People gather at an Airbnb meetup in Center City on Thursday.

People gather at an Airbnb meetup in Center City on Thursday.

Philly Airbnb hosts voice frustration at largest meetup in U.S.: Pope Francis’ visit isn’t bringing big cash

Philadelphia residents willing to rent out their homes to pilgrims coming to see Pope Francis in September had dollar signs in their eyes: A month’s worth of rent for a weekend?

Now, the Papal visit is about a month away. There are still Center City hotel rooms available for rent, and searches on Airbnb — the online hub for renting out your house to strangers — yield thousands of results for available spaces. And some hosts who attended an Airbnb event Thursday night in Center City are frustrated, especially when an Airbnb executive, in the largest meetup of its kind in the U.S., told them spaces going for just a few hundred bucks may need to be lowered in price.

“I’m now listing mine for less than two hundred dollars a night,” said Ryan Golhar, a Graduate Hospital resident who regularly rents out space in his rowhome for $70 a night. “But I think I’m going to have to lower that.”

Representatives from Airbnb and the city gathered with hundreds of interested participants at Pipeline Philly coworking space Thursday night for a meetup to discuss hosting in Philly, specifically for the Papal visit. The company’s leader at the meetup, GM of new U.S. markets Alex Ward, said the event was the largest Airbnb meetup that’s taken place in the country.

Airbnb began in 2007 when two guys living in San Francisco couldn’t afford to pay rent, so they turned their living space into lodging by putting air mattresses on the floor and telling guests they’d make them breakfast in the morning. By 2008, the founders had brought on employees and used what they learned from the experience to launch Airbnb. It started gaining major traction in 2011, and now boasts 1.5 million listings in 190 countries.

Ward wouldn’t disclose details about the number of people in Philly who are renting out their spaces for the Papal visit, but he did say that they’ve calculated that demand is about eight times higher for that weekend than otherwise “normal” weekends. He also said the neighborhoods with the most interest from renters are Rittenhouse Square, University City, Fishtown, southwest Center City and Germantown.

As for the price that Airbnb hosts should stick with when trying to rent out their place, Ward said the company encourages hosts to start higher and then move low. But the site will recommend pricing ranges based on location, demand and size. Obviously weekends like the Papal visit with higher demand will yield higher recommendations for pricing.

Ward wouldn’t go into specifics regarding what the average Airbnb spot is listed for that weekend, nor would he say how many have been rented so far. But other Airbnb representatives working the room told participants in the meetup that they were seeing success with average prices of about $100 to $200 per night for something like a one-bedroom apartment not far from Center City. They told hosts that doesn’t mean they won’t make thousands of dollars for renting out their house for the Papal visit weekend — but it does mean that renting at a high price could take some patience and a bit of luck.

The other people who are cheering on Airbnb hosts to get their spaces rented are from the city. Several city representatives gave short talks at the meetup on Thursday, including at-large City Councilman Bill Greenlee who worked with Airbnb to craft legislation that legalized the service and slapped on an 8.5 percent tax.

Ward said the legislation made Philadelphia the largest city with the most comprehensive Airbnb regulatory structure. And Greenlee wasn’t subtle about why the city was interested in legalizing Airbnb officially.

“Bring people into Philadelphia,” he said, “get us that hotel tax money, and we’ll take it.”

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