What I’ve learned hosting travelers with Airbnb for a year 

Of all the buzzy web companies that will define my generation, Airbnb is likely the one I’m most jealous of not creating.

As a traveler and host on Couchsurfing.org since 2008, like millions I missed the too-obvious opportunity that people would pay for a better experience with a similar global community. It’s brilliant and connective and exciting and has a solid revenue plan — and if it has become the primary example of racial bias in the sharing economy, that’s something to be corrected, not a reason for it to be destroyed (Likewise, criticism of it driving up rental costs is probably not true yet)

I joined the peer-to-peer housing platform in December 2011 and took my first trip using the service in February 2012 to Birmingham, Alabama with my then girlfriend SACM. More than four years later, I continue using the service to book travel accommodations, preferring the service for homey placements in residential neighborhoods with hosts who can give local recommendations. I just find it far more interesting than a hotel — it helps that they’re almost always more affordable too.

So I was excited that I could combine these interests — welcoming guests, offering advice and making some additional money — as an Airbnb host when SACM and I bought a home together a year ago.

Last month marked a year of our hosting guests via Airbnb. To celebrate, I wanted to share lessons, advice and, yes, data from the experience.

For my wife and I, it’s been a wonderful experience. We have paid nearly half of our monthly mortgage payment for the last year with proceeds from hosting Airbnb guests. We’ve opened up our home and met great friends, pointed them in the direction of many great Philadelphia experiences and been paid for the privilege (saving most guests some money too).

For most of our time on the platform, we’ve been Airbnb Superhosts, which basically means we meet a bunch of fairly challenging criteria around how highly our guests rank us and our level of responsiveness. That gets us a flood of requests and means we end up representing the Airbnb brand quite a bit — which means I have some thoughts to share.

Here are some notes for other Airbnb hosts:

This shows the first 12-month cycle of our Airbnb revenue.
This shows the first 12-month cycle of our Airbnb revenue. September through December is from 2015. I’ve removed the dollar figures for privacy reasons, so this is just meant to show that there wasn’t an extended off-season.
  • We’ve hosted 50 guests and had more than 130 requests in a year.
  • Will it last? Who knows, but for now, we’re paying, on average, half of our mortgage monthly with two bedrooms that share a bathroom on the third floor of our home. See the chart above, with specific numbers removed. (Note September through December data is from 2015 to show a complete year). I’m not sure what changes to my city or my neighborhood will impact the volume of visitors we get. So we don’t depend on it but we most certainly are enjoying it, meeting friends and saving up.
  • We have charged between $40 and $80 per night. This varied by the season and day of the week. Airbnb has a dynamic pricing feature, and depending on my own interest, I’d fiddle with pricing. We have two rooms, one of which is much larger, so that one was priced higher too.
  • Peak weekends were mostly noise. When the Pope visited Philadelphia and the DNC convention was here, we did charge more (the $120 per night we charged for the Pope weekend was our highest ever), but we’ve never gone beyond that, or even close to it. I think the bluster around huge increases in cost is mostly talk and no action. Busy weekends show slight increases and not quite more.
  • Still, we were often priced higher than what Airbnb recommended. We didn’t want to have visitors every night, and I had no interest in travelers who were looking for the cheapest option — since we wanted to offer a better experience. We wanted a slightly older guest, particularly those who were often young couples, not a college backpacker (as a former college backpacker), and so we preferred fewer better paying visitors. We priced our room as such.
  • Yes, we pay taxes. Airbnb helpfully collects the City of Philadelphia’s “hotel tax,” and SACM and I pay taxes on the income too. I have no problem doing so.
  • We estimate it takes three hours per guest, with a marginal increase for longer-term guests, so we quickly learned to prefer one week to month long visitors (long enough to get to know guests, make more money without much more effort but not so long as to feel roommate-level-comfort). Those three hours were made up of waiting for their arrival, offering advice and then cleaning.
  • There is surely a seasonal variation, but I was surprised by how little, just different types of tourists and the price point, not the amount of travelers. See that revenue chart above to get a sense of that. (I wouldn’t be surprised if January, February and December were always slower)
  • We hosted lots of people in Philadelphia for work. The spring was dominated by weekend visits by domestic travelers, the summers had lots of foreign travelers but our favorite visitors are the longer term people for work (transitioning to new offices, doing a medical rotation, staying for an internship, etc.).

airbnb-gift-basket

  • Airbnb is watching. They sent us a sweet gift basket after SACM sent a complimentary tweet as new Superhosts.
  • We branded our rooms based on decorations and have lots of nice touches — fresh drinking water in glass carafes, wifi information in nice frames, a guest book and lots of paper information in a welcome book. We found it fun, and it also resulted in lots of great feedback. This was an enjoyable addition that helped us build relationships and exceed expectations with our guest.
  • Smile! I try to show how excited I am for each guest to arrive…because I am. I am often one of the first few faces they see in Philadelphia (maybe the first time they’ve ever been here) and they want to get the impression they’re going to have a great time here…because they will! So I try to give the warmest smile I can (no matter if I’m stressed about something at work or in between other chores) and convey just show genuinely thrilled I am that they’re here in my home and about to explore my city. It’s a privilege, and an honor and I try not to forget it.
  • We installed digital locks that can rotate codes for guests. I strongly suggest this. We felt safer than giving out a house key, and it is easier and far more novel.
  • We do provide a basic breakfast (B and B, after all) for our short term (a week or less) guests. We put out yogurt and fruit and coffee and juice and toast and cereal options. Longterm guests tend to go grocery shopping.
  • We have cats and disclaim so in our listing, but we still installed a cat gate to keep them off the third floor. SACM is also legendary for her cleaning so we’ve gotten lots of compliments on being the least cat-smelling cat house of them all. Still, because it’s disclosed in our listing, most of our guests like cats, and so the cats become a little taste of home for our guests.
  • We find this to be lots of fun but we take it seriously. We don’t want to depend on the money but we take our roles seriously to welcome and support our guests, to make sure they feel welcome and have the best time they can in Philadelphia. We aim to be professional in interacting with them, offering real advice and serving as a local advocate for our guests. (I’ve helped our non-native English speaking guests with language difficulties, like a hotel concierge might).
  • We are specific about arrival and departure times. We have day jobs, so though I’m flexible for those longer term guests (with enough planning, I’ll be at home midday for an arrival) I won’t do so for short-term guests. They have to come before or after work. We simply don’t book a guest if that doesn’t work.
  • We have limits as to what we’re willing to do. When I was a Couchsurfing host, I always felt personally responsible for leading my guests around the city. I rarely, if ever, do that now. I do make myself available for text questions and offer as much advice as I can as quickly as I can, but I create boundaries. They’re paying for the room, the customer service is just out of love.
  • I don’t cheat Airbnb. It hasn’t happened often but a few times guests have offered to give me extra cash. Sometimes a guest who has had a good enough experience wants to extend their stay and offers to do it in-person, sometimes an offer comes for something superfluous. I don’t take it. For those who want to extend their stay, I push them to book it through Airbnb, with the expressed intention that I want Airbnb to get their modest cut. They’re providing me a great service and platform. I have no problem if they get fabulously wealthy doing so. If they ever get too greedy, a new competitor will emerge. Until then, keep me happy, keep your charges affordable and I’ll continue to encourage people to use the system even though they would be fine giving me cash. For anything extra, I just won’t do anything for a guest (driving them around, for example) that requires payment. Otherwise, I want them to know everything is in the price they already paid, no hidden costs.
  • I’ve only had one or maybe two awkward experiences. One time a guest looked at our room rate without first choosing a date, and then booked that room for a summer night, which, with the help of Airbnb’s dynamic pricing, was significantly higher in cost. I believed her when she said it was a genuine mistake, so I agreed to split the difference. I gave her cash. It was awkward and, in truth, I think I could have easily justified why that was the price and be done with it, but I felt it was the right decision then. Another time we had a foreign visitor who was often smoking right outside open windows, and I had to ask with some language difficulty him to smoke farther from the house. Otherwise, the guests have been wonderfully respectful and fun and joys to have. I had long conversations with many, and often like being greeted at home by a cheery traveler.
  • We offer recommended things to do. We have a welcome book with maps, articles about Fishtown and a standard recommended 24-hour stay. Lots of guests got the same treatment from us.
  • We cherish our guest book. We started a guest book and most of our guests have signed it with wonderful little messages. Several guests have mentioned that they’ve flipped through the book with great joy, to get a sense of the community they’re now a part of.
  • Oh, and two unrelated pieces of advice for Airbnb: give me a pretty map or clearer lists of where all-time my guests came from geographically (so I can show off!) and pause that 24-hour countdown when I’m waiting for a prospective guest to respond to questions I’ve sent back to them. That’s the only injury to my response rate.

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