Smart home tech might just be the kind of edge everyone’s after in the world of short-term holiday lets. It’s sexy and appealing for guests and it’s handy for hosts. At least, that’s the theory but which connected kit helps to rake in the cash and which doesn’t? What’s great for grabbing attention and what’s a step too far?
Research by smart lock maker August, found that 60% of those asked would pay more for a home with smart features and that 82% of potential guests would be more likely to complete their reservations when smart home technology is listed as available.
With the holiday rental market in the UK alone estimated at £950 million per year, according to research by the London School of Economics, we sought out some expert advice from those in the travel lettings industry to see how those stats stood up in practice and just how the agents think hosts should be building the ultimate Airbnb smart home.
The penetration of this kind of tech is still pretty low, according to Aravind Rajagopal, the London general manager of Airbnb hosting service Hostmaker. A lettings agent in this field, Hostmaker only sees smart devices in about 10-20% of its properties and that presents both an opportunity and a question of how useful the smart home is in this area.
“When we do have these devices present, it does make us think differently about how we manage these homes for our customers,“ says Rajagopal. “The one we see most often are smart heating systems and they are definitely welcome from our perspective. Any problems the guests are having with heating and we can usually troubleshoot them remotely.”
Gas bills are an obvious place where hosts can save on their expenses by ensuring that the property isn’t left with the boiler at max when there’s no one staying there, but, as tempting as it might be, Hostmaker strongly urges its clients not to get their fingers on their apps while guests are staying. There are guidelines asking visitors to turn the temperature down if they don’t need it but nobody should intervene unless there’s a problem. At the end of the day, it’s their holiday and their experience. If staying in a place with the heating set to tropical makes their stay a happy one, then so be it. It’s all down to respecting their privacy.
While on the subject of privacy, smart home security cameras are a highly contentious product for holiday lets. Airbnb’s terms state that hosts must inform their guests if they have security cameras trained on the property of any kind and it’s easy to see why. In October 2017, Florida host Wayne Natt was arrested after he was caught secretly filming a couple staying in his bedroom. His camera was disguised as a smoke alarm and what this demonstrates - apart that there are some frickin’ weirdos out there, of course - is that there are cameras, and then there are cameras! All the same, while having them in the living room or on the outside of your property trained on the front doorstep are very different things, it may well be something you should avoid altogether as host.
“I'm all on for using technology to enhance the guest experience but, when it comes to cameras, you should be cautious,” says Katharina van Daele, CMO at hosting agents Pass The Keys. “Hosts understandably want to have them for security purposes but it's more important that the guests don't feel monitored all the time.”
Most good smart home security cameras will not start recording unless they’re triggered to do so by motion or by sound and only when armed but, even still, knowing that they’re not rolling 24/7 is apparently of little comfort to visitors, according to van Daele.
“We still have to notify the guests that the home has a camera and even doing that may be enough to put them off booking in the first place. They want privacy and not knowing what happens with material from a camera definitely raises concern.”
The rule of thumb here seems to be that outdoor cameras are ok but indoors are a no-no and, whatever you do, don’t put them in the bedroom.
When it comes to smart locks, there’s no maybe about it.
“We would love it if all the homes that we managed had smart locks,” says Hostmaker’s Aravind Rajagopal. “It’s the preferred solution for everyone involved - for the homeowner, for the guests, for us. The fundamental issue of a guest calling you at 2am saying they’ve lost their keys and can you let them in, that won’t happen. So, it’s a win-win.
“We meet the guests, we give them their credentials, show them how to work the lock and that’s it. It’s a pity they’re only in a fraction of the homes we work with at the moment. Once the cost curve drops off to the $100-$150 range, I’m sure we’ll see a lot more of them.”
The fundamental issue of a guest calling you at 2am saying they’ve lost their keys and can you let them in, that won’t happen.
Of course, smart locks are still very much in their first generation and there aren’t any we feel that we’re 100% happy with for the time being. If you’re not using an agent and have to meet and greet guests yourself, though, they’re clearly a superb idea. There’s a very good chance that your guests want to meet you even less than you want to meet them and virtual access passes, which you can instate and revoke as you need, mean that checking in and out can be at everyone’s convenience.
The big leader in smart locks at the time of writing is August with the August Smart Lock Pro the top end device from the company. It's only compatible with doors in North America for the time being but is sensible enough to work both over Bluetooth and with an actual key lock for back up, just in case either your phone runs out of juice or the lock itself gives you its equivalent of the Blue Screen.
More to the point, though, August has done a pretty cute thing in recognising the smart lock's value to the holiday let community and has partnered with both Airbnb and HomeAway. You can link your locks to your accounts on those services, so that you can issue virtual keys and entry codes without any hassle – and all will have the right access and expiry automatically according to each booking. The company has also gone the whole hog by bringing out the August Doorbell Cam so that you can speak to your guests, let them in on spec and even record sneaky little videos of them and any extra guests they might try to sneak in too. It's then the same system of entry for your cleaner to sweep up after them and change the sheets in time for the next guest.
August is, of course, not the only brand in the game but they are the one going for it the most. Whatever you choose, it’s a good idea to make sure it has some kind of hard back-up that your users can rely on - a key or a number pad - otherwise you could easily still get that late night call if and when your guests return with no battery life or no phone in their pockets at all.
Connected TV & audio
Most guests bring their own personal computers for entertainment according to both of our hosting experts. Whether tablets, phones or laptops, this is something that people setting up an Airbnb smart home need to expect and cater for. It’s not necessary to make sure you have Netflix. Standard free to view channels will do, especially because your guests might not speak the same language as whatever you’ve got your VoD accounts set up in. You do need to make sure that you’ve got a decent sized screen, though, and that your hardware is easy to access.
“Having a big screen projector is definitely an advantage,” says van Daele. “They’re not expensive and, if you have the space, it’s an easy wow-factor. Sonos is a great enhancement to the guest experience too. You just need to make sure that people can connect with Bluetooth to all these things. People know how to use Bluetooth but we do get guests calling us not understanding how it works. So, make sure everything is as easy to use and as international as possible. They don’t want to spend half an hour getting these things up and running.”
Hostmaker’s Rajagopal underlines, however, that entertainment is more of a luxury and you might not need to consider certain smart kit depending upon what you’re selling.
“They’re not must-haves. If it’s just a $130 per night home, then, it’s no problem but if you’re at the higher end, then people do expect these extras.”
Thankfully, running up enormous iTunes or Amazon bills on the host’s accounts is not a common occurrence.
Smart lighting may seem something of a frivolity for Airbnb but apparently it has its place. As with thermostats, there’s a cost-saving angle for hosts to make sure that bulbs are not left burning but there’s more to it than simple convenience according to Pass The Keys and van Daele.
“Smart devices and other home technologies are a massive advantage, particularly for attracting business travellers. There are a certain groups of customers who are specifically looking for more modern homes. People are here predominantly to experience the city and the place they’re staying in but not always. Connected devices and things like integrated LEDs - where people can change the colour of their environment to suit their mood - they’re a great way for your listing to stand out against many others of the same type, same area or in the same price range. Make sure you have pictures with them on in your profile.”
From Hostmaker, the tips for interior style and mood are not related to tech. Instead of focusing on whizzy tricks, the emphasis should be on home and not necessarily on smart. As well as the usual cleaning and linen housekeeping services, Hostmaker has a design team that will go over and re-decorate your abode with paint, wallpaper, furniture, artificial flowers, books, magazines, coffee tables, pictures on the walls and whatever kind of soft furnishing that they feel will fit.
“What we want to create is life. That’s what people love most of all. It all depends how much you want to spend,” says Rajagopal.
It doesn’t all begin and end with locks and lights. The smart home is a place of evolution and though there might not be any particularly impressive connected kit in the kitchen for the time being that doesn’t mean that it’s not coming. For Pass The Keys’s van Daele, where your guests cook is going to be of particular interest.
The smart kitchen could be a big thing for holiday lets - Katharina van Daele
“The smart kitchen could be a big thing for holiday lets. Airbnb customers don’t spend a lot of time there but the kitchen is a place where people like to play with the home that they’ve rented. It’s fun and a good testing ground for gadgets that they don’t personally own and, while they’re cooking, they might want to have a conversation with a virtual travel concierge and start planning their next day.”
The ease to which this can be done is going to depend on the flexibility of the current stock of devices - such as Amazon Echo and Google Home - and where their respective companies plan on taking them in the future. We're already seeing plans for Alexa cooking controls to come to microwaves and conventional ovens. There are region specific limitations and language barriers to overcome and, of course, there’s the questions of privacy, account use and whether or not there are any specific Skills and apps that would be helpful to guests on holiday.
None of this is insurmountable, of course, and your guests will definitely be looking to leverage the AI concierge tech of their hosts at some stage in the coming months, particularly if they have one they rely on in their own homes. In the short term, a quick $50 Echo Dot might be money well spent.