Airbnb visitors on the rise in Grand Forks
More than a year and a half ago, Coleen Asche didn't know what Airbnb was.
"My daughter's boyfriend, his parents I guess were the first ones we ever heard such a thing from," Asche recalled. "They just have one bedroom in their basement, and a bathroom and a laundry room. So they rent out that bedroom-bathroom for Airbnb."
While staying with the family in Nebraska, Asche said she took the opportunity to learn more about Airbnb, an international hospitality company in which users can book a stay in private homes online. She then returned to Grand Forks and became a host herself.
Many people she has spoken with in the Grand Forks area are still unfamiliar with the company and its concept, Asche noted. "I'll say, 'We have an Airbnb at our house,' " she said. "And I'm like, 'Do you know what that is?' Nine out of 10 people are like, 'No, what's that?' "
Asche is one of approximately 20 Airbnb hosts in the city of Grand Forks, according to a report the company compiled in 2017. Julie Rygg, director of the Greater Grand Forks Convention and Visitors Bureau, said that's not too many.
"While it doesn't seem like there's a lot of offerings in Grand Forks for Airbnb facilities, there are definitely people that are using them," Rygg said.
On the grow
Airbnb counted about 300 inbound Grand Forks guests in 2017, which the company said was a 105 percent increase from 2016. The state experienced more growth, with larger cities such as Fargo and Bismarck bringing in thousands of visitors on their own. Across North Dakota, Airbnb said visits were up 158 percent from the previous year.
When Asche began hosting last spring, she said, she thought she'd be hosting more out-of-state UND parents.
"Our daughter played volleyball for UND," Asche said. "And when she played, we would talk to the parents of her friends. A lot of them were from Minneapolis, Chicago, Washington state. ... When they would come to Grand Forks for a couple games they'd be like, 'Well, we're paying 120 bucks a night, for a hotel room.'
"I knew I could kind of give a break to those UND parents," Asche said. "Because if they're coming to Grand Forks every other night for the next four years, they're putting down a lot of money in hotel costs."
As it turns out, Asche has hosted less parents and more people in town for UND sporting events and related activities.
"Like a lot of students that, you know, are online, or they're away doing their internships but they have to come back to campus to do things, you know. Just a lot of UND things."
Brian Lyons, who said he's been a host for almost a year now, said he gets a lot of parents from more nearby schools than just UND, including the University of Minnesota-Crookston.
Lyons had been leasing the space to year-long tenants for five years before taking on Airbnb. "It was just trying something new," he said. "Just to see if there's a better alternative."
Overall, Lyons said hosting has been a satisfying experience. "I have had nothing but a great experience with everybody," he said of guests, who have come from all over, including Winnipeg and Alaska.
Dustin McNally, yet another local host, who said he found out about the service through traveling himself, said he noticed a lot of younger people stay with him. "People that are more comfortable sharing spaces," he said, like 20- to 30-year-olds who often live with roommates.
McNally likes Airbnb for the low cost and amenities. "Usually you get, like, a kitchen, and more space," he said. "It's good for groups."
On the hosting side of things, McNally said it doesn't require a lot of effort, and guests generally are polite.
"You definitely have to make an effort to make the room look nice," he said. "And I get to put it on my time, so it's not really a commitment."
For a total of 6,700 guests across the state in 2017, Airbnb estimated all of its North Dakotan hosts made a combined $667,000 in supplemental income. In Grand Forks, Airbnb said hosts made a combined $30,000 in 2017.
"Airbnb allows Grand Forks families to use what is typically their greatest expense—their homes—as a way to earn extra income to help make ends meet," Airbnb spokeswoman Lauren Rillos siad. "When hosts share their homes, they expand the number of lodging options and help communities throughout North Dakota welcome more visitors. With 42 percent of Airbnb visitor spending occurring in the neighborhood in which a guest stays, this creates a significant economic opportunity for cities like Grand Forks."
In March, Airbnb agreed to collect and remit North Dakota sales taxes. "This makes the process easier for all parties," Rillos said, "and ensures the state receives this important revenue."
Rygg with the CVB said she and the city are submitting a volunteer collection agreement to officially collect lodging taxes from the company, which the city administers. The CVB relies almost exclusively on a 3 percent hotel tax visitors pay when they stay in the city, which has just begun to level off after years of decline.
The state tax commissioner's office said Airbnb has been collecting and remitting the 5 percent state sales tax since April 1, along with local city taxes the state is in charge of collecting and distributing.
Both Asche and McNally noted hosting is good for extra money, though McNally said it's not "hugely profitable."
"It's been really fun to kind of bond with some of these people," Asche said. "I've come to find out that people are just overall good. ... Maybe my head's in the clouds, but that's been our experience. We've had just really good people come through here."