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Home, Sweet Hotel

Providing a home away from home for travelers gives locals an inside glimpse of what brings visitors to the Fox Cities.

By Amelia Compton Wolff

A smile spreads across Donna Eddy’s face as she recalls Uwe (pronounced OO-vay), a 30-something German man who rented a room in her Appleton home one night last September.

“He was just touring around the Great Lakes on vacation from Germany,” Eddy says. “I thought, that’s kind of weird. He stayed here just one night, but he was delightful.”

During his stay with Eddy and her husband, Uwe visited the Green Bay Packer Hall of Fame and before he left, gifted his hosts with boxes of brandy chocolates from his home country.

Eddy hadn’t known this man before she opened her home to him. In fact, she hadn’t even known how to pronounce his name before he arrived because all their communication had been through email.

Eddy is among a growing number of homeowners who are cashing in on the “share economy” by renting their extra space to travelers through online community marketplaces. Fueled by technology, this emerging peer-to-peer market creates micro entrepreneurs out of ordinary people by bringing their services directly to the customers seeking them – whether it’s a ride, a repair or a room.

“I’ve always wanted to have a bed and breakfast. [My husband and I] have stayed in several and they’re always such neat houses, but that’s a lot of extra work,” says Eddy, a part-time art teacher for the Kaukauna Catholic School System.

Eddy rents her space through Airbnb, a website which hosts residential rental listings from people in more than 41,000 cities around the world, and it has helped Eddy realize her bed and breakfast dream on a small scale. For $55 a night, a traveler can stay at Eddy’s residence with all the perks of home — and even enjoy homemade muffins or scones in the morning.

Jennifer Jensen, program manager of the UW-Platteville collaborative engineering program at UWFox Valley in Menasha, has experienced an array of accommodations through her extensive travels including time with the Peace Corps in Thailand and visiting her sister living in Hungary. Jensen describes peer-to-peer rental travel as a hybrid between a bed and breakfast and a vacation rental.’

“It’s kind of like the democratization of travel accommodations,” Jensen says. “This is people-to-people, it’s direct. Because it’s so pure, it really lends itself to being more of a quality human interaction. It breaks down barriers.”

Since Eddy began capitalizing on her spare bedrooms two summers ago, she has hosted more than a dozen visitors, sightseers and wanderers passing through the Fox Cities. Eddy’s first guests from Minnesota were in the area to visit a Catholic shrine. After the day’s excursion, Eddy and her guests spent the evening together watching a Packer game. A former policewoman from Minneapolis has become a returning guest and friend when in Appleton visiting her son who attends Lawrence University.

Eddy’s 90-year-old mother has questioned the safety of her daughter’s arrangement. For many people, the idea of letting strangers into their personal space is unappealing. The threats of theft, personal safety and property damage are all major concerns.

“That’s a risk we’re open to taking,” says Beth DesJardin, another Appleton Airbnb host. “We’ve had enough experience with fantastic people. You learn people are just generally good.”

Guests who use Airbnb are subject to reviews by their hosts which DesJardin appreciates when considering an inquiry. “If a host has a bad experience, they write a review of that guest that can’t de deleted that from their profile. It’s an added incentive for guests to be respectful and clean up after themselves,” she says.

Over the last year, DesJardin, a photographer, and her husband Mark, founder of the cyclist networking website GroupRide, have hosted guests who are in the Fox Cities for a variety of reasons. Conferences at the Radisson Paper Valley Hotel, EAA’s AirVenture in Oshkosh, Green Bay Packer games, parents of Lawrence University students and shows at the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center have all brought renters to DesJardin’s home near downtown Appleton. This past May, DesJardin hosted a family who worked on The Lion King production during it’s run at the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center.

As entrepreneurs who both work from home, renting can be disruptive to the DesJardins’s personal and work lives, but the extra income is an attractive bonus, as is the interaction with like-minded people. Because Airbnb guests can customize the amenities they are looking for in their search criteria, DesJardin finds many guests share her lifestyle values.

“We get a lot of people who live like us, with no TV, no microwave,” DesJardin says. “Most people come from warmer climates and the West Coast. The furthest was someone from London staying for a Packer game.”

Catherine Case, an art professor who teaches online courses, gets many inquiries about her five bedroom, four bathroom Oshkosh home during EAA’s AirVenture. Case has been renting her extra bedrooms to the same group of AirVenture vendors from Greensboro, North Carolina for the past four years and has gotten to know them so well that she visited them for six days at Thanksgiving last year.

“I’ve met some wonderful people from all over [the United States],” she says. “They seem to be very genuine.”’

The Oshkosh native has also been on the other side of the Airbnb rental coin as a guest. When Case stayed in Sedona, Arizona last year, she didn’t have to rent a car because her hosts volunteered to drive her around the city whenever she required transportation. “These are the kind of people you will find who [show you] all kinds of things you will never find in visitors brochures,” Case says.

Travelers looking for the insights of a local and an affordable place to stay while on the road might find what they are looking for on Airbnb. For hosts, the monetary gain is only part of the appeal.

“We learn people’s stories and where they’re from,” DesJardin says. “You feel richer having spent time with them.”

Hosting & Renting Tips

Know your city’s laws and regulations. Every city has different zoning and administrative codes, some of which prohibit short-term rentals and others require you to obtain a license. It’s important to understand the laws to avoid penalties or renting from an unauthorized host. If you want to host as a renter, make sure to examine carefully the terms of your lease.

Communicate clearly. Whether hosting or renting, Jensen urges preemptive talks so both parties are on the same page, particularly when dealing with international travel. “Western travelers may have standards that don’t apply to rest of the world. You need to be very clear with what you are hoping to get out of the experience and communicate it ahead of time.”

Research thoroughly. Online resources such as comparison and review websites can give prospective travelers an idea of what they are likely to experience. Google Earth provides a 360-degree view of your destination which Jensen finds immensely helpful. “Those tools are my regular travel companions,” she says. “I find [them] good because you get a sense for your environment. It takes time to plan, but it’s well worth it.”

—FC

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