DRIFTLESS - Twenty years ago, many of us probably still would have opened a phone book or asked a friend when searching for a place to stay while on vacation. Perhaps we had a friend with a cabin, or had once stayed at a particular hotel with a good free breakfast.
Flash forward to 2021, and a year into a global pandemic, and the look of travel lodging has taken on a much different face.
Short-term rentals have dramatically risen in popularity over the years. Particularly within the last year as many found themselves working from home or desperate to escape from their regular life, but still be able to enjoy the safety and comfort of a home experience.
Locally, many short-term rental hosts and businesses are seeing an influx of visitors who stay on the various short-term rental platforms. Escaping to the country amid the dragging global pandemic, which has kept many isolated from the rest of the world.
Although the vacation home rental experience has been commonplace since the 1950s, many may be surprised to learn that the online platform version of these date back to 1995, when Vacation Rentals by Owner or VRBO first launched its platform. This was around the same time the well-known website Craigslist also launched and became notable for finding services like this and more.
Upon entering the 2000s however, the popularity of the more well-known sites today such as Airbnb, Home away and VRBO began to creep to the top of the list for folks looking for a place to stay.
At the most basic level, a short-term rental is just that. A furnished room, suite, or home set up for individuals to land head while traveling.
But as Marty Richards, Richland County Tourism Coordinator shares, it's so much more than just a place to sleep.
Richards, along with his wife Teri, also owns a short-term rental in addition to being the Tourism Coordinator. He finds that his guests come for many different reasons.
“We’ve had clients from all over the board,” Marty explained. “There is the attraction of trout fishing to our area, but that does not make up a high number of short-term rental stays. A lot of those folks have a cabin or know a buddy who has a place to stay. The high number of people coming out here are trying to find out how they can find a property to buy and often stay seven to nine days. They want to check out the lifestyle of living in this area. People are looking for more of an experience, than just a place to sleep.”
Marty shared that he finds many guests come from the Chicago or Milwaukee areas. And with so many more people working remotely, it seemed like the attitude shifted to “if I’m working from home, I might as well enjoy it.”
“We are fortunate to have high speed (broadband internet) connections here that are just as fast as you’d find in a big city,” Marty noted. “We had clients bringing their work stations along with them and setting up in our suite. They would work during the day and go kayaking and hiking in the afternoon. They went on a weeklong vacation and didn’t need to take a day of vacation time to do it. It’s not what I thought we’d see when we started this adventure, but it works well for them and us.”
For Marty and Teri, a big part of having a short-term rental is the joys of hosting.
“Teri and I traveled all over the world and stayed in a lot of short-term rentals,” Marty shared. “We like to meet new people and with this experience we’ve really been able to do that. I think the experience that set the tone for us was when we stayed outside of Little Haiti in Miami. We had gotten in past 10 p.m. on a Sunday evening and when our host met us to check us in, we asked about a good place to get something to eat. He told us he could recommend some places to us, but that we were welcomed to come and have a meal with him. He had made this Bolognese sauce and salad and to him it was just leftovers but to us, we would have paid a lot of money to have something like that in a restaurant, it was just fantastic!”
Others who have enjoyed short-term rentals as just guests also echo Marty’s sentiments
“I almost always stay in VRBO/Airbnb options these days when I travel, I look there first before hotels,” shared local resident Laura Wiesmann Hrubes. “They are typically much more comfortable and economical. As an example, this past weekend a group of five of us split the cost of a VRBO house. The location was perfect, we had our own bedrooms, full kitchen, everything and our cost per person was $30 a night. We couldn’t have come close to those amenities at that price in a hotel, and we wouldn’t have been able to share the experience in the same way if we had all stayed in different hotel rooms or hotels. We were able to cook and share meals and visit a lot more in a house. I have never had a bad experience. I have a few go-to rentals that I try to go back to when I travel to certain areas and have even become friends with the owners in several cases. So it’s also a way to build community and make the experience of travel more personal than a hotel, and I feel good about the money I’m spending staying much more local.”
Budding friendships and camaraderie is a major benefit and draw for the Richards as well.
“When our kids were all gone our house was too quiet,” Teri shared of their decision to begin their journey with short-term rentals.
“We love it,” Marty expressed. “You have to have a little faith walking into it and good communication. But we think a very important part of it is we get to meet them. The more you get to connect with people and with the story of the home and the area, the better the experience can be.”
“We knew we were onto something when we were staying upstairs doing some work on the house and not renting and we missed our guests,” Teri said. “We missed sharing our home and hospitality. We’ve had long-term guests and we became attached. We’ve built real relationships and that is one of the beauties of it. People coming here want to see us at our most genuine and people also want to have some distance, especially now and our area and short-term rentals are perfectly suited for that.”
Despite the positive benefits for both hosts and visitors, there appears to also be evidence surfacing that short-term rentals can have a downside as well.
The ‘Airbnb effect’ is as Forbes notes “to some extent remarkably similar to gentrification in that it slowly increases the value of an area to the detriment of the indigenous residents, many of whom are pushed out due to financial constraints.” The article also noted that “research conducted by the Harvard Business Review across the US found that Airbnb is having a detrimental impact on housing stock as it encourages landlords to move their properties out from the long-term rental and for-sale markets and into the short term rental market. A separate U.S. study found that a one percent increase in Airbnb listings leads to a 0.018 percent increase in rents and a 0.026 percent increase in house prices.”
In a January 2019 report, the Economic Policy Institute (quoted from an article by the Urban Land Institute) found “that the rising housing costs are a key problem for American families, adding that evidence suggests that the presence of Airbnb raises local housing costs. ‘The largest and best-documented potential cost of Airbnb expansion is the reduced supply of housing as properties shift from serving local residents to serving Airbnb travelers, which hurts local residents by raising housing costs. There is evidence the cost is real,’ says the report’s author, Josh Bivens.”
Despite this seemingly rising issue, there seems to be no slowing the popularity of short-term rentals.
Jess Brandt, a local blogger from Gays Mills, has traveled extensively and stays almost exclusively in short-term rentals, when out and about across the globe with her family.
“We’ve stayed in numerous locations (short-term rentals) around our state,” Brandt noted. “The past three winters we’ve spent three to four weeks in Belize and stayed exclusively in short-term rentals. Not a single hotel stay for the duration. One of the main reasons we choose rentals over hotels is to have a kitchen to cook our own meals.
“Especially when traveling with children, I’m able to provide homemade comfort foods that my kids are used to from home,” Brandt said. “Bed and breakfasts always seem like a higher end getaway to me. Not something I’d look into traveling with kids. More something for a romantic getaway if it were just my husband and I. Most rentals are furnished like a second home, with many of the gadgets we appreciate, but don’t want to drag along with us when we’re trying to pack lightly. Each place we’ve been to is unique, but they truly do have a homey feel usually.”
Brandt shares that out of all of the visits she's had, she has only had one negative experience.
“We have had one bad experience while traveling in Belize,” Brandt explained. “I booked a place on a nature preserve, way out in the middle of the jungle. It was very affordable, which I desired to help balance out some of the ‘spendier’ places we’d stayed. There were just a couple other rentals on the property.
“We woke up after our first night there and there was a group of young locals partying with the lady, who had rented the place next to us.
“My husband and I got really bad vibes from them all. We felt the right thing to do was to get out of there. We headed to the closest town, got online, and booked a new short-term stay. I contacted the owner of the rental we were abandoning and he agreed the situation did not sound good, and had his local property manager come give us a refund for the rest of our stay, in cash.”
As a frequent user of these platforms, Brandt also offered a few of her tips for perspective stays.
“A couple of things to pay attention to when booking are hidden costs. I’ve found one site tends to add a bunch of fees on at the end,” Brandt noted. “So it looks like a great deal, then you get to the last click and it adds a $200 cleaning fee, a booking fee, and the price goes up considerably. Also pay attention to cancellation and refund policies. I make sure that the places I book have generous policies in case of need to cancel and get a full refund.”
Along with positive experiences, the potential income for hosts and local economies also plays a significant role in the short-term rental experience.
According to an article published by the Urban Land Institute, “Airbnb says it is generating substantial economic benefits for hosts and communities. According to the findings of a July 2019 survey and an analysis of internal data, Airbnb’s host and guest community generated over $33.3 billion in estimated direct economic impact in the United States and hosts have generated over $65 billion, which the company says “many use to pay the bills and pursue their passions.”
But as the Richards note, it is still work.
“If you tell me you’re thinking about starting at a short-term rental, I always say there are two things you have to consider. One, you need to like people. and two you can’t go into it thinking you’re going to get rich overnight. There is quite a lot of money to get it up and running. It takes effort and good relationships. You’ll need to be cleaning day in and day out,” both Teri and Marty noted. “It can get tiring but we always encourage people to charge a cleaning fee. Eight to ten hours of doing a full house cleaning is a lot of work and you don’t want to feel taken advantage of and serious cleaning now is more important than it's ever been.”
An article in the Washington Post also notes supplies and cleaning as one of the more unexpected startup costs that people getting into short-term rentals encounter.
“Airbnb recommends that hosts provide clean linens, towels and other amenities to guests, depending on how often you’ll be having guests it might make sense to buy a separate set of linens. You may also need to invest in locks if you want to keep certain rooms and closets out-of-bounds while people are staying in the home.”
The Richards and others have also shared that adding personal regional touches can be the cherry on top for many guests, but can add to costs. For the Richards, things like farm fresh eggs, locally roasted coffee and local adult beverages are some of the things that help them achieve the all-important ‘Super Host’ status.Although as Marty points out there is still certainly a place for hotels, motels, bed and breakfasts among other ways to stay, it doesn’t seem that the short-term rental will be going anywhere anytime soon. Those who are interested in investing in their own short-term rental are encouraged to reach out to their county or township to learn about ordinances as well as their local tourism directors, who may be helpful in the planning process. This also goes along with doing plenty of your own research and feeling confident that it is a right fit for you before diving in feet first.