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G-Sync: All Up in the Airbnb

Dear City Hall: With the sun high in the sky this time of the year in West Michigan, we will see many folks place "travel" at the top of the list of things to do. Let's keep our options open. Love, Tommy Allen 


Dear City Hall: With the sun high in the sky this time of the year in West Michigan, we will see many folks place "travel" at the top of the list of things to do. Let's keep our options open. Love, Tommy Allen
Summer is traditionally the time to venture and to explore new options, often while seated on the warm sands of Lake Michigan.

As a few friends shared details of summer-long migrations to their summer lake house residence, a quick glance at my bank ledger provoked a reality check. Reality suddenly dawns – I have no such refuge.

I do, however, engage in a nice substitute each summer. A few friends and I pool our cash to take over a property and enjoy (a budget version of) a Great Gatsby Getaway by the lake.

This time-honored tradition of renting someone else's home in Michigan is something most have engaged in at one time or another. For this short term, we begin to imagine a life along such shores as we loosen up, enjoying the fantasy that we are one of the residents. It is a grounding feeling that I have not experienced in any hotel, except maybe The Empire Hotel in New York, where the immigrant residents of the building (from before it converted to a hotel) still continued to fill the hallways with delicious and sometimes mysterious smells from their home-cooked meals.

In these Michigan spaces, I have enjoyed the comfort of temporary home life where very often the proprietor has assembled notebooks full of area restaurant menus, news press clippings of notable events, and even a few photos of the people who, like us, have called this their home away from home.

If a hotel's mission is to present a fantasy of perfection replete with fresh, crisp linens and immaculate Architectural Digest photo-shoot-ready rooms, then renting a stranger's house or room is not for everyone because it often entails rolling the dice.

The overnight options in our state are just as diverse as we are as a people. Choices range from hotels, motels, camping, hostels, couch surfing, and bed & breakfasts. You can even "dry camp" with your RV at any WalMart for free – they just want you to buy your supplies there and not start any campfires on the blacktop.

There is one area still under consideration among many regional governments of the world and that is Airbnb. This accommodation, not always officially regulated, is not going away anytime soon. 

In fact, I read in Fast Company's profile this spring, Punk, Meet Rock, that they now offer places to stay in 99% of all the countries of the world – something the hoteliers have not been able to do. The closest competitors, number-wise, are Starwood and the Intercontinental Hotel Group who boast a reach into about 52% of the world for each of the firms.  

Currently, Airbnb listings are just over 550,000 at the moment, but by the end of 2014 they will be at 1 million. As we saw last fall -- and in light of these numbers -- it is time to deal with the B&B elephant in the room.

I will confess: until recently, I was more of a Flirting With Disaster kind of guy. In this film, one of the characters recites a reaction to the suggestion that they stay in a B&B: "We are not B&B people."

In my life, I have discovered typically only three camps of people exist regarding B&B accommodations: shock; ambivalence; or an all-knowing silent nod of the head indicating a been there, done that philosophy.  

When pressed to answer why we are not B&B people, I find that my partner and I jump to a wildly paraphrased answer from the film because it is how we view the experience: "There's no privacy and you have to make chitchat with the boring old lady who runs the place and there is always the little cat. You have to pretend like you like the cat."

As you can imagine, in the film, they do end up in a B&B (filmed in Battle Creek) and it is a disaster. I, on the other hand, avoid them like pink eye once they are in sight. But I think Airbnb is different.

Last November, amid quite a buzz within the local media, a city committee was appointed to study the app's impact and use in our city, which in my opinion acts more like a form of a citizen driven cultural–exchange program without the need for nametags, buttons, or pins. It really is so much more than just a cheap alternative to the other options.

The study, currently underway, is the result of Grand Rapids' city council's decision to back away from an initial charge of around $2,000 to certify a residence seeking to participate in Airbnb's mobile and web-based network. I decided that, come spring, it was time to roll the dice and give Airbnb a spin. My first trip was because of my need to locate an economically reasonable hotel.

In the past while in New York, I chose the cozy streets around Union Square rather than the endless daylight of Times Square neon. For this vacation, I desired to be in a neighborhood setting in Detroit but I had trouble finding such a space for my destination. I also wanted to leave my car in Grand Rapids and be able to walk everywhere rather than be at the mercy of a foreign public transportation system.

So, with little experience in the area of Airbnb but armed with my cell phone, I fired up the app and began to scroll through the listings. I found a place that was in the neighborhood I knew I wanted to be and found the images of the place agreeable.

It also helped that there were a handful of good consumer-driven reviews – a product of our Yelp era - that aided me in making up my own mind. I've often done this for restaurants and shops.

After a few keystrokes, I sent off a request to the host of the residence and I waited to see if my single room on a cobblestone street in Detroit's historic Cass neighborhood was available.

A few hours later, I got a text alerting me that my booking was accepted and I just needed to follow the convenient link to complete the transaction via my PayPal account. With my trip booked, I prepared to venture to the D and experience my first Airbnb.

As I got closer, I found myself feeling a bit sick to my stomach. I began to experience the old fears of the talkative old lady, a funky bed, or worse, an annoying cat that insisted on sleeping on my pillow while I rested my head there, too.

When my friends, who I had carpooled with to Detroit, were dropping me off, they called out if I wanted them to wait. I said, "No, I am confident I will be fine."

My stay would turn out to be better than fine.

Not only would the experience far exceed my expectations, but as synchronicity would have it, the place I had booked turned out to be the home of the former organizer of the event I was in Detroit to enjoy.

My host and I sipped on cocktails while sharing stories about our cities, about planning events, and our relationships. Eventually, I finally retreated to my room to get ready to venture out to catch up with my friends over dinner.

Later, after our meal was finished, I walked down the street to a party being hosted by our sister publication, Model D.

After a couple rounds there and more at the beloved neighborhood Bronx Bar, I bid adieu to my friends and said I could make it back to my room from there. I placed them in a cab to take them back to downtown Detroit.  

I pulled out my phone and reviewed the images of the time spent in Detroit so far. I texted a few photos home with a very simple message of endorsement: "This place is amazing. I cannot wait to come back here again with you next time."

This Airbnb experience and location proved to be incredible. The experience offered me what I desire as a traveler: to blend in as "one of the residents." The next morning, a brunch was prepared by my host and his friends who stopped before the big event, bearing bagels, bloody Marys, and a few insider tips on the Nain Rouge event that was celebrating its fifth year.

Not only did my host and his friends make me feel at home, but also I was able to join the thousands of folks who took to the street with bands and sometimes elaborate costumes as we, as a group of locals and visitors, banished the Nain Rouge from the city of Detroit (again until his return next year).

My adventures garnered a new outlook on what an Airbnb could produce for a traveler looking for something different. This chance booking encounter netted me a new friend in a city where a lot of exciting things are happening – something I think many of us can agree upon here, since this is how people view us as well once they venture to West Michigan.

As I rode back to Grand Rapids, I began to ponder a few things and began to fully understand how this Airbnb experience needs to be replicated more in our own city.

As of now, the local committee has drafted a recommendation and has sent it off to the planning commission, who will look at the zoning language before kicking it back up to City Hall, where it will be the subject of another public hearing before it is voted upon.

We all appear to agree that the Airbnb area businesses should be subject to a fee in all fairness to the other businesses operating under a set of regulations meant to ensure that the experience is safe and healthy for visitors, our region and our reputation.

In fact, Airbnb recognizes that to play in certain cities they have to pay (taxes) but in playing, they are partnering more and more with tourism firms who understand the shifting needs of the modern traveler. As my friend Miranda always says, "It is a value-add for all of us."

What we need to understand is that an Airbnb culture brings to our city individuals who may not have had Grand Rapids on their radar and possibly do not desire a typical hotel or a traditional B&B experience. The addition of a workable and reasonable Airbnb city policy -- that does not break the backs nor the banks of the local person simply looking to host a visitor a few times a year -- is serving a very real market of folks who simply desire a different experience. Let us not destroy our ever-growing travel culture by getting greedy or proprietary in our local hotel, motel or even our bed and breakfast marketplaces. I assure you there is plenty of business to go around, and I have not sworn off hotels as a result of my time in an Airbnb.

In fact, it will strengthen and grow our travel economy of this region in ways we may never be able to fully quantify. A positive city policy indeed travels on the tongues of proud urbanists and manifests itself with increased interest in our market.  

We will also see cottage industries begin to spring up to serve a budding Airbnb culture much like we do within the existing travel industry, from linen delivery firms to even new forms of publications and services focused on the ever-growing needs of this niche area of the travel population.

We just need to be reasonable and understand we are all -- whether we run a hotel or simply invite a friend from out of town to spend the night -- in some form of the hospitality business. All I ask is that we don’t over-reach in the emerging policy.

The experiences I have had with Airbnb supports the value-add argument because of what they offer and who they attract.

Not every Airbnb is created equal, which I discovered on my second outing. This is the beauty of this ever-changing inventory of options because as an Airbnb operator, you control so much, from the look of your space, amenities, and availability including when you are open or closed -- unlike hotels and B&Bs, who tend to be open year-round.

In my second go at it, I wanted to live that fantasy mentioned at the beginning of this column. It went like this: I searched for a cabin in a forest, booked it, received a unique key-less entry code, and then let myself in on the date booked.  

My hosts made it clear in my booking that they tend to be hands-off and that, should I have a question, I could simply text them. Later, when I did have a question, they promptly answered it with the info I needed. It was heaven.  

No old lady. No mindless chitchat. No smelly cat. Just me, my friends, and a rented million-dollar riverfront view that made me feel a bit like a character in The Great Gatsby, even if for only a brief moment.

Finally, while we are on the topic of venture, a word to our city leaders. Rather than wait and then react, anticipate that Uber will roll into Grand Rapids very soon. If the city has not started meeting, then it is time to get ready before our local cabbies park their vehicles on Calder Plaza in protest. 

The Future Needs All of Us.

Tommy Allen
Lifestyle Editor

Visit this week's G-Sync Events: Let’s Do This! and discover some good you can plant in your scheudle. You might even decide to move as a result. Intrigued? Click it.

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