In today’s travel markets there are more choices for lodging than ever before. In addition to hotels, motels, bed and breakfasts, inns and rentals, an increasingly popular option is Airbnb. This online service serves as a broker to connect long- and short-term travelers with hosts.
Airbnb was launched in 2008 when two designers hosted travelers looking for a place to stay. Today, the technology platform is used by millions of hosts to list their investor-owned spaces, and by travelers looking to book unique accommodations and travel experiences around the world.
In 2018, the company reported 7 million listings worldwide in 100,000 cities in more than 220 countries and regions. Here in West Virginia, the Airbnb statistics for 2018 showed more than 900 listings that served 90,000 guests. Collectively, hosts in the Mountain State earned about $10 million in supplemental income, with the average income at about $7,300. Kanawha County hosts earned $457,000 for almost 5,000 guest stays.
Rebecca Kimmons of Charleston and Skye Kinser of Red House were not Airbnb hosts when those statistics were calculated, but their experiences have led them to enjoy their roles as hosts to guests who come to stay with them.
Kimmons hosts guests at Katherine’s House, a 1912 home-away-from-home situated on a quiet, wooded street close to downtown. Kinser offers her guests a much different experience at Red House: Guests stay in Skyedanser Tiny House, which was featured in Season 4 of HGTV’s show, “Tiny House Hunters.”
Kimmons and her husband, Bill, live in the house next door to the Airbnb property. They purchased Katherine’s House in 2005 and rented it for several years.
“I decided in 2017 to turn the house into an Airbnb,” said Kimmons, a retired communications and marketing professional.
At the time, the minister from their church was living in the house and she agreed to help Kimmons with some of the work because she had experience in home repairs and Kimmons had none. The minister moved before the house was completed, but not before Kimmons learned how to caulk and paint, among other home repair work.
“She inspired me to realize that I could do the work,” Kimmons said.
The property name comes from its previous owner, Katherine Cole, who was the matriarch of the once predominantly Black neighborhood, and was born in the house. “Katherine was the salutatorian of her graduating class at Garnett High School, and married Jim Cole, who was the valedictorian of his class at the same school,” Kimmons said.
When she was working on the house, Kimmons kept Cole in mind and designed the space with equal parts historic elegance and whimsy, filling it with local art and books. It is a quiet retreat with porches and decks. Since she opened, she has hosted a number of guests who stay the weekend to participate in cultural events in Charleston.
Skyedanser Tiny House is new to Airbnb. Kinser and her father built the 26 feet by 7 feet house a few years ago. It has all the amenities of a home, including a full kitchen and full bath. A deck, pool and fire pit offer guests a chance to be outside to enjoy the countryside.
Kinser, a Marshall University student, was inspired to consider tiny housing by a friend who talked about converting a storage container into her home. The friend changed her mind, but Kinser was hooked.
“I grew up on our family property here in a 4,000-square-foot home, and I was ready to downsize,” she said. “Four years ago, my father and I designed and built the tiny home for me to live in.”
With her father’s construction experience, they were able to build the wooden structure with two lofts, one for sleeping and one for storage, and outfit it with custom appliances including a Jacuzzi bathtub which her guests love.
“I had stayed in an Airbnb in Tennessee, and that gave me the idea that I might be able to list this house,” Kinser said. “Since September, I’ve had five bookings for weekend guests. Several were from out of state.”
Trends in travel
West Virginia Tourism Commissioner Chelsea Ruby said her office is seeing tremendous growth with vacation rentals and cabins across the state. “In times when people are looking for socially distanced vacations, we are fortunate to have so many mountain cabins and retreats which offer the local experiences so many travelers seek,” said Ruby.
“Having available properties through these rental platforms has certainly added to our portfolio of lodging opportunities, helping us reach more travelers and bring more folks to West Virginia.”
Terrell Ellis, Advantage Valley executive director, believes there are opportunities in the region for more Airbnb properties. The organization offered a free webinar on Airbnb ownership through its Faster WV program in August.
“One of our goals is to improve the river and outdoor recreation industry in the Advantage Valley area,” said Ellis. “Lodging options are just as important as outdoor outfitters, restaurants and specialty shops, so we presented this workshop to help people see where they could be involved in the growth.”
She said the organization’s research showed that in 2017 the demand for outdoor recreation options in the valley reached $24 million, but only about $6 million of the demand was satisfied. “People are leaving our region for these activities and we are trying to help businesses retain them with new and expanded services,” she said.
Ellis cited tourism growth in the Clendenin area following the opening of the Elk River Rail Trail as a positive example of development. Several Airbnb options are having success in that area.
Jeremy Turner, founder of EPIC Mission in Huntington, presented the Faster WV workshop. In his presentation he talked about his own experiences in the Airbnb community. “The travel industry is great because it offers opportunities for short-term hosting. There are also opportunities for long-term hosting for business people and students who travel to a city for work and study,” he said. Turner hosts long-term guests on his property.
“Regardless of which way you go, partnering with an international organization like Airbnb provides the hosts with services that are invaluable,” he said. Some of those benefits include marketing, payment collection, guest verification and options for property and liability insurance.
Both Kinser and Kimmons are enjoying their experiences as hosts.
“You meet some really nice people and you have the opportunity to introduce them to what’s special about our region,” Kimmons said. “And you never know who will come to stay. I recently hosted the great, great, great grandson of Queen Victoria!”
In the guest book, this guest wrote: “We had a wonderful stay. A son of two artists, I felt immediately comfortable and intrigued to explore. Pity we were not staying longer, I want to play guitar on each porch but not enough time. We will be back! Thanks for all you did to make it comfortable.” It was signed P. Habsburg.
Kinser, who is working on business and marketing degrees, sees the possibility of a future in lodging. “It’s easy to be excited about this when you get lovely notes from your guests,” she said.
One of her favorites is one left by a guest named Robinson: “I absolutely love this tiny house! Such an amazing little Gem hidden in the hills of West Virginia! Only being 30 minutes from home, it was just what I needed as a little getaway. The fire pit was ready to go, the porch was perfect with evening wine, and such a perfect relaxing place to unwind and reset!”