Scores of visitors from throughout the United States, even different countries, came last year to Robin and Bob Lehrman’s small and private one-bedroom guest quarters on Great Island in Narragansett. Guests gave these newbies at Airbnb a four-star rating with reviews that could make top South County hotels cringe with envy.
“We had this spare room that we had renovated. Someone said something about using Airbnb and we said we’ll give it a short try. Well, it’s been a long try and we like it a lot,” said Robin who has now joined hundreds of others in South County and thousands worldwide in the home-sharing business.
“Great Island Retreat,” proclaims their online advertisement, mixing the name of their tiny island locale in Narragansett with a public relations twist emphasizing a great get-away. It’s all part of being a do-it-yourself travel host.
“Kayaks if you would like to use them,” begins their luring online advertisement for the summer spot in the quaint fishing port in Galilee, “and an outdoor shower that comes in handy after the beach. We are also walking distance to many great seafood restaurants. Our property has a unique studio in the back yard that can be used for quiet reading or entertaining. Across the street is water access for kayaking or going for quahogs (Bob can give lessons).”
In the venue of mega online travel sites with accommodations ranging from one-bedroom efficiencies in someone’s home to a multi-million-dollar oceanfront house, they need the right hook to attract viewers and get the booking.
Welcome to one-stop shopping across the globe — including small South County, R.I. — for that perfect vacation or get-away place through major clearinghouses providing a smorgasbord of properties and eclectic group of people offering them for rent. These catch-all online sites are transforming the travel accommodations industry because they provide easy searching and couple consumers’ price points with a wide choice of preference.
“It’s all about the marketing,” observed Robin Leclerc, of Residential Properties in Narragansett, who uses mega site, Vrbo - Vacation rental by owner, for her own as well as client listings in South County.
Airbnb and competitor Vrbo/Homeaway, a division of travel giant Expedia, are industry leaders and are among several worldwide online clearinghouses or mega sites for short-term, vacation or year-round rentals. Private rooms to rent alongside the traditional lodging once prompted the name “alternative accommodations” to describe the collection by do-it-your-selfers, investors and businesses in the travel industry.
Douglas Quinby, a senior industry analyst with Phocuswright, told Travel Weekly earlier this year that “…basically anybody, anywhere, with a home or space to rent in their home could rent it out. It’s proven to be something that’s penetrated deeply into the mainstream. We’ve been saying for years now that the expression ‘alternative accommodations’ is out of date, because it’s no longer ‘alternative.’”
How Home Sharing Works
Robin and Bob Lehrman last year jumped on this growing trend and decided to use the clearinghouse Airbnb to see what their individual efforts would bring. The couple first explored it, talked with others and read reviews, though never stayed in accommodations made through Airbnb. Their Great Island home has been in her family for more than six decades.
They decided to open it up for short-term rental for some extra income. She said most of her Airbnb guests stay two or three days and are generally couples and occasionally a single person passing through for work. Her Galilee harborside accommodations go for $125 per night weekdays and $140 per night on weekends. She is registered, as required, with the Town of Narragansett.
The room she and her husband renovated and rent has a plush grey rug that gives a soft, deep, feel stepping through it. A double bed with a pink coral cover on it accents the light gray room, where a small table with a wine chiller and two wine glasses wait to be filled. Across the room, a white dresser has atop of it several small pre-filled water bottles to grab for a hike or bike trip, and a coffee maker with coffee is available for the first morning cup before heading for breakfast at a local restaurant.
Attention to these kinds of details is also part of the design for longer-term rentals, which are the focus of Robin Leclerc of Residential Properties. Vrbo works best for her, she said, because of her long-standing relationship with the mega site.
A property manager and real estate agent, she places homes on Vrbo for herself and for clients. The homes she lists on Vrbo for summer rental are high-end and range in price from $3,500 to $10,500 for weekly stays. She is also registered as required. Leclerc, Lehrman and various town officials said that some others illegally offer daily or weekly accommodations in the area without registering or paying required state taxes.
State sales tax is seven percent, state hotel tax is five percent and local hotel tax is one percent. Renters booking online will also pay service fees to the mega online sites. In turn, these clearinghouses remit payments to those listing on them, and the money earned varies by price for the lodging. These online clearinghouses also charge listing fees for each property.
A former school teacher, Leclerc and her husband, a builder, first put their own Narragansett property on Vrbo in 2009 and experienced the same success as the Lehrmans. Leclerc, who later joined the real estate industry, now lists 17 properties on Vrbo for herself, individuals, and investors in Narragansett and South Kingstown.
“I know that tons of travelers use those sites, like Vrbo, to look for where they want to go. People overseas, far away states, they use the online system. It’s easier than calling individual agencies,” she said.
“My motto is quality, not quantity. It’s about quality. When people rent with me, I send a welcome letter, I check with them before they come, while they are here and after they go. They can call me for anything. I have my own brand and way of doing things,” she said.
Robin Lehrman said she puts her own personal brand on services for her customers, too.
“If someone needs a ride to the Block Island ferry down the street, we’ll take them, we have bikes for them to use and we’re here if they need anything at all,” she said. The hallmark of her personal brand, she said, is building relationships.
“You’ve got to be a people person, you’ve got to like people” when participating in the home-sharing business, she said. “At first, I was a little scared with having all these strange people in my home. Now, I don’t give it a second thought,” she said.
“We’ve not had one bad client. They all have been wonderful,” she added.
Leclerc said that her rentals on the high-end also go well and that she gets repeat customers and good reviews through her Vrbo listings, which cost her about $500 each yearly.
Both said they see continued upticks in business, which mirrors national trends, according to Mark Blutstein, a travel analyst with Phocuswright.
“In terms of the big players, we can look at in terms Airbnb, Booking.com, and Expedia (HomeAway/Vrbo), I believe all will continue to expand their private accommodation offerings, our data shows older travelers are now embracing (alternative) rental accommodations so there is more demand from a newer demographic,” he said, adding that trends indicate “individual owners to continue to try their hand in renting out extra space if they have it.”
The Customer Experience
“I work with them (guests) on anything they need. I am available 24/7 to make this the best vacation they’ve had,” said Leclerc.
Down at Great Island, Lehrman and her husband even offer a renovated detached outer library-bar building fashioned into a private sitting room with books, bar, decorations and furniture for separate alone time away from bedroom or entertaining friends.
“My husband and I will have cocktails around 5 p.m. with our neighbors on our front lawn. We invite our guests to join us and some will, usually older couples, and everyone gets to know each other,” said Lehrman.
Adam Annen, spokesman for Vrbo/Homeawa, noted, “Vacation rental owners take pride in the homes in which they welcome their guests. The personal feel to a vacation rental is what sets the experience apart from the traditional hotel stay. At Vrbo, we’ve heard from several owners over the years that have made lifelong friends with their guests, who often book their homes year after year with their families.”
“There is often the opportunity,” he said, “to connect with the vacation rental owner and gain their expertise of the area, which can even extend to such perks as sharing some wine and cheese upon check-in, enjoying a welcome basket of local products furnished by the owner, or we’ve heard stories of getting a private tour of the on-site vineyard, taking horseback riding excursions and helicopter tours, or using an owner’s season tickets to a sporting event.”
Liz DeBold Fusco, Airbnb spokeswoman, highlighted similar efforts at crafting the customer package. Called “Experiences,” the site matches hosts with scores of activities, such as an Oyster and Champaign Shucking Lesson in Newport, Make Your Own Hartfelt Fused Glass in East Greenwich, and Navigation, Sightsee and Sunset Cruise on Block Island.
Whether it is called “Experiences,” or “being a people person” or having your own brand, Leclerc agreed that individualized customer service is at the heart of these new alternative accommodations becoming standard fare in the travel industry - and a critical part of customer reviews that can make or break future guest bookings.
“The satisfaction I get is the feeling of people feeling satisfied,” she said. “I feel the satisfaction of what my travelers get from my services when people read their reviews and others see the quality of services they are going to get,” she said.