It's a big wide world out there beyond Airbnb. Take Roomorama, for one, where hosts clamor for guests instead of the other way around.
Roomorama, which was founded in 2009 in Singapore, is probably one of the most well-known and widely used vacation rental sites in Europe and Asia. But even with over 300,000 short-term rentals worldwide, the company has failed to gather household recognition in the U.S despite its wide user base. It all seemed a bit silly to us so we decided it was finally time to take Roomorama out for a test drive for a long weekend in New York City.
At this point, if you're not familiar with the premise of vacation rentals and how it all works, well, that would be odd. Like most sites, property owners can list their place—room, apartment, home, etc.—on the site so travelers can book them for short-term stays. Instead, what sets Roomorama apart from the rest is one simple little feature: the ShoutOut, which puts out a request to all hosts in a place who can then bid you to stay, reducing the amount searching travelers otherwise would have to do themselves. Just to be upfront, our stay was discounted by $240 and the booking fee, but in New York that hardly gets you anywhere.
“Can’t find what you’re looking for? Post a ShoutOut." Hm, why not. Instead of searching for stays with the standard click, click, clicking I opted to try the ShoutOut, located as a button on my user homepage along the right side. Users post and enter their destination, number of guests, check-in and check-out dates with an optional message. In goes the general blurb with my budget (the price range per night I was I was looking for) and preferred neighborhoods. Then I sent it out, into the Roomorama universe.
Within a couple hours, the first host reached out via ShoutOut and the messages just continued to trickle in over the next week. Now I had a handful of options for available apartments and was connecting with potential hosts... with very little effort. Though some hosts ignored my price range specifications entirely, I did manage to get connected with a few good viable options.
But what I liked about the ShoutOut was that it essentially eliminates duds and inactive hosts. (Hosts' listed information does include response rate, response time and when they last updated to give you an idea.) This feature also had the additional benefit of being able to correspond with hosts, which isn't possible when booking a property the typical way (seriously, I know). It's still definitely possible to book a vacation rental the old-fashioned way with intensive searching, with filters for price points and more filters for location in the now standard—and comparably tedious—way. But it all seems so silly when ShoutOut essentially cuts the work in half for guests, who can then just get fed possibilities.
But I wanted to see how it normally worked. Having lived in New York for a spell some years back, I know the city pretty well and already had my top neighborhoods picks ready to go. Roomorama has all the basic search criteria you'd expect ranging from destination, dates and number of guests to things like neighborhoods, price range and property type. (I did find, though, that the place I ended up staying in was listed as Chinatown when in actuality it was slightly farther north in the Soho/West Village area.)
I wanted to see where everything was, so I clicked the map, which brought up all the different options as a full page. The maps are powered by Mapbox, which was easy enough to use, even if it ain't no Google Maps. I could zoom in on specific sections to see apartments plotted on the map. Hovering over the Roomorama logo pin brought up the name of the place, a main photo and the cost per night. I then right-clicked to open everything that looked interesting as a new tab.
To be honest, the filters weren't always great and accurate, which made my search more time-intensive than it could have been. For example, I was exclusively looking to rent an entire place not a room. Even when I thought I had ruled out anything but a private place, my search results still often included rooms for rent. (I know that could simply be the host's fault for incorrectly listing their place, but, still, not cool.) I also wanted to check multiple neighborhoods to see all the properties in those areas but the site would would only pull up places for the last one I had checked. The only way to work past this was limiting my price range and moving the map around myself.
But, really, perhaps my biggest gripe with Roomorama is that there's no way to correspond with a host before booking. The only way to get in touch with a host was via ShoutOut, and making contact à la Jody Foster. But I still wanted to talk to some of these people with properties I fancied before making a decision and getting money tied up in it, and when we're talking about hundreds of dollars, that's a big commitment you're making there.
That is not an option, though. Travelers aren't put in contact with a host until they've already clicked through and hit "Book Now" to request the place, which requires entering personal and payment information. The request then gets sent to the host, who has 15 hours to reply. If the hosts accepts the booking, the charge is made. If he or she declines it or fails to respond within 15 hours, the booking is null and void, and travelers can move on to book another property.
Just to make sure I wasn't missing something I shot off a general inquiry to Roomorama about whether it was possible to contact hosts beforehand. I got an email about four hours later:
We are the host's agents and we can answer any questions that you may have regarding the property on their behalf. If there are questions we don't have answers to, we will consult the host and inform you. So feel free to let me know what your questions and concerns are, and we can assist with them. Of course, once the booking is confirmed, you will get the host's contact information so that you can get in touch with them to arrange for check in, etc.
Theoretically, this probably makes hosts' lives a lot easier and eliminates a bunch of noise. Instead of having to deal with stragglers, they only get contacted by people who are ready to book. But as a potential guest I wanted to scope things out a bit more and inquire that the place was, in actuality, available those particular dates. In this day and age, it's impossible to deny communication is becoming a key (and very crucial) component of interaction between guests and hosts.
(After this piece was published the Roomorama CEO reached out to me via email with the following: "We studied thousands of inquiries and realized that many of them questions whose answers could easily be found by reading the description more carefully, and as a result of timezone differences or just because there is more noise than necessary, some guests' questions get ignored, and guests are kept waiting much longer than they need." Makes sense.)
Once my host confirmed my request, I received a confirmation notification and email with the exact location of the apartment and my host's contact information. Roomorama is also atypical in that it sends guests a payment code, which must be sent or transferred to the host in order for the host to be paid out. But in case I forget, the site releases money to the host 24 hours after check-in, as a precaution. Much like Airbnb, Roomorama charges a booking fee that's calculated depending on length of stay and that fee is passed on to guests. Though I suspect it varies, two nights in New York ($180/night) carried a fee of $67, roughly 18.6% of the total cost.
Roomorama is definitely not your typical Airbnb experience, especially with its unique ShoutOut function, which I'll definitely be using again. Why not see what people come to me with, right? After hours online trying to research things and being forced to book all sorts of stuff, it was awesome having the tables flipped around for once.