Owners of some of the quirkiest Airbnbs in the US share how their businesses have taken off and pivoted to accommodate locals and cautious travelers looking for an escape

  • Five Airbnb hosts who own some of the most eclectic properties on the rental platform have seen business skyrocket, despite the coronavirus' hit on the hospitality sector as a whole.
  • Alessandro Giuliano, owner of the Desert Yacht Club outside of Joshua Tree in Southern California, estimated a 40% increase in income after he pivoted to full-property rentals.
  • Its neighbor, the Serenity Dome House Oasis, upgraded some of its amenities, owner Stephanie Monroe shared, and is booking twice as many weekday trips as it did last year.
  • The hosts agreed that they've noticed locals looking for ways to escape the everyday and work from different locations and also groups looking for ways to celebrate weddings and other events safely.
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Between restrictions to stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus, consumer fears, and an unprecedented economic downturn, many facets of the traditional hospitality sector are struggling, with the American Hotel & Lodging Association reporting that US hotels have lost $46 billion in revenue since mid-February.

Innovative platforms like Airbnb seem to have an advantage amidst the chaos, but the vacation rental powerhouse hasn't been immune to the turbulence, having laid off nearly 1,900 employees in May and finding that many of its hosts are especially vulnerable.

Despite these challenges, there's a subset of Airbnb hosts who have continued to find success, with some of the more eclectic properties faring best.

For The Atlanta Treehouse, the pandemic has brought virtually no changes to the Airbnb's already sold-out bookings, aside from a slight uptick in business beginning in April, thanks in part to its secluded location just five minutes from Atlanta's center.

Host Peter Bahouth built the treehouse suite 20 years ago, creating what's been one of Airbnb's top listings since it was added to the site in 2015. When Bahouth does have a cancellation, the open dates are quickly snatched up by a local or eager traveler, he said.

"People are simplifying in a lot of ways, but still looking for unique experiences," Bahouth said. "People feel the need to be careful, and the fact that the treehouse is outside and for two people is something that's been attractive to people before, but especially now."

He added that the treehouse has also become a safe space for small gatherings, even serving as a wedding venue for a couple whose destination wedding had to be reimagined. And while the treehouse has always accommodated micro-events like photoshoots and small weddings, it's received an increase in requests since the spring with the decline of large-scale gatherings. 

Other Airbnb properties are leaning into the growing need for safe venues to accommodate a new kind of celebration. The Desert Yacht Club outside of Joshua Tree in Southern California has completely shifted its business model from renting out individual accommodations on the property, such as vintage trailers and tents, to offering full reign of the property to groups "quarantine-ing" together for family gatherings, weddings, and other small, intimate events — already building a dedicated new group of clients through nothing but word-of-mouth recommendations.

"This pushed us to be a little bit more brave in expecting less bookings," owner Alessandro Giuliano said. "Now we have fewer bookings in terms of numbers because we only rent one listing. Before it was 16 listings, each tent, each trailer, each combination. Now, I only answer to one listing, so my work is way easier and the results are way better."

Even with fewer bookings, the new business model has proved lucrative, with Giuliano estimating a 40% increase in income. The property is also able to keep costs relatively low at $4,000 to $6,000 per month, with no mortgage and Giuliano handling most of the maintenance, administration, and housekeeping services himself.

The Desert Yacht Club's neighbor in the desert, the Serenity Dome House Oasis in Landers, has taken a different approach — staying the course with small-scale rentals while increasing its value with property upgrades.

Owner Stephanie Monroe quickly got to work when the stay-at-home mandates were instituted, spending a portion of the lockdown period redecorating the interior of the otherworldly, dome-shaped house as well as upgrading the landscaping and adding a fire pit and new furniture to the resort-style outdoor space. 

Now that the 2.5-acre property is able to welcome guests again, it's booking twice as many weekday trips as it did last year, Monroe said — bringing in an influx of East Coast travelers and California staycationers as well as a new group of work-from-anywhere travelers she's attracted with Instagram posts and mid-week booking discounts. While the Airbnb hasn't quite recouped the cost of the updates and closure, Monroe is hoping for a continued positive trajectory.  

"I think people are driving toward Airbnbs just because they get their personal space, and if it's professionally cleaned well it really is low risk compared to a hotel where you're in a lobby mixing and co-mingling with others," Monroe said.

Across the country, The Outlier Inn in upstate New York has paused its earlier plans to shift toward full property rentals akin to the Desert Yacht Club.

However, like the Serenity Dome House Oasis, it's continued its commitment to bettering its guests' experiences with a new garden, expanded outdoor kitchen, and more accommodations — and it's paid off with an increase in bookings despite making no changes to its promotion strategy. 

"In normal years, we are booked solid on the weekends, with only a smattering of mid-week bookings," owner Joshua Druckman said. "This year, since there is no difference between weekday and weekends, we are busy every day of the week."

The Malibu Airstream Eco Retreat has also found success against all odds. It opened its doors to guests in February, right before the pandemic forced closures across the country, after owners Cyril Chance and Mehdi Rahman spent over a year searching for the perfect space overlooking the ocean. Due to stay-in-place orders around the country, the retreat has welcomed primarily local travelers.

Serendipitously, the intention behind the property was to create the feeling of escape within the bustling city of Los Angeles, and even with its short tenure it's attracted guests seeking exactly that.

Despite the economic downturn and no marketing initiatives, the Airstream Eco Retreat has tapped into a group of luxury travelers willing to spend 10 times what they would at other Airstream Airbnbs to enjoy the one-of-a-kind experience cultivated by the property, which includes everything from champagne dinners to cacao ceremonies modeled off Mayan and Aztec traditions.

"We have some guests that are waiting six months saving money just to come for one night and have this experience," Rahman said. "It's a special experience."

Not surprising, the property's largest expenses have come from cleaning fees, even as the owners have stayed true to their business model of building a clientele of luxury travelers.

Axel Springer, Insider Inc.’s parent company, is an investor in Airbnb.

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