How to succeed at short-term rental design

Interior designer Terri-Leigh Huleis is exuberant when she talks about focusing her business on short-term rental design.

“Short-term rentals or VRD (vacation rental design) has literally change my life, my entire family’s life, my business,” said Huleis, whose firm, FoundHomeCo., has renovated more than 60 vacation rentals. One day, we just decided to go for it, and it’s been the single best decision I’ve ever made.”

Huleis, based in Littleton, Colorado, spoke as part of the keynote panel, “Anatomy of a Project,” at the second annual Vacation Rental Design Summit,  which drew hundreds of interior designers, property managers, home brands and others to High Point April 10-12. The summit, which includes seminars, tours, mentoring, networking and a vendor gallery, is hosted by High Point x Design and the High Point Market Authority.

Jessic Duce (far left) moderated the keynote panel, “Anatomy of a Project,” which included designers Kathy Kuo, Terri-Leigh Huleis, Tiffany Cassidy and Nikki Watson.

Joining Huleis on the keynote panel were Kathy Kuo, founder and CEO of New York-based Kathy Kuo Home; Tiffany Cassidy, owner and principal designer for Lagnappe Custom Interiors, based in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands; and Nikki Watson, owner of The Design Quad, a home staging and short-term rental design firm based in Dallas.

The discussion was moderated by Jessica Duce, co-creator of the summit. Duce, owner of the JDuce Design firm in Spring, Texas, and founder of the Vacation Rental Designers Collective, started doing short-term rental design in 2015.

Here are some key takeaways from the keynote panel, including how short-term rental design varies from residential work — in ways that many designers find very appealing.

Photography from Found Home Co’s short term rental portfolio

The client matters

Short-term rental design can mean working with a homeowner, who has a single rental property, or an investor, who likely has multiple properties. When talking with investors, it’s a numbers game, Kuo said. They are focused on value and return on investment, so lead those conversations with the numbers: What it will cost and why the design decisions will lead to profits in the long run. Homeowners, Kuo said, are also interested in profit, but may need more education about the design process and what it takes to create a home that’s inviting to vacationers, not just them. One nice thing about working with investors, Kuo added, is that they are less likely to be interested in the details, giving designers more freedom to work, as long as they stay within the budget.

And, the panel of designers noted, when it comes to short-term rental design, the ultimate client isn’t the homeowner or the investor: It’s the guests who will rent the property — and your firm should do everything it can to make them want to rent, recommend and return to the property.

The timelines are quick

When working with investors, you can complete short-term rental design projects on accelerated time frames, for instance a month, rather than the six months, 12 months or longer a typical residential project can take. “We like to do massive amounts of projects at one time because our projects last about four weeks,” Huleis said. “… Our timeline is fun, creative and so fast.”

It requires a different network

As with the residential segment, much of the work in the vacation rental design sector comes from word of mouth, but it requires building a network of real estate agents, property managers and investors. Watson noted that while most residential designers spend their social media energy on Instagram, Facebook groups have been a better tool for her firm to reach investors. Duce added that LinkedIn is also a good way to reach investors and real estate agents.

Huleis spends no money on marketing, in large part, because her firm has built a network with real estate agents who are focused on the short-term rental market. “Once you get in and do a good job and treat them well, it builds. It’s just a little incestuous pool,” Huleis said, with a laugh.

You need to screen clients

The process is similar, whether working on a short-term rental or residential project, the designers said. Kuo is adamant that her firm won’t begin work on any project without a budget. Huleis offers potential clients a free 30-minute consultation — but only after they’ve filled out an extensive questionnaire about budgets, timelines and more. ‘It’s like 5,000 questions long,” she said, with a laugh. “But it says at the top it takes only seven minutes to fill out, and I’ve done it in seven minutes.” Cassidy’s firm operates similarly, allowing potential clients to book a free 20-minute call through a link on its website, but only after they’ve answered a series of questions. “And after that, we know we’re either going to be interested in going to look at the house or we’re going to recommend another designer to them,” Cassidy said. “We probably turn away nine out of 10 people at that stage because they’re not quite the right fit.”

Watch for the red flags

When deciding to take on a short-term rental project, particularly with a homeowner, designers should be on the lookout for some of the same warning signs they look for in residential projects. But there are others unique to the segment. “One that pops to mind,” Cassidy said, “is a client who says, ‘Well, I could really do this myself and I’ve already picked out everything I want but I just don’t know how to get it there.’ The answer to that is, ‘It sounds like you need a moving company.’” And then Cassidy will direct them to an online guide for shipping to the U.S. Virgin Islands, where her firm is based. A big red flag for Watson: When prospective clients tell her they have leftover furniture from a family member or estate they’d like to use. No, no, no, she said.

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Set fees and get money upfront

When it comes to calculating fees, the panelists use a mix of methods, with some charging hourly rates and some setting rates based on square footage, plus markups on furnishings.

Watson fully furnishes short-term rentals, down to the linens, cleaning products and toiletries and then presents the owners with that complete list at the project’s completion, so that they can reorder as needed through influencer accounts that she’s set up. “So, if they need more shampoo, or whatever they need, we get paid,” she explained. “We make money on everything.”

Most of the panelists require 50% to 75% of their fee at contract, with the notable exception of Cassidy, who drew envy of the other designers — and the audience — when she said her firm requires 100% upfront on all but the most extensive projects. “Once you give people the ideas, they can’t return them,” she explained. “When I first went to 100%, I had so much drama and anxiety. I told myself this whole story about how nobody is ever going to hire us again and I’m going to go bankrupt. But nobody ever pushed back. Not one.”

Stay in touch

Because of the nature of short-term rental design, it requires a bit less handholding than a residential project, panelists said. Kuo’s firm employees two full-time project managers who keep clients up to date. Watson’s typically firm reaches out to short-term rental clients just twice: when the project begins and again before the installation. Huleis uses Trello for project management and gives clients access to that Trello account, where they can review mood boards, delivery dates and more. Cassidy prefers weekly updates to cut down on questions and phone calls. “We started a policy in the office a couple of years ago, where every client gets an update every Friday. It helps consolidate all the thoughts, and people can respond to you at one time. It took a little organizing, but we have a custom report and can print out a spreadsheet — every item they’ve ordered and where it is in the shipping process, etc. It goes to the client, property manager, everyone.” Such regular communication is particularly important when requiring 100% of the fee upfront. “You need to let them know where their things are all along the process,” Cassidy said.

Jump in

The short-term rental market is full of opportunities for interior designers, whether they want to add it as a service along with others they offer, start buying their own properties or completely shift the focus of their business to the segment.

“If you’re a residential designer and searching for a short-term rental project, just go for it, and you’ll learn along the way,” Huleis said. “My slogan is ‘make it till you make it.’ You’re not faking it. You’re just making it happen.”

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