It’s not necessary to build a hotel or start a restaurant to participate in Mount Airy’s tourist economy. A number of local residents have taken a much more direct approach. They are renting out rooms in their homes to tourists.
Some of them are the bed and breakfasts that can be seen sprouting up around town and can be easily identified by a discreet sign in the front yard. But others are just ordinary homes on quiet, residential streets where paying guests quietly come and go and even the closest neighbors may very well have no idea what is going on.
As part of the new “sharing economy,” websites like CouchSurfing.org, MotorcycleTravelNetwork.com and AirBnB.com offer clearinghouses where guests and hosts come together. The largest of these, Airbnb, is used by a number of Mount Airy residents to turn their homes into hotels.
Two years ago after seeing a story on “The Today Show,” Granite City resident Karen Eberdt decided to give Airbnb a try. Her daughter was leaving for college so Eberdt had some extra room. Since the home had originally contained three units converted into a one-family home, it wasn’t hard to convert one of the units back to a separate apartment. Though she operates as a bed and breakfast, most of Eberdt’s business has come from Airbnb. A month ago she converted another of the former units into a second apartment due to the success of the first one.
Eberdt has hosted guests from Winston-Salem to England. Whenever guests sit out on Eberdt’s Main Street porch north of town, bikers and pedestrians all wave and speak to the guests as they pass which never fails to impress the guests with the friendliness of local folks.
“This is the ‘Godiva’ of small towns.” Eberdt tells her guests. “It is the creme de la creme.”
Not far from Eberdt’s bed and breakfast, Jennifer and Jerry Chapman are also using Airbnb to attract guests to their home. The Chapmans frequently use Airbnb when they travel and last last year decided to take the plunge and become hosts themselves.
Their first guests were from Germany and stopped off in Mount Airy for the night as they rode their motorcycles down the Blue Ridge Parkway. Jennifer Chapman says that they get a high percentage of international travelers, many from Europe. Chapman notes that when Europeans visit the USA, the Blue Ridge Parkway is often on their must-see list.
Her motorcycling guests aren’t all European. On July 17, Beth and Tim Snyder stopped off to spend the night at the Chapman house as they travelled to their home in St, Petersburg, Florida, from New Brunswick, Canada. Beth Snyder is a member of Motor Maids, which at 75 is the oldest women’s motorcycle group in North America. In the last 10 years, the Snyders have ridden their Harleys to 47 of the 50 states, having missed only Alaska, Hawaii and South Dakota.
They first check for lodging on the Motorcycle Travel Network or MotoStays.com where motorcyclists host in their home other cyclists who are passing through. If that doesn’t yield a result, they use Airbnb. So far on their trip from Canada, the couple stayed a night with a Buddhist nun and another night in rural Maine on a farm where they were fed a vegan breakfast of oatmeal, nuts, berries and maple syrup.
Guests and hosts communicate before the stay and both have extensive profiles on the site so guests hopefully know exactly what they’re getting into. Beth Snyder says, “You have to come at it with an open mind. You need to be a low-maintenance traveler to do Airbnb.”
As far as the security concerns of spending a night in a stranger’s home or having strangers sleep in yours, both Jennifer Chapman and the Snyders put a great deal of faith in the Airbnb rating system. Hosts and guests rate each other after a stay and that rating is seen by future hosts and guests. Jennifer Chapman thinks that this system, in addition to the personal nature of a home visit, provides for a better experience than a hotel. She said, “An Airbnb host is going to get a guest what they want if it’s at all possible. But sometimes in a hotel, they just don’t care.”
Chapman adds that Airbnb does a thorough identity verification on all guests and hosts, provides insurance for hosts and, in North Carolina, deducts occupancy and sales taxes from payments to hosts and then reports income to the IRS via a 1099 form.
To any other Mount Airy residents with a spare room looking to jump on the tourism bandwagon, Jennifer Chapman says, “It’s easy. We took all of the pictures and created our profile and listing on the phone.” Karen Eberdt offers this advice, “Go ahead and list it. Put it out there. No one can make a reservation until you approve it. It doesn’t hurt to try.”
Bill Colvard is lifestyles writer for the Mount Airy News and can be reached at 336-415-4699 or on Twitter @BillColvard.