Beth Fortune of Wildheart Design: “Generosity”

To be a highly successful Airbnb host, you’ve got to be all-in. Airbnbs that are well designed, with thoughtful amenities and friendly hosts get more bookings, better reviews, and make more money. Putting in the effort from the start will put hosts ahead in the long run, when everyone else is lowering rates to compete. Many […]

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To be a highly successful Airbnb host, you’ve got to be all-in. Airbnbs that are well designed, with thoughtful amenities and friendly hosts get more bookings, better reviews, and make more money. Putting in the effort from the start will put hosts ahead in the long run, when everyone else is lowering rates to compete.

Many people dream of becoming an Airbnb host but don’t know where to start. In this series called “5 Things You Need To Become A Highly Successful Airbnb Host”, we are interviewing successful Airbnb hosts who share lessons from their experience about how to run a very successful Airbnb property. As part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Beth Fortune.

Beth Fortune is an interior designer, and the founder of Wildheart Design, a studio that specializes in vacation rental design. Based in Santa Monica, California, Beth helps hosts near and far achieve Airbnb success with interior design services, coaching, and courses. She also owns and manages a successful Airbnb in the Palm Springs, California area.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”?

Absolutely! I’ve always been a designer, although at the beginning of my career I was more focused on advertising than interiors. It took launching my first Airbnb ten years ago for me to find my calling. My first short-term rental required a major remodel, and during that project, I realized that interior design was it for me. It requires the kind of creative, logistical, and organizational problem solving that lights me up. I was hooked and ended up earning my Master of Interior Architecture degree, and landing a job at the biggest hospitality design firm in the world. Through it all, I managed my Airbnb on the side, applying everything I was learning about design and business to my side hustle.

While working on glamorous, expensive, and complex hotel projects I felt like a secret agent, learning what the top brands and operators do, and applying those lessons to my Airbnb. I’ll let you in on one surprising secret. Whether is a luxury gaming resort in Macau or a 5-room bed and breakfast in Paso Robles, all hospitality projects are designed to look good despite the daily assault of one thing: fast-moving vacuum cleaners. It sounds silly, but imagine the losses if an operator had to replace or repair 50 rooms of dinged up furniture or repaint baseboards every week! That’s a small thing that makes a big difference, and one of the many things I think about when I design Airbnbs.

As much as I liked working on big projects, I love helping scrappy entrepreneurs make their dreams a reality. When I launched my own design business, I knew I wanted to help more people achieve the income, pride, and connection with their guests that I have with my Airbnb. Unlike so many other choices in the gig economy, having an Airbnb allows people to make money in a way that is not tied to an hourly wage. More money and more control over your time, to me, is the ultimate freedom. That’s why I named my company Wildheart. For so many people, Airbnb is the first step towards regaining control over their lives and achieving their wildest dreams.

What led you to first start becoming an Airbnb host?

My husband and I travel frequently and prefer booking Airbnbs. On one trip, I was particularly impressed by the professionalism and attention to detail the hosts showed. I started looking around at the house, at the labels on the drawers and the little extras, and I thought, “These people are doing this exactly the way I would.” Pretty soon, an idea grabbed hold of me and I couldn’t shake it. “I could do this. I want to do this.” We ended up spending part of the weekend pouring over real estate listings and talking about what was possible, and whether or not it was worth the risk.

So many people, especially creative people, end up trading dollars for hours in a way that makes it very hard to get ahead. My husband and I had a lot of conversations, and I did a lot of research to confirm that if I created the kind of space that I would want to rent, I would be successful. The numbers worked if we could find a house within our modest budget.

Eventually, we found the ugliest house in a great neighborhood, made an offer, and started to panic. I wondered if it would be the best or worst decision I had ever made. I worried that I was in way over my head and that I would fail. All of that worry seems a little silly now, but the truth is, I couldn’t afford any big mistakes. That’s why, now, when I work with clients, my goal is to help them spend money in the way that makes the most sense for the kind of Airbnb they are starting. Everyone has a budget, and every dollar wasted is a lost opportunity. I won’t say I didn’t make any mistakes, but I got the house remodeled and furnished, and my Airbnb dream became a reality. It became successful beyond my wildest imaginings, and now I can assure my clients that although they’re bound to make some mistakes, I can help them avoid the ones I already made.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started this?

I’ll tell you the story of how I started to take my Airbnb seriously and, consequently, started earning a lot more money. In the beginning, I treated my short term rental like a side hustle or a hobby, reasoning that I could get serious once I invested in a few more properties. I prided myself on not wasting money and doing everything myself. Well, any successful business owner could tell you that that’s a recipe for disaster.

When I started thinking about opening a design studio, I learned a lot about how to run a business. As I researched systems, hiring, and digital marketing, I wondered why I wasn’t doing those things for my Airbnb. After all, it was making nice profits for a side hustle.

I challenged myself to start testing business lessons on my Airbnb. I created systems and standard operating procedures for myself and my contract employees. I research and invested in software, and I started marketing beyond the Airbnb platform. Every time I read a book or heard a great piece of advice on a podcast, I tried to apply it to my short-term rental.

The results were almost comically good. Every time I made a change, it seemed, my bookings increased. I was able to raise my rates and I now stay booked for six months to a year in advance. When I finally started treating my Airbnb like the business it is, I made a lot more money and reduced a great deal of stress for myself. I was able to outsource or automate many of the things I didn’t enjoy and focus on my strengths. With that clarity, I realized that I had no interest in investing in more properties, even though for many that’s the logical next step. I decided, instead, to merge my interest in and skill as a designer and my love for Airbnbs. I wanted to help others achieve the same kind of success that I had.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I was at my Airbnb in the middle of the week between guests and I noticed the pool cleaner had arrived. Since I hadn’t seen him in a while, I went outside to say hello. He was friendly, but acting a little weird, and he kept asking about our upcoming calendar.

“Is there someone here next week? What about the week after that?” It was an odd thing to ask because we were almost always booked, and had been since he started working for us. Finally, he blurted, “It’s better if I come here when there aren’t any guests.”

Now I was really confused. “Selvin, you know we’re almost always booked, and that’s not possible. What’s going on? Was someone rude to you?”

“Noooo,” he said, “nothing like that.” A fierce blush started creeping up his neck. Seeing that I still looked puzzled, he blurted “The people last week! I got here a little earlier than usual, and they were out here and, uh” At this point, he looked like he wanted to throw himself in the pool.

The people he was referring to were returning guests and had booked the same week in April for the last few years. They always celebrated…

“Oooh,” I said. “They were, uh, celebrating their anniversary?”

“Yes! And I don’t want to see that again!”

I couldn’t hold back the giggles. “Selvin”, I said, “We get people celebrating anniversaries, birthdays, proposing, you name it. People are usually pretty happy when they’re here, and this back yard is very private. I tell them what days and times you clean the pool, but if you arrive early or late, you might surprise them. I’d suggest you learn to whistle if you want to avoid being a witness to someone else’s great vacation.”

The lesson I learned? Always be very clear with guests, and vendors, about what to expect. The lesson Selvin learned? Always start whistling before he turns the corner to the back yard.

What are some of the common mistakes you have seen people make when they first start hosting with Airbnb?

The most common mistakes I see are two sides of the same coin — too little or too much stuff. That is, spaces that are either furnished with the bare minimum or too much of the host’s personal items. Both too sparse and too crowded short-term rentals communicate to guests that hosts don’t care about their comfort, and are putting in the minimal effort for them.

There’s a school of thought that says hosts should spend as little as possible to furnish an Airbnb. While that can be an understandable choice, it makes hosts vulnerable to competition. If all that’s being offered is a place to sleep, then that leaves the host to compete solely on price, which can quickly become a race to the bottom in a crowded market. It’s far more profitable, and pleasant, to provide a good value, regardless of the rental rate. That means providing a complete and attractively furnished rental.

Conversely, I’ve seen many promising Airbnbs ruined by the hosts using it as a dumping ground for all of their discards. No place seems clean when it’s got a lot of clutter, and no one wants to use your old kitchen stuff. The days of leaving an Airbnb full of personal effects are over because today’s guests expect a lot more for their rental dollars.

To be a highly successful Airbnb host, you’ve got to be all-in. Airbnbs that are well designed, with thoughtful amenities and friendly hosts get more bookings, better reviews, and make more money. Putting in the effort from the start will put hosts ahead in the long run, when everyone else is lowering rates to compete.

What are some of the things that can be done to avoid these errors?

Remember that you’re asking people to spend their hard-earned money for a few precious days away from the stress of their daily lives. Do anything you can to reduce friction during their stay. Your guests might not comment on everything you do, in fact, they might not even notice the little things on a conscious level. When you anticipate their needs, however, your guests will feel cared for, and those good feelings will lead to great reviews and repeat visitors.

The best way to figure out exactly what your Airbnb needs is to stay there yourself. If you’re not super fussy, invite picky friends to be beta testers. Is there enough light at the bedside tables to read? Is it easy to find an outlet to charge your phone? Are there any noises or lights that make it hard to sleep at night? I can’t tell you how many Airbnbs I’ve stayed in that don’t have a place to put a drink when you sit in the living room. No side tables, and in a few cases, no coffee table. That’s such an easy and inexpensive thing to solve. When you don’t take care of little things like that, you end up with a guest that’s constantly annoyed and frustrated, and no one likes to spend their vacation time that way.

If you have a lot of art or collectibles to show off, remember that you don’t have to display them all at once. Put some things in storage and rotate your collections seasonally. If you’ve converted a family home into an Airbnb and you’re not sure if it’s too cluttered or homey, get an objective opinion, even if you have to pay a consultant for it.

Highly successful Airbnbs feel like home, but better. The best vacation rentals add to the thrill of travel by providing a home base that’s more stylish, comfortable, and functional than home. They make every guest feel like a VIP regardless of the price per night and fantasize about living that way all the time. You don’t have to spend a lot of money to achieve that level of success, but you do have to invest some thought into who your guests are and what they need, and time into figuring out how to meet those needs.

Can you share with our readers about the innovations that you are bringing to the Airbnb experience? In your opinion, what makes you different from the rest?

I love tech and experimenting with ways to automate and streamline my work, but the real innovation I bring to the Airbnb experience is putting my guests first. That might mean something as low-tech as putting labels on the kitchen cabinets (who wants to spend their vacation searching for stuff?) or as complex as using quiz making software and cute graphics to deliver the rules about staying with dogs in a friendly way.

There’s no one way to do things, which is what I love about Airbnbs. When I work with clients, I take the time to get to know their backgrounds, interests, and personality traits. I help them brainstorm ways to use those strengths to their advantage as they design their Airbnbs. For example, one client had several short-term rentals on her family’s working farm in the Texas hill country. She loved talking to people, and had a natural ability to sell, but did not have much experience or interest in tech or the internet. She was toying with the idea of creating an online store for current and former guests, but I knew that would be a lot of work for her, and I doubted that she would enjoy it. I got the sense that the online store wasn’t her idea, but when she talked about taking her Airbnb guests to tour the farm, she grew more animated.

I advised her against an online store and instead proposed that she start scheduling and promoting farm days for communities within driving distance. At these events, she could host workshops and sell the products and crafts that her family made at the farm. That way, she could spend more time doing what she did best, which was talking to people and teaching. Every family that showed up to learn how to start a garden, make and can salsa, or name the baby goats would remember the farm the next time they started craving an escape. They would feel comfortable with my client and her charming family and recommend the farm to friends. My studio designed logos, t-shirts, and labels for her, as well as guiding her on an interior design refresh, but I believe the most valuable thing I provided for her was an idea that worked with her strengths.

For my guests and my clients, the human connection comes first. We all know how rare that is these days, and I believe that most of us crave it. Hosting an Airbnb is such a unique opportunity to relate to and share with others, even if we never meet our guests in person. Helping my clients figure out how to be the best hosts they can in the way that works best for them is my mission and my joy.

Wonderful. Here is the main question of our discussion. Can you share “5 Things You Need To Become A Highly Successful Airbnb Host”? Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Great photos. Your photos do all of the heavy liftings for you, so the first thing you need to do to be a successful host is to make sure your Airbnb looks fantastic. Whether it’s a fishing cabin or a grand estate, it’s got to stop the scroll. When I design an Airbnb, I think about focal points and camera angles as much as I do form and function. To design your Airbnb for the best photos, consider contrast, color, and proportion, and try to figure out what your best camera angles are going to be. Snap photos as you go to see if space is pulling together. Then, when your Airbnb is ready for its photo op, hire a professional photographer to make sure your shots are head and shoulders above the rest.
  2. A point of view. There are plenty of ways to infuse your vacation rental with personality. Think about using color, local art, and guest communication to show that there’s a person behind your Airbnb. Remember that people choose vacation rentals because they’re not bland hotel rooms, so don’t try to make your space look like one. When I first start working with clients, they’re often afraid that they will repel potential guests with a bold piece of art or bright color palette. The opposite is true because when people travel they want a heightened version of reality, not the boring beige of everyday life. When it’s done well, an Airbnb with personality will stand out in a sea of similar listings and telegraph to guests that they’re in for an adventure.
  3. Generosity. It doesn’t take much, a place to charge a phone, a special treat from a favorite bakery, or a quick response to a question, to communicate that you care about your guests’ well-being. Put yourself in their shoes, and think about how to reduce anxiety and increase comfort whenever possible. The best hosts anticipate their guests’ needs before they’re aware of them. Successful hosts are those that have done this again and again, with every decision they’ve made for their Airbnb. By the time their guests check out, they feel like they struck gold when they booked, and their reviews will reflect that.
  4. The inside scoop. One of the best things about staying in an Airbnb is the opportunity to live like a local. Great hosts make guests feel like they’ve got a friend in town who knows all the best places. If you’re not already an area expert, make an effort to become one. Get to know people in the community, try things out for yourself, and ask for recommendations. This is some of the most fun research you’ll get to do, so enjoy it, and share that enthusiasm with your guests.
  5. Openness. A great host knows that a successful Airbnb can always be better, and goes through life with an openness to finding and testing new ideas. Every trip a host takes is an opportunity to be inspired and to learn, every guest interaction is a chance for feedback, and every un-booked night is an occasion to test different headlines, descriptions, and rates. To be a successful host, seek continuous improvement, look for answers in unexpected places, and most of all, enjoy the journey.

You are a “travel insider”. How would you describe your “perfect vacation experience”?

My perfect vacation involves lots of walking and exploring without a particular destination in mind. There’s nothing like finding the little things that add character to a city or taking in a landscape that’s so beautiful, I can’t quite believe it exists. When I find those moments of beauty, or humor, or just plain weirdness, I feel so grateful for having seen them. Many of my days on vacation have ended in personal best step counts.

Lest I make myself sound too virtuous, I’ll add that what fuels my ramblings is delicious food, and I love a good cocktail, a tasty local brew, or a fine glass of wine to distract me from my tired feet at the end of the day.

I like to mix Airbnb stays with a few nights in a gorgeous hotel. I get inspired and I enjoy seeing how other designers solve common and uncommon problems. I geek out on the details and know that my husband will indulge my need to stop and take notes on a particularly clever solution.

My perfect vacation experience entails filling my eyes with beauty, my mind with new ideas, and my belly with delicious food and drinks. It never gets old.

Can you share with our readers how you’ve used your success to bring goodness to the world?

As a host, I’ve provided a thoughtfully designed space where people can go to spend time with their families and friends, celebrate milestones, or just escape from everyday life for a little while. I hope that every guest checks out of my Airbnb feeling like they received special treatment.

As a designer and a coach, I help my clients achieve the kind of success with their Airbnbs that best fits with their goals and dreams. For some people, it’s a source of income that helps pay for a child’s college tuition. For others, it’s the first step towards becoming their own boss. Regardless of the goal, it’s my mission to help my clients achieve it.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

One host I know, Rick, is building an Airbnb on the Florida coast from the ground up. He has multiple properties and is very successful, but his newest project is going to be something special. Inspired by a video he saw of a young woman experiencing the ocean for the first time in a specially designed wheelchair, he is building his vacation rental to be fully wheelchair accessible, and he will be including those special beach wheelchairs with his rental.

I would help more people be like Rick. I would create a grant that would help and encourage hosts to make their Airbnbs accessible to everyone and match them with designers and architects who could help them. In the US, hotels must meet ADA standards, but most Airbnbs do not. Think of how many people, and their families, that leaves out. Accessibility isn’t just about mobility. Some designers design for people on the autism spectrum, some for the vision or hearing impaired. Imagine a program that would help match hosts with specialized designers, and give them funds to help complete the work. It would open the world up to so many more people. It would be a beautiful thing.

How can our readers further follow you on social media?

I’m on Instagram and Facebook @designbywildheart.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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