B&B our internet guest - welcoming house visitors
Opening up your home to globe-trotting travellers can be a nice little earner
In a converted Georgian mill near Dublin city centre, Alice Coghlan and her husband Radek Zemlicka are making a 62-year-old writer from Florida feel at home during his two-month stay in their apartment.
The writer, in Dublin to seek inspiration for his book, is free to admire their antiques – some of which date from the English Jacobean period – take a soak in their jacuzzi bath, use their wi-fi or watch DVDs in his bedroom. If he doesn't feel like going to a restaurant, he can join the newlyweds in a candlelit dinner whipped up by Coghlan in exchange for €10 while she regales him with stories from Irish history, literature and culture.
Coghlan, who works in theatre and Zemlicka, a trained potter with a mean line in trendy teaposts, had never met the writer before he arrived, nor is he tenant. Rather, he is the couple's latest paying guest from Airbnb.com, an American website that allows people to rent out their spare room to visitors on a nightly basis.
The website's customers can choose private rooms and even entire homes in their location of choice around the world and then email the property owner about a booking. The host can read the would-be guest's profile, check out their social media presence and even reviews from other hosts before deciding whether to accept or refuse the booking. As part of this trust-based system, homeowners post a review of the guest once they leave for other hosts to read.
Coghlan and Zemlicka's Islandbridge home is one of more than 1,000 Irish properties listed on Airbnb. Through the website, travellers to Ireland can opt for a 15th-Century castle outside Cashel, Co Tipperary, or stay at a restored 200-year-old church in Athenry, Co Galway. For €20 a night, they can sleep in a tree house in Kinvara or a mobile home in Kilfenora in Co Clare. For €199 a night, there's a lighthouse at Wicklow Head or an entire luxury home in Foxrock.
Airbnb has become a lifeline for canny homeowners who need to generate extra cash, either to supplement their hefty mortgage payments or incomes that have been eroded by the recession.
Coghlan, a freelance theatre director, bought her apartment in 2004 and let out her second bedroom to long-term tenants before she met her husband, a potter from the Czech Republic. Since tying the knot last year, Airbnb has afforded them more privacy than having a stranger permanently living at their home, as well as the opportunity to meet people from all over the world.
"Being artists, money is tight," she said. "But by having Airbnb guests ten nights a month, we can earn €500 – the same amount we'd get a month if we had a tenant.
"I rented out my spare room long-term for many years and some of the tenants are still my friends. But flatmates can throw a party and not include you, or have romantic dinners with boyfriends that you're not invited to.
"With Airbnb, we have strict rules and we put a copy of them in the bedroom. If a guest has people to stay, they pay extra. Guests don't use our kitchen – we cook for them instead. So we're in control, whereas with a tenant you're not."
The couple discovered Airbnb as guests when they arrived in Casablanca after a trip to Mali, and went on to use the accommodation service on their honeymoon trip around Italy. While they were away, Airbnb guests stayed at their Dublin apartment, financing their entire honeymoon.
"It's a great way to experience places and hosts fall over themselves to make you feel welcome," Coghlan said. "We can see guests' reviews and write reviews of our own; I mentioned in a review of a place we stayed at in Italy that I'd been electrocuted in their bathroom by a hairdryer."
In the six years since Airbnb was first set up by a duo who rented out air mattresses in their apartment to guests attending a San Francisco conference, the website has become worth some $2.5bn, with 500,000 properties available in more than 190 countries. The company, whose financial backers include Hollywood actor Ashton Kutcher, predicts it will have booked more overnight stays than the Hilton and InterContinental hotel chains combined by the end of 2014.
In Ireland, Airbnb is creating hospitality entrepreneurs out of people who have little experience running a B&B. Bill and Brigid Hackett last year restored part of their 1850s farmhouse in west Cork just so they could rent out two bedrooms through Airbnb and subsidise their semi-retirement.
The couple moved to England in the 1960s, where they ran an interior design business. After their two sons flew the nest, they decided to retire in 2001 to their holiday home outside Bantry. They discovered that without their family, the home was too large for their needs. Instead of trying to sell the property in a lacklustre market or secure a long-term tenant, they signed up for Airbnb.
For €35 a night, guests at the farmhouse have two bedrooms, a private sitting room warmed by a wood-burning stove, and a separate entrance at their disposal. For an extra €5, they can tuck into a cooked breakfast and the Hacketts' homemade bread, jam and honey.
"I was surprised to find it's become a nice little earner," Bill Hackett said.
"You get paid through Airbnb 24 hours after guests arrive, so you don't have to deal with taking money off people. This means you feel like you are having house guests rather than partaking in a business transaction.
"I love that people can't write a review unless they've stayed there. The reviews really mean something because they are genuine. There is always the risk someone untrustworthy will come into house, but we don't hide the silver."
Hackett believes Airbnb has tapped into travellers' hunger for experiencing Ireland by staying in a private home with like-minded people rather than face the anonymity of a hotel chain.
"I think hotels have a little lesson to learn – that their social experience needs to be better if they want to attract people who want to be chatted to," Hackett said.
Richard Pawson agrees. After 10 years flying to Dublin from the UK for work, the IT design consultant had tired of staying in the capital's hotels. After a relative told him about Airbnb, Pawson began using the service last autumn. He is currently staying at his sixth Airbnb home in Dublin, where he is working on a project for the Department of Social Protection.
"It was partly out of boredom with hotels," he said. "I found myself wanting to stay in better hotels all the time, just to make the experience more bearable.
"I've never had a bad experience with Airbnb in Dublin (though there was a rather smelly dog at one I stayed at elsewhere). It's fun meeting new people. I'm staying tonight in a very pleasant modern apartment in the Docklands area.
"I tend to pick the slightly more upmarket Airbnb properties, but I'm still paying less than half what I would for a hotel. Though Airbnb is still small here, I think it will take market share from hotels."
The hospitality industry and some authorities are not taking Airbnb's march on their territory lying down. The state of New York sued the company last year for violating a law passed in 2010 barring private citizens from renting an entire apartment for less than 30 days. One New York judge ruled in May that an Airbnber called Nigel Warren was running an illegal hotel and fined him $2,400, after he rented out part of his apartment to an Airbnb customer.
Coghlan, meanwhile, has additional concerns. Despite Airbnb running training events in Dublin for hosts, where it doles out advice on tax, Coghlan is worried that the Government will eventually come to see her and others as a new source of tax. At present, anyone who rents out their spare room can earn €10,000 a year tax-free.
"Because of Google and other employers, the busiest hosts in the city are on the Silicon Docks" where Airbnb itself is opening its European headquarters, Coghlan said. "I wouldn't be surprised to see some form of bed tax being introduced because Airbnb has too much business for them not to care."