Like many parents trying to juggle child care, conference calls, and full-time work while quarantining at home, Leslie Godwin, 34, has kids who think they’re on vacation. She’s grown accustomed to her daughters, Dia, 7, and Aria, 4, asking every morning if Mom can “stop working so much and just be on vacation, too.”
But in the case of the Godwins, they actually are on a vacation of sorts. Leslie Godwin, her husband, and their daughters, who live in Arkansas, were preparing for a spring break trip to Costa Rica the week of March 16 that was foiled by COVID-19-related travel bans. The family pivoted to vacationing at a home near the beach in Destin, Florida, that they found through D. Alexander, a company that rents family-sized homes via Airbnb. A week in, Godwin decided to extend the weeklong stay. Now, for an additional $3,300, they’re staying until April 10, with the kids enjoying the backyard pool while the parents work from the porch. Crews drop off cleaning supplies, handle the landscaping, and clean the pool.
“Could we be quarantined in Arkansas? Absolutely,” Godwin says. “But if we’re going to be quarantined, I at least want to be outside. We have a great little space here. We rented bikes, it has the feel of everything about a luxury vacation, and it’s affordable.”
The Godwins’ experience—booking short-term rentals to make social distancing more bearable—is not uncommon. There’s increasing evidence that amid a widespread falloff of leisure travel and abrupt curtailing of demand for short-term vacation rentals, some Airbnb hosts are doing brisk business offering ways to get away from the impact of COVID-19. Data from multiple analysts suggest hosts are actively trying to market their properties as ways to escape dense cities, or as “quarantine pads” if a friend or family member requires isolation.
For Godwin, it’s an investment in making this time together more productive and less stressful. “It is such a blessing to be able to crank out work and be with our family,” she says.
In regions that market themselves as vacation getaways, there’s a question of whether this kind of travel is appropriate during the pandemic. In areas near New York City, such as the Hamptons and other regions of Long Island, many local residents have complained about New Yorkers, who may be asymptomatic carriers of the illness, booking rental stays, buying up food at local supermarkets, and potentially straining limited medical facilities. While the CDC hasn’t, and doesn’t ever, issue domestic travel bans, it does suggest travelers and visitors be cautious if visiting areas “experiencing spread of the disease” and as of March 28, urged residents of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut to refrain from “non-essential domestic travel for 14 days effective immediately.”
Airbnb hosts operating in drive markets near major metros—those within a few hours’ drive of a city that typically see people book weekend stays—haven’t seen the drop-offs found in urban markets. Data from Guesty, a popular software program for hosts to manage their short-term rental properties, has actually shown increased booking activity in areas such as the Hudson Valley, the Catskills, and upstate (near New York City); Napa Valley, Sonoma, and Lake Tahoe (near San Francisco); Joshua Tree and Palm Springs (near Los Angeles); and Boulder, Colorado, and other more remote parts of the Mountain West region of the United States. Some hosts are branding their homes as “coronavirus-free,” offering supplies such as toilet paper and masks (As of April 3, Airbnb updated their policy prohibiting hosts from using certain terms in listing titles, such as coronavirus and quarantine). Due to the demand for long-term stays, Guesty found the average global reservation length has gone from 4.5 nights on average to eight nights per reservation. Guesty has dubbed these city dwellers looking to escape coronavirus hot spots “cityscapers.”
A March 23 report by Airdna, a consulting company that analyzes Airbnb booking rates and pricing, found that properties considered rural have seen “significant year-over-year gains,” while urban units have seen a decline. The firm found roughly 73 percent of March Airbnb revenue was made outside of urban centers. In addition, destination-based hosts have lowered their rates until summer, presumably chasing this same “escape-the-city” market, and for the first time in five years, booked rates are now higher than advertised rates for the summer months, suggesting high demand for these properties.
Cortney Bibby, 38, and her husband live in Montana and rent two of their own properties, including an upscale treehouse, and manage a handful of others nearby, making 25 percent of their income from Airbnb. Coronavirus concerns caused 90 percent of their existing bookings for the year to evaporate in the space of a few weeks in mid-March.
But still, Bibby says she received two inquiries in late March from Californians looking for 30-day stays. It’s a rare request: She typically does short-terms stays, and the longest previous stay was 11 days. It also raises some serious questions for Bibby.
“We care very much about the spread of the disease and don’t want to bring it to our community,” she says. “People live out here to get away from things like that. I am open to taking that type of booking, but it would require additional information: what their exposure has been [to the virus], are they familiar enough with this kind of rural setting. I would want to talk to them.”
“There are very few times the entire world is being told to stay at home,” says Alex Allison, CEO and founder of D. Alexander, the company with which the Godwins booked their Florida stay.
His properties in markets such as Destin, Florida, and the Smoky Mountain region of Tennessee haven’t seen a negative impact from COVID-19 concerns. In March, 27 percent of existing clients actually extended their stays, an “unheard of” rate of rebooking, and guests are booking trips days in advance, as opposed to the typical lead times of months. This new market reality has led the company to pivot recently; it re-launched April 2 to offer “destination isolation solutions” of differing lengths up to three months, hyping benefits including wine and stocked game rooms. A five-bedroom home costs about $400 a night for the three-month package, or roughly $46,000, less expensive than what D. Alexander would regularly charge at this time of the year.
“These are uncertain times and there’s only so long you can stay in your home without going stir crazy,” Allison says. “As long as you can safely get from point A to point B, there are more isolated options out there than simply staying in New York City. We want to help people find remote homes.”
Godwin and her family say they would “absolutely, 100 percent” stay in their Florida rental past April 10, but they just sold a house back home in Arkansas and need to move their stuff from their current home. They may head out after they get settled; Godwin has contemplated traveling through the Pacific Northwest, “self-quarantining the family in their car” while moving between a series of weeklong Airbnb stays throughout the region.
Vered Schwarz, COO of Guesty, has seen this “quarantine pads” rebranding of existing short-term rental units taking place across the globe. In urban markets, listings have begun appearing nationwide, especially in Los Angeles and New York, touting how they’re “great for quarantine,” or cutting prices “because of the virus” (both changed their titles after Airbnb’s April 3 policy shift, but the descriptions still reference the COVID-19 outbreak and “a more comfortable place to self quarantine.”) One hosting company that operates in Australia, Optinest, has marketed specifically to this need, offering to grocery shop for those in isolation, increasing long-term discounts, and outfitting all properties with sanitized products, toilet paper, face masks, and a PlayStation game console. Its efforts over the last month have increased bookings across the board, according to Optinest.
Schwarz says that in the past few months, hosts in Asia found success rewriting marketing copy for their units, posting new photos that show off fully equipped kitchens, listing specific information on cleaning regimens, and offering to provide hand sanitizers and masks.
Matthew Lerner co-founded Makomi, a company that manages more than 300 short-term rental properties, including many in New York City. He says with such an immediate halt on booking—some cities he works in are seeing a 90 percent drop—New York hosts are looking to provide isolation pads for family members who want to separate.
Airbnb has struggled to respond quickly and effectively to the impact that the novel coronavirus is having on hosts’ business. The company recently took significant steps to financially support hosts whose income has dried up, launching a $250 million host relief fund on March 30 that would reimburse hosts for stays canceled due to coronavirus concerns; some hosts have said it’s too little, too late.
On March 27, the company announced an initiative to house 100,000 health care and relief workers responding to the COVID-19 outbreak. A company spokesperson said they are paying attention to any properties rented out as part of this program. “If we learn from our partners that hosts are not following protocol—enhanced cleaning, social distancing with their guests, and allowing 72 hours between stays—they will be removed from our platform to house COVID-19 responders,” they said. “We are also exploring additional efforts as the standards evolve and we work with medical experts on new protocols.” But they didn’t respond to questions about how they certify that units offered to the general public as quarantine pads are maintaining a strict level of cleanliness and sanitation.
Regardless of whether specific safety standards are enforced, some hosts are finding many willing guests. Marion Jones, a writer and security professional who works for concerts and special events, rents out rooms in a three-bedroom cabin he owns in Crestline, California, a forested area about 75 miles east of LA. He resumed renting out the rooms on Airbnb seven months ago, and now they provide his only income. About a month ago, after a particularly slow period where he was forced to lower rents from $50 a night to as low as $12, a surge hit. He’s now booked solid through mid-April.
“People are starting to realize going back to the mountains is better than being in crowded cities,” he says. “I changed the minimum stay to three days, but people are booking for two to four weeks. I even have people texting and calling, asking if they can make deals on the sides for dates that are already booked on my calendar. Airbnb had been useless to me for the last couple of years, and now it’s a goldmine, fattening my pockets.”
Every time he visits the cabin between stays, he cleans, wipes, disinfects, and vacuums wearing masks and gloves. Via the living room security camera in one unit, he found one guest who had stayed there for five weeks had been regularly deep-cleaning the unit, from the stove to the doorknobs.
Jones also says he’s not above kicking people out if he sees them coughing or sneezing.
“Why let people in?” he says. “I need money. But if I know they’re sick, they’ll be gone in 24 hours. I’m going to show up and make sure they physically leave my property.”