My Home Is Your Castle

A hospitality professional prepares me for a visit from my mom

I love guests. If it were up to me, I’d have friends over for dinner every night, and our spare room would never be empty. But there are two things preventing that: my lovely wife Cassandra and guests. Because I am not a very good host.

That’s partly because I’m an excellent guest. I eat anything, find everyone interesting and have even willingly chosen to stay in an eco-hotel, which is the European term for “no toilet paper.” When people ask me if a bed was comfortable, I am confused by the question, since I cannot tell if things are comfortable when I’m sleeping. Asking me if a bed was comfortable is like asking someone if he liked the flowers people sent during his coma.

It turns out there are a lot of us eager, horrible hosts. So many that Airbnb, the website that lists more than 500,000 houses, apartments, couches and treehouses for short-term rental, has hired Chip Conley, creator of the Joie de Vivre hotels, as head of global hospitality. He’s giving classes to groups of Airbnb hosts around the world. I would guess that one of the first lessons is not making people sleep in your treehouse.

I Skyped in for a lesson, during which Conley told me that the No. 1 complaint from Airbnb guests concerns cleanliness. This is something I didn’t have to worry about, thanks to Cassandra. In fact, her attention to cleanliness is one of the main reasons she doesn’t want guests.

I could avoid most other whining by appealing to my guests’ five senses. This is why hotel lobbies have bowls of apples, fireplaces, classical music and front-desk clerks who are so good-looking, we don’t care that they can’t find the “check in” button on the computer. “If in the first 10 minutes guests feel like they’ve made the wrong decision, they beat themselves up. Then they beat you up,” Conley told me. “When people have a good first impression, they’re willing to put up with a bunch of crap.” I’m hoping “crap” includes the host talking about himself way too much, which, as I’ve learned from staying in bed-and-breakfasts, is the only reason people want guests.

Although I have become a much better host to my mom over the past few years simply by having a child, I listened to Conley and sent her and her husband Mike a survey asking what brands make them feel at home, their favorite scents and great things they’ve done on past vacations. My mom told me she loves lavender but that Mike “hates scents of all kinds.” I asked Conley how to handle this. He emailed back, “Give your mom some lavender perfume, an aromatherapy candle (unlit for Mike’s sake) or one of those silly lavender car scent thingamajiggers.” I suppose when 70% of your guests are foreigners, you can get away with handing out car fresheners to people who aren’t bringing cars, but I was not going to put one around my own mom’s neck when she arrived, like some kind of white-trash lei that’s even more white trash than a regular lei. For the question about past activities they’ve enjoyed, my mom wrote, “Visited a weird museum in St. Augustine called the Lightner Museum. Had strange collections of things like spoons.” I was strongly considering ignoring all of Conley’s advice and just having a second child.

When my mom and Mike arrived, I presented them with glasses of red wine, a cheese plate, a bar of lavender soap, a bunch of wood in the fireplace ready to be lit, the Beatles on the stereo and a crapload of spoons randomly strewn about, hoping that some might be museum-quality. Then Cassandra wouldn’t let me light the fire because we had to leave for a dinner reservation. I tried to argue that safety isn’t one of the five senses. It didn’t work.

But everything else did. I ignored all of my mom and Mike’s requests for fun things to do and left them to babysit my son, and yet they still thought it was the best trip to L.A. they’d ever had. By day four, however, I emailed Conley for another suggestion. “What do you do if your guest keeps giving you unwanted advice on how to raise your son?” He suggested that I look for another Airbnb location for her. I was thinking treehouse.

Still, I had succeeded so greatly that before we went to visit my mom and Mike in Florida, they sent Cassandra and me a form like the one I’d sent them. When we got there, they had incense burning, jazz playing, the wine I liked, my son’s favorite toys and a brand of electrolyte-infused water they had noticed Cassandra drinking. And even though I knew exactly what they were doing, we still thought it was the best visit we’d ever had with them. I am so impressed with Conley that I wonder if somehow while we were Skyping he made my room smell good.

This appears in the January 20, 2014 issue of TIME.
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