Superhost Session: Paula Oblen on the Future of Short-Term Rental Design

April 26,2024 | Published by Barr Balamuth


For our third Superhost Session, InHouse sat down with Paula Oblen, founder of Hotelements, a leading short-term rental design firm. A natural-born creative from the Midwest turned California entrepreneur, Paula has over 20 years of experience in interior design. Her firm, Hotelements, blends hotel and home experiences, catering to clients like celebrities, investors, and property managers. Recognizing the intersection of hospitality and residential design over a decade ago, Hotelements curates immersive vacation interiors. We spoke with Paula ahead of the Vacation Rental Design Summit, where she serves as an advisor.

InHouse: Can you please introduce yourself? 

Paula: My name is Paula Oblen, and I'm the founder of Hotelements, a destination branding design company based in Palm Desert, California. I specialize in luxury vacation rental design projects with a branded approach for property owners, host investors, and clients.

InHouse: How would you describe your design style and how does it factor into the short-term rental experience? 

Paula: My design style shifts, but especially being in the desert environment, I gravitate towards an organic, modern vibe with an edgy touch.  I aim for an earthy yet modern feel - sometimes I say "earthy with an edge." However, I remain fluid and adapt to each property, letting the spaces guide me in telling their unique story. But also, my style is very fluid and I adapt it based on the project. There's always a story that's revealed when you immerse yourself in a project from the beginning.

InHouse: How did you start working with vacation rentals?

Paula: Our company Hotelements was founded in 2010. Airbnb's launch was in 2008. It came really organically. I was on vacation and realized, at a visceral level, how passionate I was about crafting boutique, intimate environments. It was this feeling that just evoked such emotion and an excitement in me - I knew I couldn't be the only one who felt that way.

A living room designed by Paula at Perch, a vacation property in Palm Desert, CA.

When I think back, I had this deep passion for the intersection of hotel and home, and it was literally a question of how do I bring that feeling into my own home and for my residential clients.

That was the driving passion that I've continued to have. And then as Airbnb, VRBO and the whole vacation rental industry really evolved, I believed it was just a natural progression for my passion to fit into the luxury short-term rental vacation design space. To finally see this niche being embraced by the industry around 14 years after I first had that feeling is really exciting for me. 

InHouse: Do you remember the first time you stayed at an Airbnb? 

Paula: I do. It was not pleasant. That first experience, that was when it clicked, where it felt like - “this is my brain coming to life, right?” This is that feeling of convergence of hotel and home. I've got to go do this.This was in the beginning days - hosts were throwing an air mattress on the ground and saying this is perfect. And I've stayed on an air mattress plenty of times but it was less than desirable. So I knew there was a lot of room for improvement.

"That first experience, that was when it clicked, where it felt like - “this is my brain coming to life, right?” This is that feeling of convergence of hotel and home."

InHouse: Walk us through your process when working with a new client.

Paula: Absolutely. I believe and this is really throughout the process, but in the very beginning, there is a deep discovery exploration really that goes on. And it goes at that level when it's in the beginning stages, you're discovering, first of all, you're learning about the client and what the client's vision is for their property. My goal is to help them view the project through the lenses of design, investment, hosting, and property management simultaneously. I translate their vision into a story that reflects the property's location and culture.

It's my job when done well to translate and bring this alive for what the client's vision is. They bought a property. What's the vision? How can we make this come alive and tell a story that also is inherent in the culture of the property? For instance, for a property in Napa, the design would subtly yet elegantly immerse guests in the region's wine culture without being overt. It's an art to strike the right balance. People are gravitating towards locations when they schedule a trip - they're not going to Napa unless they like wine. This is all part of a deep discovery process that happens in the beginning of a project with me. 

"You need to optimize around the guest experience, look at the P&L, and remove the emotion."

InHouse: How do you balance aesthetics versus functionality in short-term rentals? 

Paula: It requires being able to see 10 steps ahead. A space might work great when you launch your listing, but is it going to look great when 20 people have checked in in two months? How are the materials selected? Are those highly durable? Have we done our homework on every step of every vignette in that property? You built a beautiful fire pit, but does it have enough room around it to not only lay your cocktail down, but be safe when you put your feet up? We are anticipating the needs of every single guest interaction. And honestly, sometimes it's like, OK, this is going to go wrong. 

Summit blends Modern Mediterranean and Mid-Century to create a sophisticated boutique hotel vibe.  


It really gets into the detail of the selection of products, what's going to wear and tear. We know to anticipate some areas will be heavily used, maybe even abused, by guests. They’re spending top dollar and they're going to have fun - and they should, within reason. You have to anticipate the materials that you select, whether it's a towel, fire pit, sheets, coffee makers - all of these things need to be well thought out to make the experience simple, take out the guesswork, keep safety top of mind, and again, be operationally efficient right up the minute guests walk through that door.

InHouse: Can you share a challenging project where you didn't see eye-to-eye with the client initially? 

Paula: I find it to be challenging when the property management company owner, investor, host, the client doesn't understand that a guest is not moving in, they are checking in. It's something I'm constantly reminding clients about: you're thinking about how you're feeling because it's your property, but you need to optimize around the guest experience, look at the P&L, and remove the emotion. 

We are designing this project to be operationally efficient to maximize profit; this is a profit driven strategy. The design is the eye candy that's drawing people in and getting them emotionally engaged and connected. But the bottom line is we are doing this all to maximize profit for you. 

InHouse: What are some common design mistakes you see in short-term rentals? 

Use of space. Recognizing that the needs from a design standpoint are different than a residential setting. Not thinking safety through until it's too late and somebody has an incident.

I think keeping a space minimal and less cluttered is really, really important. You know, it's been tested and there are statistics that when we go on vacation, we adopt a vacation mindset. There's data that show how spaces and places really make us feel and how we immerse ourselves in a stay - we want to be part of that story.You can't do that if your stay is cluttered by things. I think over-designing is a mistake in a vacation rental. You want people to breathe. They're on vacation, you know? So those are just a couple of things. 

There are so many little details. How do you make a stay easy to maintain and clean, so it can be turned over in a few hours? Designing a stay goes beyond just how it looks - you need to consider how it will be utilized and operated.

InHouse: What are some of the current design trends that you see in the short-term rental market?

Paula: I believe the bar has truly been raised in the short-term rental market. One major trend driven by the major booking platforms is allowing guests to book by experience, like staying in an Airstream in Malibu. After the pandemic, travelers are much more attuned to seeking out experiential getaways tailored to their interests and desired feelings for that trip.

Another of the major emerging trends are  "shoppable experiences" for guests while on-site and even after checkout. Today's savvy travelers, especially younger generations, really want to connect with and engage in the curated story and design. If it’s done well - balancing aesthetics with anticipating guest needs - it inspires guests to want to emulate that experience and mindset in their homes. You have a captive audience on-stay, and an opportunity to offer them additional touchpoints that allow them to connect with the host, the space, the broader surroundings. Extending that memorable experience pre-stay and post-stay is definitely an emerging trend I'm seeing.

Finally, brands are finally embracing the need to align with vacation rental designers, property managers, and businesses like InHouse. They're recognizing this space as a marketing opportunity. Hospitality brands have fire-resistant textiles and products built for heavy hotel use - they need to understand those requirements for vacation rentals too. Seeing brands get on board is music to my ears.

InHouse: What is the most memorable piece of client feedback you’ve received? 

Paula: The feedback I appreciate the most are from guest reviews. When guests say they feel immersed in the stay but that they also  had their own, unique experience. They appreciate the intentional design moments without feeling overwhelmed. Hearing that guests connected with my design on a personal level is the highest compliment.

"You're just trying to evoke an emotion. And sometimes that emotion isn't always the same for everyone, but if you've evoked an emotion, then that's a win to me. That's still memorable."

InHouse: Where do you find inspiration for your projects? 

Paula: Boutique hotels are like my superpower sometimes because I just love feeling that immersive experience, you know?  I'm a big fan of the Proper Hotel. And out here in Palm Desert, the Sands Hotel, I'm a huge, huge fan. You know, my design idols would be people like Kelly Wearstler –  those designers that are just so bold and brave in the way they design. And to me, that's when the magic happens - when you're not afraid to try new things and you're not trying to be everything to everybody. You're just trying to evoke an emotion. And sometimes that emotion isn't always the same for everyone, but if you've evoked an emotion, then that's a win to me. That's still memorable.

I love the small boutique hotels too, like the Holiday House here in Palm Springs. All over, I love places like Urban Cowboy in Nashville and they have a Catskills location too - and that's the brand. There's no question when you're at Urban Cowboy property - the brand is so strong.. And I like that full-on brand experience. I think more owners and investors need to be mindful and understand how critical it is to make the experience feel like you've walked into a stay that feels like it couldn’t be anywhere else.

InHouse: Tell us a bit about your collaboration with Bobby Berk

Paula:  It was the most difficult project I've ever worked on, honestly. We reimagined this 1950s Spanish hacienda style place. And it needed a full renovation. In hindsight, we were like should we have just gutted it to the studs and started over? It was more difficult by not taking that approach initially. But Bobby and I were so aligned that we needed to embrace the quirkiness of the property. And that goes back to my passion about understanding the culture and story behind a place. If we hadn't done that, we would have lost all those nuances that everybody now raves about in their reviews - how it still felt 1950s but has these special modern touches.


Casa Tierra "infuses organic color and textures of the desert landscape while exuding a vibe that feels both storied and modern."


The project was a beast from the moment I laid eyes on it until the moment we launched. By some miracle, we did this property within a six to eight month period, which probably should have been about a year and a half timeline. I don't even know how we did it. I feel like I was completely possessed by the Casa Tierra gods or something! 

Casa Tierra has become a leading Airbnb destination. It’s even been featured in photoshoots and commercials - the clothing brand Travis Matthew did a brand photo shoot there - which is another big opportunity for these kinds of properties. There are so many ways to monetize these properties that aren't really being utilized.

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