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.
Our property manager called with a problem.
The Overlook was too hot. A summer heat wave caused temperatures to soar in Idyllwild and our cabin doesn't have air conditioning. Even at night, the house was still hotter than 80 degrees.
One group of guests asked to move to a different property. Our property manager convinced them to stay after she managed to borrow a couple of portable air conditioners for the weekend. We weren't so lucky with another group of guests who wanted to stay at The Overlook, but decided to book another property when they learned about the heat.
My wife, Sally, and I were presented with three options:
- Spend $800 to install window-mounted air conditioners.
- Spend several thousand to install central air conditioning.
- Do nothing and accept a decline in revenue until the weather cooled.
We decided to investigate the issue before jumping to solutions. In the end, we identified a great solution that cost just $119.27.
The Problem With Solutions
It's instinctive to skip the investigation and jump to solutions.
That can sometimes be a liability, especially if the solution is offered without first observing the problem and identifying the root cause.
One of my favorite examples comes from a client who hired me to train his employees on phone skills. He felt they weren't friendly at times and assumed that training would fix the problem.
I spent just 15 minutes talking to his customer service team and found the real issue. Customers sometimes had to wait on hold for as long as 30 minutes during peak times. This caused employees to rush through calls which inevitably created a perception that they were brusque and unfriendly.
A simple adjustment to align the schedule with call volume eliminated the long wait times. Employees were suddenly friendly with no training required.
When we applied this principle to The Overlook, it's hard to choose from three crummy options without first understanding why the place is too hot.
Go and See
There's a concept in process improvement called Gemba.
It's a Japanese term that means, "the real place." In business, you can often solve problems by taking what's called "a gemba walk" to go and see the issue first-hand. This often reveals unexpected causes and solutions.
Sally is fanatical about this. She's a process improvement expert whose Twitter handle is @gembagirl. I've learned a lot from her about the value of observation.
Fortunately, we had a long-planned visit to The Overlook in July that allowed us to experience the heat first-hand.
The first thing we noticed was the ceiling fan in the family room. It was set in winter mode, which draws air up and pushes warm air down. It was actually heating the room rather than cooling it!
The fan should have been set to summer mode, which pushes cool air down. I see how this could easily be missed. You look at the fan spinning like crazy and naturally assume it's doing its job. I only realized the problem when I stood directly under the fan and felt the warm air.
The room instantly started feeling cooler once the fan was on summer mode. We'll be adding this item to our inspection checklist so it doesn't happen again!
Next, we opened up windows to let the cool air in. The night air was a cool 65 degrees when we arrived at 9:30pm. Inside it was 82, so the cool air could help lower the inside temperature if we could find a way to pull the cool air in.
Sally and I once lived in Massachusetts without air conditioning, so we've experienced hot summers. We learned that a window fan can cool a room better than an oscillating fan, because it pulls cool air into the room at night and can be set to expel warm air during the day. So we spent $119.27 at Home Depot to purchase three units of a highly-rated model. Home Depot has a generous 90-day return policy, so buying the fans ahead of time wasn't a risk.
The fans have three big advantages over window-mountained air conditioners. First, they're much less expensive. Second, they can quickly be taken out of the window when the weather turns cold. And third, they're much less unsightly than bulky window box ac units.
We installed the fans in three of the four bedrooms and they instantly worked! The master suite is on the bottom floor and has twin ceiling fans, so was already much cooler than the rest of the house.
Just one hour later, the temperature inside The Overlook was a pleasant 70 degrees.
It would be easy to think the problem was solved.
As I wrote in this post, you can learn a lot by experiencing what your customers experience. We decided to keep an eye on the thermostat throughout our stay.
It was good that we did. The temperature started to rise steadily at mid-morning, even with the fans running. By mid-afternoon, it was back up to 80 degrees in the house. It was tough to keep the cabin cool when the air outside was warm.
That's when we noticed the sun pouring in from our large windows. We had closed the blinds on the lower windows, but there was still a lot of heat coming through the upper windows. I closed those blinds, too, and the temperature began to cool again.
Now we hoped the problem was really solved, but there was only one real way to check. We had to hear from actual guests.
Sally and I waited anxiously to hear from our property manager the next time we had guests booked for the weekend. We wanted to get guest feedback on the temperature.
Good news! Our solutions worked!