnb isn’t just making itself rich; it’s also making plenty of money for its hosts too—especially the ones at the top of the hosting food chain whom the company refers to as "Superhosts."

"In 2009, we launched the Superhost program to recognize the early hosts who helped set a high standard for hosting on Airbnb," says James McClure, Airbnb’s general manager for the U.K. and Ireland. "The Airbnb community has grown considerably since then, but it’s just as important now as it was in 2009 that we showcase the top-performing hosts in our community."

McClure says the Superhost program recognizes hosts who have gone the extra mile to make their guests happy. Superhosts have a response rate of at least 90%, have hosted at least 10 trips, do not cancel (barring extenuating circumstances) and have at least 80% five-star ratings. Once they've achieved this status, hosts' profiles get a Superhost badge.

"People strive for this status—it looks good and increases bookings—so since introducing it the bar is constantly being raised when it comes to using our site and hosting guests," says McClure. The site has welcomed over 40,000 Superhosts since the program began in 2009.

For some of these Superhosts, Airbnb rentals can mean revenue in the five or six figures. While much of Airbnb’s business is based on "regular" people offering extra rooms or beds, these highly profitable outliers—often hosts with multiple listings or whole homes for rent—have become the subject of controversy. An analysis of global Airbnb listsings last year showed that hosts offering multiple listings made up over 40% of the company's business. At one point in 2013, before lawmakers in New York began to question these listings, just 10 hosts operated 313 listings. (The company has said it has eliminated many of these hosts, but another recent study illustrates that nearly 30% of Airbnb's offerings in New York are from hosts with multiple listings.)

Even if you don't have the luxury of multiple residences or a whole apartment to rent—or an Airbnb management service at your disposal—consider these suggestions for making the best of your Airbnb rental, from a pair of successful Superhosts.

One of the properties Scott Shatford rents on Airbnb

Photographs Aren't Everything, But Also, They Are

"Photographs are the single most important factor for marketing a vacation property," says Scott Shatford, an Airbnb host who "stumbled upon" the site in 2012 and decided to start using it to make extra income while he was traveling. "I was sharing my home with everyone from Midwest retirees, to international backpackers, even an NFL quarterback and a president at Starbucks."

Shatford now rents four properties through Airbnb and has welcomed over 500 guests, earning, he says, over $100,000 on Airbnb each year. He's since founded a consulting company called AirDnA, which uses analytics to help hosts get the most out of their apartments.

While "post good pics" might seem like obvious advice, Shatford says many new hosts greatly underestimate their photography talents. "The photos on Airbnb look so good these days that it’s necessary to go above and beyond in order to stand out from the crowd."

That’s something that Superhost Gary Bearchell agrees with. He and his wife Jennifer rent their 5-star-rated cabin in the Sechelt Inlet region of Canada, just outside of Vancouver. Bearchell and his wife have been hosting for only two years but say they’re already bringing in over $30,000 just on one property, and expect to double that when they put the neighboring property up for rent this year.

The 5-star-rated cabin in the Sechelt Inlet region of CanadaPhoto: courtesy of Gary Bearchell & Jennifer Cox

"I can't stress enough how important good pictures are," says Bearchell, who found out firsthand how improving your pictures can improve bookings. "Early last year I accepted a booking request, and soon the person messaged me saying he noticed my photos were 'less than ideal,' and that he was a professional photographer and if we were to give him one of the nights for free, he would take some new photos of the place for us to use."

Bearchell took him up on his offer and the bookings from users increased dramatically. "The popularity his photos have brought us would have been worth giving him a whole month for free," Bearchell says. "In fact, I am currently in the process of trying to get him up here again to take photos of our new place!"

Bearchell's 5-star cabin received many more bookings after redoing the photographs.

But if you can’t afford a professional photographer, Shatford says there are simple things you can do to improve your photos. "When taking photos, consider adding some fine touches: Prepare a wine and cheese plate for that outdoor space, creatively fold towels in the bathroom, ensure an immaculately made bed, and add a photo or two of your biggest local attraction," he says, noting that one common mistake people make is posting too many pics. "Post 10 great photos that really highlight the amenities, character, location, and appeal of your place and leave them wanting more. This can help turn browsers into buyers."

Vacation In Your Own Rental

You wouldn’t serve a homemade meal you've just made without tasting it first, so don’t assume your property is optimized to its fullest just because you’ve cleaned the kitchen, made the beds, and put flowers on the table.

"Every few months I like to spend a night at my rental properties," says Shatford. "I put myself in the shoes of the most demanding guests and experience the home just as they would."

Shatford says whenever he does this he always ends up with a list of simple improvements to be made that he wouldn’t have noticed by doing a typical walk-through.

"Whether it’s unclogging a drain, adding an extra blanket, or including a bedside charging station, I’m always looking for those small and inexpensive improvements that can make a big impact."

Shatford sleeps in his rental properties once every few months.

You Are Not A Hotel. So Don't Price Yourself Like One

"I'm often shocked to see what some people are charging for their place that is similar to ours," says Bearchell, who notes that people have always trusted staying at a hotel more than they trust staying at an Airbnb property—"and they always will" since they face more risk of a bad experience by staying in alternative accommodation.

Bearchell says people only opt for Airbnb over a hotel for two reasons: "the ability to stay somewhere unique, and the money they can potentially save." If you price yourself like a hotel, you eliminate 50% of your guests' reasons for booking your Airbnb property.

"Is it better to rent your place a third of the time at three times the price, or is it better to rent it all the time at one third of the price?" says Bearchell. "The answer is the latter, because people like to save money. So they stay at your reasonably priced cabin. And then they leave you a nice review. And then you have a whole bunch of nice reviews. And the reviews are the only thing that takes away the risk of staying at a stranger's house."

Focus On Selling Experiences

While photos and cost are the major factors that make a guest decide to book a property, Shatford says Airbnb users are often looking for something more from their travels than just a "trip."

"People choose Airbnb because they want a break from the traditional and are looking for an affordable, authentic getaway," says Shatford. "Create an Airbnb listing that focuses on experiences, not the property facts."

This isn't a patio, it's an experience.

Some examples Shatford gives:

Don’t say: Large kitchen with stainless steel appliances.
Do say: Walk to the farmers' market and make yourself a gourmet meal in the large fully equipped kitchen.

Don’t say: Two Beach Cruisers Included.
Do say: Cruise the Santa Monica coastline from the Pier to Muscle Beach with two complimentary beach cruisers.

"The fact is, most places really aren’t that unique and there are dozens of other similar options to pick from these days," says Shatford. "Guests want to imagine what they’ll be doing in your space and are less concerned about the actual square footage."

Pour On The Niceness In Your Initial Responses. And Do It Now

Have you ever been to a market and seen two vendors selling the same item? When cost and quality are the same, which did you choose to buy from? Probably the vendor that was the friendliest toward you, says Bearchell.

"People always love an overly pleasant, ultra-quick response when they request a booking," says Bearchell. "The moment I see that notification on my phone, I make it my mission to reply as pleasantly as I can, and as soon as I can."

Bearchell says when it comes to communication, hotels have a clear advantage: When a guest books at one, there there is no back-and-forth, requesting dates and waiting to be approved. That all takes extra time on Airbnb, so being quick and friendly in your communication can help stave off frustration and impatience on the guest’s part.

Know When To Be Hands-On And Hands-Off

Many travelers love Airbnb because they like meeting the local hosts as much as exploring the surroundings. Then again, there are other guests who would rather have the level of privacy they get at a hotel. The trick is to know which guests wants which type of attention.

"I like to have the guests dictate how much personal interaction they want to have," says Shatford, who notes that it’s usually easy to see from the initial email communications who is looking for that special greeting and who would rather check in independently. "If a guest books a place for a few nights using the instant booking tool and I never receive an email from them, they likely don’t desire a lot of personal attention. But, on the other hand, if someone books a two-week stay and reaches out for advice on restaurants and activities, I’ll be sure to meet them and point them in the right direction."

Bearchell agrees: "We try to individualize our style based on who the guest is. For example, when we have a couple coming for their honeymoon, obviously we know they're going to want their privacy. So for them it's a quick hello, here is this and that, feel free to come knock on our door if you have any questions.

"On the other hand, we might have a group coming up to do some mountain biking or diving, so we may end up in a bit more of a conversation, or perhaps inviting them down to the beach for a fire, or perhaps bumping into them at the pub and joining them for a beer! In the end, we definitely lean toward the hands-off approach, but if the guests seem like they want a little more from us, we try to oblige."

Keep The Place Thoughtfully Well Stocked

Once your guests arrive you want to make sure your place is well stocked with not only the necessities, but recreational items too, should the weather or personal choice call for a lazy day inside.

"We don't provide food for our guests, but we do have most the condiments you would ever want, as well as coffee and tea, and many of the things you would need in the bathroom," says Bearchell. "We also try to provide things that a person might want to do in a cabin: books and magazines to read, DVDs to watch, jigsaw puzzles to assemble and games to play. I'm actually trying to hunt down a record player and collection for our new place next door because I think people would love that sort of thing!"

A good stock of entertainment can lead to good reviews.

Give Them A Little Extra Something

Oftentimes when a guest arrives at your property they may be tired or harried from their travels. Being on time to greet them is the most obvious way to get their stay off to a good start, but don’t underestimate the value of giving them a little welcome present as well.

"When we first got started we would always leave a bottle of wine on the counter for our guests, says Bearchell. "Friends thought we were crazy for doing that, but really, what's 10 dollars when you're pocketing $200 to $300 for very little work?"

Your welcome present doesn’t necessarily need to be a bottle of wine. Try to tailor it depending on who your guest is. If it's a family with two young children, a few lollipops could go a long way to placating travel-weary children. For newlyweds who have booked your place for two weeks, a small bottle of scented massage oil could work. And if you don’t want to spend the money on simple welcome presents, sentiments can go just as far.

"We also have a chalkboard sitting here waiting to be put up with the goal being to write something personal on it for each guest," Bearchell says. "You might not be able to eat or drink it, but it is another little form of a gift!"