After a revelatory trip to India, our writer opened up her Dubai apartment to online summer guests. She tells us how she did it
How to cash in and travel with Airbnb in the UAE
This summer, I took a long trip to India and experimented with Airbnb for the first time. I filtered my searches around established Superhosts (a notional gold medal that’s awarded to those who receive high ratings in guest reviews). As a woman travelling solo, security was an obvious consideration, so I worked on the basis that if the host was established and a sizeable number of guests reported being happy and comfortable in the Airbnb surroundings, then I was probably OK to follow in their footsteps.
The experience opened my eyes to an entirely new mode of travel. In Udaipur, I went antique and vintage textile shopping with my host, Rosie Cornwallis of Rosie’s Retreat Homestay, meeting her friends and drinking chai with local traders. In Jaipur, my host, local artist Shan (of “artist’s mansion in the pink city”) took me on a walking tour of the old city, where we sampled street food, shared stories of the filming of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (Richard Gere popped in to use his lavatory) and jointly negotiated the purchase of an embroidered silk sari. I was hooked, never lonely and experienced a side of India that I may have entirely missed if I’d been cloistered in a hotel or guest house with only Google Maps to guide me.
It occurred to me that if I could let out my own apartment in Dubai during the hot summer months, and join the other 6,200 active UAE listings on Airbnb, that this would potentially allow me to offset some or all of my fixed living expenses while travelling and working remotely.
I initially sought the services of a property management company to handle bookings – but part of the Airbnb experience is about “feeling local”, with engagement between guests and hosts. A managing agent would be taking a significant cut of revenue and wouldn’t provide that essential local knowledge. I decided I would do a better job myself and asked my accommodating neighbour if she would manage my keys and pay my cleaner directly. My local property team was in business.
I got to work on styling and photographing my apartment, posted the images and wrote my listing. I was live. Within 15 minutes I had my first booking inquiry, and within the hour I’d confirmed a month-long booking. It seemed easy and I probably hadn’t charged enough – but it was the middle of summer and I wouldn’t be in the apartment anyway.
It’s now November, and my apartment has pretty much been let back-to-back for the past five months, while also providing me with flexible accommodation when I’m in the country. I’ve kept an eye on hotel apartment deals in the area, priced competitively and it’s paid off. I’ve met half of my guests, and the others have been checked in by my helpful neighbour. I’m always contactable, 24/7, in case of any emergency or problem, and have answered questions remotely on yoga studios, car hire, air-conditioning controls, hairdressers, beaches and local legislation concerning consumption of alcohol. People are comfortable with the platform as long as you respond quickly.
Admittedly, my first guest check-in felt a little strange; there were no papers to sign, no contract or deposit – just a joint belief in the reach of the Airbnb ethos and community. I showed him around, photographed his ID and left him the keys. That was it. I received the payment the next day.
But how do you make the most of the potential opportunities offered by Airbnb? For a start, photograph each room as guests might expect to find it – it’s false advertising if your grand piano and candelabra feature in your listing have but vanished by the time your guests arrive. Natural light tends to produce better images, and Airbnb can recommend local photographers.
Rosie Cornwallis, an interior designer and antiques dealer, is the “Superhost” who showed me around Udaipur. She has rented out two studio apartments in the old city for the past six years and says good styling and quality photographs are key to a successful Airbnb story. “People can have no imagination, so spell it out and use accents that suggest lifestyle. Make it homely and cosy, as for many that’s why they chose an Airbnb stay over an anonymous hotel room with a swan-shaped towel. Lay the table, so guests can imagine themselves at breakfast. I set a tea tray on the upstairs roof terrace – it gives photographs added interest, and makes it more inviting.
“All my guests use the cotton bathrobes in the bathroom. Invest in good soft cotton towels, quality bed linen – at least two sets per bed and replace it the moment it looks tired – and provide decent quilts or duvets for the cooler months.”
Michael O’Riordan is a Dubai resident who has used Airbnb since 2014 to manage his growing property portfolio in Budapest (Rákóczi Apartment) and Crete (Mikon Studios, Sivas, Crete, Greece). He became a “Superhost” after just six months and uses the app to manage his guest communication remotely while employing local property managers to handle check-ins and handovers. He says: “Always try and keep communication on the Airbnb platform, so you are covered. It’s a game. It’s about how quickly you respond to your guests.
“People don’t realise how involved it can be … if you can imagine that if I have two groups per week for each of my properties and they are all asking questions – anything from expectations on weather, to hairdryers – it can become a big job.”
Key information gleaned during these exchanges is used to enhance the guest experience. If there’s a birthday, O’Riordan might arrange to put some milk in the fridge and leave a cake. If a guest is arriving late, he will ensure there are enough provisions to make a simple meal on arrival. O’Riordan believes that “cleanliness is the next biggest thing. You’d be amazed at the lengths that people will go to check how clean an apartment is. We’ve got a great team and our cleaner keeps the place like a hospital”.
Pricing is key to achieving good occupancy. At the start of every year, O’Riordan checks the calendar for local events and holidays, and prices properties according to anticipated demand, knowing these dates will be booked first. He later makes time to adjust pricing if there are any gaps in the coming month that remain unsold.
“We’ve been very lucky, but you have to accept there will always be a certain amount of takings each year to set against wear and tear, as glasses and plates will break.”
His apartment is purpose-made for letting and is consequently “a shrine to Ikea”, he says. Nothing there is irreplaceable or very expensive, but interiors are still welcoming and comfortable.
For some of the listings for Airbnb, you are quite clearly in someone else’s home – open a wardrobe and you can see their clothes. However, I made the decision to depersonalise my space and remove anything valuable or precious. Airbnb can mediate and offers insurance up to US$1 million (Dh3.67 million) for damage by guests, but you can’t put a price on sentimental items.
Two locked cupboards in my flat contain clothes, towels and bedding for when I’m in town. Everything else was taken to a storeroom in my building, giving me peace of mind and my guests a clutter-free environment. Decamping is no light task, yet this investment of time has monetised an asset that I would otherwise have had to fund while it lay empty over summer.
Part of the Airbnb experience is the sense you have a local friend – and this forms part of the Airbnb culture of connecting with places and community. Try to think of anything that will make your guests feel at home in your city, and you will not only enhance their experience but potentially earn those five-star ratings, and that coveted Superhost status.
Anyone listing a property on Airbnb now has to register for a fee with DTCM (Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing, Dubai). For more on the responsibilities of UAE residents when placing a local listing on the site, visit www.airbnb.com/help/article/1522/responsible-hosting-in-dubai