By The Hospitable Team
“It was when we got a phone call from Toronto Deputy Police asking for permission to raid our property, as they had a confirmed sighting of a known gang member posting on Instagram with automatic weapons in one of our units…that we knew we needed to go to the next level.”
That’s how Ela Mezhiborsky, one-time property manager and now co-founder of leading guest screening AI platform Autohost, learned that screening vacation rental guests who book direct is more than a “nice to have” for vacation rental hosts. It’s essential.
Because while creating a direct booking strategy lets you sidestep OTA fees and rules, it also means going without their profile verification tools and background checks, and significantly increasing the risk of major issues.
Faced with such risk, reliable and robust guest screening tools—such as Autohost, which integrates with Hospitable.com—are more important than ever.
That’s why in this post we’ve interviewed Ela for her expert tips on:
- Why it’s so crucial to screen vacation rental guests
- Why guest screening is especially important for direct bookings
- How to ensure your guest screening doesn’t negatively impact the guest experience
- The essential checks that your guest screening strategy must include
Why is it crucial to screen vacation rental guests?
Ela’s story may sound dramatic, but screening vacation rental guests isn’t just about preventing serious criminal activity, fake ID use, or fraud (though it does that too).
It’s also about damage prevention, identifying guests who could be potentially problematic or disrespectful, and stopping them before they even arrive. Ela calls these “gray area” guests.
“We’re not talking crazy criminal activity or fraud, but just problematic guests,” she explains. “So, parties, rule compliance, bringing in a subwoofer [loud bass speaker], smoking in the unit, trashing the place, vandalism, things like that.”
Screening guests before they check in isn’t about causing friction with guests or declining reservations. It’s about keeping everyone safe, including your neighbors or other guests (as well as your property and the reputation of your business).
Why is guest screening especially important for direct bookings?
In many ways, direct bookings can be excellent for business, as they build better relationships with guests, bring in more direct bookings and better reviews, and cut out the fees and limitations of the “middle man” OTAs.
But sidestepping OTAs also means sidestepping their background checks and security processes, meaning more of the risk falls on you personally if something happens.
While OTA checks are notoriously poor—some, such as Vrbo, don’t even require photo ID or verification before a guest can book—they enable the host to vet guest profiles and previous reviews.
As a result, guests may also deliberately target vacation rentals that enable direct bookings, so they can purposefully sidestep even the basic checks and paper trails that OTAs demand.
As Ela explains: “We had a great revenue stream without paying the OTAs, but that brought with it abuse and fraud. Local gangs were able to identify, ‘Hey, you’re skipping the requirements that OTAs need and therefore I can go directly, and get away with it’.
“That’s when you get into potential criminal activity. Stolen credit cards, fake identities…drug smuggling, escort services and sex trafficking…money laundering, weapons…all really, really scary, big words. It’s not common in hospitality, but when it does happen, it’s detrimental to your business.”
That’s why having a guest screening strategy in place is particularly important when increasing direct bookings, so you can scale your security process as your business evolves.
Does guest screening negatively impact the guest experience?
You might think guests would react badly to a background check, and object to hosts requiring extra ID or information when booking. But genuine, “good” guests are actually likely to welcome the extra step, and see the process as an added note of professionalism.
They will sleep easier knowing that your property is safe and reliable, and managed by a host who genuinely cares about their property and security.
What’s more, tools such as Autohost and Hospitable.com are designed to work together seamlessly and as quickly as possible (within a few minutes), so the guest barely notices the extra steps and experiences no unwelcome friction as part of their booking.
“The entire process is very guest friendly because the worst way to do guest screening is representing yourself as a bouncer,” explains Ela. “For the absolute majority of good guests, it’s just a matter of due diligence, and they’ll pass through with no problems.
“Guests receive a friendly message thanking them for booking, plus a link to complete their reservation on a branded page, to confirm.
“[The message] might even ask if they need help with anything,” adds Ela. “It’s very much guest journey-focused, but it’s collecting details so that we can flag potential risks if needed.
“Guests are usually not alarmed because it’s standard practice these days. It’s there for mutual protection, and offers a more professional experience.”
Ela is clear that the process isn’t designed to “put guests off,” but is more about motivating them to stick to the rules.
“I really discourage the attitude of ‘better safe than sorry,’ such as by almost encouraging cancellations with too many questions, because then you leave money on the table,” she says.
“So we’re saying: Let’s finetune your screening. Make sure you’re safe. For people who are riskier, make sure you do collect what you need, get them to agree to the rules, get a deposit, and make them liable for the stay.
“The more you have on file about them, the more likely they are to be better-behaved guests.”
Essential security checks for vacation rental direct bookings
The key to implementing the most robust security for direct bookings? Baking essential checks into your strategy right from the start.
Creating your direct booking website using a tool such as Hospitable.com Direct, which integrates natively with Autohost, means you can take full advantage of its strong security features without disrupting guests’ booking flow or payment process, or requiring you to bolt on extra checks or website code retrospectively.
Get a direct booking website within minutes!
Hospitable.com Direct is also set to offer extra protection within its service, such as a $5 million insurance damage policy, as well as help with tax compliance and other legal requirements.
Any reliable guest screening strategy must include:
These are checks that Ela describes as “preliminary reservation parameters,” or, to put it another way: “Anything that would replace an operator’s ‘gut feeling’” when it comes to assessing guests, she says.
Soft checks include:
- Asking the guest about their length of stay
- Their locality and phone number
- Requiring guests to read and agree to the house rules (such as “no parties or smoking”)
- Providing a guest list and ID details
These are checks that “go deep and technical,” and use technology to identify risks that a manual or soft check alone might not flag, as Ela explains.
Hard checks may include:
- Taking a selfie to match with ID and run biometric tests
- Social profile scan to check that the identity isn’t fabricated
- Email address checks to make sure it “wasn’t just created three weeks ago,” or is fake
- Phone number verification to check for fake numbers or prepaid ‘burner’ phones
- Verification to ensure a guest’s story checks out, for example, if they’re saying they’re in Chicago, but their IP address is somewhere else
- Device checks to verify if the guest is logging in from a device that has been previously declined for fraud
- Credit card verification to check for previous fraud, declined payments, or cards that don’t match ID
- Sex offender register checks, and even Interpol record checks for international crime
- Credit checks for longer-term stays to ensure guests can pay for their longer stay
The advantage of using a dedicated tool such as Autohost to perform both soft and hard checks, Ela says, is because it ensures the data remains encrypted and safe, and there is no risk to the guest, or to your business when it comes to violating data protection laws.
This is opposed to performing manual, far less secure checking methods—such as asking guests to send photos via text or scans of ID documents via email.
“I would really advise against doing that,” Ela warns. “There are consequences to storing IDs insecurely. Airbnb doesn’t even allow you to store IDs. That’s why I would encourage people to work with an operator that does proper ID verification.”
What happens when a guest is flagged?
Most of the time, guests won’t get flagged. If guests pass the checks, they’ll become “verified” automatically, and get an Autohost verified stamp on your dashboard.
But if they do get flagged, the process is simple too.
- The guest is flagged, and an icon on the dashboard identifies a possible issue
- You or a member of your team asks more questions or manually digs deeper
- You decide whether to host them or not
For example, sometimes it might be an innocent “name mismatch,” where a husband has tried to book with his wife’s card, or sometimes it’s a genuine security issue, such as someone trying to pay with cards that are reported as stolen.
The guest isn’t sent lots of intrusive questions, or hit with an unfriendly “declined” message, and their experience is still smooth throughout.
And if a genuine issue is flagged? You’ve caught it in time and the tool has done its job.
As Ela explained in a recent Hospitable masterclass: “The ones that do mind the extra ‘friction’ are the ones worth looking into. Some of them could be legitimate, but some are exactly why you’re screening. You don’t want them to stay with you.
“Depending on the level of risk you’re comfortable with, you can decide to host them or not. Maybe you do, but just monitor noise all night. Maybe that’s worth it for you because they’re paying a lot. It’s about being aware of your people versus profit balance.”
Guest screening: An essential part of your direct booking strategy
It makes perfect sense to build a direct booking strategy so you’re not reliant solely on OTAs. But sacrificing property security doesn’t have to be part of that strategy.
Incorporate guest screening into your strategy from the outset, and use an automated tool that integrates with your guest-friendly booking system—such as Autohost with Hospitable.com Direct.
That way, you can ensure top-notch security without any complicated technology, time-consuming manual checks, or a poor guest experience.
As Ela summarizes: “When it comes to direct bookings, you should absolutely do it. But just do it responsibly.”
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