The Very First Step in Furnishing Your Airbnb or Vacation Rental

Do this before anything else




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August 15, 2014
Malta's Indulgence Divine Vacation Rental

This post is Part I of a two-part series on creating a design concept for your vacation rental……

One of the principle goals in furnishing an Airbnb or vacation rental is realizing that small design changes can add up to big wins in increasing rates and bookings. For example, making your bedrooms sex friendly or coming up with a winning color scheme are smart changes that are not overwhelming and don’t require a major renovation to your vacation home stay; however, they can lead to big time results.

Identifying the small design tweaks that yield more bookings and great guest reviews is an extremely powerful idea, which is why so many of my posts concentrate on them. However, in this article, I’m going to reveal the single most important design principle to any vacation rental.

It’s more than a detail or a tweak or a mere trip to Target for a throw pillow.

In fact, it’s the very design foundation upon which your vacation rental depends.

It was the very first thing I learned when I started my master’s degree in interior architecture at UCLA.

It’s called the Design Concept.

Pertaining to you, a vacation rental owner or manager, think of it as Vacation Rental Interior Design 101. It’s where you start before you do any remodeling or decorating. And it’s relevant whether you are starting from scratch with a vacation property or have an existing home you’d like to improve.


 In the natural world, we don’t have much control over evolution—it just sort of happens. Unfortunately, this also happens in vacation rentals. Furniture, art, and accessories get put in haphazardly and owners hope for the best. However, if you want to increase the ‘Wow’ impact of your vacation rental, you’re going to have to work at it. This means creating a design concept – or blueprint – from which all decorating and remodeling decisions evolve.

Not having a design concept often results in a random, unplanned look.  In contrast, the vacation rental working from one is compelling, cohesive and extraordinary and books up effortlessly. The unplanned Airbnb or vacation rental is average at best, ugly at worst and books up only when guests have no better options.  The differentiator is almost always the presence -or lack – of a design concept.

And here’s the kicker: the ugly truth is that the random and unplanned vacation rental with no design concept frequently costs the same to create as the extraordinary one with a design blueprint.

That’s painful to contemplate. No one likes to spend money and not get results.

Take a look at the photo below, an example of a vacation rental without a design blueprint. It’s ordinary with absolutely nothing special about it. It doesn’t make you say “wow” when you see it, does it? Is anyone going to line up to reserve it months in advance?

Probably not.

ugly airbnb

An example of a vacation rental with no design concept. The result is generic everything – furniture, lighting, flooring, paint, finishes, textiles. There is no siren call to rent here. It’s average. It’s ho-hum. It’s forgettable. Next listing, please!

 “Okay, I get it,” you say, “but what exactly is a design concept? It sounds sort of vague and elusive and academic.”

 It’s actually not that hard to understand. In essence, a design concept is an overriding theme, mood or vibe of a home. It’s a design blueprint.

I like to compare it to a company business plan.

Any new company hoping to succeed in today’s competitive environment will create a business plan defining its mission statement, short and long-term goals, branding, defined audience and an implementation strategy. To do so is smart business sense; it serves as a beacon of direction.

Not having a business plan is hoping for dumb luck. And even if luck is on your side, how often does it work out in the long run?  It might go fine for about six months when the company is getting some attention and has a great service, but the long-term outcome is not going to be pretty. Every company needs to know where it’s going, what its mission is, where it wants to be in one, two and five year’s time.

The same can be said about a vacation rental or Airbnb design concept. It defines your vacation rental’s long-term aesthetic vision, creates a ‘brand,’ defines an intended audience and allows for both a short and long-term implementation strategy.

Let me give you an example. I wrote a post on a glamping retreat in Wimberley, Texas that is so booked up, guests reserve six months to a year in advance. The owner, Lynn Gallimore, conceived the design vision based on a luxurious camp she stayed in at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania. Her goal was to bring the same look and feel of her African stay into her Texas hill country vacation rental.

I was not able to interview Gallimore about the design of Sinya, but I’m going to assume she used images of safari camps for inspiration during the design process.

She probably started with images very similar to the ones below….

Luxury Tent Inspiration for Vacation Rental in Texas

African Safari Tent Retreat Concept

and was able to create Sinya, her fabulously popular glamping retreat in the Texas hill country:

Glamping in the Texas Hill Country

Looking at the photos of Sinya on Lone Man Creek, it is easy to see the relationship between the concept and the outcome. The result is stunningly impactful.

Comparing the images with the real deal makes you realize the power of using a design blueprint. All buying and remodeling decisions are made with it in mind; nothing is random. The result is a cohesive, compelling and beautiful vacation rental that attracts guests like bees to honey.

The design concept is most commonly based on actual architectural examples (such as the images above), but it can also be made up of images that evoke a mood or vibe. For example, a concept can be a landscape (the seashore, a prairie, a Zen garden), an object (a barn, a painting, a shell), a time in history (1960’s, 1940’s Hollywood) or even a movie or novel (James Bond, Alice in Wonderland). There are so many choices!

Creating the Design Concept

There are four essential steps to creating your design concept. And all of them must be present in order to be successful. It must:

1. Relate to your intended audience.

2. Harmonize with the architecture of your home.

3. Consider the physical location of your home.

4. Match your own aesthetic tastes (within reason!).

Let’s address them in order:

Your Audience

Take a look at the typical demographic profile of tourists renting vacation homes in your location and design to appeal to them.

For instance, if your home is located in an area primarily attracting the outdoor sports crowd – mountain biking, kayaking, river rafting, mountain climbing – you can assume your audience is fit and active and would appreciate a look reflective of their tastes and habits. Alternatively, a home in the wine country is going to attract a more sophisticated, urbane crowd and should appeal to their sensibilities. Match the people with the home and you’re good to go.

Here’s an example of a kitchen designed to appeal to the New Urbanist-ish, Millennial generation:

Vacation Rental in Buena Vista, Colorado

The light, open kitchen with quartz countertops, a distressed wood island, industrial lighting, open shelving and wide plank floors in this Colorado vacation rental appeal particularly to Millennial tastes. And Millennials are the main demographic visiting Buena Vista, Colorado, a destination known for extreme sports. South Main Real Estate.

Your Architecture

Your design concept should be compatible with your vacation rental’s architecture. Try to honor your home’s “bones;” in other words, don’t put Louis XVI reproduction furniture in a lakeside cottage or Tuscan furniture in a mid-century modern. Rather, go with the flow of the home. I don’t mean reproduce a historical look; rather try to match vibe with vibe. You get my drift, right? Sometimes the architecture is so bland that you can get away with lots of different styles, but generally speaking, try to stay within the bounds of what the home architecturally “is.”

Take a look at the bedroom below, found in a restored palace in Fez, Morocco. The Moorish design echoes the medieval world of the Medina:

Guest Room in the Dar Seffarine Guest House

All the rooms in the Dar Seffarine have been carefully restored and decorated to reflect the medieval architecture of the building itself. They have their original zellij floors (mosaic tiling) and cedar wood ceilings, as well as the original old windows and doors. The bed, lamps and textile “headboard” were all sourced in Fez. Rent it here.

Your Location

Honor your vacation home’s location. If the home is by the sea, you might want to choose an ocean concept; if you have a city loft, an urbane look with exposed pipes and repurposed items could work. Remember that guests look out the windows and spend time on porches. If the outside environment doesn’t get along with the inside, guests will be turned off. They’ll sense a quarrel. ;)

The interior of this modern Italian vacation chalet in the Dolomites reflects the simplicity of the natural snow-capped mountain landscape outside:

Modern vacation rental in La Pedevilla, Italy

The light-colored interior of La Pedevilla harmonizes with the surroundings Dolomites – otherwise known as the “Pale Mountains.” Pine floors and doors are typical for the region; the walls are white Dolomite concrete. Soft, locally sourced Loden cloth make up the curtains. The furniture, although modern, makes reference to the antique furniture found throughout the region. Collectively, the contemporary and traditional elements create an ascetic unity complementing the calm of the mountains outside. Rent it here.

 Your own Taste

This is the fun part! After you have researched all the former considerations, think about who you are and what you like. Your concept, after applying all the former considerations, should appeal to your own tastes. After all, you will most likely be using it too, right? Even if it’s an investment meant solely for guests, you still have to design it. My rule is “love your concept!” You have to love it; otherwise, you won’t enjoy the design process and will fail at making your rental extraordinary.

Malta's Indulgence Divine Vacation Rental

“Gattaldo and Mike Livingstone’s color and retro inspired 16th-century townhouse in Vittoriosa is nothing short of free-spirited,” says Homeworks Magazine. “With a playful atmosphere, color seems to have a mind of its own here: think Alice in Wonderland meets Vittoriosa.” It’s obvious that the owners’ own unique personalities (Gattaldo is an art director) had a huge imprint in the design. Wow! Rent it here.

 To Wrap it Up

Now that you know the supreme importance of having a design concept from which your Airbnb or vacation rental can evolve, it’s a no -brainer to make one up. It doesn’t take much time.

The best thing about creating a vacation rental design concept is you will always have a definite aesthetic vision overriding any purchase or remodeling changes. Even five or ten years down the road. There will be nothing random about your short-term rental, nothing mediocre; in, tead you will have a compelling and cohesive home that will enhance your guests’ vacation experience.

Most importantly, you won’t have any more of those, “Help! I don’t know what color to paint the kitchen,” moments; rather you will have a solid aesthetic blueprint to guide your design decisions.

Even down to the kitchen towels.

 Hey, that’s not the end actually….

Curious about the details of creating a concept and putting it into action? In Part II of the Design Concept Series, I’m featuring a fabulous cottage community in Silverlake, California employing a design vision with incredible finesse. The owners are uber-talented Robin Wallace and Tim Snowber and I can’t wait for you to read about how they have transformed several cottages into booking magnets.

Read Part II here.




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