As Virginia starts to reopen retailers, restaurant and other recreational facilities, some parts of the tourism industry will take a little longer to recover.
Hotels and Airbnbs are quite prevalent in the Historic Triangle and one of several ways the localities pay for their school districts.
But how are they faring now that some restrictions have been lifted?
And would people rather stay in a hotel as opposed to an Airbnb?
The hotel industry in Williamsburg continues to suffer as tourists remain hesitant to travel, but with the new ordinance permitting short-term rentals, such as Airbnbs, in the city, the industry might find itself with more competition in the coming months.
That ordinance passed in February last year. It allowed homeowners to rent their properties short-term, which are rentals of 30 days or less.
But even before the ordinance was passed there was concern from local hotel owners about whether or not the new short-term rentals would create too much competition.
Now that the coronavirus pandemic has created a thin market for hospitality, the new Airbnb rentals could cause even more loss of revenue for an already struggling market.
“So I don’t know if it will be a huge issue but hotels are already operating at 95 percent less revenue than a year ago,” said Ron Kirkland, executive director of the Williamsburg Hotel and Motel Association. “So every single room for the night will have an effect…and it’s exacerbated when we’re operating at such a low level.”
Kirkland said the local hospitality industry before the pandemic was operating at record-breaking numbers and preparing for an even better summer. But there hadn’t been enough time between when the ordinance passed and the pandemic to determine if short-term rentals had caused any dent on the industry.
But as the state continues to reopen, Kirkland expects more tourists to want to stay in hotels as opposed to short-term rentals.
“There are different levels of cleanliness for hotels than for an Airbnb,” he said. “Hotels are strictly regulated by the Virginia Department of Health and implementing best practices…so you’ll see the health risk of staying in a hotel is going to be diminished.”
He added that short-term rentals aren’t always necessarily cheaper either unless a person is simply renting a room within someone’s home. But many of these rentals are entire apartments or homes, which can run the same cost. So as people return to the Historic Triangle for overnight stays, they might not consider a short-term rental as the best economic and health-conscious option.
So what sort of precautions are these short term stays or rentals taking during the coronavirus?
Charles Witten, a retired naval officer who owns several houses and timeshare condos in Williamsburg, said usually, the springtime is very busy time of year and the summer is completely booked for his Airbnbs.
Every spring break reservation this year was canceled and his has no summer bookings right now, save for his brother, who will stay there for free.
“I tell everybody my business is in the toilet,” he said.
Witten, who is considered a Superhost ––an attentive and highly rated host on Airbnb––said Airbnb let everyone cancel their reservations and hosts received 25 percent of the reservation if the stay was booked before March 14 and met other eligibility requirements.
“But you know 25 percent doesn’t pay the electricity,” he said. “So yeah it’s not good.”
Witten noted the short-term rental business lets hosts determine their own cancellation policy but without consulting them, Airbnb decided to cancel the reservations.
While he understands why, he said he feels the company should not have alienated its hosts.
“I’m in a little bit of an unique situation,” he said. “My family owns 1 percent of the city of Williamsburg land area –––everything from the DMV to Queens Creek is family property.”
Witten said he is not the typical Airbnb host since he rents out multiple properties, including two rentals in timeshare condos.
“For those, I don’t have to do anything, the resort owner is responsible for any precautions,” he said. “I just give them a clean place to stay.”
He is currently renting out two rooms in a house to a lawyer and merchant marine.
Antwyne and Tara Anderson, a couple in Williamsburg, uses Airbnb to rent out The Freedom Cottage, a one-bedroom guest house with a garage located behind the family’s main residence.
Antwyne is network engineer working as a contractor for Langley Air Force Base while Tara is a nurse and stay-at-home mom.
“Our bookings have dropped dramatically since February, March and April are the lowest they have ever been,” he said.
The cottage has only been open since last September and the bookings have started to pick up.
Then the pandemic happened.
“We have a drop-in 90 percent of our income,” Antwyne said, when comparing the lowest to the highest rental month. “Luckily we don’t rely on that income or have to do something drastic.”
In terms of cleanliness, Antwyne said each homeowner cleans at their own discretion and Airbnb doesn’t enforce these rules before or after a guest checks out.
However, the couple thoroughly cleans and disinfects everything in the small room in between guests.
But since the coronavirus, they now wear masks and gloves after each guest checks out.
“The first thing we do is disinfect everything and let things air out before we do anything, ”Antwyne said. “The main difference was masks, gloves and a full disinfecting of all surfaces after each guest.”
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