When George Washington University junior Matt Zachary had to quickly leave his study-abroad program in Chile, he and his parents knew it wouldn’t be wise for him to immediately return to the family home.
With his parents at a higher risk for serious complications from covid-19, the disease caused by the fast-spreading coronavirus, everyone decided Zachary should wait a couple weeks to make sure he was healthy after returning to Austin, where the family lives.
So his dad booked him an Airbnb for two weeks, and his parents stocked it with food before he arrived last week. Now, the 21-year-old is doing online coursework, watching movies and old NBA games and visiting with his parents from afar. They bring food, leave it on a back deck and stand a safe distance away while they catch up most days.
“It’s been pretty rough,” Zachary said.
The last several weeks have been devastating for the entire travel industry, as hotels have seen bookings plummet, airlines have slashed flights and cruise lines have stopped sailing worldwide. Airbnb is no exception, but customers like Zachary — as well as those seeking refuge from crowded coronavirus hot spots — are providing some of the middling business that remains.
“These are different forms of financial lifelines for these hosts who have seen their other reservations disappear,” says Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst at Atmosphere Research Group.
According to research from AirDNA, which provides data about short-term rentals, vacation-rental revenue in many major U.S. cities was “declining or sharply declining” by the week of March 15, and the picture in Europe was “extremely bleak.”
“It is an absolute bloodbath out there for these vacation-rental managers and vacation-rental owners,” says Scott Shatford, CEO of AirDNA. “The cancellation rates over the last couple weeks are astronomical.”
But data out Monday showed that although revenue is down in dense urban centers like New York, Boston and Chicago, numbers are up in less-populated suburban and rural areas that can be easily reached from those cities.
“Vacation rentals are providing safe havens for an entirely new demographic,” AirDNA said in a blog post. “Whether it’s retirees looking for refuge in remote hideaways, professionals looking for an interim workspace, or stranded travelers in need of a quick plan B — vacation rentals are becoming an extremely reliable fallback plan. Ironically, ‘vacation’ rentals may have officially outgrown their original name and purpose.”
For Johnnie Moreno, who has spent the last six months on the road with his wife, Olga, a remote Airbnb near Joshua Tree in California was the best option when travel had to stop. Neither has been sick, but they plan to stay at the property until April 22 before figuring out their next move.
“We were kind of stranded when they said, ‘Everyone stay home,’ ” says Moreno, 39, who plays live poker and creates content about it. His wife works in public relations. They could have stayed with family in San Diego, but Moreno, who is known as Johnnie Vibes, didn’t want to put his parents at risk.
“We feel like we’re in a position to take measures that are in the best interest of us and the people around us,” he said. “We just want to be responsible.”
Moreno said he was able to find a place that would normally go for $6,000 for half the price; the host, he said, told him there had been 100 cancellations in two days.
“It was, like, kind of a win-win for us,” he said. “We found a place off the grid. For them, they were like, ‘At least we have some money coming in.’”
Airbnb would not provide booking data, but acknowledged in a message to hosts that they are facing “a significant loss of bookings and a large number of cancellations.” And last week, an official blog post said searches for longer stays nearby had more than doubled worldwide. Bookings for four to six weeks in the United States increased 30 percent over the previous week, the blog said.
The company has been criticized in waves: first by travelers, for not offering a flexible enough cancellation policy, and then by hosts, for allowing guests to cancel in most parts of the world and get full refunds if their reservations were made on or before March 14 and the check-in date was between March 14 and April 14. In recent days, Airbnb users with reservations after April 14 have been taking the company to task for not extending the date.
Airbnb asked lawmakers to include hosts in any economic relief package and said the $2 trillion stimulus bill passed Wednesday by the Senate could provide some help, Reuters reported. And the company is providing tips and guidance to owners and managers about everything from adding discounts for longer stays to cleaning and disinfecting.
Airbnb specifically hopes hosts update their property descriptions to reflect the times without breaking content rules.
What’s allowed: describing enhanced cleaning procedures due to the pandemic or updating a listing to highlight its family-friendliness or suitability for working from home. Not okay: promoting a property as “covid-free” or “quarantine-friendly,” or using toilet paper or hand sanitizer as a hook to attract attention. The company is asking hosts to remove any mention of “covid-19,” “the coronavirus” or “quarantine” in listing titles.
Still, some hosts are going there. One 11-bedroom home in Bradenton, Fla.,‘ proclaimed: “Quarantine in Paradise! Save Your Group’s Vacation.” The listing promised plenty of toilet paper and extra sanitary precautions.
“Escape to this waterfront mansion, your solution to take that vacation you’ve been planning, stay socially distanced, and pretend the world isn’t going crazy for a few days,” it said.
Another in Nashville urged: “Quarantine Here! We have TP!” One San Diego listing advertised its reduced prices ($35 a night) and relative privacy: “Self Isolate cottage HERE! HALF OFF!”
“Clearly, hosts are going to have to be creative and really speak to things that are important to guests right now,” Makarand Mody, an assistant professor of hospitality marketing at Boston University, said in an email.
He said guests should make sure to communicate with hosts before arriving about cleaning and sanitation routines, fresh linens and what kind of essential items are stocked so they can plan to bring their own, if necessary, for long stays.
“Finding out if the listing is located close to a grocery store or the pharmacy is important so that you are not stuck in a location where you can’t access the essentials,” he said. “Ideally, you don’t want to be too far away from a hospital, either.”
Carey Smith, who is self-isolating in an Airbnb in the Canadian province of New Brunswick with her 16- and 19-year-old sons, said that when they arrived, they could smell the cleaning products. The hosts left a bottle of cleaner and sent a message explaining the extra steps they had taken for protection — but Smith still did her own additional cleaning.
Because Smith normally travels for her job as chief customer officer for a tech company, and her husband works in the news business in another city, her 73-year-old mother lives with the family. When one of her sons still had to go to work — which he has since stopped — Smith realized it wasn’t a safe environment for her mother. So she and her sons found the Airbnb and settled in, and her mother isolated at home.
“This is serious enough for me to stop and say, ‘All right, we’re done, we’re going to hunker in,’ ” she said.
Smith booked the property for two weeks but said she will extend her stay or find another Airbnb at the end to keep her mother safe.
“We’re going to protect people,” she said. “We’re not going to carry this around. We’re just going to do what is right.”
Simon Frankel Pratt was also thinking of his mother when he returned to Canada from the U.K., where he is a lecturer at the University of Bristol. Because the Canadian government asked anyone returning from abroad to self-isolate for two weeks — a request that became a mandate this week — he and his husband found a small apartment on Airbnb near his mother’s house in Vancouver, where they would normally stay.
“I am calling it our ‘QuarBNB,’ ” Pratt, 32, said in an email. They chose to stay at the property for 12 days to make sure they were not sick before sharing a house with his mother, whose age and minor health concerns would put her at a higher risk of complications. They plan to look for a sublet or other short-term rental after a brief stay at his mother’s to avoid potentially putting her in danger.
“Rather than rent a hotel room, which would be expensive and constrained, we decided this way would be more comfortable,” he said. The hosts understood their situation and were fine with their stay, he said, and the place was “relatively cheap” with the bonus of a yard that has allowed friends and Pratt’s mother to visit at a safe distance of four to six meters, or roughly 12 to 18 feet.
Although, he said, he considers self-isolation followed by social distancing to be a “moral and community obligation,” he expressed the difficulty of the whole situation.
Said Pratt: “I described it to a friend as ‘vaguely surreal,' but then corrected that to ‘plaguely surreal,’ which feels more apt."