The lodging industry in Williamsburg holds its breath as discussions are underway to allow the popular short-term lodging services like Airbnb into the city.
“It’s kind of the wild west out there with those kind of short-term transient rentals,” said Ron Kirkland, executive director of the Williamsburg Hotel and Motel Association. “Every bit we are renting to someone’s home or bedroom, it all has an impact on traditional lodging locally.”
Airbnb is an online lodging platform that allows members to rent out their homes and apartments for certain periods of time. Currently, residents within the city are not allowed to use their homes as Airbnb rentals but the Williamsburg City Council is considering changing that.
But for some, the change brings cause for concern.
“We are literally allowing business to be taken from people who have invested sometimes millions of dollars in this community,” Kirkland said. “We have hundreds of years of planning our local community, and now we’re throwing all of that good and prudent thinking and planning out for something that I’m not even sure what benefit it provides locally.”
Kirkland recognized the type of services are beneficial in large metropolitan areas where lodging might be difficult to find. But in Williamsburg, he said there are thousands of rooms available at any given time and usually at what he believes is a reasonable rate.
During a time when hotel visitation has decreased over the years and many lodging locations sit vacant, the prospect of adding more competition in the market might seem daunting for businesses that are already present.
“Could you imagine if we had a similar thing where we allowed people to start operating commercial restaurants out of their kitchens?” Kirkland said. “People would be up in arms.”
But for Alex Vlk, owner of the Cedars of Williamsburg Bed and Breakfast, the challenge means opportunity.
“It’s the beauty of the free market,” Vlk said. “I’m just going to have to raise my game to drive more business and that’s what it means to benefit the customer.”
Vlk said the problem isn’t whether Airbnbs come into the area, but rather what regulations will be placed on them. Businesses like Vlk’s have strict guidelines they have to follow, such as monthly inspections and fire code maintenance, that might not be as stringent for someone renting out one room in their home he said.
“If government restrictions are here for the purpose of protecting customers then those guidelines need to be covering the protection of all people,” Vlk said.
If short-term rentals like Airbnb come into Williamsburg, they will have to operate on certain regulations as well, but Debbie Keane, owner of the Williamsburg White House Bed and Breakfast, said they might not have to be as many.
For Keane’s business, she had to take steps such as building an extra fire escape stairway inside her home before being allowed to operate as a bed and breakfast. In addition, Keane said bed and breakfast businesses have to be kept in a particular section of the city in order to operate business.
City Council is debating whether short-term rentals should also be limited to that same section or if residents should be allowed to operate outside of those borders in residential neighborhoods throughout the city.
“There is a great desire from people who want to live in a nice neighborhood, and if you’re conducting commercial business in residential neighborhoods then your neighborhood loses some of its charm,” Kirkland said.
But both Vlk and Keane agree rental opportunities like Airbnb are going to change the market and it’s not necessarily a bad thing.
The question now is not whether or not these types of rentals are coming, but how.