Earlier in the year, it seemed like maybe, just maybe, the worst of the COVID-19 outbreak would be behind us come summer. But alas, cases have skyrocketed over the past few weeks, and now states are imposing additional restrictions in an effort to help curb the outbreak. Specifically, some states are requiring visitors to quarantine upon arrival or travelers to hunker down at home for 14 days upon getting back from out-of-state vacations.
From a public health perspective, those mandates make sense, but they put travelers in a tough position. Throw in the fact that some people may be afraid to follow through with their travel plans given the string of new COVID-19 hotspots that emerged in July, and it certainly makes for a tricky situation if you own a vacation rental.
On the one hand, it pays to be flexible with regard to cancellations, especially when the reasoning behind them is understandable. On the other, you might need the income from your vacation property to make a living and pay your own expenses, so there may be a limit to how flexible you can be. The solution, therefore, may be to strike a middle ground.
A guest-focused approach to vacation rental cancellations
As a vacation property owner, there's much to be gained by letting renters cancel their stays without penalty in the coming weeks or months. First of all, the last thing you need is a traveler from a COVID-19 hotspot coming to your home and possibly putting your cleaning staff and future guests at risk (and if you're the cleaning staff, then it's your own health on the line). Secondly, newly imposed restrictions could make it impossible for some travelers to stick to their original plans, and you don't want to be the property owner who refuses to budge in light of that.
Therefore, it's important to have a flexible cancellation policy that you also use to your advantage. If you're going to accommodate cancellations, do so graciously, but ask your guests to please recommend your property to other people who may not have the same travel constraints or to leave you positive feedback if your home is listed on a site like Airbnb or VRBO. The nicer you are, the more goodwill you'll build, and the more likely those guests who canceled will be to book another stay at your property in the future.
On the other hand, there's a difference between being flexible and being taken advantage of. What you don't have to do is allow guests to cancel the night before they're supposed to arrive at your property (the one exception being a last-minute positive COVID-19 test, which you'd have every right to ask for proof of). Rather, allow guests to cancel provided they've given you a week's notice, or two weeks' notice, so you can try to rebook those dates. That's certainly not unreasonable.
Also, if you employ a housekeeper or cleaning service who stands to lose out financially if guests cancel, you can make it clear in your policy that all funds will be returned for last-minute cancellations minus a cleaning fee. That way, you're not hurting your outsourced help, but you're also not putting yourself in a situation where you feel compelled to pay those people in the absence of rental income.
Ultimately, now's a very difficult time to own a vacation home, and you may have some tricky situations to navigate in the coming months. Do your best to put your guests first without putting an undue burden on yourself. The better a job you do of building a solid reputation, the more likely you are to wind up happily busy once the pandemic ends and travel becomes a much less complicated endeavor.