Here to Stay: Meet four Irish Airbnb hosts who have opened their homes to strangers
Nice to airbnb you...
Orla Neligan meets four Irish Airbnb hosts who have opened their homes, and carved out a lucrative new career path in the process.
Airbnb began as a sofa-surfing website in 2008 whereby travellers (mainly students) could, for a small sum, crash on people's couches. Seven years later and it's a $13bn business with over one million listings in 34,000 cities, turning people into part-time entrepreneurs in the process.
Castles, houseboats, ski chalets, cottages, spare rooms, the choice is endless, and cheaper than a hotel. Granted, you may not get a continental breakfast in bed or a chocolate on your pillow - you may even have to share a bathroom with other strangers and your living room with a dog - but that choice is yours to make. It's all about the personal, intimate experience and comforts of 'home', albeit someone else's.
The currency is trust and that stretches to all parties involved; both host and guest must post detailed profiles and are put through a series of careful checks so the likelihood of welcoming an axe murderer into your home is rare. Although recently a couple in Canada returned to find their home had been trashed after a 'drug-induced orgy' - a rogue story but evidently one of the risks of the sharing economy. On the plus side, it's allowed millions of ordinary people to build businesses and become brands from their spare rooms and visitors to feel they are 'at home' in a city even if they have to share the bathroom...
The Designer Home: Dundrum, Co. Dublin
Being able to travel while still making a salary inspired designer Sarah Lafferty's (photo above) decision to become an Airbnb host
Tucked away down a quiet laneway a minute from Dundrum village is a designer cottage owned by interior designer Sarah Lafferty, who affectionately refers to it as the 'Tardis' due to its unfolding spacious interior. For Sarah, Airbnb has been life-changing, literally. In 2012, in the depths of the recession and with a long winter ahead, she began to rethink her financial position and career. Airbnb made it possible.
"I was offered the chance to train as a yoga teacher in Bali and discovered I could rent my house to someone through Airbnb for several months while I travelled. It was so successful that I continued renting and had the most magical year all funded by Airbnb."
Apart from travelling, one of the main draws to being an Airbnb host has been the safety net of an income and the luxury of time, which has afforded Sarah the opportunity to explore other businesses, one of which is an Airbnb consultancy. Having recently been promoted to Superhost status (in the world of Airbnb that makes her a prom queen), her guest reviews have vaulted her to the top of the list meaning she is well qualified to offer advice.
"As a live-in, live-out host, I've learnt a lot about how to do it well. I see so many people doing it badly. You have to imagine that you're a tiny boutique hotel and bring that level of professionalism to it consistently." Surprisingly, in all her years as a host, she hasn't had any bad experience or unruly visitors. "The hot water went once. I refunded the family and they joked about how they used the money to buy Aran jumpers. It's taught me that most people out there are really decent, kind and respectful. I got to travel the world and, as a live-in host, I got to meet amazing people and ended up travelling the world without having to leave my front door."
The Award-winning Design: Dolphin's Barn, Co. Dublin
Losing his job spurred Barry O'Mahony to join Airbnb, giving him a stable income in the process
'No showers after 11pm, and remember others need to use the bathroom so don't be long.' House rule number 1 on Barry's listing. Imperative if you are to survive and thrive as an Airbnb host it seems. "Be clear from the outset what the rules are and only offer what you can deliver," says Barry O'Mahony, who found his way into the world of Airbnb after losing his well-paid job.
"I gave myself six weeks to see if it was for me and soon realised that you are a host but you are also concierge, night porter, security, housekeeper, receptionist and guide. You also have to be content with strangers in your home. Luckily, I am."
According to Barry there are simply "a lot of normal people out there who just want somewhere to sleep and to see the city through a local's eyes" as opposed to the sometimes impersonal and sterile experience of a hotel. He is happy to draw maps, suggest itineraries and drop guests to the local greasy spoon in Crumlin for a proper 'full Irish'. His three-bedroom house means he can accommodate a maximum of five people including himself.
Guests come and go at varying times and Barry ensures other guests are aware of any unusual visitors (namely toddlers) or arrival times to maintain a happy homestay experience for everyone. In his two years as a host, there have only been a handful of untidy guests. "I'm very lucky in that I've had no major trouble and only a mild brush with people flouting the house rules." The one thing he wasn't prepared for was the housekeeping. "I'm doing five times as much washing and housekeeping but, on the plus side, I've rediscovered my home town and I'm starting to take pride in my city again." So, is there an extension on the horizon? "If I bought another place or extended for the sake of expanding my Airbnb business, I think I'd lose the personal touch which is the best thing about it."
The Working Farm: Wicklow
Diversifying into the agri-tourism sector through Airbnb with minimum investment has supported the McKenzie family farm during the seasonality of their business
"Let's face it, nobody is really prepared to invite strangers into their home for the hell of it," says Selina McKenzie who, together with her husband Alex and two children Daisy and Paddy own a working sheep farm in Wicklow. Their reason for becoming Airbnb hosts two years ago was predominantly financial: agriculture was depressed and they needed an alternative source of income.
"We were interested in becoming a B&B but couldn't live up to the spec required. This is a working farm so we couldn't have a sick lamb in the kitchen while people ate their breakfast." Airbnb gave them the opportunity to practice becoming hosts without the outlay or interference to the farm, which is their main industry. Ninety-five guests later and they've proven their capabilities as ideal hosts, plus they've learnt a thing or two from the experience. "We don't swear as much as a family anymore," laughs Selina. "It's been a hugely positive experience for us all, especially my children who have been exposed to the most interesting, eclectic travellers. We've had diplomats, marathon runners, astronauts, a transatlantic sailor and two Amish men." In return, guests can enjoy the 'real life' experience of the farm.
"I tell the guests, 'I can show you to your room but I have to feed a pet lamb first'. Invariably they'll come with me to feed the lamb, they love seeing how it all works."
Opening their home and farm to the public has encouraged Selina and Alex to appreciate where they live and what they do. "After 20 years of farming you forget to look up. This experience has made me stop and appreciate it more."
And what about the downside? "Laundry," says Selina with a groan. "I'm a tractor driver so I'm a bit ham-fisted with housekeeping." It may be out of her comfort zone but, in her words, "you're only as good as your last review" and so far it's been glowing.
The Seaside Retreat: Dunmore East, Co. Waterford
A combination of multiple property listings, cheap booking rates and accessibility has increased business for inn owner Clifden Foyle
When he isn't greeting guests at the quaint Strand Inn in the picturesque seaside village of Dunmore East, Co Waterford, owner Clifden Foyle is frantically trying to keep up with his Airbnb enquiries for his other nearby properties, a beachside cottage and a townhouse.
"That's probably the only downside," he admits, "your response time is key; if you're not on it, you could lose the business, hence why I find myself checking Airbnb emails at 2am," he laughs. As a live-out host, Clifden admits that the experience is a little different to others; there's no sharing of space in your own home, they book guests through the office which makes arrivals easier but they still get the personal interaction. Plus, guests can pop next door to The Strand for a spot of dinner if they don't feel like cooking. But like any host, you have to be proactive.
"We were a bit complacent at first and then we realised how much business was coming from Airbnb, not to mention how much cheaper it is for us to use it than other booking sites and agents, so it was in our interest to keep on top of it, changing rates, refurbishing the properties and keeping guests happy."
All three properties are listed but the most popular is the beach cottage for obvious reasons. "We had no idea it would be this popular. But, while it's challenging to juggle it all, anything that generates more bed nights for us is a win-win. It's great to see tourism picking up."
Knowing your customer and being your customer is key to Airbnb's success. Next week Clifden is off to Milan on business and has already selected his Airbnb pad for the weekend, after that he's planning a holiday with his wife and kids, somewhere warm, family-friendly and complete with Airbnb host.