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Top Airbnb Design Tips: Transforming a Vacation Rental on Kauai

Beach house airbnb on Kauai designed by Sun Soul Style Interiors

Prior to launching Sun Soul Style Interiors, I was a Senior Designer at Sonder - a hospitality start up based in San Francisco. While I was there, my team and I designed over 500 (!) projects - many of them designed fully remotely. We were able to collect and analyze loads of data about guest experience, furniture longevity, and even the performance of certain photography styles and angles on OTAs like Airbnb. This work experience has informed the way I think about designing vacation rentals - with a focus on functionality, durability and longevity.

We recently completed a full renovation and furnishing project for a vacation rental here on the North Shore of Kauai. My clients are avid surfers who live in Santa Cruz - but plan to spend part of the year on island - so the home needed to fit their personal needs as well as the needs of traveling guests.

Kitchen Before:

When I first toured this condo my initial thought was that it felt pretty dark and dated! First priority was replacing the beige tile with updated wood flooring. We opted for a higher end lvp flooring which was not only budget friendly, but tends to hold up really well to guest use - think guests leaving wet towels and bikinis on the floor! Also, in a humid climate like Kauai there is no danger of them expanding or buckling.

The existing kitchen cabinets were in good shape, so rather than replacing we repainted them, and removed the upper cabinets - adding in some floating shelves to make it feel a bit more open and bright. We then replaced the tile countertops with new quartz - again I love a good natural stone but for a rental, quartz is not only a budget friendly option but will stand up to guest use.

We also decided to cut out the front portion of the soffit which wrapped around the kitchen - it felt like a random architectural element and made the kitchen feel dark and small. Opening it up made the kitchen feel so much brighter and larger!

Kitchen After

Beach house airbnb on Kauai designed by Sun Soul Style Interiors

Beach house airbnb on Kauai designed by Sun Soul Style Interiors

Beach house airbnb on Kauai designed by Sun Soul Style Interiors

Beach house airbnb on Kauai designed by Sun Soul Style Interiors

Bathrooms Before

Another renovation priority were the bathrooms. The stacked glass blocks were screaming early 90s ( don't get me wrong - theres a time and a place for these but it's all about context) and had some interesting soffits going on with some questionable LED lighting. I knew we could open the floor plan of these bathrooms up a bit to make them feel more luxurious. We selected a really beautiful blue tile that was applied on the walls - I love how the natural variation looks once installed - it's so reminiscent of the ocean! The white oak vanity's also add a nice contrast, and help bring in a bit of that beachy vibe. And of course - we are here for a soaking tub moment!

Bathrooms After

Blue zellige tile bathroom on Kauai by Sun Soul Style Interiors

Blue zellige tile bathroom on Kauai by Sun Soul Style Interiors

Blue zellige tile bathroom on Kauai by Sun Soul Style Interiors

Beachy bathroom on Kauai airbnb by Sun Soul Style Interiors

Furnishing the rest of the home

When I was a designer at Sonder, we discovered that light upholstery gets stained in an average about 3 stays - so throughout the home we focused on sourcing darker performance fabric and washable rugs (big fan of Ruggable!) to maximize the longevity of furniture. We also sourced solid wood furniture for high touch point pieces - coffee tables, dining tables, nightstands - to increase longevity. One important point to note - even with solid wood pieces, if someone leaves a wet bathing suit or glass of water on a piece of wood furniture for an extended period of time - it WILL leave a mark! Some tips I've implemented to help combat this : 1) Have a piece of glass cut to size to sit on top of the furniture piece to protect it (not always the prettiest, unfortunately) 2) Have your contractor put a clear protective coat on top of your wood furniture (like a polyurethane) as an extra layer of sealer for protection!



Beachy bedroom on Kauai designed by Sun Soul Style Interiors

Beachy design airbnb on Kauai designed by Sun Soul Style Interiors

Entry bench airbnb Kauai designed by Sun Soul Style Interiors

Window desk in beach house on Kauai designed by Sun Soul Style Interiors

Beachy living room on Kauai designed by Sun Soul Style Interiors

Beachy bedroom on Kauai designed by Sun Soul Style Interiors

Beachy bedroom Pottery Barn Cayman Bed and nightstand on Kauai designed by Sun Soul Style interiors

Tips for designing your Airbnb vacation rental:

#1 Splurge vs save: When thinking about furniture - plan to invest more heavily in pieces that tend to get more wear and tear- beds, sofa, dining/coffee tables, chairs. Accent pieces like side tables and lighting, decor, art and even media consoles are areas where you can save.

#2 Washable rugs are your best friend! I love Ruggable and Revival's washable rugs. Your cleaning team will thank you!

#3 Invest in high quality, solid wood furniture - specifically for pieces that are going to get a lot of wear like coffee and dining tables. If you buy low quality pieces you will end up needing to replace in a short period of time. We don't want to be adding to the landfill people!

#4 Reinforce platform beds with bunkie boards (you'd be surprised how often standard platform beds break with kids jumping on them!)

#5 As tempting as it may be - stay away from light upholstery. Try to source performance fabrics, even outdoor grade fabric, in darker hues to hide dirt and stains. Most direct to consumer vendors such as West Elm and Pottery Barn will have extensive performance fabric options. And don't be afraid to use outdoor furniture indoors - higher end lines are incredibly comfortable and will stand up really well to spills and stains. You can also treat indoor upholstery and rugs with a product I love called Vectra - its a green version of Scotch Guard that will help repel liquids!

#6 Invest in cozy bedding + towels! I'm a big fan of Target's Casaluna linen bedding line. Make sure to buy at least 2 sets of back ups (per bed) for your cleaning team. Also - either go all white for your linens or do a color - if your cleaning team runs a bleach load for your white towels, for example, it may leave a bit of residue in your washing machine and bleach stain other items!

#7 Think about the guest experience when planning out your dining and living areas - you want to be sure that the sleep count matches the seating count at your dining table and living room - there's nothing worse than staying at a rental where you can't all chill and watch a movie together comfortably!

#8 Think about the place / location of your property but also don't go too theme heavy - ie., a beach house with cheesy beach signs and shells everywhere. Small touches go a long way - and a great way to make a place feel "local" is to support local artists! If you're concerned about cost - reach out directly to artists as they will often offer print runs of their work.

Photography tips for your Airbnb vacation rental:

#1 Lights off! Always shoot with natural light - a good photographer can adjust the exposure to make even a dark room appear lighter in the final photo (even small bathrooms!). The glow from a light fixture may seem nice to your eye, but once its shot it will cast an ugly glare.

#2 Keep colors true to life - be wary of editing photos with crazy filters or settings. You want the photos to feel bright, clean and depict what the space will actually look like. If you don't have a ton of experience with editing check out Lightroom presets - love these from IDCO x Madeline Harper - they make editing photos a breeze and you can even edit these directly on the iPhone app.

#3 Capture a mix of well composed vignettes and whole room photos - and avoid the fish eye / super wide angle lens as it warps the room! These photos feel a bit too real-estate-y and less lifestyle.

#4 Shoot from the hip - If you’re shooting a whole room or a wider angle, lower your camera to about waist height. This may feel too low, but it creates a much more natural composition that mimics what you would see at eye level.

#5 Straighten your lines - use a grid tool on your camera to ensure the composition of your photos are straight!

#6 Spend some time styling the space - and remember that styling for photos is different for styling a room to live in. You want to look at what is captured in the shot (before you take it) and ask yourself - does this feel balanced? Does it feel too full or too sparse? Also - specifically for Airbnb you don't want to include too many elements that won't actually be there when the guest arrives. A vase with some tasteful florals or greens is fine - but a set of pillows that don't actually exist will make your guests sad! And on that note - be careful not to OVER style the space - I'm talking huge bouquets of flowers, dining tables set for 8 with a plate of croissants - we're not staging a breakfast buffet here! Less is more!

#7 Steam the bed and curtains! This may seem overkill but there is nothing worse than seeing a lumpy bed or sad, crinkly curtains in a photo. Use a steamer or iron before you shoot- and worst case scenario you can smooth it out a bit in Photoshop.

#8 Make sure to capture all the elements that make the home unique. Does your place have views? A BBQ? Do you provide your guests with local coffee? Capture all of these special moments so your guests have a sense of what the experience will be like.


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