The New Hospitality: Designing for Airbnb

Two beautiful ladies with bags smile as they are ushered into their beautifully-furnished and decorated hotel room.

When you rent your new home out on sites like Airbnb, make sure you know your target audience.

Hospitality design has taken a very personal new twist, if DesignMilk founder Jaime Derringer and her panelists at the 2017 Kitchen and Bath Industry Show (KBIS) in Orlando in January were right. After listening to the wisdom these experts had to share, we think they’re spot on.

By now, we’ve all heard of the sharing economy, which is responsible for Airbnb’s massive success, not just for leisure travelers, but for business travelers. In July 2016, Forbes noted “56 percent growth for Airbnb type services in usage from Q1 2015 to Q1 2016.” This data came from Concur, a company that provides support services for travel managers.

That’s a lot of growth in a small period of time and it has to do with reducing costs for business-related travel. Another interesting fact: business travelers stay on location for an average of 5 nights when using an Airbnb type of service, as opposed to 3 nights when staying in a hotel.

Toronto Star columnist Vicky Sanderson has seen explosive growth in shared housing in Toronto, with Airbnb leading the way. “There is something like 9,000 Airbnb listings as of November 2016, compared with fewer than 100 such residences in November 2014,” she said.

Naturally, there’s an uptick in design services specifically for Airbnb hosts. Designers are being called upon to transform residential spaces into rooms that are convenient and comfortable for travelers and they are borrowing from the strategies used in hotel design.

Practical Considerations

When hotel designers create a room, they typically want to appeal to the widest possible audience. While niche and luxury markets do exist, Airbnb hosts, much like hotel operators, will increase reservations when their rooms offer value coupled with generic appeal. So, if you’re building a new home that you will put on online sites like Airbnb for a few years, this is an important consideration.

When people flip through the photos on an Airbnb listing, they want to see an attractive, inviting space. “It needs to be a space that is designed well, but not with too much personality,” said HGTV regular Bobby Berk, founder and creative director of Bobby Berk Interiors + Design in Los Angeles, Calif. “It needs to appeal to a wide group of people to be successful.” In other words, spaces that look very lived-in or oddly unique aren’t going to get the clicks. Such dwellings may be wonderful for homeowners to live in, but that doesn’t translate to Airbnb.

Designers and hosts also need to keep in mind what the zoning laws are. In some states, the addition of a sofa establishes a space as a separate residence, and in others, if you incorporate a stovetop, the space must be registered as an independent dwelling. That’s fine if you’re prepared to comply with the law. As panelist Rhonda Knoche of Rhonda Knoche Design in Portland, Ore., said, “when you’re designing for Airbnb, ask yourself, is it legally feasible; is it structurally feasible; and is it financially feasible?”

Keeping Costs Down

Berk is seeing his clients in Las Vegas, Nev., buy older homes intended for Airbnb hosting. He noticed that “Millennial homebuyers are the ones pushing the shared economy forward and feeling more empowered to buy a home” because they will be able to subsidize or completely cover their mortgage payments with income generated through Airbnb. Millennial cost-consciousness is therefore part and parcel to the shared economy.

If you are going to splurge, Berk suggests getting a great mattress because renters will post reviews about the comfort of the bed, “but you absolutely also have to have a good mattress cover.”

Designing Consciously

“Pay attention to the market that you’re trying to reach,” said Sanderson, who had spoken with a company who recently installed designer furniture in high-end condos being prepared for Airbnb use. “These clients are trying to appeal to executives who want something that is very sleek and beautiful. … Also, the owners wanted something sturdy that would last.”

Bottom line: research who is coming to your area and what their expectations are. Make appropriate design choices to match their needs.

“If you’re in a tourist area, you’re probably going to be getting families. If you’re in downtown Toronto, that’s probably going to be business travelers,” said Berk.

Berk mentioned a Miami-based Airbnb host who checked in on his listing after it had been vacated by the most recent short-term renter to find that the stove and air conditioning had been left on for 3 weeks. He encouraged Airbnb designers who are going for the full kitchen to consider installing smart stovetops that automatically shut off after a given period of time, and air conditioning systems that can be controlled remotely. The advent of the connected home is very helpful for Airbnb hosts, helping to maintain security and safety from afar when needed. 

While it’s possible to outfit an Airbnb rental with too many features, you don’t want to skimp on safety. Smart locks that open with a code rather than a key are a huge perk both for safety and convenience.

Sarah Kinbar is a freelance writer and editor for leading print and online publications. Formerly editor in chief of Garden Design, she has also written and edited for Cottage Living, Modern magazine and Orlando Arts. You can find her on Google+.

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