KENTON — When April and Jason Miller decided to list their spare room on the popular short-term lodging website Airbnb, they weren’t sure if they’d have any success finding people to stay in their mostly rural community of Kenton.
Despite their misgivings, they were able to rent the room within days of posting it to Airbnb.
“It was pretty immediate,” April Miller said. “I’d say we got our first rental within like 10 days. You would be shocked at how many people visit Kenton.”
As it turns out, the success the Millers have had using the short-term lodging service is not uncommon. They are one of hundreds of hosts in rural Ohio who are listing their homes with Airbnb, according to a recent report by the company.
Based on data from the report, Airbnb concluded that short-term renting “creates new economic opportunity where people live, supplements incomes that have stagnated, diversifies incomes that are at risk, and lowers the pressure people may feel to move.”
The report stated that short-term lodging also helps rural communities welcome more visitors without having to invest in permanent infrastructure, which corporate hotel chains have been “disinclined to build in these areas.”
Airbnb growth ‘explodes’ in rural Ohio
Between February 2016 and February 2017, 14,000 guests arrived to listings in rural Ohio. This represented a 201 percent year-over-year growth in guest arrivals, according to the report. As a result, Ohio ranked sixth in the United States in terms of Airbnb growth rate.
By using Airbnb, homeowners in rural Ohio earned $1.5 million over a one-year span. Each of the 450 hosts collected an average of $3,400 during that time, the report stated.
“Maybe you’re not quitting your day job for that $3,400, but on top of whatever it is you’re doing to make ends meet, that’s really meaningful,” said Ben Breit, a member of Airbnb’s public affairs team in the Midwest. “That’s money you can used to pay the bills, and it really adds up.”
But homeowners aren’t the only ones reaping the economic benefits of Airbnb listings. The report found that 42 percent of guests’ spending is occurring within the neighborhoods in which they stay. If not for short-term renting, Breit said, this money would likely go to larger communities that have more lodging options.
“If not for Airbnb, folks wouldn’t be able to stay in some of these rural communities,” he said. “Now they’re able to get lunch at the local restaurant or get coffee at the local café. It trickles down with all the money that is spent for those local merchants and those small businesses.”
For the Millers, the extra income has allowed them to perform repairs to their 127-year-old home, as well as the studio apartment they rent in an old carriage house on their property.
“We don’t want to add any additional debt because we have young children and we’re in the midst of a lot of family spending,” April Miller said. “So this has allowed us to do some things to our house that we probably would have had to wait years to do, or get a loan for.”
The appeal of rural communities
When asked why people would chose to stay in rural areas, Breit said that a lot of renters are looking for an “authentic experience.”
“That is the overriding theme that we find with the overwhelming majority of people who travel on Airbnb,” he said. “They’re not looking for cookie-cutter type tourist activities in a major metropolitan area, they’re looking to really live like a local.”
Breit did admit that many people are staying in rural areas while visiting family — a scenario the Millers have seen several times over — or because all the hotels are sold out. This was especially common in the Cleveland area during recent large-scale events such as the Republican National Convention, the NBA finals and the World Series.
However, he said a lot of other people are simply looking to get away from the hustle and bustle of city life.
“People who are city folk often want a more quiet, nature-centric experience,” he said. “A ton of Airbnb guests will venture into more rural areas because they just want to get away to a more scenic area of Ohio, and this offers that type of opportunity.”
The desire to detach from busy city life is something the Millers have seen firsthand from several of their renters, they said.
“We’ve had a few people who just wanted to get away,” April Miller said. “We had a mom from Michigan who stayed for a weekend just to rest her brain. We never really saw her, I guess because she was busy relaxing.”
Aside from visiting family or getting away from city life, rural communities in Ohio also offer an abundance of activities that some describe as “ag entertainment” or “ag tourism.”
“It’s where they use traditional farms to attract people to come and see what farms are like, and then they’ll have added attractions,” said Mark Badertscher, agriculture and natural resources educator at the Ohio State University Extension Office in Hardin County.
In Hardin County, Badertscher said the owners of a local apple orchard are hoping to develop a site where families can pick apples and see how apple cider is made, among other attractions. He said rural wineries are also opening their doors to the public, offering a variety of ag entertainment.
A few miles away in Putnam County, Suter’s Produce holds a fall event that includes a corn maze, hayrides, pumpkin picking and cider press demonstrations.
“It’s a way of adding value to traditional farms, and being able to create additional income for the landowner or farmer,” Badertscher said. “I think there’s an interest for people who don’t have a connection with the farm to learn more about how their food is produced, how the animals are taken care of, and just how the farm operates.”
Breit said it’s unlikely that rural Airbnb growth will remain at more than 200 percent per year, but he is confident that growth will stay strong as more and more people start using the service.
“As more people are exposed to it, and as folks see their neighbors who are benefiting economically, I think it will certainly remain strong,” he said. “There is demand for it, and it doesn’t matter how the small the city is because there’s always people who are looking specifically for that type of experience.”
Reach John Bush at 567-242-0456 or on Twitter @Bush_Lima.