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What You’ve Always Wanted To Know About Holiday Rental Agencies I

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October 8, 2010 Culture & People, Visitors 4 Comments

I found that working in a holiday rental agency was a fantastic way to get to know Italy and the local culture. My account from behind the scenes reveals what goes on behind closed doors, tells you what you need to know about the agency before you book your holiday apartment, and explains how the apartment owners can make the crucial difference between an ok agency and a great one.

Contracts don’t mean much

One of my most memorable experiences consists of a telephone conversation I had with one of the apartment owners. I was trying to convince her not to cancel all of our bookings for the current year, which she wanted to do because one of her family members was moving to town, and needed an apartment. You could imagine that we had about 20 bookings in this apartment, one of them starting in two days, and while moving guests to different apartments is a nightmare for the agent (especially when nothing else is available), it is worse for the guests. Of course, our contractual agreement with the apartment owners covered such situations. But when I reminded her of the contractual terms associated with sweeping cancellations, she said that this was the first she had heard of it, and that she would not accept it. She told me straight out that she “didn’t read any of these contracts” and even tried to reason with me: “What, do you think I am stupid? Wasting my time like that! If I have a problem like this, I will cancel, and there is nothing you can do about it.” Indeed.

Clearly, we had not spent enough time getting to know this owner. If we had, we may have either noticed that working with her was a liability because she routinely displayed such behaviour, or she may have started to care enough about us for her not to cancel her bookings with us. Either way, this illustrates how owners need to be selected very carefully. The agency should treat the owners with whom they end up working with, as friends, cultivating a personal relationship which in turn helps “insure” the agency against any foul play on the owners’ part.


The conversations with apartment owners about the pricing of their holiday apartment were also insightful. Many owners, of course, had a good understanding of how much they could and should charge for their apartment, in relation to the size, quality and location of the apartment. Other owners would set prices based on other factors completely: “You know, if I earn enough with this apartment, I can continue to live in town/go on holiday/pay for my children’s education. Yes, the price sounds a little high, but nowadays some people will pay anything to come and stay in Rome, and it does look quite good on the pictures. Don’t you think that at least some people will book?”

All agencies have their own practices on pricing. Some just accept any price for any apartment, and let the natural booking process take its course. In other words, if you are willing to pay 200 EUR a night for an apartment that is described as tiny, and noisy, with basic furnishing, it is entirely your own fault. Other agencies will prefer not to hurt their reputation in this way, and will do their best to offer their guests real value for money. This is more time-consuming and difficult, since it leads to discussions with most owners about the price of their apartment. Typically, such agencies will refuse to list the apartment until an agreement on the price has been reached which they believe reflects the quality, size and location of the apartment.

But unfortunately, there are only few agencies who will estimate the fair price of an apartment and set this price as a condition to work with the apartment. With many other agencies, the price of an apartment is more a reflection on the apartment owner’s financial situation, or even greed, than on the actual quality of the apartment.

Beware of huge discounts: Agencies which practice fair pricing can generally not offer such discounts, because accepting a much lower price for the apartment will not allow them to cover the costs of cleaning, check-in, etc. A large discount may also mean that in turn, the agency will save on cleaning costs, and you will get an apartment that has only superficially been dusted, as opposed to one that has thoroughly been cleaned. Chances are that when your hot water suddenly runs out and you can’t find the switch, no one will pick up the phone. The attitude here is clearly to do “anything” to get bookings. In this case, “anything” means lowering the price substantially, but also offering a much subpar product, without this clearly being stated.

The crucial role of agencies

The above illustrates the crucial role of the agencies. An agent with foresight, business sense, and a conscience will take his/her time and not only choose the apartments carefully, but also the owners. For the guests, but also for the reputation of the agency in the long run, it is important that the owners can be expected to stick to basic rules of conduct, to not routinely cancel bookings at short notice, and to keep their apartment in acceptable condition. In Italy, this generally works over personal connections only. The agent needs to invest time to keep a friendly relationship with the owners, which takes up a lot of time and is an investment in itself.

Obviously, a good agency will also conduct their business ethically, which means: Firstly, the advertisement must reflect the actual product exactly. For this to be possible, the agent must select the apartments and their owners with care. Secondly, as mentioned above, the price must reflect the size, quality and location of the apartment. Thirdly, the agent must honor the booking contract agreed upon with guests, and should not cancel shorter bookings in favour of longer bookings. Fourth, the agent takes responsibility for his bookings, and will follow up if the client (or owner) experiences any difficulties. Fifth, a discounted booking must still result in standard cleaning, check-in, and availability of the agent throughout the stay in case of difficulties. This list is rather basic, and it could go on, but it coveres the main issues that I encountered during my time working for a holiday rental agency in Rome.

The owners are everything

A “good” owner is invaluable. Over the years, I have worked with owners who were honest, cordial and reliable, who did not mind waiting in the apartment for hours for a delayed guest, who enthusiastically showed the guest around the neighborhood, or bought basic food items for the guests even though that was not part of the contract: In short, they were filled with true concern for their guests, and pride for what they did. Such an owner does not only heighten the possibility that the apartment is in good condition, and that the guests will feel at home, but can also make the difference between a good and fantastic stay for the guests. This is why it is an agency’s best bet to get to know their owners, and then build a good working relationship with them. With the right owners, once such a relationship is established, each guest sent by the agency is treated as the owner’s personal guest, which is absolutely priceless. In this sense, while the agency can lay the foundation to a smooth stay for their guests, it is the owner who can transform their stay into a truly great experience.

How can you find a “good” agency when you are looking to rent a holiday apartment in Rome? Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Get a feel for their business sense. A good agent will not just tell you what you want to hear: If you ask, “I really want a quiet apartment”, a good agent will tell you the truth about the apartment in which you are interested. He/she will explain which apartments are quiet, and for which reasons, even if it means that you’ll end up booking with someone else.

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Currently there are "4 comments" on this Article:

  1. Eric says:

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

    Interesting Stuff. Very useful

  2. GC says:

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    But the most crucial part was left out: how did it end with the owner who canceled the bookings despite her contractual obligations? Was she sued or you basically gave up without any consequences to her? In the latter case, you are as guilty of disservice to the clients as she was.

    • Rebecca says:

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      Good question. The owner wasn’t sued, which is pretty normal for small claims – costing more than the damage and taking 3-5 years. Unfortunately Italy ranks number 155 in the world (only 28 from the bottom) for enforcing contracts through the courts. Just above Pakistan, Kosovo and Afghanistan. Below Togo and Columbia and most other developing nations.

      I didn’t have any decision power for this kind of situation within the agency – just worked there, but I guess it was decided the resources should be put towards finding solutions for all the customers rather than fighting the country’s culture and processes.

  3. Peter Hawes says:

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    Helpful article, thanks.

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