Pick the right guest person for your property: Do take the time to write down who your ideal guest is. This time investment will pay itself over several years. For instance, what is the size of your ideal group party? Are they a family or a couple? How old are they? Are they also traveling for business? For how many days are they staying? What are their wants and needs when picking a place? What are they afraid of if they pick the wrong place? What magazines or blogs do they read? What do they value the most in life?
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 Thibault Masson.
Thibault has been an Airbnb host for 8 years and owns properties in Bali and in St Barths. He’s experienced with launching a new airbnb, mastering remote hosting, and consistently delighting guests. He’s the founder of Rental Scale-Up, a leading vacation rental industry news site where he dissects Airbnb’s strategy and shares actionable tips to set short-term rental properties up for success.
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”?
Sometimes, a successful Airbnb host with several vacation rentals is just a guy who loves traveling, fell in love with a few places in the world, wanted a house there to feel at home, and come back every year. This was my case. But, the only way for me to afford this idea was to buy or build houses that would be, at the same time, my own houses and vacation rentals open to guests.
25 years ago, long before Airbnb started, my partner and I traveled to a Caribbean island, called Saint Martin. It was a direct flight away from France across the Atlantic, a warm place to forget a gray Parisian winter. During our week there, we noticed that ferries were selling a day-trip to a neighbor island called Saint Barthélemy. We had never really heard of St Barths before but were curious to discover the island. What a shock when we arrived! A tiny island with an ambiance and a population that reminded us a lot of Southern France. Yet, this was a distinctly Caribbean place. We rented a car and toured the island, which took us only two hours as this is not a large area. We skinny-dipped on Saline beach, had a delicious lunch by the lagoon, and crashed a luxury hotel’s beach bar to enjoy a last drink in style before heading back to St Martin. We were sold on St Barths!
We came back the year after, skipped St Martin, and headed straight to St Barths. To explore more of the island, we decided to enter a real estate office and to ask to be shown a few villas. We thought it would be fun to pretend, just for a day, that we could afford this. And visiting fancy houses sounded like fun! Note that, at the time, we were a young couple who could not afford an apartment in Paris, despite decent salaries. The agent showed us a villa that was clearly not the fanciest of all. But that view! It was love at first sight. But we thought we would not able to buy it.
Yet, the agent to us that this house was a vacation rental most of the year. It had been booked solid year after year. And the bookings were handled by a local property management company. So, he said that local banks would certainly lend us the money, given that we were buying not a house, but a small business with future bookings already in the books that could pay back the loan. We could not believe it (remember, this was before Airbnb and “rental arbitrage” became commonplace). And yes, this is what happened. This is how a young French couple, who could not purchase an apartment in Paris, became the owners of a villa in the Caribbean.
I grew up in a small mountain community in the east of France. Lovely place, but I wanted to see the world. The travel industry looked like a fit for me. Over the years, I was an intern with US-based Orbitz in Chicago, head of marketing for the French arm of London-based online travel agency Ebookers, and then I dabbled in tech at Amsterdam-based Booking.com where I helped them build their vacation rental business.
I took a break in the middle of my travel industry career to become an entrepreneur and launch a network of fashion blogs in Paris. The most successful of our publications was catering to curvy women. It was one of the plus-size fashion media in France, the land of fashion. I had not believed in it at first and then it became a thing. The major lesson I learned from this was the importance of understanding who your audience is, talking to them, and caring about them. I was not part of my audience, but I did my best to gather their feedback, get data about the French, UK, and US clothing markets, and to adapt our content and advertising partners to them. After 5 years, I sold the company and moved to St Barths.
While I was working in different countries, I would always return to St Barths, at my vacation house, called villa Domingue, at least twice a year. Now that I wanted to live there, I need to another place, as I can not forego the vacation rental revenues. On the edge of the villa, we dug up the hill to create a beautiful 1-bedroom villa, called villa BelAmour, invisible from my first house. This way, I could live in St Barths while still renting out the main villa most of the time.
Then, I discovered Bali. First, a friend of ours had invited us to see the villa he had built there. He was looking for advice on how to get more bookings. I had zero interest in going to Bali, but happy to help and to enjoy a stay at his place. Wow. Long story short: We fell in love with his secluded corner of the island and decided to get some land nearby to build Bulung Daya, our Bali villa.
As friends were turning to me for advice, I thought that I could launch an education and consulting business. This is how Rental Scale-Up, was born. I advise property managers and tech vendors in the industry, publish market trend reports, and organized conferences for Airbnb hosts and vacation rental owners.
What led you to first start becoming an Airbnb host?
I was a vacation rental owner before becoming an Airbnb host. As I told you in my background story, my first St Barths villa, Domingue, was 100% managed by a local property management company. They did everything, from advertising the property, handling bookings, welcoming guests, and wiring the payout to me. Their fee was 22.5%, quite a difference from the 3% that Airbnb was taking from hosts when it launched! I was living away from the island, I was very happy with the arrangement.
But while I was building my villa Bulung Daya in Bali, I realized that I had to turn to the likes of Airbnb. No local property management company wanted to take my y secluded beach retreat in their inventory: They thought that my vacation home was too far from the main tourist attractions. They also did not want to have to send their employees on the road for hours in case they needed to visit the guests during their stay.
I felt trapped. How was I about to pay back the construction of the villa if these villa agencies could not bring me guests? I looked up online and started listing the villa on HomeAway, Vrbo, Flipkey, and Airbnb, the new kid on the block.
Quite frankly, I did not believe that Airbnb could bring bookings to my upscale villa in Bali. In 2013, I thought that Airbnb was mainly for people looking for cheap accommodations in the US. Luckily for me, I was wrong.
In a few years, Airbnb eclipsed HomeAway as my main source of third-party bookings (guests who can also book direct with me).
I tried the same thing in St Barths and it works: A luxury one-bedroom villa in the Caribbean was a great fit for Airbnb users. Again, my friends on the island did not believe that scrappy Airbnb would bring me great, respectful, and happy guests. But it did. And I was paying a 3% host fee.
I then became a SuperHost, which always goes faster than you have more than one property under your host account: The SuperHost status is the host level account, not on the property level. So, it easier to get the necessary volume of reservations to qualify for the label.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started this?
I got blackmailed into giving a steep discount to a guest who was threatening to leave me a bad review. As new hosts soon find out, stellar reviews are what everyone is shooting for. A property with a rating less than 4.7 out of 5.0 will see people shunning it. Low reviews get your SuperHost score removed. You do not want low reviews.
Here, it was my fault. I should have not accepted this reservation. You know when your guts tell you not to do something but you go ahead and come to regret it? Here’s how it started: Someone contacted me on Airbnb and asked whether my property was free for their dates. I quickly answered yes: It was 2020 and getting bookings was not easy. Then, they said: “Great. We love your place. Yet, it is very expensive. More much expensive than any hotel I can find on the island at the moment. My partner would prefer a hotel, but for the right price, I am sure that we can convince him otherwise.” OK, the wording was not so blatant, but it was something along these lines. I did pick the red flags but I wanted that high season booking. I augmented about the value of the villa and give a decent discount.
As soon as these guests arrived, it was hell: They were not polite with my villa manager, complained about everything, and messages me on Airbnb 4 times a day. And then fate struck: The island went through a few electricity brown-outs, so that A/C turned off and, for some unknown reason, it did not come back on when the power was restored.
The guests were furious, desire my villa manager driving there to turn the A/C back on. They made it clear that they would leave a terrible review, questioning the property and my character. I was worried. How much was it my fault? It is against Airbnb’s policies to threaten to leave a bad review, as well as to offer money so that the guests do not write anything bad.
I actually walked to the villa and rang the doorbell. I talked to one member of the couple and discovered that he had booked the place, but his partner really wanted to stay at a hotel. No matter what I could do, it is a vacation rental, not a hotel with room service, a spa on the premice, and a cocktail bar. So, his partner had been spending days sending me unhappy messages, to make him feel how unhappy she was. Yet, they wanted to stay longer on the island. After talking with him, I decided to help them extend their stay at a very nice hotel, where I managed to get a discount for them. The review I got was not the best, but it was honest and true to the experience.
So, what were the red flags? Before booking, they were already comparing the villa with a hotel. Clearly, it is not the same thing. The other red flag was that they were negotiating the price based on the fact that one of them needed to convinced that a lower price could make up for the property not being a hotel. If you want to go to Los Angeles and I give you a ticket to New York because it is cheaper, are you really happy?
So, trust your guts. Refuse a booking if think that your property will not be a great place for some guests. Of course, you should not discriminate against guests. But you should read between the lines and understand whether some people wil never be happy. Be on the lookout for saying yes too fast when times are tough.
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?
Yes, you are right. This was a bit dark. On the lighter side, my rookie Airbnb host’s mistake was not to close my calendar properly. I ended up sharing my house with perfect (and pleasant strangers). You see, when I am alone at villa Domingue, the 3-bedroom in St Barths, I put one of the rooms on Airbnb. People have to make a request to book it, I get to talk with him, and if they seem fun, I am happy to share the place with them.
This one time, I was experimenting with Airbnb’s instant booking setting: People do not have to make a request, they can book straight away on the platform. After playing a bit with the settings to see how things worked, I forgot to turn off the instant book feature and close my calendar. The morning after, there are was a booking, for the following night. Luckily, it was just me in the house. I was not sure what to expect.
The guests turned out to be super sweet, we had a lot of laughs together. Then, I noticed that my guest has come back without his girlfriend. She had just broken up with him, took the ferry to the next island, and was waiting for the next flight out.
What was supposed to a week of my being alone in the house and working on a new project turned into a counseling session / rhum drinking competition / buddy session. When this guest left, we were friends, having lived through a dramatic breakup under the Caribbean sun. To this day, we still keep in touch. And his review was super nice and alluded to some external circumstances that had made his stay unforgettable.
I learned that hosts need to make sure to play carefully with Airbnb’s settings, even if they are curious about tech like me. I also learned that the experience of an Airbnb host who shares a property with his guests and that of a host that only offers entire places with no interactions with guests is quite different. Make sure to pick the hosting style that it is right for you.
What are some of the common mistakes you have seen people make when they first start hosting with Airbnb?
The first mistake is not having stayed at airbnbs as guests before. If you do not know how the platform works for a guest, if you cannot put yourself into the shoes of someone who has to pick a place among dozens of others, if you do not know what it is like to wonder whether your host will show up to give you the keys, then you will not think of the little details that can make our property attractive and the experience of your guest great
Second, some people are not meant to be hosts. Are you OK with talking to strangers via the Airbnb app at random times, every day, from morning to evening? If this is your own home that you are offering: Are you ok with strangers using your bed and your bathroom? Can you draw a line between caring enough about your guests and not being a control freak?
The third mistake to is have a cookie-cutter listing, with a bland title, a boring description, and sad photos taken on your old phone that make a night at a motel look more appealing. This is a competition for someone’s attention and dollars, you need to stand out.
The last big mistake is to start with prices that are too high and not get any bookings. You need to get your first reviews fast so that the Airbnb algorithm gives a public rating to your property. After that, your property will get more visibility and generate more trust, so you will run a higher to chance to get bookings.
What are some of the things that can be done to avoid these errors?
To address these errors in order:
First, reserve stays for yourself on Airbnb. Spend real money. Put some skin in the game. Take notes: What made you pick one place over another? How did the host communicate with you? How accurate was the listing description? What do you remember the most about the property and about the host? What would you change if you were the host?
Then, decide whether you want to be a host or a co-host. Co-hosts can help you manage your Airbnb calendar, communicate with guests, and even welcome them. If you want to part of the Airbnb hosting community but cannot or do not want to spend too much time on managing it all, it is a solution. You are a host in name, but someone, for a fee, helps out.
To stand out, you must first decide who your ideal guest is: A family with young children? A business person? A couple with a pet? People who love country music? Picking your ideal guest is the combination of what your property offers, who usually comes to stay in your area, and who want to interact with. Then, adapt your listing title, description, and photos to capture their attention. It is ok if someone does not like what you are showing them if they are not your target. For instance, photos of a standing desk, an office chair, and a printer can be super dull for honeymooners. But if you are after remote workers, you want to showcase these items, make them shine in your description, and mention “Office space” or “work-friendly” in your listing title. Stand out for the right guest.
Last, you need to get Airbnb’s public rating score fast, which demands you have at least 3 reviews. It means at least 4 stays, as some people do not leave reviews. Now, you want to start with a price that is lower than your ideal price. You are investing in these first reviews, you want them fast, get your public rating, and then raise your price. This will help the Airbnb algorithm identify your property is attractive. It will be shown to more people. It is better than starting high, sitting empty, and then having to discount your price.
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?
The first thing that makes my places different is that I love them. I have picked them or built them. So, I care about them, I stay there myself and can see what needs to be fixed. Eating your own dog food, staying at your place is important. I often experience the area by so I can be a helpful host for my guests, even remotely. Eating your own dog food, staying at your place is important. Also, if you want to advertise your Airbnb on Instagram, for instance, knowing the area can help you become a local guide and get bookings, as we do for St Barths (https://www.instagram.com/saintbarthcom/).
The second differentiator is hiring the right people. When I am in one rental, I live in another, and often thousands of miles away. In St Barths, I have Sandra, a wonderful maid / villa manager who’s been with us for 20 years. I know that I can rely on her. For instance, she can buy whatever breaks down in the villa without asking me first, if it is under $100. In Bali, my villa manager is called Gusti. I’ve worked alongside him training our staff and he’s really good at keeping things organized.
Third, always save money for repairing and refurbishing things. Things will break down. Guests will break glasses. Linens will wear out. Keep some of the profit on the side to reinvest in your property every wear. Poor maintenance can lead to very bad reviews and to lower revenues.
Last, automate what you can to save time and focus on your guests. With several properties listed on several platforms (e.g. Airbnb, Vrbo, my own site), I may not pay enough attention to each place and get a double booking by mistake. This is why I use a piece of software called a channel manager, which synchronizes all my calendars. As for rates, same thing: I use a dynamic pricing tool that calculates everything for me and updated my prices up to several times a day.
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.
- Pick or build the right property. Easier said than done, I know. Here are few questions to have in mind. Are you going to be sharing your place or offering an entire home? If you want to buy a property, do you prefer an urban destination or a traditional vacation rental market (sea, snow, or rural)? Do you want to live nearby or are you OK with remote hosting? Online tools like Mashvisor and Airdna can help you get data on how much you can earn from a property in a certain location.
For example, my first purchase was an existing vacation rental: It meant that I knew a bit of the renting potential of the house and had a feel whether I could improve it in the future. It also made it easier for me to get a loan with the bank, as I was buying a property that was making money. I took risks in the sense that I was picking a place that I love and where I wanted to vacation. I had to accept to become a remote host who has to delegate things from afar and has to create standard operating procedures to make sure that the guest experience remains consistent.
- Do you want to be a host or a co-host? You may want to invest in an airbnb, be a host, but maybe you do not want to do all the things that a host must do: e.g. updating your listing’s calendar and prices, communicating with guests, welcoming them, replying to reviews. Airbnb’s co-hosting feature is interesting as it enables you to add a friend or a professional to help you. You have to find this person and you may have to pay them a fee for their work, but it may be worthwhile if you are afraid of drowning under the work. Also, some co-hosts do it as a full-time job and they know Airbnb’s settings by heart.
In my case, I started by giving my property to a vacation rental manager, who was doing everything for me, for a 22.5% commission on the booking value. This is very high, but my manager was busy advertising the properties on several websites, talking to guests on the phone, welcoming them at the airport, and checking on them in case of a problem. If you are a host, you will only pay a 3% host fee to Airbnb, but you will have to do all the work. Now, I’ve made my villa manager my co-host on Airbnb. She helps me a lot. It costs more than 3% but much less than 22.5%.
- Pick the right guest person for your property: Do take the time to write down who your ideal guest is. This time investment will pay itself over several years. For instance, what is the size of your ideal group party? Are they a family or a couple? How old are they? Are they also traveling for business? For how many days are they staying? What are their wants and needs when picking a place? What are they afraid of if they pick the wrong place? What magazines or blogs do they read? What do they value the most in life?
When we were building villa BelAmour, our one-bedroom in St Barths, we knew that we were targeting couples who could have chosen a hotel but did not. Honeymooners and people celebrating special occasions were the ones we wanted to make happy. So, we made sure that, in our Airbnb listing, our title, description, and photos were mentioning our romantic and private the place was. We hired a beautiful young local to take photos of a few romantic photos of hers, for instance holding two glasses of champagne. We asked French artists Jean-Charles de Castelbajac to paint a giant fresco about eternal love on one of the walls of the house. This way, we knew that photos on Airbnb would stand out and appeal to our target. Showing photos of a family dinner table or of a box tofo children’s toys would not have made sense.
- Master your listing pricing. At first, you want to follow Airbnb’s guidelines, for instance when they suggest you to create a 20% off discount until you have your first bookings. Same thing when they tell you to create a weekly and monthly discount. Why? As someone who has worked on an online travel platform, I can tell you that companies like Airbnb test things over and over. If they introduce a new feature or suggest you do something, it is because it will increase the conversion rate on the website, which means that you will more bookings and Airbnb will make more money. On Airbnb, discounts are often mentioned to guests when they book, for instance with a little tag or an extra label. Thus, your property gets more chances to convince a traveler to book with you.
Now, do not completely rely on Airbnb either. For instance, Airbnb’s Smart Pricing tool is vey convenient, as it updates all your prices by itself. But it can be inaccurate if you have a unique property. And it tends to show lower prices that you could be asking for. For my properties, I use a dynamic pricing tool that takes into account a lot of criteria, not just from Airbnb, and automates my prices. Most successful Airbnb hosts use tools such as Price Labs, Beyond Pricing, Wheelhouse, and Price Perfect to do this.
- Automate what you can: Do not underestimate how tedious some hosting tasks can be. It may be that, after a while, you get sloppy and you forget to update your listing. The good news is that Airbnb has opened its platform to an ecosystem of tech solutions that can help. For example, I use a channel manager to synchronize my Vrbo and Airbnb calendars, so that I avoid double bookings. I use a pricing tool to get my rates updated. And I use Airbnb’s messaging templates to save time on writing standard messages to my guests. For example, I have a pre-made detailed message about my top 5 restaurants on the island, if they ask for recommendations.
You are a “travel insider”. How would you describe your “perfect vacation experience”?
Sometimes, being a travel insider also means working behind the scenes. My perfect vacation experience is staying at one of my vacation rental houses for a workcation: I get to enjoy the house while thinking about how to improve it. I experience the place, fix a few things, talk to local service providers, catch up with my friends. After all, I chose to become an Airbnb host to afford to stay there on vacation.
Hosting friends and family in a place you love is something that I am lucky to be able to do, by offering my houses to paying guests most of the year.
Can you share with our readers how you’ve used your success to bring goodness to the world?
In September 2017, Irma, the most dangerous hurricane ever recorded in the Caribbean, hit St Barths front and center. By chance, no one died, but many of the island’s houses, villas, hotels, and infrastructure were destroyed.
With my partner Bruno, we created Make St Barths Green Again, a non-profit organization that raised around $120,000 to restore the island’s biodiversity. The local authorities had to focus on putting a roof over everyone’s head and on reopening the airport. We felt that it could not be done without simultaneously preserving one of the island’s main assets, something crucial for its future: Its extraordinary biodiversity.
Thanks to generous contributors, we were able to fortify a sand dune in Saline that had been weakened by the sea, to plant trees across the airport to greet guests, and to give away shrubs and trees to 100 locals so that they could recreate their gardens.
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. 🙂
It is a tiny step towards personal freedom, but just don’t encourage gossiping. I would encourage people to join a movement created close to 2,000 years ago by Marcus Aurelius, the emperor philosopher. One of the tenets is simple to apply: Avoid gossip. Gossiping or consuming gossips on social media can ultimately lower your self-esteem and self-confidence. When you encourage gossip, you make it ok for people to make value-judgments, as Marcus Aurelius calls them. You are ok with random people adding their personal twist as a fact. You give value to what these people think about other people. In return, it makes you more susceptible to care about what others think or say. You live in the eyes of others. Reclaim your freedom by giving zero value to people who spread value-judgments.
How can our readers further follow you on social media?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!