People hate surprises

Brad and Beth decided to move to Seattle in the summer of 2015. Brad had a great opportunity at UW, and I could not blame him for wanting to pursue that. For now, at least, the dream of the family compound was seriously on hold. (And I will continue to think of it as being on hold, thank you very much.) I had never given much thought to any other plan for the cottage and was likely lamenting my new without-them reality when my oldest son Drew said brightly, “Why don’t you try airbnb?” He gave me examples of airbnbs he and Nicole had stayed at recently, telling of the wonderful hosts and the conversations they all had had together. He gave me the boost I needed, then wisely advised: Make sure there are no surprises. Whatever you do, make sure people know what they are getting into regarding those stairs. What he really meant was: Don’t withhold any information that is potentially problematic. 

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Ah, yes, the very odd staircase that leads to the sleeping area. The cottage is small and the staircase is steep enough that Bradley built the treads with curvy cut-outs so that your knees don’t bump the next step as you ascend and your descending foot easily lands on the next tread. There would be guests who for various reasons could not negotiate these, or would not want to. One of my guests went so far as to call them a “sobriety test,” and people who get up frequently at night might not want to deal with a peculiarity. (I do now keep a bottle of water and two glasses at the bedside for those who get thirsty in the night, but the bathroom is still on the first level. It’s through that white door you see in the photo.) You would not want people to arrive and then find they cannot get to the bed built for two; the option of the first floor trundle with its two single beds may not be appealing. I get that.

Drew said I needed a good picture of those stairs. Several friends who are better at photography than I am offered to come take pictures so that the images on the web site would have a professional look. Their generosity notwithstanding, I was impatient to get the ball rolling once I decided on this venture, and the not-so-terrible camera that lives on my phone did the job, at least initially. I did not realize until months later that the casement windows were open when I took the outdoor photos (and that is the one that is on the airbnb site and on this one – consistency may count for something) but the mission was accomplished, and the first set of images successfully were uploaded. During that photo-taking session, I specifically recall considering the best angle for the photo of the stairs. Let there be no doubt. This is not your run-of-the-mill way to get to an upper floor.

One can only imagine the dedicated, hardworking team at airbnb headquarters, basking in their amazing San Francisco office space, reviewing as-yet-unlisted listings (“Hey, Sara, did you ever see stairs like this?”), which is to say I suspect that invisible team felt the same way about this staircase as Drew did.  I did not ask them to position the photo so prominently on my cottage page, but they did. (I can’t think it ended up there randomly.) In any case it is impossible to miss when you open the page and begin to scroll down to read more. The photo’s position is a little like your mom or dad or favorite family friend giving the kind of advice you know is important using a blatant preface: Pay attention now — this is important. The prominence of the image serves plainly as the blatant preface and gently, subtly yet strongly speaks volumes: Make sure you are comfortable with this image. There is no other option for gaining access to the second story.

I love being on hand to welcome my guests. I find ways to finagle my schedule and most of the time am on site when they arrive. Doing the welcome spiel and tailoring it depending on the interest of the guest, time of day and previously expressed circumstances or concerns is one of my favorite parts of this whole gig. For me it involves the meet and greet, the presentation of place and the explanation of must-knows. Part of my spiel is “Right foot first up the stairs.” Starting with your right foot, and having to tell yourself to do so is not hard and possibly adds to the overall charm of the cottage — one more piece that is unexpected and unconventional, but totally works. But I would be subjecting my guests to disappointment and possibly to too big a challenge if I did not tell them ahead of time.

In the grander scheme of life, people do not want to deal with unexpected inconveniences. If something is potentially an inconvenience, or could remotely be construed as an inconvenience, it is best to tell them ahead of time. Whatever is a need-to-know, say it up front. Naturally, individual judgment complicates everything. What bothers me might not bother you. I speak as someone who does not like or eat nuts of any kind.  I am not allergic, it is simply beyond me what people see in them, taste in them, like about them. I just don’t get it. (For this reason, I am sorry to tell you nut-lovers, I also do not put nuts in the cookies I bake. You just have to deal with that.)

I also do not watch television except on occasion. Before the cottage was listed on airbnb, a neighbor stayed in it for a few days and suggested that the lack of a TV would be a detriment to potential guests. This was a quandary. The cottage has no ideal place for a television (just look at those pictures in the first post – where would it go anyway?), plus I know for a fact that not everyone feels the way this neighbor does. I myself had been firmly planted in the thanks-but-no-thanks camp regarding television ever since my best undergraduate prof told us that someday we too would watch television just the way our parents did, despite any lofty ideas about having better things to do (“We’ll see about that,” the little voice in my head had said — and thank you very much, Peter Sandman).

On the other hand, maybe some guests would want a TV. Not everyone, after all, had been challenged by Peter. I had input on both sides. Finally it seemed best to go with my gut, but make sure there are no surprises. Leave the cottage aesthetically pleasing (i.e.without the large black screen in the scene) but explain the lack and offer to put a TV in there if someone did want it.

In the country, out here on my gravel road, cable has not come. Stations are limited. But hey, I offered. So far, not a single person has asked me for a TV. Quite a few have thanked me for not having one. We just want to play real board games, they say. We just want to listen to the crickets. We just want to talk to each other. Again I say: Thank you, Peter.

There may not be a TV at the cottage but, assuming you read through the details of my listing, you knew that. It is not a surprise. Whether conveyed through image or words, people want to know what they are getting. This observation is not limited to airbnb. None of the observations I will discuss are limited to airbnb. Parallels are everywhere in this world.

In business, an entire segment of the workforce exists to make sure that the parties involved in any operation or transaction know what they are getting and in fact get it. Words, those squirmy, slippery little buggers that are not always clear no matter how hard we try, comprise the contracts that attempt to clarify the details of our dealings. We had best not promise precision parts if we do not have access to the machinery to make said parts, the labor to build them, the materials specific to the job and the management to pull the order together. We had best not promise confidentiality when members of our team don’t take non-disclosure clauses seriously.

In relationships, we find ourselves annoyed, threatened or worse if vital information is not disclosed in a timely way. We generally don’t want to be with someone who is, in fact, already with someone else. We don’t want to show up for a party with a bottle of wine and having already had a drink or two when our hosts don’t drink at all. We don’t want to find out about an important meeting when, well, you know. Could you — could someone — have told me?

While it’s true that what matters to me may not matter at all to you, the disclosing of certain information will be not only helpful and appreciated, it will keep you from getting into trouble. I don’t want bad reviews any more than I want to sign bad contracts or enter bad relationships. The understanding of “People hate surprises” plays hand in hand with one of the guiding principles of success — preparedness. As an airbnb host, this means be prepared in every way you can think of, and in turn prepare your guests.

One way to do this is to say or present the same thing multiple times in multiple ways including words, image, action or any combination thereof. (Again I thank Peter, who suggested that saying something three times in three different ways would do it.) If you stand too close to me (unless I want you to stand close to me) I can tell you to back up either in spoken words (unlikely since I am not the confrontational type) or I can myself back up (count on it). Backing up increases the distance between us and accomplishes the goal of establishing appropriate space without my having to verbalize my discomfort. If you live with me, I will tell you sooner or later to keep the door at the bottom of the spiral staircase closed (unless of course you are going through it!). This has to do with my lack of affection for the sometimes large arachnids, creepy no matter what their size, that may be living down there and are more likely come up here if that door is open. The nonverbal I have adopted here is a sign on bright pink paper taped to both sides of the door, with the polite imperative: Please close this door (which for the record was pitifully effective with Bradley, who always had better things to do than close a door).

My inability to convey my wish effectively to Bradley should in no way deter anyone from expressing (or trying to express) what’s important in multiple ways. In the case of the cottage stairs there are no fewer than three means of communication. The online text includes a plain description, the web page includes the prominent photograph and my introductory spiel always includes the “right foot first” part. Lack of a TV is plainly stated and plainly visible when you are in the cottage. I don’t bring it up unless the guest does, and usually they say something like “Oh, I’m so glad you don’t have a TV.”

Deception is a bad idea most of the time. The exception that comes to mind is when a friend gets a haircut she is really excited about but which actually looks awful, and you simply say, “You got your hair cut!” with the most genuine smile you can muster, and leave it at that. If you are unable to quickly steer the conversation to other topics, you may be forced to say something along the lines of a compliment, which you know to be untrue. Technically this is deception. I know it’s mild, but still. The best way to avoid trouble is to be straight with people. Present what you have, who you are, what you offer, what’s important to you. To the best of your ability, be clear. Make sure people know what they are getting.

Some thoughts on airbnb

The popularity of airbnb should surprise no one. The last fifty years have seen conventionality thrown to the wind: the women’s movement, homeschooling, the internet. There has to be another way — this era seems to shout from the rooftops — to do the same basic things humans have always needed to do: get along fairly, educate children, connect easily with others or get information …and of course, find a safe, welcoming, affordable place to sleep overnight. We all need to sleep. Every night. Somewhere.

Whether to family, friends, or friends of friends, I always loved being a host. I can honestly say I have changed the sheets in a guest bedroom uncountable times. My job as the director of quality and communication at a Forbes five-star resort has given my passion for hospitality room to fly on a daily basis. But it wasn’t until I posted my little cottage on airbnb and began having frequent guests that I saw some universal truths playing out before my eyes, and now I want to share some of them. For example:

  • People hate surprises — they want to know what they are getting into, so a photo of   the very unusual stairs in my cottage is displayed prominently.
  • People love surprises — they want a little mystery, so I do not post a picture of the view from the wall of windows. I would rather they walk in and say, “Wow, we weren’t expecting that!”
  • One size does not fit all, thus the endless variety of options available to overnight travelers. And thanks to vrbo and airbnb for making these options readily available.
  • Small acts of kindness go a long way…
  • You never know what’s around the next bend…

The engaging, heartening and amusing stories behind these truths and some more will shed one host’s perspective on this relatively new and somewhat controversial enterprise, and further and strengthen the conversations taking place. 

First I want to give a little background about my cottage, then talk about what I have learned from it.

How the Charming Cottage on Golden Hill Came to Be

In the spring of 2011, I purchased ten wooded acres in the lovely town in Virginia with a three(tiny)-bedroom, 40-year-old modular house on it. I called it my “little house in the big woods.” In front of the house was an open patch maybe 60 feet across where the sun could get through; besides that, there were trees and more trees. The driveway is long and flat, but the land slopes off both sides. On one side it’s a pretty dramatic hill. If you cut a swath through the trees and had a good snowfall and started at the top with skis on, you’d fly down that hill. Once you drive the 900’ or so driveway to the house, and then realize how the land drops off, it feels a bit like you are on a kind of peninsula, a teardrop-shaped ridge that makes you feel like king (or queen, as may be) of the hill.

The property had come on the market in February, meaning the leaves were down, meaning I could see from the open sunny patch northward to the whole range of the Southwest Mountains. My friend and realtor Stuart Stevens had grown up in this town and knew each bump of that range by name, and spoke each one with affection, as if it were a dear friend whom he knew well. I suspect he did.

My sons Bradley and Lincoln and I had had a kind of dream: Find a beautiful piece of land and build a place that the whole family could use, enjoy, come to, leave from, consider home. We had looked throughout the winter at many lovely sites, but none grabbed us until this Keswick property came on the market for the first time in nearly forty years. Within minutes of standing on that hill, I made up my mind to make an offer and had no doubt this was a good decision.By the first of May, we were in.

Many improvements were to come, but the first was a chicken coop designed after one very fine image in my memory. When my children were very young, I brought them one summer to the Eiband farm on a road called Kaisersmad in the picturesque town of Betzigau in the Allgau region of Germany. The Bauernhof has belonged to the Eiband family for generations, and I became connected to it when the eldest daughter and I had decided to be pen pals when we were each 12 years old; thus began a lifelong friendship. Claudia’s endearing father made a habit that summer of holding  Lincoln’s hand, then three and a half, and together walking to collect eggs from their coop. I was smart enough one day to take the photo that would one day serve as the image to duplicate.

Here’s Lincoln at age 3 1/2, walking with Claudia’s dad, Adolf Eiband, at their farm in Betzigau, Germany, in the summer of 1991.

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If I ever have a chicken house, I had said to myself, it will look like theirs. Lincoln and Bradley were not overly pleased to have to construct the small gable that serves no purpose besides its resemblance to the Eiband version, but they figured it out. Using poplar (I think it was poplar) cut from the property and milled with Bradley’s Alaskan saw mill, they worked together to erect the chicken coop of my dreams. Its red metal roof was the icing on the cake. There could simply be no better chicken house for me. I look at it and smile, which is all you can ask of a chicken coop.

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Here’s Rise, Lincoln and Julia’s daughter, age 2 1/2 in the spring of 2015, heading out to visit the red hens. I framed this picture and hung it in the cottage.

The cottage was next. This fell to Bradley and Beth because Lincoln and Julia got married, making things both harder and easier. Labor hours would necessarily increase for Brad and Beth, but control of the design, pace and construction allowed their creative energy great opportunity. And in the end the kudos for the cottage go to them. Let me repeat: The kudos go to Brad and Beth.

In any creative process, the project is not limited to the hours spent physically, overtly engaged in it. Rather, for a time you live and breathe it. Ideas come while driving, showering or drifting off to sleep. Sticky points gnaw at you for days or weeks and suddenly the solution appears. Friends and family members arrive to visit and each in some way gives a hand — some hold the other end while you lift a wall or settle a beam in place, some feed the bank of ideas that you will draw from on a given aspect of the design, some simply admire and thereby encourage. All contribute to the ultimate product. But Brad and Beth did the lion’s share. One recent guest said in his review:

The cottage matched the listing description. However, the listing could not tell the charm, the beauty, and warmth of this wonderful place. The cottage had huge windows which opened up to the green forest. This is a place to connect with nature.

The whir of the planer and the buzz of the table saw in the workshop underneath my bedroom became commonplace for those two years or so, and I realized I am one of those people who feels like all is well with the world when the sound of power equipment is going in the background. Saturday morning meetings over coffee to catch up on the latest and the upcoming became commonplace too. I made some big breakfasts in those days, thinking that of course I had to provide sustenance to these hard working, wonderful and amazing people who just kept going on this project one piece at a time.

I took pictures to document the process — not as many as I now wish I had, but enough to make an overview. In the cottage is a looseleaf binder with photos showing the construction; here are a few:


laying the foundation (note chickens behind Brad — all that dirt was dug out by hand as well)

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raising the first wall – that’s Beth’s dad Tim Peery helping on the left (thank you, Tim!)

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resting a moment (yes, that is a chicken hat, isn’t she cute?)

One set of photos I unfortunately cannot find shows the cherry French door when it was still laid out in pieces on the basement floor. I know that photo is somewhere (probably buried in a phone that no longer works), but in the end the door speaks for itself. Bradley made the door — designed it, chose the wood, planed the lengths, trimmed, mitered, joined, finished.

People look at it and see a door. What I see — beyond the research on how to build a french door, beyond the trip to the guy he found (on craigslist, no doubt) who had the best quality wood at the best price, beyond the image of planks of wood subsequently hanging out the back of their white Civic (named Sensei), beyond the pieces carefully positioned at the pre-assembly stage on the basement floor — is the intelligence behind it all. I’m allowed to say that because he’s my son, and besides, he’s the one who didn’t read until he was nine. He doesn’t get extra credit for that delay, but it is kind of remarkable. That’s a whole nother story though, which I will get to one of these days.

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here’s that cherry door before it had a deck in front of it

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and getting near the end, stonework all around the foundation

I do remember when the guy came from the glass company to measure for the cottage windows, including the trapezoid-shaped ones, and when they came, the trapezoids were all wrong and had to be recut (at their expense, not mine). Bradley said, “Mom, it’s basic geometry.” Perhaps. But the door — the door is not basic. The door is a peek at a young man who doesn’t let the fact that he has never done a thing stand in the way of doing it. He just figures things out. He is first a thinker and then a doer. He invested in great equipment (all somehow at good prices) and the best and most highly recommended books on carpentry so that he might tap into the expertise of those who have already figured some other things out. It was a joy to watch him.

Beth is his perfect counterpart, God bless her. She worked her day job all day at her computer, somehow shutting out whatever Brad was doing nearby. She walked their dog Zadie, and took me along, almost every day when I got home at 5ish. Oh, how I enjoyed those walks! Beth is truly one of the world’s best listeners. She is sweet, balanced, and confident and a perfect match for Bradley’s intelligence and gumption. And she somehow made me feel like she actually enjoyed my company, which she deserves a great deal of credit for. Understand that after working all day, after a mile and a half walk with me and then a bit of supper, she started with whatever needed to be sanded or primed or relocated or organized or painted or planted. That’s right, I haven’t even begun to talk about the massive garden they planted too!

They worked and they worked. Joyfully. Skillfully. Steadily. The accomplishments of these two are truly mind-boggling, and their attitude is inspiring. I am forever grateful not only for this gift that they left me, but also that I can share it with others who enjoy it so much. I especially love it when cottage guests give them a shout out. Here are some more comments that have come from my guests:

We both agree, the Cottage at Golden Hill takes the cake as the most unique, comfortable, peaceful & relaxing AirBnB we have ever been lucky enough to stay at!

Her son Bradley did such a phenomenal job with all the construction of this beautiful house.

The views, wood burner and floor to ceiling windows were my favorite features of the cabin.

The pictures do not do it justice…the space and view are beautiful.

Charming is an understatement, this cozy cottage (built by her talented son) is full of character.

The cottage is beautiful – looks just like the pictures – amazing craftsmanship!

The cottage is incredibly charming and cozy.

The cabin itself was amazing! Her son and his wife built it themselves and its beautiful.

The cottage was even more beautiful than we had hoped. The craftsmanship was exquisite!

Easy to find and yet tucked away in the woods, this cabin is elegantly cozy and gorgeous…completely designed and hand-built by her son, who is indeed a master craftsman. He and his girlfriend labored over every beautiful detail for 3 years. As an architect and interior designer, I really appreciated the quality craftsmanship and design…the way you can see forest views out of EVERY window and the little touches like the beautifully finished flooring, cherry shelving and kitchen island. (Hi Brad! Your Mom told us you read these. You and Beth rock! We were blown away and inspired.)

The house is perfect. The location and craftsmanship are wonderful.

The house is stunning and very comfy and the location is beautiful and peaceful.

Floor to ceiling windows meant tons of natural light, but it felt very private thanks to its orientation toward the woods. We had a great time sipping coffee on the patio watching the chickens peck around the yard.

Great location and beautiful crafted home.

The home was more beautiful than we expected. It was gorgeously designed and built by her son…which made us marveled at it more.

we just sat in awe at the craftmanship of your sons little home. (architect or engineer?) your chicken coop may have convinced my new wife we can have one

The cottage was just as described and pictured. It is a work of art, set in the woods and very peaceful.

This house is so awesome! The pictures were not even able to capture how beautiful this cottage was. Patricia’s son built it by hand, which makes it even more unique and special. Tiny-home fanatics (like my boyfriend and I) will DIE when they see this.

Patricia’s son is something of a Renaissance man and built the cottage and most everything in it with skilled hands and utter attention to detail.

Your son is so talented and you’re very generous to share such a gift with the airbnb community. We couldn’t get over the quality of craftsmanship evident everywhere.

Patricia’s Son and his girlfriend built an amazing cottage that is Cozy and peaceful.

We were blown away by the beautiful windows and the view of the mountains! I did not expect the house to have that. Perhaps you would want to include a picture of this on your page? It was our favorite part of the house. 🙂

Patricia’s cottage was wonderful – everything we expected and then some! It was cute, quaint, and absolutely perfect. It is a a beautiful property nestled back in the woods.

This cabin is the cutest! I can’t believe they built it themselves.

This space is a true gem. Bright, open and extremely comfortable, we didn’t want to leave. In fact, we are planning a time to come back for a whole week to sink in and enjoy the stunning architecture of the cottage and it’s peaceful surroundings.

The cottage itself is just beautiful, with floor to ceiling windows overlooking the woods, and maintains the perfect balance between quaint/rustic and modern. My husband absolutely loved the wood burning stove, too– despite 65 degree weather, he kept it going all weekend and it was wonderfully cozy!

My great thanks to Rob O’Connor for the following images which give you some idea of the finished product.

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