Elizabeth and Taylor Campbell entered the Airbnb marketplace three years ago with financial and social objectives in mind.

Airbnb allows homeowners to display online guest space for rent in their home or other property. Depending on the location and amount of space, local nightly rentals tend to range from $25 to $80.

The Campbells began by shifting the renting of their Winston-Salem condo in the Hanover Arms community from long-term renters to short-term visitors as an experiment.

“My wife and I had both stayed in Airbnb properties many times and always had an excellent experience,” Taylor Campbell said. “She even stayed at a cool flat in Iceland years ago.

“Certainly, the extra income was welcomed.

“But we really enjoyed meeting new people and helping them get the most out of their trip to Winston-Salem,” Campbell said. “We would often get asked for recommendations on restaurants and local attractions, and we gladly shared some of our favorite things we love about this city.”

The Campbells are an example of a blossoming residential hospitality option not only in Forsyth County, but also the Triad and Northwest North Carolina.

Airbnb, a website that lists short-term rentals, released economic-impact data for 2018 last week in which it said that in the 14-county region, its services generated a combined $12.9 million in revenue for landlords — whom Airbnb calls “hosts” — from more than 116,000 renters, or “guests.”

Watauga County led the region, with $5.2 million in host revenue and 46,000 renters, followed by Guilford County, with $3.5 million in host revenue and 29,000 renters, and Forsyth County, with $2.3 million in host revenue and 20,000 renters.

By comparison, Forsyth had 4,600 Airbnb-related renters in 2016 and 10,000 in 2017; Guilford had 8,900 in 2016 and 18,000 in 2017.

Increasing popularity

Airbnb’s surge in popularity, along with similar groups Vacation Rental by Owner (VRBO) and HomeAway, has spurred a complementary vs. competitive debate within the hospitality industry and among economists.

Airbnb, naturally, falls on the side of filling a hospitality need beyond what traditional hotels and motels provide.

“According to the most recent state-commissioned lodging report,” Airbnb said, “North Carolina hotels are experiencing explosive growth in overall occupancy, revenue and prices — in parallel with short-term rental growth.

“This suggests that Airbnb is opening up the region to a new slice of prospective tourists by catering to travelers less able to afford hotels, those who desire to stay in neighborhoods or cities that lack hotels, and families who prefer to be together under one roof,” the company said.

Visit NC reported in August that Forsyth had a record high of $898.4 million in tourism revenue in 2017, a 6.1 percent increase from 2016. The county ranked sixth overall in the state, generating $69.8 million in local and state tax revenue in 2017. The agency said there are 7,200 jobs in Forsyth County considered as associated with travel and tourism.

Visit Winston-Salem, as do most convention and visitor bureaus, gets the bulk of its grant and marketing monies from visitors paying a hotel-occupancy tax — 6 percent here.

For fiscal 2018-19, Visit Winston-Salem set a $4.25 million budget, of which $3.8 million was projected to come from the hotel-occupancy tax. The visitor bureau reported last week that its share of the hotel-occupancy tax through November was up 8 percent, to $1.83 million.

Airbnb agreed in 2015 to collect the state’s sales tax, along with city and county taxes and local hotel-occupancy taxes, on behalf of its hosts and send the money directly to the N.C. Department of Revenue.

“We see Airbnb’s as a complementary accommodations offering in Winston Salem,” said Richard Geiger, president of Visit Winston-Salem. “As Winston Salem continues to grow as a viable meeting, corporate and visitor destination, our accommodations inventory will grow and follow suit.”

In 2018, Airbnb introduced its Experiences offerings in North Carolina that hosts can provide as part of a renter’s stay.

They include events as varied as a holiday tour of Wilmington, paddling on a river to visit local breweries (Asheville), fall and winter horseback trail rides (Candler), and a private chocolate-tasting party (Chapel Hill).

Background checks

The Campbells bought a house last fall and had Airbnb in mind when they spotted the potential for a dedicated 1,000-square-foot guest suite on the lower level.

“It is safely sealed off from the rest of our home and has a separate entrance,” Taylor Campbell said. “It features one bedroom with a king bed, en suite bathroom, large living-room space with a sleeper sofa, kitchen and outside deck.

Campbell said among their typical renters are older couples visiting grown children and grandchildren, business professionals attending a convention or the High Point Market, and people attending college- and university-related events, such as graduation, parents’ weekend and sports.

“We have had guests here to support loved ones receiving medical care or recuperating from a surgery,” he said. “We have had many repeat guests that we have gotten to know through the years.”

Campbell said Airbnb requires renters to pass a rigorous background check that includes referencing the OFAC database (a federal government database that includes terrorism) and other databases for criminal convictions and sex-offender registries.

“Potential renters have to disclose to us the nature of their visit, and we have turned down reservation requests on occasion because we did not believe it to be a good fit for us or our neighbors,” Campbell said.

He said one example was a group of young gamers that wanted to have a LAN party to play video games around the clock using a local area network.

“The potential renter was very honest about their intention to order pizza, pound energy drinks and stay up all hours playing games with a bunch of friends,” Campbell said. “We kindly declined and suggested they might want to find a less family-oriented area.”

Potential discrimination issues

In 2016, Airbnb conducted what it termed a re-examination of its host-guest policies when it comes to potential discrimination issues that it acknowledged it was slow to respond to.

The main prodding, according to Wired magazine, came from a paper written by group of Harvard professors that determined renters with traditionally black names found it much harder to book from a host than those with traditionally white names.

The paper, along with mounting stories about racist acts, was shared under the hashtag #Airbnbwhileblack.

The result was as a strengthening of Airbnb’s nondiscrimination policies that aims to ensure “guests of all backgrounds are treated with authentic hospitality and open minds.”

“Joining Airbnb, as a host or guest, means becoming part of a community of inclusion. Bias, prejudice, racism and hatred have no place on our platform or in our community,” the company said. “While hosts are required to follow all applicable laws that prohibit discrimination based on such factors as race, religion, national origin, and others listed below, we commit to do more than comply with the minimum requirements established by law.”

In October, Airbnb tweaked its policy further by saying it would no longer allow landlords to request a renter’s photo before accepting a booking agreement. A profile photo can be provided after the booking is confirmed.

It also has a website where renters can file complaints about discrimination concerns regarding hosts.

Keith Debbage, a joint professor of geography and sustainable tourism and hospitality at UNC Greensboro, recently released a report that included a section on Airbnb and other online residential-hospitality groups.

Debbage said he did not find in his research worrisome examples of individuals, whether hosts or guests, being discriminated against, “although that does not mean it does not exist.”

“The meteoric rise of third-party clearinghouses, like Airbnb and Couchsurfing, have transformed the hospitality industry in recent years,” Debbage said. “Airbnb now offers millions of listings, meaning that it offers more lodging options than, for example, Hilton Worldwide.”

Debbage said his research found that Airbnb “tends to complement, rather than cannibalize, traditional hotel demand.”

Other stories

Jann Sheehy has two spaces dedicated to Airbnb visitors: the upstairs of her house at 632 S. Poplar St., an fully restored 1860 Victorian farmhouse, and a bungalow at 508 W. Academy St. built in 1922. The Airbnb bookings represent extra income for Sheehy, who has a full-time job.

Sheehy said her spaces tend to attract visitors to UNC School of the Arts, Benton Convention Center or Old Salem.

“It made sense to me to operate both since the two properties are only three houses away from each other,” Sheehy said. “There are some economies of scale.

“The second floor of my home is typically rented for one to two nights at a time because it’s really just for sleeping, bathing and having some coffee while in town for particular reasons like weddings, auditions, football games, school tours, etc.,” she said.

“I do feel like I am helping families have nice travel experiences together because they are not cramped up in one hotel room,” Sheehy said.

She said the second floor of her house “is locked off from the rest of the downstairs living space, so I never worry about personal safety.”

“I have a lot of guests who definitely check those (safety) things out in addition to reading other guest reviews for my properties before booking,” she said.

“I think that my pricing is reasonable, and that attracts a lot of families who want to save money and have comfort at the same time.”

Not-in-my-backyard syndrome

The proliferation of Airbnb has led to what Debbage terms its biggest issue — the not-in-my-backyard syndrome and the effect on housing prices.

“Many large tourist cities have taken a relatively restrictive approach and limited Airbnb offerings because it can lead to significant commercial traffic in relatively quiet residential neighborhoods,” Debbage said. “At the same time, it could drive up house prices by limiting the supply of housing units available to residents.

“In the Triad, the issue of Airbnb has yet to really impact the market, given the relatively small number of offerings, and so Triad cities are only now grappling with them in the same way we are only now figuring out how to regulate electric scooters,” he said.

“We should expect more disruptive effects as the sharing economy continues to thrive in our region,” Debbage said.

Winston-Salem and Forsyth County officials said they are taking a wait-and-see approach.

“They are treated as any other rental term — we do not regulate,” City Manager Lee Garrity said. County Manager Dudley Watts said the county is in agreement with that stance.

The News & Observer of Raleigh reported Thursday that Airbnb and other short-term rentals are currently illegal in Raleigh neighborhoods, but the laws are not being enforced until new regulations can be put in place.

The city’s Healthy Neighborhood committee suggested adopting a policy similar to Asheville’s.

Under such a policy an individual would be allowed to rent out two guest rooms after paying a potential $208 fee for an annual short-term rental permit. Guests would be limited to four adults and their minor children in the two guest rooms. No large cooking appliances or refrigerators would be allowed in the guest rooms.

Landlords would have to notify neighbors within 100 feet of their property of their short-term renting operations. This would give neighbors a heads-up to be on the lookout for potential violations, but the neighbors could not stop the applicant from getting a permit.

The committee did not reach a consensus on whole-house rentals, in which the homeowner is not present during the renters’ stays.

Taylor Campbell said the reason he and his wife stopped using Airbnb with their condo in the Hanover Arms community is that a small number of nonresident owners opposed short-term renting. He said the community’s homeowners association, after nearly a year, changed its rules to where renters have to lease the space for at least 90 days at a time.

“That condo has been rented for over a year to a lovely couple from out of state building a house here in Winston-Salem,” Campbell said.

Reconnect

and make memories

Betsy Roletter’s rental offering is a little cabin she owns that she call “Layer Cake” near Linville and Grandfather Mountain. It is available through VRBO and HomeAway.

“Years ago, a colleague kindly invited me to use their log cabin for the weekend,” Roletter said. “I was amazed how rejuvenating this experience was.

Layer Cake was constructed from a log cabin that was burned.

“The wormy chestnut logs were reclaimed, an architect hired and a new design built a dozen or so years ago,” she said.

“Sharing Layer Cake cabin with our guests is to experience the warmth of the wood, the wind in the trees, a roaring fireplace and a chance to get away, reconnect and make memories with people they love — just like I did.”

Roletter said renters typically book the cabin for two to three days but sometimes for as long as month.

“We have singles, couples, young families, empty-nesters, and folks looking for an experience to hit the refresh button and disconnect from their normal routines,” Roletter said.

“The cabin has been used for wedding proposals, to celebrate anniversaries and birthdays, and to refresh after difficult life challenges. Many Floridians visit to experience the seasons.”

‘A lot of work’

When asked what advice they would give potential Airbnb renters, Roletter said “successful owners will need to be responsive, customer-focused and consistently create a positive experience for their guests.”

“Customers find it helpful to not only have the description of the property, but a sense of the experience the property will allow them,” she said.

Taylor Campbell said a host needs “to visualize yourself as a traveler and think through what you would want out of an Airbnb travel experience.”

“Take great pictures and accurately describe your space and amenities. Be prepared for the extra effort in cleaning and changing linens,” she said.

Sheehy said short-term landlords “have to pay attention to the details and keep up with cleanliness, repairs, decor and customer service. It is a lot of work, but it can be rewarding.”

“This business is no exception to ‘the customer is always right,’ and some property owners don’t fully understand that.”

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rcraver@wsjournal.com 336-727-7376 @rcraverWSJ

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