Jan Elliott, owner of Absolutely Bend Vacation Homes, has been in the vacation-rental business since 1998. At this point, she says, the company’s three properties have so much repeat business, they don’t need Airbnb.
Elliott said Airbnb has sent her marketing emails encouraging her to list her properties, and she notices the booking website is no longer populated by people renting out spare bedrooms.
“Now they’re wanting to do entire homes,” she said. “All those businesses advertising homes for us are evolving as well.”
Airbnb’s march into vacation-rental territory is documented in a recent study, funded by the American Hotel & Lodging Education Foundation, that shows whole-unit rentals are a key driver of Airbnb’s growth nationwide. In some major metropolitan markets, owners of multiple properties account for a significant share of that growth, according to the study, which San Francisco-based Airbnb calls misleading.
While Airbnb and the hotel industry square off on a national stage, the Central Oregon lodging market shows how both sides have more to worry about than each other. Airbnb’s competitors are adapting and proliferating. Local taxing authorities are getting more savvy. And travelers are demanding more from hotels than a place to sleep.
Airbnb was launched in 2008 as a marketing and booking platform for people who wanted to rent rooms in their homes. It has evolved into a lodging-industry resource that can’t be ignored.
The American Hotel & Lodging Association alleged in a press release accompanying its study that Airbnb, which collects a 3-percent booking fee from hosts on each reservation, looks the other way while people operate “illegal hotels.” Even though Airbnb has struck agreements with many state and local jurisdictions to collect lodging taxes, those agreements are voluntary.
Airbnb rarely submits the kind of data that would allow local governments to audit individual property owners, said Greg Astley, director of government affairs for the Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Association.
Astley acknowledges that Airbnb is not the only lodging-marketing site that creates competition for hotels, but he said, “They’ve kind of been the lightning rod for how they’ve conducted themselves.”
Airbnb says it collects and remits Oregon’s transient room tax, 1.8 percent. It also has agreements with Portland, Bend and other Oregon cities and counties. Otherwise, the property owners, or “hosts,” are responsible for paying lodging taxes out of the revenue Airbnb sends them.
The lodging industry says its study dispels the notion that Airbnb is just a network of mom-and-pop hosts looking for extra money. In 13 major metro markets, including Portland, the study found, 11,350 hosts rented out 43,000 units, which accounted for 17 percent of Airbnb’s inventory between October 2015 and September 2016. The multiple-property owners generated over $700 million in revenue, or 30 percent of all Airbnb revenue in those markets. The study was conducted by CBRE Hotels’ Americas Research, which crunched data scraped from Airbnb.com by another company, Airdna.
“While the vast majority of our hosts in Oregon are regular people sharing the homes in which they live to make ends meet, this misleading, inaccurate report was bought and paid for by the big hotels,” Airbnb spokeswoman Laura Rillos said in an email. Many inns, motels and hotels list rooms on the Airbnb platform, so those were caught up in the data, she said.
In addition, on Jan. 24, Airbnb announced it would institute a “one host, one home” policy in Portland, where new hosts will only be allowed to advertise one property at a time.
Hotels, vacation rentals adapt
Despite the hotel industry’s complaints, there’s no evidence that Airbnb is hurting its business, said Jamie Lane, senior economist at CBRE Hotels’ Americas Research. “The hotel industry’s operating at all-time high occupancies,” he said. “2016 was another record.”
Lane said if he were a hotel developer, he would look to Airbnb listings as an indicator of demand, perhaps for extended-stay types of rooms, or in an underserved section of a city. “It may be a leading indicator of new demand for hotels.”
Bend has a flurry of new hotels in the works. One that’s tentatively slated to open in 2018 will be an extended-stay Residence Inn at 500 SW Bond St. Elliott, owner of Absolutely Bend Vacation Homes, thinks hotel builders are seeing how popular vacation rentals are for traveling families and groups. “That’s why you’re seeing more of the extended stays,” she said. “People want room to visit and to cook.”
Vacation rentals were a fixture of the Bend lodging market well before Airbnb took off, said Ben Perle, regional manager for Oxford Corporate, a Bend-based hotel chain. Oxford focuses on a high level of service and convenience, which is important to business travelers.
“There’s a huge component to our business that has to do with the corporate traveler,” he said.
Bend has 670 licensed vacation-rental properties, for which there are 596 owners, according to the city. It’s impossible to say which of those are booking on Airbnb. While the company collects and remits Bend’s lodging tax, 10.4 percent, it does not tell the city from which addresses the money is collected. That means the city can’t compare its list of licensed short-term rental properties against a list of Airbnb users to find those who might be operating without a license.
Bend spokeswoman Anne Aurand said the city’s priority with the agreement was getting revenue, not addresses. “We have the ability to find out if people are operating illegally and therefore not paying taxes if someone reports a suspected ‘black market’ rental,” she said in an email.
Deschutes County has about 1,000 registered vacation rentals in unincorporated areas, which include Sunriver and other resorts. The county does not have an agreement with Airbnb, but it has a part-time employee who scours listing sites for properties that aren’t registered and collecting the 8-percent tax, Finance Director Wayne Lowry said.
Lowry said he has yet to seek an agreement similar to Bend’s because he might lose the ability to audit individual properties. “You might pick up revenue you didn’t have before, but you lose track of exactly what you’re being paid for,” he said.
Many Deschutes County vacation rentals are on VRBO.com, which does not remit taxes on behalf of property owners, Lowry said. Instead, the company’s website gives owners the opportunity to set up their online booking to include local taxes, and it warns them that they are responsible for paying, he said.
VRBO.com was the go-to website before Airbnb, but it didn’t offer booking services. VRBO parent company HomeAway last year made significant changes to its business model and started charging travelers a service fee for reservations, which ranges from 5 percent to 12 percent, spokeswoman Christina Song said. (Airbnb also charges travelers a service fee that varies with the amount of the reservation.)
Elliott said she built her business, which started with just one house, through advertising on VRBO. She paid $1,000 a year per house in advertising. “And I was perfectly happy doing that because of all the business they brought me,” she said.
Now VRBO charges less for advertising to encourage owners to rely on the website for booking, Elliott said. Absolutely Bend has its own online booking, so Elliott has declined to rely on VRBO.com . As a result, she said, her listings aren’t as prominent on the VRBO website.
Portland-based Vacasa launched in 2009 to serve owners who don’t have the time or presence to manage their own property, but want the national reach of a VRBO.com or Airbnb. The company manages 5,000 homes, including 300 in Central Oregon and 20 in Bend, spokeswoman Kalli Bean said. Vacasa, which has 1,300 employees, offers local property management, plus online booking and marketing.
“We believe if you’re managing your home on Airbnb by yourself and just using it as the awesome listing channel it is, you’re probably not making the money you could make,” Bean said. “And you’re spending a lot of time on it.”
Vacasa doesn’t see itself as a direct competitor to Airbnb because it sometimes lists properties there, Bean said.
Absolutely Bend grew to seven properties at one point, but Elliott realized that was too many for one family-owned company to manage. Elliott said she’ll stay in the vacation-rental business as long as it’s not too much of a hassle.
“They’re profitable; they’re well-kept,” she said, “and we enjoy it.”
— Reporter: 541-617-7860, firstname.lastname@example.org