Note: Lessons from The Overlook is a monthly update on lessons learned from owning a vacation rental property in the Southern California mountain town of Idyllwild. It's a hands-on opportunity to apply some of the techniques I advise my clients to use. You can find past updates here.
My monthly inspections of The Overlook have revealed a sad fact: each and every month, something is broken or stolen.
The snow shovel went missing. The ice scraper we left for guests went missing two months later. People repeatedly steal batteries out of the alarm clocks. Three flashlights were absconded. Even our American flag disappeared.
There's also been some damage, some of which was unreported to our property manager. A few broken glasses. A broken drawer dislodged from a chest (how?). The broom was broken in half.
Luckily, it hasn't been anything major so far. Everything has been quickly repaired or replaced.
I won't lie. It's frustrating to see the damage and find that items have gone missing. It's also a reminder of a universal truth in customer service.
Some people suck.
The Wrong Solution
It's tempting to implement a heavy-handed solution.
Many businesses go this route. They overtly mistrust their customers and institute restrictive policies and unreasonable fees as a result.
Here's an example from a frozen yogurt place that I no longer frequent:
The sign was clearly intended to thwart would-be free sample abusers.
One might imagine roving hoards of sample bandits descending upon the shop and draining the yogurt machines of free samples and then merrily tromping out without ever spending a dime.
More likely there were a few frustrating abusers.
The rest of us who are mature enough to handle the heavy responsibility of self-policing our free sample usage feel penalized by a sign like this. It's uninviting and discourages people from trying new flavors.
Here's an example from another vacation rental.
My wife, Sally, and I have rented the same condo in Napa, California twice a year for the past couple of years. We drive up, bring our dog, and enjoy a week-long working vacation in wine country.
Earlier this year, the owner suddenly decided pets were no longer welcome.
Apparently, some pets made a mess and few were even destructive. But not ours. Not even once. Would the owner make an exception for our well-behaved dog who has stayed at the condo multiple times without incident?
And with that, the condo lost a regular customer and the many referrals we've given. Which brings us back to The Overlook.
We could implement a more stringent damage policy, raise the security deposit, or put up nasty signs all over the house to remind people of the rules.
But that would suck, too.
Get Some Perspective
A couple of months ago, I wrote about the importance of knowing your numbers.
It's infuriating to discover theft or unreported damage. While that's an emotional reaction, a rational review of the numbers reveals its not such a big deal.
Let's start with damage.
Dishes and glasses will break. Heck, I accidentally broke a glass at The Overlook on a recent visit. So we've stockpiled extra dishes and glasses so that when one does break, we can quickly replace it with a matching item.
The cost per incident is typically less than $5.
Replacing a few dishes and glasses is part of the cost of doing business. Spread out over the many guests who don't break or steal anything, that cost is minimal.
Side note: Having clean, matching, undamaged dishes and glassware is a surprisingly simple point of difference between The Overlook and the typical vacation rental.
What about theft? Empathy has given me a new perspective.
The Overlook attracts families, which means we often have young children staying at the cabin. Have you ever seen a couple of harried parents trying to corral their kids on vacation? Stuff gets scooped up and shoved in bags.
I'm convinced a lot of the minor thefts are unintentional.
For example, I can imagine a guest using the ice scraper to scrape their car windows on a cold morning. Perhaps they toss it in their car while they're driving around town in case they get more ice. The ice scraper eventually gets forgotten in the trunk until they arrive back home and unload their car.
Should they have alerted our property manager and offered to pay for a replacement? Of course they should have. But replacing that ice scraper cost less than $10. I gladly replaced it so there's one available to the next guest who gets ice on their windows.
So far, there really is only one big problem with damage and theft.
My True Worry
The biggest concern I have with theft and damage is the impact on the next guest.
We try to minimize this issue. Our property manager inspects the property before and after each guest stays there. The cleaning crew also alertly spots problems. Sally and I personally inspect The Overlook at least once per month.
The challenge is its tough to spot everything in a house.
A damaged glass was put back in a cupboard behind other dishes. The weather turned warm right after the ice scraper went missing and nobody thought to look for it. Our property manager didn't realize we had an American flag, so how could she know it was gone?
For now, we try to put everything in perspective.
We keep extra supplies at the house. We inspect everything regularly. We react quickly to guest feedback when they alert us to a problem caused by another guest.
And we avoid the temptation to penalize our many wonderful guests for the actions of a few people who suck. Over time, we think this will help us build a steady clientele of repeat guests who will treat our cabin with respect.
The few guests we know who take items or cause damage and try to hide it just won't be invited back. So much for 100 percent repeat business.