The Growing Popularity of Airbnb in Northern Michigan

Whether you live here or are planning a Northern Michigan vacation, there’s a new Northern Michigan travel resource that’s connecting tourists and locals like never before: Airbnb, an online community connecting potential visitors with homeowners with available, rentable rooms. Read on for the details on the growing popularity of Airbnb in Northern Michigan.


Pamela Smithbell, a Suttons Bay resident, has met countless adventurous, friendly people from all over the United States. She’s met them all from the comfort of her own home and she’s earned money for doing so.

Pamela is a “host” on Airbnb, a rapidly growing site for short-term home and apartment stays. Airbnb presents an alternative to staying in a hotel or renting a timeshare. Especially in Northern Michigan, where hotel prices continue to rise as tourism increases, this option of using Airbnb in Traverse City is looking more and more attractive for many visitors.

For example, in 2012, there were over 3.3 million visitor trips made to Traverse City, according to a study conducted by the Anderson Economic Group of East Lansing. Since 2006, the number of visitors to Traverse City has risen more than 50 percent since 2006. And while there are countless hotels that line East Bay and many Bed & Breakfasts scattered throughout the area’s wine country, hotel prices can be steep, especially during peak summer months.

Thus, many people have turned to other options for Northern Michigan vacation travel. When Pamela first listed the guesthouse on her property on Airbnb about three years ago, there were only about five to six listings in the area. Now, she says there are about 70 listings.

“Even lower-end hotels get completely booked in the summer months. I live in the middle of Leelanau and there are not many places to stay in this area. I think that’s part of the reason why there’s been an increase in people using the site and listing their properties,” says Pamela.

When Hilary Levinson, a graduate student at the University of Michigan, was planning a trip to the Traverse City area, her friend recommened that she stay at a particular Airbnb rental in Suttons Bay.

“It has generally been my experience that Airbnb is less expensive, more flexible, and offers a wider array of options beyond the traditional hotel setup. For the rental in Suttons Bay, for example, we had access to the kitchen, which was nice for preparing our own breakfast. The rental was also really well-located. I’m not sure we could have found a similar location for a similar price if we’d looked for a hotel,” she says.

But Airbnb is much more than a site where hosts simply list their properties and guests select one of their choosing. Airbnb operates from the premise that both parties, the hosts and the guests, have something to gain from the transaction. While the service connects their users with unique travel accommodations, and users of the site are able to write reviews of the hosts and their accommodations, the host is also rating the guests. These reviews are public and are organized by the guests’ names.

Hilary likes that Airbnb, and other renters, provide an outside endorsement.

“I like that Airbnb does some of the vetting work and also offers recourse in case anything goes wrong. I do have some reservations about Airbnb’s general business plan, and I also sometimes prefer a hotel. But Airbnb is great to have as an alternative option,” she says.

Pamela, too, has had an overwhelmingly positive experience with the site thus far.

“The guests I get [through Airbnb] are different than those I get from other services. Airbnb is about sharing what you have. It’s a community. All of the guests I’ve had seem to be adventurous, friendly, flexible, extremely respectful, and tidy. Airbnb is also linked to Facebook. People can see what I look like and I can see what [potential guests] look like. I’m trying to do everything I can to make them happy and vice versa,” she says.

While Pamela is happy to be a part of this community, and it appears that many other hosts in the Traverse City area are too, various hosts were contacted for an interview and were hesitant to speak with MyNorth.com. They claimed that Airbnb was flying somewhat under the radar now, and they would not want to contribute to its growing notoriety.

Airbnb is at an interesting point right now. As the company keeps expanding and gaining popularity, the stakes grow higher. For example, in New York City, it’s estimated that up to half of the listings may be illegal, as they break a law that prohibits rentals of fewer than 30 days. There have been a few high profile incidents. In one case, Nigel Warren, who rented out his bedroom in a two-bedroom apartment, was threatened with over $40,000 in fines for violations of New York laws. Airbnb eventually won that appeal, overturning the fine.

Closer to home, in Grand Rapids, a local couple started a petition when they learned that the Grand Rapids City Commission was scheduled to vote on a proposed ordinance change that would make it illegal to advertise short-term room rentals on sites without a business license and a special zoning permit. Thus, if people listed their spaces on sites like Airbnb, they could be charged with a misdemeanor. The Grand Rapids couple were able to get the 1,000 signatures that they needed and the decision was delayed.

Airbnb does make it clear that it’s up to the host to check with their city’s regulations, and they offer the regulations for a handful of cities across the United States on their website. For Pamela, because she has a guesthouse that’s completely separate from her home on her property, renting it out on Airbnb was perfectly legal. She notes that regulations change from city to city.

For visitors looking for another lodging option outside of staying at a hotel or renting a cottage, Airbnb seems to be a great option for people looking to meet locals and save money. As long as hosts are well aware of their city’s regulations, the service may very well provide a way for both locals and people from around the world to engage in a mutually beneficial setting.


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