Imagine if you could make your vacation rental not just a place to stay, but a sanctuary of safety and comfort for families with children on the spectrum. 

Suzanne Hacker, a vacation rental business coach, shares her journey of creating spectrum-friendly rentals that go beyond the norm. From extra locks on doors to calming colours and sensory-friendly lighting, Suzanne’s insights will open your eyes to a whole new level of inclusive hosting. Join her at the Welcoming All virtual summit on inclusive hosting, where she and other experts will share practical tips to enhance guest experience and increase direct bookings. Discover how being spectrum-friendly is more than just a niche – it’s a powerful way to attract guests who are actively seeking accommodation that meets their specific needs. Don’t miss out on this opportunity to turn your vacation rental into a haven for all.

The more that we can embrace things, people that are looking for that help with their vacation will come and stay with you and they will come direct because they are doing the research. – Suzanne Hacker

In this episode, you will be able to:

My special guest this week is Suzanne Hacker.

Specializing in vacation rental business coaching, Suzanne Hacker is a seasoned professional with a wealth of experience in real estate investment and property management. Her expertise extends to creating spectrum-friendly accommodations, driven by a genuine commitment to inclusive hospitality. Drawing from practical insights gained through firsthand experience in hosting vacation rentals, Suzanne offers valuable perspectives on enhancing the safety and comfort of accommodations for guests with cognitive disabilities. With a focus on implementing practical solutions, such as additional door locks and mindful interior design elements, Suzanne’s approach underscores her dedication to improving the guest experience for a diverse range of travelers. As she joins the podcast, listeners can anticipate gaining valuable knowledge and actionable strategies for making their vacation rentals more spectrum-friendly from Suzanne’s wealth of expertise.

Connect with Suzanne:

Website: www.welcomingwow.com

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/welcomingwow

Join Suzanne and Lorraine’s 2-day FREE Virtual Event that talks about managing your STR, getting more direct bookings and making your short term rental properties inclusive and accessible. Learn more details here: www.welcoming-all.com

FREE GUIDE: 10 Ways to Drive Guests to your Website instead of Airbnb: https://directbookingsuccess.com/10-ways-to-drive-guests-to-your-website-instead-of-airbnb/

Show notes are available at: https://directbookingsuccess.com/podcast/

Follow Jenn on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/directbookingsuccess

Join Jenn’s free Facebook group – the Marketing Hub For Hospitality: https://www.facebook.com/groups/marketinghubforhospitality


00:00:00 - Jenn Boyles

Hello, and welcome to another episode of the direct booking success podcast. I'm Jennn Boyles, your host.Thank you for being here today. Today I have Suzanne Hacker with me now. Suzanne is a vacation rental business coach, and part of her business is specializing in helping people with spectrum friendly rentals. Welcome, Suzanne.

00:00:21 - Suzanne Hacker

Thank you so much for having me on. I appreciate it.

00:00:27 - Jenn Boyles

Oh, it's great. I'm really excited to talk to you today because this is not a topic that we talk about very often, spectrum friendly rentals. And I'm excited to dig into it and learn more about it. But let's start with your journey. How did you get into short term rentals?

00:00:44 - Suzanne Hacker

Well, I had always wanted to have a rental for some odd reason, but I had worked for this older couple throughout all of my career, kind of as my side job, like, from the time I was 15, before I could even drive. And I helped them with all sorts of things through the years. First cleaning, helping with a food truck. And they had rentals. They had a lot of rentals. And so that was, like, my first exposure to how to get this passive income from rentals. My now ex husband wasn't quite on the same page, and that's okay. So I had the opportunity after my banking career ended that I could start to invest in real estate. It actually took quite a while before I found the right place, but once I did, I got hooked and started that journey in 2018 with the first rental. It was a two black walk to the beach, and it was a big old Dutch colonial and it was great. I really enjoyed hosting guests and that hospitality side of it, and then having it pay the mortgage and give me a little extra income was also fabulous. So I thought, hey, this is a win win. And then I had a house that I flipped and had a lot of fun fixing that up and doing that. And then I sold them, and I moved to Florida because it was warm in Florida, but it wasn't that long before I was like, oh, my gosh, I miss having a vacation rental. And so I bought another vacation rental and started it again. And that was also when I started my coaching.

00:02:10 - Jenn Boyles

Wonderful. Wonderful. And you're down in Florida, where the sun is always shining most of the time.

00:02:16 - Suzanne Hacker

Love Florida.

00:02:17 - Jenn Boyles

Great. So I really want to get into the spectrum friendly rentals, because this is something I know. I've had Lorraine Woodward on the podcast previously. She's back in Episode 69. And we were talking more about accessibility across all sorts of accessibility issues. And we did talk a bit about autism. And for those on the spectrum, things like that. But can you sort of explain to me what exactly we are talking about? What does it mean by spectrum friendly rental?

00:02:52 - Suzanne Hacker

Yes. In order to do that, I'd love to tell you a quick story. Sure. And that is about a good friend of mine. Her name is Suzanne, and Suzanne has a couple children that are on the spectrum, and one of them is her daughter named Nini. And one night, during family movie night, Nini's on the spectrum. And when she was four years old, severely autistic, nonverbal, she would not be able to tell you her name or her address or anything like that. Then one of the things that a lot of children who are on the spectrum, they have a tendency to elope or escape or wonder, depending on what term you want to use, which really just means they like to get out of the house. And people don't know. I've had a client where she had a son. Her son often escaped and went to the neighbors, let himself into the neighbor's house, and would sit down and watch television. Oh, yeah. So this is really common. So unfortunately, when Ninny was four, during family movie night, she slipped out, and none of the family knew that she had slipped out until it was time to go to bed and brush her. And then it was like, where's Ninny? So my friend Suzanne called her husband first and then was calling 911, and her husband called me and was like, ninny's missing. Can you come and help? And, of course, so I got in my car. I lived ten minutes from their place, which just happened to be across the street from my vacation rental as well. So you race over there. And fortunately, their story ended okay in that somebody saw Nini. Nini had decided to take herself to the beach at. And so she was found at the beach, and the cops were called, of course, but Nini couldn't tell anybody her name or where she belonged. Unfortunately, it was a small town, but I have, unfortunately, heard of too many instances where this can happen, and the stories don't end as well. And I look at a lot of our vacation rentals, mine included in the beginning, where we have our electronic keypad locks on the doors, and we have the little thumb turned inside. And if you know how children love to play with things and how easy it is to unlock those doors, that's the first concern for me, is making sure that a child cannot escape out of that house. Imagine if you have a four year old child who's on the autism spectrum and you're in a strange city and the police don't know you, the neighbors don't know you, and your child goes somewhere. Just think about all of the potential horrific things that could happen. And so for me, the first priority is in adding extra locks to those doors, whether it's your patio door, that front door, whatever, to make sure that at a minimum, a parent would know that that child or somebody had opened the door or unlocked it. And it's really easy and inexpensive things that can be done to just, first of all, make that house safer for children who are on the autism spectrum.

00:05:50 - Jenn Boyles

Wow. Well, I'm really glad that she was found safely because you can just imagine as a mom, my heart was in my throat as you were talking there. My goodness. And I guess something we don't think about. We're thinking about safety and fire and needing to get out of doors quickly. But, yeah, protecting our littlest people, not necessarily children, but people that need that protection. And I can only imagine what it was like if the police found her first and if she's not verbal, how that went. And I just. Oh, you just want to be there to protect her, don't you?

00:06:27 - Suzanne Hacker

Yeah. Little changes that we can make in our vacation rentals don't just help children that are on the autism spectrum. It can help a lot of people who have some cognitive disabilities. If you think about older people with dementia, that you may want to bring your parents or grandparents or whatever with you, so you may be concerned about their memory loss or things like, and that's know, you mentioned Lorraine Woodward, and she's coming rentable and the episode that she was on. So hers also addresses those cognitive disabilities and getting your know, certified as being ready to host guests.

00:07:07 - Jenn Boyles

Yes. And I shared with her that one of the reasons I came back to Canada is because my father's diagnosed with dementia, and so I'm living with him now. So it's a daily issue that we're looking at. And in speaking with her, I realized us going away is going to be quite different now because he will get confused where he is. He won't be familiar. And so finding a vacation rental that can help with those things is going to be so important for my family in the future. But also, I think as the public is getting older, the generations, we're getting older, and our parents and as you said, our grandparents, these things are coming out. So it's a cognitive issue, isn't it?

00:08:00 - Suzanne Hacker

Yes. So it's not just for children that might be on the autism spectrum. It can help with a lot of different areas.

00:08:08 - Jenn Boyles

And so was this story instrumental in getting you to think about this issue, especially with your vacation rental across the street from where they live.

00:08:19 - Suzanne Hacker

What's interesting is that I didn't tie the two together when that happened, and you would have thought that it would, but it didn't. And then I sold that house, and it's still a vacation rental. Somebody else just owns it and runs it as a vacation rental. It wasn't until almost two years ago now. Wow, time flies. But I had just launched my first vacation rental in Florida, and I had a family staying there at the property. And at the time, I would get pings on my watch whenever that lock got locked or unlocked. I don't necessarily do that now, but that can be a bit much. But the app that I had with that lock would alert me, and we can turn those off, fortunately. But at the time, they were one of my first guests in that home, and I knew it was a family, and I knew they had children. Well, then all of a sudden, I started getting the ping that the lock, lock, unlock, lock, unlock, lock. And it's just, I'm like. And all of a sudden, it just smacked me in the face. Like, if that child has autism and it's that easy to unlock the house, my house isn't safe enough. And I was immediately like, I started out, and I just wrote out an outline, and I started researching, and I put, like, a training outline together. And then I sent it to my friend Suzanne, who I mentioned because she was working on getting her ready as a vacation rental. And so I sent it to her and she messaged me back, and she's like, I'm in tears. She's like, I didn't know how I was going to explain, first of all, the extra safety things that we had put into place in our home, but also just the fact that you're bringing awareness and attention to this is huge because it is extremely difficult to travel when you have a child on the autism spectrum. So, like I said, I sat down, I started working on an outline, hired a virtual assistant who's also a special ed teacher, who helped me just complete it, complete that training. And we put together training. It helps vacation rental owners, first of all, to understand what autism is and what some of the challenges are that families with children on the spectrum face. And then we help you to realize that it's about locks, it's about alarms, but it's also about there are certain colors that will trigger children on the spectrum that aren't good colors to have in a vacation rental. It talks about the lighting, because there are certain types of lighting that are very harsh and they're not calming. So it goes through all sorts of things that can be helpful for families with children on the spectrum.

00:10:51 - Jenn Boyles

So can you give us some tips on what we can do as vacation rental property managers and owners? What can we do easy fixes that we can do to our properties to help those that are on the spectrum?

00:11:05 - Suzanne Hacker

Yeah, I would say the very first and most important thing is, you know how hotel rooms have the extra lock toward the top of the door that you slide over? It's not necessarily the chain one anymore, but it's a more durable one. If you don't have those on your exterior doors, please put one in. That's the very first thing. Another thing that we don't often think about is making sure our furniture is anchored to the walls, because children on the spectrum, and even other children, want to climb all over things, and they're very curious. And the difference with the children that are on the spectrum is that they don't have that same fear that maybe a typical three year old or two year old has. So they're going to crawl on it or they're going to try to lift themselves up on it. So anchoring that furniture to the wall is also a really big deal. The other thing is alarms on windows or studio doors. They're really inexpensive and they don't even have to be turned on. But a parent with a child on the spectrum, they will know exactly what it is and how to use it. And it's literally this big. You can see that it's this big, and there's just a little toggle switch. Turn the alarm off, and then it would go off if the door was opened or the window was opened. And they're super easy to install. And then anybody would know if either a child or even an older person had opened that window to try to leave or something. So those are the really big things. I will tell you, the color that should not be used in a vacation rental is the color red. Please don't have red walls because that is a trigger color, unfortunately. It's funny because my mom had her dining room walls. They were red. She had, like, the red accent wall and red in the kitchen. And just this last year, I was like, mom, can we repaint that? And it's not even vacation, Rachel. It's just, it's like you start to realize after you kind of do some of this research, that color can be triggering and to have more calming, neutral, or pink or light blues those are much more calming to really anybody when you start to dig into it. So those would be, like, my top tips. And then my tip to people who are, don't take it the wrong way or don't get offended if somebody moves a piece of furniture or a piece of artwork or something. Like, I have interviewed a lot of parents, and one parent in particular really sticks out in my mind, because they were going to have their first vacation in five years. One of her children is on a spectrum, and she was telling me how difficult it was to find somewhere that they could stay in the first place. And they finally found somewhere, and they were so excited to be going on vacation, but she already knew that she was going to be going into the house before anybody else went in, and she was going to be gathering anything up that her child might be able to grab and could potentially break, and she was going to need to put it somewhere safe. And then her son needed special sleeping arrangements, so they were going to need to move the bed up against the wall. So it's little things like that that don't assume that they just were trying to rearrange your furniture or your decor. They may have a really good reason, and that was to keep it safe from their children or somebody else. So I think that's one of the things that people often are, like, why have they been set up? And it's like they were trying to protect it because they didn't want it to get broken, or they just needed to move that bed over to make room for a special sleeping arrangement that they needed.

00:14:32 - Jenn Boyles

Yeah, I guess it's not being so judgmental about why people have done something. I took my daughter. We were on a vacation. Thankfully, it was one of my clients, so I could explain to her. But we went to stay with her vacation rental in Wales, and for some reason, my daughter decided to redecorate the place. She just moved. She had. Well, I guess it's because she had her own room in this vacation rental, and she just thought this was so cool. She liked it. So she was gathering things from the rest of the house and putting them in her room, and I'm like, okay. Catherine, but we're not supposed to be doing this because it's not our house and she just loved it. I'm like, I'm not going to know where to put everything back. Messaged my client and said, look, I don't know why she did it, but she was making it her own and I'm sorry, there's going to be things in different places. I did my best so I can. See it's a kids thing, isn't it? As well as for those that are on the spectrum and that wandering, I guess that wandering is the real safety concern. And yes, furniture, of course, gets attached to the walls versus safety things on TVs.

00:15:39 - Suzanne Hacker

that was the first thing. I had a new client come on board for co hosting two months ago. I guess now it is. And one of the first. My first visit, and I'm in the house and I'm like, is there a way we can put that tv on the wall or anchor it somehow? It's just little things like that. But you don't necessarily know if you haven't had exposure or experience or kind of heard that message before. So it's just those types of little things. They make these little oven locks that can keep a child from opening the oven. And they're also super inexpensive and super easy. You don't even notice it unless you get to use it, and. But it's really those little things like that. They're super easy.

00:16:22 - Jenn Boyles

The things that you're talking about is almost making me reminisce about baby proofing my house. And you don't really realize the things. You need to do it unless you're in that stage of life and cognitive issues. It's not that something is like a physical disability. It's invisible, isn't it, until you start to communicate with someone and then you go, oh, okay, there's something a bit different or whatever, but it's really interesting, this topic and how we can make things easier for other people. I've had quite a few families come to my vacation rental in England with kids on the spectrum, and a lot of them have brought dogs with them. And I remember one man, he was just so lovely, and he was, you know, just so you know, I've got two kids. They're both on the spectrum, and they both have medium to large sized dogs. Is this a problem? No, I said right off the bat, no, of course not. If they need their dog with them then fine, because I have a boat and it's very different, and for them to be able to experience this, but I have never thought about other ways I could have supported them. But it can be as easy as. Saying yes to an extra dog, can't it?

00:17:43 - Suzanne Hacker

Right. Yeah. That's so interesting. Well, and there are all sorts of little ways and noise canceling headphones, weight blankets, and fidget toys. And these types of things are little extras that can just make people feel a little more comfortable and at home because if they're flying, I don't know if you can carry a weighted blanket. Really? That's a lot that's in your suitcase because they're heavy. Burp. So I do have weighted blankets. If they need to, they can use the weighted blanket. It's got a cover. It washes. Not a big deal. It's just little things like that.

00:18:19 - Jenn Boyles

Yeah. And being spectrum friendly is a niche as the way is being dog friendly or couples only, these are niches that we can really embrace. And this is something that being spectrum friendly can. Something that can help you in your marketing, don't you think? Right?

00:18:39 - Suzanne Hacker

Oh, totally. Yes. Because there are really not very, any, hardly any rentals that would be considered to be spectrum friendly, autism friendly, cognitive friendly. There are going to be more as we continue to discuss the topic. But it's definitely one of those things where there's not very many. And Lorraine has some really good data, even just on accessibility as a whole. And how very few rentals there are around the country in the US that are actually. There's just. There's not enough.

00:19:18 - Jenn Boyles

No. And when you're thinking about the rest of the world with Europe, with smaller, know, combo-ed know, small staircases, Netherlands. Those steep staircases that are like. So there's issues all over the world. So I could imagine the minute we go out of North America, the data goes down as well.

00:19:40 - Suzanne Hacker

Well, the number of children that are being diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum is just becoming more and more like last year, I believe it's like one in 36 children. Well, I know for sure that there is not one in 36 rentals that would be autism friendly. So these families are renting other homes that aren't friendly when they're making do. But how great would it be if they were easily able to pack a property that just had extra little touches that made it more safe and comfortable for them?

00:20:15 - Jenn Boyles

Yeah. And I think if there was a family there that was not on the spectrum, none of these things are intrusive. Not having that red wall. There's going to be no one going, oh, I really wish you had a red wall. Oh, wish that tv could fall on me. These things. It's safe for all, isn't it?

00:20:35 - Suzanne Hacker

Yeah, I agree.

00:20:36 - Jenn Boyles

But talking about it on your website and your listings, talking about the things that you've got there, when people are searching for a vacation rental that can help them with their family, whatever need it is, if you were talking about it and being transparent, it could help someone. What words should we be looking at using?

00:20:57 - Suzanne Hacker

Well, I would say cognitive-friendly would be one of the best ways to say if you are or not. But spectrum friendly is good as well because that is very commonly used with children, that with families who have children with autism spectrum. But it also covers a wide variety of other neurodiverse types of situations. That's what I would say. Cognitive friendly or spectrum friendly just because I wouldn't necessarily say autism friendly just because there are other things that it can be helpful for.

00:21:29 - Jenn Boyles

Yeah, a wider range. Now I do want to ask you about your event that is coming up and it's called welcoming all and it's a virtual summit on inclusive hosting. Can you tell us a bit more about that?

00:21:44 - Suzanne Hacker

Yes, the Welcoming All 2024 inclusive hosting summit. It is a virtual summit. April 6 and 7th is when it is. Tickets are free to attend. We have a fabulous lineup of speakers that I am super excited about, but the cognitive or spectrum friendly topic is being discussed. But that's just one of many. Like we have somebody that will represent the black community. We're going to talk about service dogs, we're going to talk about writing and communication with guests so as to be more inclusive in general. We have a best selling author about aging in place that can really help with the team, your property type of situation. So I am super excited about that and would love for anybody to go on over to www.welcoming-all.com to grab their free tickets .

00:22:42 - Jenn Boyles

Great, I'll put that link in the show notes for sure. I think it's wonderful because this is not something we're seeing across the industry. We're not seeing. I think there's a real need for this, inclusive hosting and how we can do this, how we can be more inclusive. We don't want anyone to feel left out. Now if you're listening to this and you're thinking, oh, but my property is just not suitable, well then fine. There's no guilt or anything like that involved in this. If it's not suitable then that's fine. You go on to something else. It's the same as if you want to have dogs in your property, not dogs in your property, it's looking at what your property and you are a good fit for. And I just think this is a wonderful initiative that you and Lorraine have put together.

00:23:32 - Suzanne Hacker

Thank you. I appreciate you saying yeah. To me it's like, okay, if you don't have the ability for it to be more accessible as far as wheelchairs or anything like that, because you do have a lot of steps. I get it? Those are still awesome properties for people to visit. And I would never want anybody to think like that, she just thinks that. No, not at all. I've stayed in so many of them that are like that as well. And I'll probably own more that are not accessible for wheelchairs or people that are physically disabled. But there are still ways that we can all make sure we're being more inclusive in our messaging. Because I know we don't mean to offend, but sometimes we just don't know the right wording about things. We have somebody coming on to speak who's blind and it's like, no, I don't think we can all have braille signs in our rentals. But what's the best way to communicate with guests who may have vision impairments? And think about that. Maybe the digital guidebook is what's best to be able to do that and not the binders. So it's just trying to open all of our eyes, including mine, to all of these topics about inclusivity and accessibility.

00:24:42 - Jenn Boyles

Yeah, no, I love it. I can't wait. I've already signed up, so that's welcoming-all.com. Really looking forward to that. The 6th and 7 April. Wonderful to have you on, Suzanne. And to speak about this, I do want to ask, in relation to everything that we have spoken about today, about being more inclusive at our hosting and the spectrum friendly rentals, what does direct booking success mean to you?

00:25:12 - Suzanne Hacker

That is a really good question. So, I mean, I have always wanted to have more direct bookings. And so personally, the way that I love to try to get more is the first thing I love is the Statefi that captures those emails. And maybe you don't want me mentioning companies specifically, but I have loved having statefi in my properties to collect emails. It's easier. Yes, we can still ask the guests like, hey, what's your email address if they're staying like say they booked to Airbnb because the other hosting sites don't necessarily make it easy for us to grab their email address. So whatever you want to put in place to get people's email addresses that are staying already booked and staying at your place that you can communicate directly with them is, for me, the very first hello and then our social media marketing, developing that brand of your vacation rentals so people know how to rebook, but to rebook directly is to me like those are the low hanging fruit, if you will, but developing that overall strategy and having that always in our minds as a vacation rental, like all the little things like your own website, your own social media accounts that are constantly telling people about your property and directing them there. Why wouldn't we want to do it? No, hopefully that answered your question.

00:26:41 - Jenn Boyles

Yeah. No. And I think that we're talking about inclusivity and those on the spectrum and things like that. The more that we can embrace things, people that are looking for that help with their vacation will come and stay with you and they will come direct because they are doing the research. Right?

00:27:00 - Suzanne Hacker

That is true.

00:27:02 - Jenn Boyles

They are doing the research because they know that not every place is going to be as helpful as it could be for them and their family. So I think that the direct side of things opens it up, doesn't it? So that they can Google, they can really get into researching who can help them, which they can't really do on the OTA platforms, correct?

00:27:26 - Suzanne Hacker

No, they can't. And especially if you're somebody that uses social media, which more and more of our guests know. And having that ability, I think is so fabulous is when you have a social media account for your property, you can then share all of those local attractions or events that are spectrum friendly or autism friendly or whatever your niche is sharing that just gets more people into your world that you can then be like, well, when you're coming to the area, these are all the fabulous things for you. So that's the beauty that I see. Because you can't do that with Airbnb. Or VRBO or whatever platform you're going to be on.

00:28:09 - Jenn Boyles

Yeah. Thank you so much, Suzanne. You've opened my eyes. You've given me some great ideas and I'm sure those listening will do the same. I will put your links in the show notes. And I just thank you so much for coming on today.

00:28:21 - Suzanne Hacker

Thank you, Jenn. I appreciate having me. Thank you.

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