Back in my 30s, in the late 90s, when I was married (and flush), my husband, two kids and myself would travel to the West Coast of Mexico every year for a three-week Christmas holiday. I loved it there. Lying on the sandy beach, a gentle breeze always in the air, the delicious local food. At the time, Isabel Goldsmith (daughter of Sir James Goldsmith) was garnering some media attention, having built a luxurious 16-room boutique hotel inland called Las Alamandas. Reclining on my sun lounger during those long, hot days, I often daydreamed about such a future for myself. I liked to imagine myself as the hostess with the mostest, running a very small boutique hotel somewhere warm and managing a small team of staff. I imagined each day would go something like this: spend the morning making sure my guests were happy, planning the small menu each night with our resident chef, leaving the rest of my day to read a book and lie in the sun.
Fast forward 20 years and, having been an AirBnB hostess for the past two years; any dreams I had of being a hotelier have been firmly put on the back burner. To those that work tirelessly in the hospitality industry, I have the utmost respect for what you do. This ‘job’ has taught me more about human behavior than any psychology course ever could.
I live in a three bedroom, interior designed flat, a stone’s throw from the Kilburn High Road, which just happens to be off the famous Abbey Road.
Here is my listing:
“Lovely, cosy room just off the Abbey Road and only 2 stops from Euston Station. The West End and trains/buses to East London, Central London and West are all nearby. This is a very quiet flat and the owners work and live there. This room is suitable only for singles due to its size.”
My listing then goes on to say that the room features a comfortable, pull out sofa bed and the guests will have access to a large bathroom with rainwater shower head and the kitchen to make teas/coffees but not to cook breakfast or for lounging. The room also features Wi-Fi and Cat5 cabling for super fast Internet access. The price is £35 per night.
“Gee, isn’t that a bit too cheap?” said a friend of mine when she enquired about the room on behalf of a friend of hers who was visiting London and needed a place to stay.
“Well,” I replied. “It’s a very small room and I’d rather have it booked all the time and turn people away than have empty days. Besides I keep it low to avoid my guests having unrealistic expectations. They pay for a nice, clean (but small) room in a lovely flat and that’s what they get.”
Here’s the thing. I’ve learned it doesn’t actually matter whether one lives in a shoebox or a castle; travellers using AirBnB now demand the same level of service they would have if they were staying in a Hilton. On an average day as a hostess, I might be required to create a day’s sightseeing tour in London, help my guests navigate the transport system plus recommend local restaurants. I have travelled to the nearest chemist open on a Sunday to pick up a prescription when one of my guests inexplicably developed gout overnight. I have shared a bottle of wine with a guest who wanted to tell me of her marriage woes. I am a therapist, a housekeeper and a tour guide all rolled into one.
I have always been a clean and tidy person but being an AirBnB hostess has required me to take my cleaning skills to a whole new level. Take hair, for instance, or rather my futile effort to make sure that there are no traces of it in the bathroom or on my kitchen floor. Every time I host a person with long hair, no matter what shade, my inner ‘neatnik’ goes into overdrive. My bathroom floor and kitchen floor are both laid with pale grey porcelain tiles. Beautiful, yes. Practical, no. Every single hair, every crumb, every piece of fluff is visible and, yes, it drives me crazy. My dustbuster is my new best friend. Who needs a degree when just having a broom and some bleach can earn me enough money to be able to travel and avoid having to take on any client-facing work… just about.
Ninety percent of my guests only stay for a night or two, leaving me little time to get to know them, but there have been a number of amazing people with whom I have kept in touch such as the former high-flying woman physicist, recently retired, who was travelling around Europe on her own for the first time. Or the guy who left his City job to make chili-infused jelly (his mother’s recipe) that he was now selling at food fairs and artisanal grocery stores around the country (and left me with a selection to try). The up and coming pop singer who was playing a gig in town was a sweetheart too, despite forgetting to set her watch to the correct time zone and missing her train.
Then, there is the handful that I would classify as ‘odd’. I’ll never forget the Irish woman, in her mid-30s, and in London for the first time, who drank a full bottle of red, stubbed her rollie out in the hallway and tried to make a pass at my son. Or the Israeli guy who insisted on sleeping with his bedroom door open in just his boxer shorts. My most recent horror was an English guy who showed up four hours late, spilled a full bottle of (thankfully) water on the carpet and then complained that the room had a sofa bed and not a double, although this had been clearly stated no fewer than three times on the website.
I won’t lie. The lack of privacy can be a drag. The walls in my flat are not soundproofed and it’s when I’m in bed, and having sex (a rare enough occurrence) that I really wish I were alone. Lovemaking is often accompanied by the sound of doors opening and closing, footsteps on the stairs outside my room, or muffled chattering. But frankly, it’s a small price to pay for the freedom I have - to do exactly what I want each and every day.
The one-night bookings translate into a lot of washing. I have never done so much laundry in my life. It is not glamorous. I have become very adept at changing duvet covers.
For those considering being an AirBnB host, here are my top tips.
- Undercharge to begin with because it’s important to get reviews. This will help move your residence further up the search.
- It’s not necessary to offer breakfast or cooking facilities (I don’t) so think about whether you want the additional hassle of having to clean up someone else’s meal (although you can charge for breakfast too).
- I use Instant Book which means I don’t get to choose my guests but does mean I get almost 100% occupancy.
- Photos are super important – make sure your residence is tidy and take nice pics. It makes a huge difference.
- You can choose whether you’re a friendly host or don’t want much contact. If you work from home, I would choose the latter.
- If you want to rent out your entire home, you will be limited to 90 days in any one year (in London). The same rule does not apply to individual rooms.
- Cleanliness is super important. Stray hairs, full rubbish bins and general untidiness doesn’t really cut it with most guests and will lead to a poor review.
- If you have a problem with any of your guests, report it immediately and take photographs to document your evidence. My experience is that the site responds very quickly and will attempt to deal with your problem straightaway.
- For those that worry about items getting stolen or hosting weirdos - if my experience is anything to go by, most people are actually very respectful of your space and will go out of their way to be friendly.
If you’re an AirBnb guest:
- Never assume your host is a hermit. If you’re going to be late, let your host know. They may be waiting around to let you in so they can go out.
- Make sure you’ve read the listing thoroughly so you know what to expect.
- Take the sheets off the bed and hand them to your host on departure (not necessary but a lovely gesture).
- Try and keep noise to a minimum.
- Unless it has been agreed in advance, don’t assume it’s suddenly OK to bring your partner or someone you just picked up in the pub home with you.
- In general, treat others with the same respect you’d expect someone to treat you and everyone will get along brilliantly.
Being an AirBnB has its pluses and minuses but, if it’s taught me anything, it’s that I’m not cut out for running a boutique hotel on the Mexican coastline, any other coastline or inland, for that matter. And I look forward to the prospect in a year or two’s time - of being able to rent out my entire flat for months at a time to become location-independent. But, right now, I really must go and take the sheets out of the dryer…