By Kyle Barr
Miller Place resident Michele Rice-Nelson noticed the back corner of the dust ruffles under the couches in her Airbnb were slightly folded, and with an “oh” she dropped to her knees and straightened them.
They were only a few small things, but they mattered to Rice-Nelson. The blinds were a hair’s breath askew and she aligned them. She checked to see if there were waters in the mini fridge next to the bed. She flitted over to the bedspread to straighten and pat it down. She expected her guests to arrive later, and she wants her external suite turned Airbnb to be flawless before they arrived.
“I’m a bit of a perfectionist,” Rice-Nelson said, then laughed. She is the franchise owner of the travel agency Cruise Planners World Tour, and her Airbnb is one way she reaches a huge, more personal market for clients. “Its that attention to detail, you know. In this chaotic world that we’re living in now, just those little things, those random acts of kindness, those are the things that we introduce that make people go ‘wow,’” she said. “As long as people can feel appreciated then I know I’ve done a good thing.”
The personal touch has made Airbnbs, an online service that allows people to use their homes as short-term rentals, a growing trend on Long Island. The number of guest arrivals rose 57.4 percent to 74,000 from 2015 to 2016. The number of guests and hosts is expected to grow on Long Island in 2017. Hosts on Long Island earned a median yearly income of $9,800, according to Airbnb spokesman Andrew Kalloch.
That income has been an unexpected boon for Port Jefferson resident Sophie Partridge Jones, who didn’t assume much when she first put her extra room up on Airbnb. “The beginning of last summer we just took some pictures and set it up on Airbnb and started getting bookings immediately,” she said. The money also aided Jones and her family in their day-to-day living expenses. “I mean, it doesn’t replace having a job, but having been booked the entire summer averaging about $70 a night comes out to be pretty significant.”
Matt Lohse, a surgeon at Stony Brook University Hospital, has been renting out the small, serene cottage on his property in Rocky Point since March 2015. He said that while the extra income is nice, the real fun is from providing a living space for travelers.
“We would always talk that if for some reason my wife and I ever had to quit our day jobs or maybe as a retirement gig, a bed and breakfast would be kind of a fun thing,” Lohse said. “We get people from all walks of life. We’ve had families, we’ve had couples, we’ve had single people. We had people who came over all the way from Germany.”
While Airbnb hosts can find joy in hosting strangers, the hospitality industry has been less welcoming to the new business model. Opinions of Airbnb from hospitality industry groups range from skepticism to outright hostility.
According to John Tsunis, owner of the Holiday Inn Express on Route 347 in Centereach, any vacancy “is going to impact not only my hotel but all the hotels in the general area. It’s very important to the viability of a hospitality venue. If we can’t sustain that then it not only impacts the hotel itself but also staffing, employment and the whole ecostructure of the hotel.”
Airbnb sees its business as only helping to expand the interest and number of customers for the entire leisure industry. “We think that home sharing is increasing the tourism pie. It’s not a zero sum game. The hotel industry had one of their biggest years last year,” said Kalloch.
The Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows that employment in the leisure sector has been steadily rising year over year since 2010. Local inns have not found a lack of customers either.
“We were busy last year but we’re already busier this year,” said Elyse Buchman, who co-owns The Stony Brookside Bed & Bike Inn with her husband Marty. “Our area does have a shortage of rooms and an abundance of visitors due to [Stony Brook] University as well as private events that are held in the area.”
“We’re very selective, and Airbnb hasn’t hurt us at all. We turn away people all the time,” said Dan Tarantino, the owner of The Ransome Inn in Port Jefferson. “I’m old, I’m retired, my wife and I cherry pick because we don’t want to be that busy.”
But for Tsunis, the one item that has been the most visible concern are things dealing with safety. Unlike regular hotels, Airbnbs are not inspected for things like working sprinklers or fire alarms as well as the sanitary conditions inside the rooms. Airbnb uses software like behavioral analysis to try and root out any problematic hosts or guests from its service along with a verified ID system, but these do not necessarily protect guests or hosts once they finally come together. While Airbnb will sometimes send a photographer to new listings to take pictures, it does not send anybody to check for safety issues.
Some local and state governments have tried enacting laws against Airbnb for some of these reasons. In January the Town of Huntington drafted a resolution that proposed potentially banning Airbnb rentals. However, due to public outcry from Airbnb hosts, the town this month proposed restrictions on advertising their homes and the length of guest’s stay.
But for people who host an Airbnb and have been doing it long enough to have a 5-star rating and a list of glowing reviews, these problems are mostly irrelevant, and hotels’ complaints of Airbnb are beside the point.
Before moving to Long Island Jones worked as finance manager at several hotels in California. “When I was working in a hotel I probably would have been more against Airbnb then I am now, because, you know, it was competition. But I think things are changing in this economy — you see it with things like Uber, you see it with Airbnb.”