These 5 simple steps can help you master the art of the stay—and attract even more bookings.
Superhosts, entrepreneurs, and interior designers Catherine and Bryan Williamson of Beginning in the Middle have built a business on crafting 5-star-worthy stays. Having hosted over 2,000+ guests, they are here to share their story and their expert tips on how to make your home memorable.
Catherine and Bryan’s Tips to Getting More 5-Star Reviews
Catherine: “For us, starting our Airbnb business and design firm was a happy accident we fell into. In 2013, we moved from New York City to Columbus, Ohio—that’s where Bryan originally grew up. We were wanting more space, as well as looking for a place where we could settle and create something of our own.”
Bryan: “We bought a three-bedroom house—and found ourselves needing to pay off some leftover debt. But we really didn’t like the idea of having a full-time roommate.”
C: “One of my friends knew someone who was listing out their spare bedroom on Airbnb and suggested we try it out. At the time, we didn’t really know what Airbnb was. Bryan and I thought: ‘Okay, if we could just get 10 nights booked this year that would be really great…’”
B: “We listed it, and there was a huge demand. Soon after, we graduated to listing our whole house. We’d explore and stay at various motels throughout Columbus until we found the one that was the least bad. It got to the point where we were staying there for weeks at a time. We knew the whole hotel staff and crew. But of course that wasn’t sustainable.”
C: “We paid off our debt and eventually bought another house. Fast forward a couple of years later, we’ve flipped and sold a few homes and kept our favorites on Airbnb. We quit our day jobs, created our interior design studio (Mix Design Collective), our vacation rental brand (The Village Host), and started our blog (Beginning in the Middle).”
B: “For us, we truly care about creating a special experience for every one of our guests. And that passion for hospitality has enabled us to create a life we really love. As a host, regardless if you have the fanciest of houses, if you can deliver an exceptional stay, you’ll see your reviews and occupancy rates go way up.”
Here are Catherine and Bryan’s tips on how to get more 5-star reviews:
01. Set expectations
C: “One of the secrets to getting a 5-star review is to set guests’ expectations before they hit the BOOK button. Our houses are old, and we’ve done a lot to make them feel homey, comfortable, and beautiful. But they’re not perfect, and so we try to give as much information upfront as possible. For example, we’ve got squeaky floors and squeaky doors.”
B: “Our bathrooms are on the smaller side. One of our units has a shared wall with a neighbor. We call that out so that people know to be courteous and mindful of noise. Parties are NOT okay.”
C: “We have an old clawfoot bathtub that’s slightly higher up than a standard bathtub—in case guests have any accessibility needs. Some people might be bothered by these quirks. Other people might not care—but we try to speak to the person who we know will enjoy the neighborhood and the house.”
02. Be a rapid responder
B: “Communicating with guests quickly and clearly is an important part of the 5-star experience. It helps show your guests that your care is constant.”
C: “People are only staying with you for a short amount of time—and usually it's for something that’s important—so you don't want someone to have to go half their stay without getting a response from you or getting something fixed. I’m very much a respond-within-5-minutes type of person, but if you don’t think you’ll be able to respond to people within a reasonable time, then consider bringing a co-host on board to help field your emails and messages. We do everything we can to show them that we’re here and that we care. And sometimes that means dropping what you’re doing to deliver the 5-star experience.”
03. Make it theirs
C: “When it comes to your decor and space, the most important thing is that guests feel like it’s theirs while they’re there. Spend the time and effort to decorate with furniture that feels unique—well-appointed finishes and touches.”
B: “And that doesn’t mean you need to go out and redo the whole kitchen with marble, or get top-of-the-line everything. I think the most important thing is that it’s clean, comfortable, and clutter-free.”
C: “It should feel like it’s been prepared especially for them. Take the time to clear out the personal photos, family mementos, knickknacks, junk, and anything that might feel like guests are in someone else’s house.”
B: “One important element that’s worth investing in is a nice bed. Again, it doesn’t have to be an expensive mattress, but we’ll add a topper and include two kinds of pillows: a down and down alternative.”
C: “For sheets, we usually do at least a 300-thread count, which is what a lot of hotels use. They should feel good on the skin and not like sandpaper—because at the end of the day people are booking your place to spend the night there. And as we know—especially as parents—a good night’s rest is a luxury.”
04. Add local flavor
C: “When people come stay with you, remember that you’re not just sharing your home, you’re also sharing an experience in your city. We like to try to make it feel more personal where we can. Small businesses are a huge part of our DNA in Columbus—and so we have fun getting everyone involved.”
B: “We’ll sometimes leave guests a little sample of the local things that we love: local coffee shop gift cards to encourage them to explore the neighborhood. We stock our home with shampoo, conditioner, and face wash from a local company called Cliff Original. We have natural hand soap from a brand called Glenn Avenue. We have a set of The Columbus Book Project’s books, which were made by a local entrepreneur highlighting local artists. Columbus is such an underdog city, but it’s such a great place to live, to grow up, to visit—and has so much to offer.”
C: “We love to show people Columbus through our eyes—and we love it when we can create an experience that makes people say, ‘I would love to move to Columbus.’”
B: “Another idea we are exploring to bring in the Columbus community is to use our homes as an art gallery or supper club to showcase local artists who may not otherwise have their work seen. We want to display a couple pieces at each house and rotate them every few months. Get creative and think of ways your home can reflect the local flavor.”
05. Field the fire drills
B: “Despite your best intentions and efforts to create a 5-star experience, know that emergencies will come up, and you’ll need to solve them—whether that’s a broken air conditioner or disappointed guests. One of our worst situations we had was this major pipe burst. It flooded the house during a guests’ stay. They kept calling us…”
C: “… But my phone was dead.”
B: “… And it was on their wedding night.”
C: “It was really bad. It was a huge learning experience for us. When those things happen, apologize and use your best judgment whether they should be compensated or if a gift like cookies, a bottle of wine, or a gift certificate to dinner would help. If guests genuinely had a terrible time, then we’ll refund them, but that normally doesn’t happen.”
B: “We try to use the golden rule of giving our guests the experience we’d like if we were staying in our own place.”
B: “Hosting is a form of artistic and creative expression for us. We put our heart into these spaces and then we put it out into the world for people to interact with it. It means so much to us to feel the appreciation from our guests.”
C: “Getting a 5-star review just validates everything we’re doing. When we’re in renovation mode, you hope that someone will appreciate the extra work we’re pouring into it. And I think if you're solely focused just on the numbers of a real estate investment, then it's easy to dismiss some of these extra touches.”
B: “Hosting is not easy. It takes a lot of work.”
C: “But it’s also been so rewarding and life-changing for us. It’s allowed us to pursue our passion for interior design and discover our love of hospitality. It’s given us the ability to start our business and grow continually. I think if it wasn't for Airbnb, we would have had a much harder time navigating through the world of small business ownership and getting off the ground. It’s helped us realize our niche, which is that we really love renovating spaces for other people to enjoy.”
B: “We’ve been able to exercise our entrepreneurial spirit and exercise our creativity. The best of both worlds is to be able to do something you’re passionate about—and to be able to do it for yourself.”
C: “We hope these tips help you get even more 5-star reviews.”
Catherine, Bryan + Bianca
Check out the full #howtohost series here.
@Catherine & Bryan Love this - you've hit the nail on the head in so many ways. I've always followed those 5 steps and I think the first one is the most important - the whole tenor of the stay is set from the first exchange of messages. Welcoming but firm, friendly but in charge - that's the ticket. It actually makes guests feel like they're in capable hands and don't have to worry about a thing. And I love that you said, “Hosting is a form of artistic and creative expression for us." After almost 40 years in book publishing, I've found the second love of my life - hosting on Airbnb. Meeting with my architect in Maine in a couple of weeks to talk about a 4th place.
Your site is absolutely beautiful and so are all your properties. Thanks for sharing and passing on your wisdom.
Ann I couldn't have said it better myself "Welcoming but firm, friendly but in charge - that's the ticket ' It is hard work (if you care enough) and a balancing act of PR and management of your listing.
Thank you for these guidelines. I think I am on the right track ??? I have just hosted my very first guests and went the extra mile to make it as perfect and comfortable as possible. They left a note saying they were very happy and yet they have been gone 5 days now and have left no official review on the airbnb site!!!! I am devastated as reviews are what we need right now!!! Any suggestions?
It happens some times, I just started about 3 months ago and out of my 51 stays I had 36 reviews, that's about 60% . Also, did you leave them a review? By the way I just called Airbnd and they said is acceptable after you leave a review for a guest as in your case you can leave them a message saying" Hey I left you a review, it would be great if you left me one too, it would help my a lot. Thank you!"
Don't be afraid to call Airbnb with any questions. I call them 5 times a week for the smallest thing that pops in to my head. Call them from the phone app so this way you are verified and they don't ask you 20 questions before they can help you.
lol I have been hosting 3 years and the customer service is deplorable....when you get to real issues with no verified guests and other things ......they just try to avoid issue and when you ask for a supervisor......it's days if at all.....!
We need to help each other
I am so sorry your first guests did not leave a review. They have 14 days to provide a review so there is still a chance they will complete one! (Fingers crossed). I am a new host too; I started in January. The key to getting reviews is to set the expectation in a very low-key way in the beginning and to reinforce the message through the end of the guests visit.
First, as soon as I get a booking confirmation, I send the following message:
Thank you for booking The Park House Suite!
Just a couple of quick questions to make your stay more enjoyable:
1.) What time approximately will you arrive? 3-6PM or 6-9PM? If possible, I will coordinate my schedule to meet you.
2.) Will you have a car and need off street parking, or are you utilizing ride share services?
3.) I provide water, bananas, apples, snack bars, oatmeal, tea and coffee. Do you have any special requests for snacks or refreshments?
I'll send directions and check-in information on the date of your arrival after the guest from the evening before checks out.
I look forward to hosting you and your husband and earning your 5 star review!
This message sets the tone in the beginning that I am attentive and want their needs to be met and I want to "earn" their five star review.
Second, if my schedule allows, I try to meet the guests and show them around the property and highlight recommendations, things to do, restaurants etc. and make sure that they know how to work everything from the TV to the internet code to all the appliances, light switches, fan switches, door locks etc. I do this very quickly and pace myself based on their verbal and non-verbal feedback. I end the “tour” by thanking them – “I know you had a lot of choices for housing for your visit and I am honored you chose The Park House Suite! It is important to me that my guests have a 5 star experience, if anything does not meet that expectation, please let me know!” If the guests are new to Airbnb I also add that the review process is critical to how Airbnb works – “The review process is important, it only takes a few minutes; the review process allows guests to book with confidence and allows hosts to host with peace of mind.” This accomplishes two things 1.) I am setting the expectation that I want to earn a 5 star review and want them to complete a review after their visit and 2) It lets them know they will be reviewed too.
Finally once the guest checks out and a few days have passed and I do not get a notification that they have left a review, I will send them a message 1.) Thanking them for staying at The Park House Suite, 2) Please visit again if you are in Atlanta in the future 3) If you have a minute or 2, please please complete a review.
Sandi I hope this helps! Good Luck!
Love that messaging about earning their 5-star review, Dale!! Have you ever had a guest take advantage of that and go overboard with requests/complaints?
I am fairly new to hosting, I started in January. Most of the guests have been super nice! Most guests do not have special requests. Occasionally someone will ask for only one additional item, such as cream, half n half or orange juice. I have only had one couple that requested multiple items. They booked The Suite for a week so I was okay with the multiple requests. No one has complained, a few folks have made very thoughtful private comments for improvements.
I to had my first guest and they gave me a lovely review in our guest book however never gave me a review on the actual website. Love the idea of putting it into the welcoming email once they make the booking. Happy Hosting.
Leave a note in the room telling your guests that you appreciate their reviews, and if anything is not 5 star, let you know during the stay so that you can address it. I've only ever had one guest not leave a review.
This is frustrating! Luckily there is a 2 week window for both the host & guest to give reviews. I would send them a message saying something like “We really enjoyed hosting you - thank you for taking care of our home. If you have a few minutes to write a review for us, we would really appreciate it! We just left you one, too.”
Airbnb will send out a few automated emails throughout the 2 week period reminding both parties to write reviews as well, so don’t worry just yet!
One thing we discovered as GUESTS was that,in only two cases where we had a bad experience and the host knew it, they thought that if THEY did not leave a review then no one would see ours. As hosts, we expressed that concern to AirBnB, and they assured us that our review would go public at the 2 week window. Our goal was of course to alter future guests in a helpful way versus trashing anyone. In both cases by NOT reviewing is, the hosts lost a chance to give any rebuttal. ABB has vastly improved their review system from the early days 6+ yrs ago.