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6 Lessons I Learned from Self-Managing Our Vacation Rental Will Help You Grow Your Interior Business

business tips for interior designers how to grow a design business how to increase revenue how to start a business small business strategies Sep 29, 2023
Lessons to help start and grow an interior design business from behind the design with Jackie Green

At the end of 2021, my husband came home from work and sprung great news on me. (Sarcasm – I didn’t agree at first, as this was a scary proposition.) He was quitting his job to become a real estate investor. At the time, he worked for United Airlines out of San Fransisco. We live in Colorado. Every week, he would fly out to work for four days and then fly home for four days. While in San Fran, he lived in a crash pad with other United employees. He was miserable. His health had declined, and it was time for a change.

In the Spring of 2022, we purchased our first property – a cabin in the Smoky Mountains outside the Pigeon Forge/Gatlinburg area in Tennessee. The cabin sits on the side of the mountain overlooking the valley below. We bought it sight unseen. I remember the first time I walked into the cabin; the view took my breath away. It didn’t even seem real; it was just that beautiful.

Our plan was to rent it out on a short-term basis as a vacation rental, which is very common in the Smoky Mountains. We had zero rental experience. I remember sitting at the cabin table, feeling overwhelmed by how to start. But I knew I had to start otherwise, we weren’t going to be able to pay the mortgage.
We chose not to hire a property management company for our vacation rental primarily because they are expensive – taking upwards of 30 to 40% of revenue. In addition, we had heard the property management companies in the area didn’t provide the customer experience we wanted for our guests. (This is where my competitive side pushed me to offer a great vacation experience.)

Over the past few months, we had both embarked on a crash course on short-term rentals, so we had some idea of what to expect, but I didn’t realize how much I would learn in the coming months. Looking back, I now realize that every lesson I learned tracked back to starting any business, anywhere. Those lessons were exactly what I taught designers and students for years. Now, I am going to share with you these lessons.


Lesson 1: Don’t Discount Your Products or Services

If you didn’t know, you can message the host and ask for a discount. (I don’t recommend doing this, though, because much like a designer, the per night cost is based on the value.) In my experience, a guest asking for a discount most often seems demanding and difficult. This is why you should never offer a discount for your design services. People who are looking for the cheapest rate or best deal will often miss the overall experience because they are too worried about the price.

Unfortunately, deal hunters are often takers. They continue to ask for more until you say no, then blame you for their dissatisfaction. In vacation rentals, these guests often find something wrong with the accommodation, asking for even more discounts, and will then leave a bad review.

As an interior designer, these types of clients often fool us. We feel we should help them, but this is inaccurate thinking.

This is an important lesson for all business owners. It comes down to understanding the value you offer your clients. If you discount your services, then you are devaluing your service. In other words, you don’t believe in the value you offer. Never mind that every client I have ever had – whether a marketing or design client – that wanted a discount ended up being difficult to work with.

The result is not only have I discounted my fee, but I usually spend more time than projected with the client, costing me even more money.
For your business to be successful, it is critical to understand the value you offer and stand by your fees. Yes, the prospect may pass on your services, but a client that is only looking for the lowest cost will always cost you more in the end.


Lesson 2: Determine Your Process Early

Every successful business implements processes to be efficient. Without a process, you will spend twice as much, if not more, time accomplishing a single task. This time could be used for better things.

Business processes help you reduce workload by reducing the amount of redundancies. As a solopreneur, you may think you don’t need processes because it is just you. However, if you plan to grow your business by hiring employees, you must develop the processes now to ensure the work is completed the way you want it done.

For our rental, I had to develop processes to ensure every guest had the same experience while eliminating the work I had to perform. Here is an example of our communication process:

  1. A confirmation email is sent upon reservation. As someone reserves our cabin, they will receive a confirmation email. The email confirms their visit, tells them check-in and check-out dates and times, and gives them access to our online guest book. It also tells them they will receive access information two days before check-in. This email is sent automatically using a hosting software I use called Guesty. When a reservation is made through a booking site, like Airbnb or Vrbo, Guesty is notified, triggering the confirmation email.
  2. An automatic email is also sent to our cleaners, letting them know when guests will be coming and leaving the property. The email is straightforward. The guest will check in on {date} and check out on {date.} Please clean the cabin on {date.} Our cleaner now knows when to clean, and I don’t have to remember to communicate dates.
  3. A pre-check-in email is triggered and automatically sent to the guest two days prior to the visit, giving the guest the door access information, as well as house rules. The door access changes with every guest through a smart lock that is programmed to talk to Guesty.
  4. A check-in day email is sent welcoming them to the cabin.
  5. A Pre-checkout email is sent the day before checkout, giving instructions on checking out.
  6. A post-checkout email is sent to ask for the review, as our rental success is based on customer reviews.

Every aspect of this process is automated. I don’t have to do a thing. Unless the guest has a question or a problem, I don’t have to lift a finger. Our Airbnb rating is 4.9, and we are a super host. We could do that because we automated the system to ensure every guest had the same great experience.

As a business owner, your processes should be spelled out to the smallest detail. This ensures that every customer has a great experience with your company. It also sets your employees up for success because they fully understand the expectations for their jobs.


Lesson 3: Believe Your Employees First

If you hire the right people and appreciate their work, they will work hard for you. I can’t begin to tell you all the things that guests try to pull. With that said, 98% of our guests are great. They follow the rules and enjoy their stay. But that 2% are determined to cause issues, usually for the purpose of getting money back.

At first, I would receive a complaint from a guest and immediately blame my cleaners. I didn’t have enough faith in the person I hired to trust that they were doing the job I hired them to do. That sounds ridiculous saying it out loud.

Luckily, I had enough management experience to know that yelling would get me nowhere besides my cleaners quitting. I didn’t want that. Instead of blaming my cleaners, I would ask a few questions of the guest and then of my cleaners. This gave me insight into the full story, and 99% of the time, it was a guest trying to pull the wool over my eyes.

When we trust our employees, they, in return, will trust us. This creates a bond between leader and employee. That bond ensures that everyone in the trust relationship is doing the best work for the whole. This doesn’t mean that every employee is going to be perfect, but as a leader, it is your job to ensure that all variables are reviewed and addressed.


Lesson 4: Be Selective with Vendors

When managing a rental property from 1300 miles away, it is critical to have people on the ground that you can rely on when situations arise. I have gotten very lucky with my vendors. I have a very trustworthy handyman that I can call on to help when something breaks. One of the reasons I trust him is because he will let me know when something is out of his abilities. If it is outside of his capabilities, he will refer me to someone else. I kid you not; referrals are the best way to find good vendors. My cleaning person sent me to my handyman, who sent me to a plumber, who sent me to my contractor.

All of these vendors have been excellent to work with, and as a result, I feel a lot less stressed knowing I have a team I can rely on when situations arise.

One of the key secrets to success in your business is finding reliable vendors to work with. Your vendors are your lifeline. You are not expected to know it all. Therefore, you will rely on your vendors to supply the products, services, or answers your clients need. So, how do you find good vendors? Here are some tips:

  1. Ask for referrals from those you trust: I take referrals very seriously. I do not refer to someone unless I know and trust their work. The person I am referring to is an extension of my business. If they don’t do a good job, then it looks poorly on me. With that in mind, I know that people I trust will also use this same philosophy. I trust those trusted by my community.
  2. Research: Start by doing thorough research on potential vendors. Look at their online presence, and customer reviews, and ask for recommendations from other businesses in your industry.
  3. Quality Over Cost: While keeping costs down is essential, don't sacrifice quality for savings. A vendor who provides high-quality goods or services will ultimately contribute to your business's success more than a cheaper, less reliable option.
  4. Communication: Good vendors communicate effectively. They're responsive to questions, transparent about their capabilities and limitations, and proactive in addressing potential issues.
  5. Reliability: A good vendor is reliable. They deliver on time, meet quality standards, and consistently provide service.
  6. Testimonials: Look for vendors with glowing testimonials from other businesses. These can provide valuable insight into a vendor's performance and reliability.
  7. Values Alignment: Choose vendors whose values align with yours. If sustainability is important to your business, for example, look for vendors who prioritize eco-friendly practices.
  8. Negotiation Skills: A good vendor is open to negotiation. They're willing to work with you to find a pricing structure that benefits both parties.
  9. Longevity: Vendors who have been in business for a while are often a safer bet. They've proven their ability to deliver over time.
  10. Trust your gut. I have said it before: my gut never steers me wrong. I may not understand the problem, but if my gut doesn’t feel right, I have learned the hard way to listen.
    Once you select a vendor, try a small project first, then evaluate the success. If it feels right, continue to send business to that vendor.


Lesson 5: The Customer Experience is Crucial to Success

If your customer’s experience is not the best you have to offer, then you won’t be in business for long. The customer’s experience and subsequent review of vacation rentals are critical to attracting more business. It also determines how much I can charge a night. Guests will not pay a premium nightly rate for a lackluster experience. Your clients are no different. If you want to make money as an interior designer, you must ensure that every client has an outstanding experience with your company.

With that said, we all know that projects do not go as planned. Products are sometimes delayed or come in damaged. Vendors, at times, come up short and miss deadlines. The weather doesn’t always cooperate. Your job is to anticipate where problems may arrive and minimize the impact on your client.

This is done through continuous communication. As a designer, you are responsible for completing the project to your client’s satisfaction. This means you must stay on top of vendors to ensure products are shipped on time. Follow up with product inspection and delivery schedules. Communicate with the construction manager to ensure delays are minimized. Lastly, it is your job to communicate with your client as the project progresses. The more you communicate, the better your overall experience will be for your customer.


Lesson 6: Setting Boundaries with Clients

As a business owner, I can tell you that I work an unbelievable number of hours. (Lucky, I love what I do and enjoy working.) However, I recognize the need for downtime. So, I operate my businesses within traditional business hours. For our rental, I let guests know we are open 9 to 5 local time, which is 7 to 3 in Colorado. If they send a message after 5:00, I will respond the following day unless it is an emergency. (Remember that not all client emergencies are emergencies, but I acknowledge them to let them know when I will respond.)

I have also set other boundaries through our guest communications. I spoke earlier about our guest communication process. Each email is filled with necessary information to ensure the guest is well-informed, reducing the need to contact me.

For instance, operating instructions for every appliance in the cabin are listed in our online guestbook. This includes the coffee maker and hot tub. I know that these are the two most important appliances for our guests.

I have set these boundaries to ensure that my family time is not interrupted.

At Behind the Design, I do the same thing. As far as my clients know, I do not work weekends or after hours. I am setting the expectation with my clients that I value my personal time.
Boundaries are necessary for our physical and mental health. As a business owner, setting boundaries with clients, employees, and vendors is critical. By setting boundaries, we are protecting our time, energy, and creativity.

When you lose control of your time and energy, it directly affects your creativity and job satisfaction. Without boundaries, you will quickly feel overworked and exhausted. You will begin to resent your clients and the business.

The lack of boundaries also affects how much money we make. We often mistakenly think that if we spend more time working, then we will make more money. However, this isn’t true. Research shows that you are more productive when you take time away from work. By setting boundaries, we allow our brains to rest and our bodies to be refilled with energy.

Operating a successful interior design business certainly comes with its challenges. By using the six lessons I've learned from managing our vacation rental, you can tackle those struggles with more confidence. From not giving discounts to focusing on customer experience with communication, automating processes for efficiency, trusting your employees, and partnering with good vendors, these areas hold immense value for any interior design business. It's also important to set boundaries so that you don't over-commit and drain your time and energy. A key ingredient to success is knowing different strategies to help maximize success, such as these.

At Behind Design, we want to give you the tools and advice you need to have a thriving interior design business. Start your journey to a profitable business, increase your visibility, and build the business of your dreams. Sign up for a 30-minute “Let’s Chat Strategy” call, and you'll get a complimentary bonus - Behind the Design's 1-Month Focus Planner, electronically.

This electronic file includes a Monthly Focus Plan, Weekly Focus Plan, and Daily Focus Plan for one month – a $29 value. With this tool, you can prioritize your month, week, and day to guarantee that you're working on the tasks that will drive your business forward. Don't miss out on this opportunity to take control of your business.

During your Let’s Chat Strategy call, we will discuss where your business is today and where you want it to go. If I can help, I will share at least one strategy that will help you move forward in the right direction. Following our call, you will receive your monthly focus planner and an email concluding our discussion. Schedule your free call today!

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