This week, a powerful piece of journalism appeared in Medium—and it’s relevant for everyone in the rapidly changing vacation rental industry.
The piece, Living and Dying on Airbnb, tells the tragic story of a fallen tree branch at an Airbnb rental, and the resulting untimely death of a guest—the author’s father—one Thanksgiving morning in Texas.
Devastatingly, this tree was a selling point of the property. The Airbnb description said, in the owners’ words, I always feel a sense of peace when I look out at the yard.
It’s a story of how things can change in an instant—a selling point becomes a catalyst for tragedy. It’s a story of loss and grief, and it’s heart-wrenching.
It’s also a story of liability, responsibility, and guest safety.
Airbnb’s Escape Clause
Airbnb is very clear about where it stands: they are not a rental company, but a sharing mechanism. A marketplace. Whereby people with extra space share that space—for a fee, of course—with people who need space. Airbnb is simply a platform that facilitates that sharing.
It says this right on the website: “Airbnb has no control over the conduct of Hosts and disclaims all liability.”
So unless a court decides otherwise, injuries that occur to guests in properties rented out on Airbnb remain the liability of the homeowner.
It’s scary stuff.
Since most home insurance polices have an exclusion for loss that happens in the course of commercial activities, injured guests are out of luck. So, of course, are their unwitting hosts, who find themselves personally liable for what can be enormous sums of money.
The Edge of Property Managers
Professional property managers understand safety regulations and liability issues. If you’re a property manager, you don’t need us to tell you how to make sure that your properties are safe, or if they adhere to local zoning laws and regulations.
But are you communicating your safety records to guests and owners?
There are two schools of thought around addressing the less-pleasant aspects of a vacation (i.e. accidents, fires, and other worst-case scenarios).
One is to avoid them altogether. Don’t mention the under-floor heating—it could alert the potential vendor to the fact that the nights get so chilly that it’s needed! Avoid mentioning pool fencing—it could bring to mind drowning accidents for that nervous young mother booking her family trip!
The other school, which we at Guest Hook recommend, is to address and redress the flaws in a property to establish a deeper trust.
Apply that same principle about safety. Don’t be afraid to bring up some of the more unpleasant risks of a vacation, as long as you show how you mitigate those risks.
Talk up your safety record and mention your procedures as part of your standard wording. And consider making it feature more prominently in your marketing, as well. Here are some ways to do that:
1) Blog post or Newsletter
Create a shareable blog post or a newsletter to your mailing list that communicates the steps you and your rental company take to identify potential hazards. Emphasize that you follow the rules when it comes to laws and guest safety.
Be clear and transparent about how you do both.
Positive feedback is a powerful thing. Include a testimonial from a homeowner mentioning, for example, that you identified a potential hazard and helped them to fix it before the property hit the market.
It may seem like a negative to bring that to mind in the first place, but it’s a story that will attract attention from potential vacationers and owners alike…and show you prioritize safety.
Or perhaps you have a guest testimonial from a family with young children who say they felt safe staying with you. Young families have the most compelling reasons to worry about physical safety, so a testimonial to that effect carries more weight.
3) Guest Communications
You may find that some of your inquiring guests will come right out and ask about safety. Is this rental in a safe neighborhood? Is it up to code? Are there carbon monoxide detectors?
Be honest, open, and completely transparent in your response. Don’t brush this one off—show the guest you understand their concerns, then explain exactly the steps you take to keep them safe.
Reassure Your Homeowners, Too
And it’s not just the people looking to rent a vacation home that need reassuring. Your owners, too, have reason to worry.
Fortunately, in the Airbnb story, the homeowners held an unusually comprehensive insurance policy. Without it, they would have been in serious financial trouble in addition to devastating emotional effects of the accident. The sort of trouble that can bankrupt people.
Your professional vacation rental business is different. You have a policy of checking properties for safety, and the liability for that, as a professional, rests with you. Regulated vacation houses, like hotels, have higher standards of safety than an unregulated private home being ‘shared’ with strangers.
A first-timer thinking of dabbling their toe in the vacation rental waters doesn’t necessarily know that, though. And that’s why it should be part of your marketing strategy.
Why choose a professional rental manager when you can put your home up on Airbnb and do it yourself? Because it’s safer, and it protects the homeowner from liability* if an accident occurs.
Reassure your homeowners:
• Tell them what safety checks you perform.
• Tell them your experience with local laws and regulations.
• Tell them what you’ll do to help if something goes wrong.
Nobody wants to see accidents happen. We certainly don’t want to talk about them. But with the sharing economy growing exponentially, your superior safety record is a huge marketing advantage. Use it.
*Negligence law is complicated and changes from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Guest Hook’s comments are intended to be general and do not constitute legal advice. Always seek the advice of a professional lawyer.