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Harnessing the irrational behaviour of your vacation rental guests

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We humans are strange people, we do the strangest things, and we are also culturally programmed to behave irrationally and do things that we don’t want to!

You can use humanity’s psychological quirks to get more bookings for your vacation rental.  You are probably already exploiting some of these quirks unconsciously, but when we dig a little deeper in this section, you will uncover many tactics that you may not have heard of.

You can use the psychology of influence  to help you to get happy guests, loyal guests, more bookings, higher rates, and ultimately a more rewarding business.

Bob Cialdini’s Pyschology of Influence

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The psychology of influence goes back a long way.  In the 1980s a young psychology professor called Bob Cialdini in Arizona was intrigued by how salesmen often got him to buy something he didn’t know he needed.  Conventional psychology didn’t explain why, so he went underground for 3 years working for all kinds of salespeople, watching and learning.  He found there was an underlying science of influence.  The result is a book he wrote in 1984 called “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion”.  It describes 6 principles that explain our unconscious programming and why we buy from one person and not from another.  The book became an enduring success and sold over 3 million copies, topping best seller lists with translation into 30 languages and has endured to this day.

The principles are as true today as they were in 1984, and indeed some you will recognise instantly, but they have subtlety.

The six principles of influence:

•                     Reciprocation

•                     Commitment and consistency

•                     Social proof

•                     Liking

•                     Authority

•                     Scarcity

1 Reciprocation

As a young engineer working in Bangladesh in the 1970s, when visiting Calcutta I was given the bizarre task of buying 200 yards of the best calico cloth for our staff.  Soon I was going from merchant to merchant looking at cloth. The cloth was all much the same and I found it hard to decide on one.  It was a very hot steamy day and despite me having had ample to drink, one skilful merchant persuaded me to accept a cold glass of Coca Cola “to refresh Sir’s thirst, no obligation, no obligation”.  I found myself accepting the drink and I didn’t buy his cloth, but I felt strangely uncomfortable leaving.  I then went back and bought his cloth which just happened to be about 10% over the market rate, but I felt happy.  Afterwards I kicked myself for paying extra.  What happened?

This illustrates the first principle of reciprocation.  We are culturally programmed as a society to give to others and to return a gift with a gift.  The size of the gift is not important, it will often elicit an obligation.

As another example, if a prospective guest calls asking about the local attractions near your rental at a time you are busy, you can brush them off or you can help them with a gift of your time.

It is a good tactic to help them.  You may spend a few minutes on the phone, you may even have prepared a short guide to your area that you send them, a small gift. You don’t make the hard sell, you just help.  Let’s say your caller has spoken to several other VR operators with similar prices, and you are the only one to help them, chances are they will feel a subconscious obligation.  Chances are they will book with you.

As another example you leave out a pot of local jam as your guests check in.  You want nothing in return. Your guest is surprised and delighted.   At the end of their stay, they think about the experience.  The gift of jam is tiny, but strangely powerful. Chances are you will get a better review than without the pot of jam.  Not always, but the odds are in your favour.

2 Commitment and consistency

In this principle, if a person makes a small effort in the direction of commitment, they are likely to make a consistent stronger move in the same direction.

In a non-VR example, in a small town the organisers of a fete asked some local shop owners to put up some large posters advertising the fete.  Only a few owners agreed, most saying the signs were intrusive.

The organisers approached a different strip of shops, and this time they asked if a small card could be put in the window advertising the fete.  Most shop owners agreed.  Closer to the date of the event, the organisers asked if a larger poster could go in the window, and this time most shop owners agreed.  Having made a small step of commitment, the shop owners felt comfortable in continuing in the same direction with a bigger commitment.

Another example, a child sees a puppy in a pet store and says she wants it.  Dad says we need to check at home with mum, but the pet store owner says – just take the puppy and return it tomorrow if it doesn’t work out.  Of course, once the small commitment is made, a consistent commitment is made to keep the puppy.

As a VR example, a prospective guest says she would like to book but can’t because she needs to check with her husband for his work availability.  What I do in that situation, is to say “no problem, I’ll block out the calendar for you and you can tell me tomorrow if you would like to confirm.”  Most times they book the next day.  A small commitment is made by the guest, followed by a consistent commitment the next day.  Also there is a small element of the reciprocation principle – the VR owner has made a small gift of blocking the calendar, the guest feels happy returning the favour with the booking.

Once a guest stays once at a VR, it is logical for consistency to keep returning – a return guest year after year.  We just help make it easy for them to enjoy that first and other experiences.

One of the reasons I like to have a Guest Book, is that you often find guests writing that they enjoyed the experience, a small step of support.  They are then more likely to recommend you to their friends – another step of consistency.  They are also more likely to agree to write you a positive review.

A similar phenomenon is confirmation bias.  Rather than people continuously testing their assumptions, it is more likely that they will form one viewpoint and assume that it is true.  That is good for you if they are a big fan of their experience staying with you and they tell others!

3 Social proof – the lead of the crowd

The phrase Social Proof has now entered everyday marketing, where people follow the lead of the crowd.  Also claims made by the crowd have higher credibility than claims made by the seller.

Have you noticed that at a public performance, there is often someone in the audience who starts clapping when they appreciate a part of the performance, and sure enough we all follow suit and applaud.  I suspect that may be a tactic by the organisers to garner more applause. Similarly, a sole person laughing will usually trigger wider laughter in the audience.

Paid applause became a business way back in 1820, when several opera fans offered payment for applause during a performance.  It worked and spawned a small industry of ‘claquing’, where groups of people were paid for their appreciative response in the audience.    There was a sliding payment scale starting from titters, through applause and even wild enthusiasm.  Rent a crowd has been going for hundreds of years!

Cialdini points out that faced with a new situation, folks will follow the lead of others in the crowd, and if everyone is waiting for everyone else to move, nothing happens.

After discovering this, Cialdini was later injured in a car accident and folks stopped half heartedly to see what was going on, then driving off.  Severely injured, he found an onlooker at random and said – “You! Call the ambulance and divert the traffic.”  The startled onlooker did as he was asked, and other onlookers seeing the activity also stopped and helped.  Cialdini had passed out by that time and if he had not given a direct request at the time, may not have survived.

Again, folks needed another person to act for them to feel comfortable in acting.

I was at the Airbnb Open in Paris in 2015 when terrorists shot scores of people in a suburb near my hotel, and much of Paris was locked down.  Next morning at my hotel at 8am, the streets were empty.  People were still stunned and had no signals as to what  was OK.  At 830am, a few people ventured out in a trickle, then more.  By 9am the streets were bustling and back to normal.  Once folks saw the signals that it was OK to go out, they followed each other. They followed the crowd.

As the most obvious VR example, a guest is far more likely to make a booking if there are already a lot of good reviews for the property.  Guests often say “we loved the picture and saw all the great reviews and decided to book.”

Reviews are our social proof – the VR currency of credentials.

It always amazes me to see a long running VR with just a handful of reviews.  Without social proof, they will get far fewer bookings than their potential.

Attracting steady reviews is one of the most important tasks for a VR owner, and it’s free!

As another example, our guest book at Treetops attracted a new comment most weeks and soon became full so we put out a new blank book.  The new book stayed empty for a month as no one wanted to be the first to comment. What to do? After personally asking several guests to help with a comment there soon were 3 new entries, and the  ball kept rolling with new comments every week from then on.

When renting a pet friendly VR there is a small risk that a dog may cause some damage.  If I am welcoming a guest with a dog and I have an uncomfortable feeling about the particular guests, I use the power of the crowd to set expectations.  “We are so lucky here, we find that guests who care enough about their dog to bring it along, invariably look after our place.” And it works.  If the crowd is looking after the place, so usually will the new guests.  It’s all true, I just had to help the guest see what other people were doing.

4 Liking

Liking is one of the basics of selling.  Not in the sense of a superficial Facebook like, but in the sense of a human relationship.

Folks are more comfortable buying from people they like.

That is why Tupperware parties are so successful, they are buying from friends.  That is why companies have sales reps who visit their customers.  It is why many folks buy a coffee from the same café where they are given a friendly welcome each day.

In operating a VR, we have lots of opportunities to develop a friendly relationship with our guests. Also your guests will appreciate talking with someone they can relate to.

The enquiry stage is important. Once I made our usual courtesy call just minutes after receiving an email enquiry.  The woman at the other end asked some simple questions, then she stopped.  “Thank goodness I can talk with a real person, I’ve looked at dozens of websites and made lots of enquiries and I’m so confused. Can I just book with you now?”

We have lots of other opportunities to form a human relationship with our guests.

  • If you are on site, you can welcome and farewell.
  • If not on site you can check mid stay how they are going and if there is anything you can do.
  • After they leave, you can call thanking them for staying and if appropriate for leaving the place clean.
  • If you have a newsletter, you can keep in touch with snippets of news in a friendly ‘voice’.

When deciding whether to review your VR, or whether to refer you to friends or whether to return to you, your guests will have more of an unconscious obligation if they feel a human relationship with you.

5 Authority

People are more likely to trust someone with authority and do what they say.

If you have lived locally or even repeatedly visited for a long time, you have the authority of a local expert, so tell your guests on your profile page and your in-house information folder.

If you have an Insider’s Guide to your area it will be more highly regarded than something from Wikipedia, particularly if you have the authority of an insider.  So you need to tell your guests in your guide about living locally.

If you are active in supporting the local community, the tourism association or the local wildlife, your guests will respect you more. Again, tell them.

6 Scarcity

Psychologists tell us that we value something that we might lose more than something that we could obtain.   We have a fear of missing out.

The net result is that perceived scarcity generates demand.

You will have seen this used by salespeople in many situations.

  • ‘Last one left’.
  • Bidders at an auction bid irrationally high because they don’t want to miss out.
  • ‘Last chance to buy today’

In the VR world, there are many ways you can use scarcity, but you should use it with integrity

  • A special offer to one person has a time limit – before it is offered to someone else
  • A newsletter with a single special offered to many past guests creates competition
  • Calendar is filling fast – don’t miss out.
  • I’ve taken 6 bookings so far this week, bookings are very heavy, don’t miss out.
  • This time of year we get a lot of bookings and have to turn folks away – don’t miss out

Khaneman’s  observations

In addition to the Influence principles from Bob Cialdini, there is another approach that you can use to enhance your guest experience, based on the work of nobel laureate Khaneman.   His work relating to the psychology of judgement is consistent with Bob Cialdini’s views that we humans act irrationally.  Here we look at happiness in vacation rentals as described in an excellent TED talk by Khaneman.

One of the periods of greatest happiness is the time leading up to the holiday, where the anticipation and dreaming give the guests a happy experience.  This is where your Insider’s guide can help with the dreaming and planning.

Studies also show that impressions of the holiday – and your rental –  will fade within a few months of the stay, with just the peak memories lasting which dominate the associated happiness for the holiday.  Also those memories are reinforced if guests tell others of their stay.

The most lasting impression of the holiday is the most memorable event and the end day.  If the most memorable event is a dispute or problem, that is what sticks.  So resolving disputes happily will have a huge impact on the memory of the holiday and the association with your rental.

Asking a happy guest for a review will help your guest replay the memory of holiday, and help reinforce their happiness.


Another key principle is that satisfaction is the difference between expectations and experience.  That is why it is critical to accurately set expectations, so there is no disappointment  with the reality.

A few little extras will also help exceed expectations and give you delighted guests and excellent reviews.

Another implication of expectations is that guests don’t like negative surprises.  Let’s say that the coffee machine is not working.  If you leave it for your guest to discover the missing machine, they get a surprise, then go looking through your VR for all the other things that might go wrong and they will find some little problems!  On the other hand, if you set expectations by saying – ‘sorry the coffee machine will not be replaced until after your stay, but there is  coffee plunger available’, then the guest is happy!

If your guest is after tranquility in their stay, and there is noisy building work going on next door, you are better to set expectations and say there is some work going on.  If they are aware and stay anyway, they know what to expect.  On the other hand if it is a concern, they are better off not staying this time.  If you trick them into saying it is usually peaceful and the find the opposite, then you deserve a poor review and maybe a request for a refund.  Clear expectations up front will solve most problems!

Using psychology

You may already be using these principles unconsciously to help get bookings, but now that you understand why these principles work, it can give you the extra confidence to use them more often with integrity to get bookings.  Like helping guests in the pre-booking stages, like forming a relationship with the guest, like helping them have a great experience, like resolving issues quickly, like ensuring you get reviews.  You get the idea.


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My name is Rex Brown. I live in Australia, on the Great Ocean Road in Victoria. I run two of my holiday rentals here on the coast, and another in inner Melbourne . They are all quite different, but they all run at high occupancy. They are the sandpit that I play in, running constant experiments about what works and what doesn’t.

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