ITHACA, N.Y. – Ithacans hosted a record number of Airbnb guests on Saturday, May 25, with about 3,000 visitors staying in rooms booked through the short-term rental platform. That’s about 1,200 more than during Ithaca College’s commencement last weekend and 300 more than during Cornell’s commencement last year.
Commencement weekends are always among the busiest of the year for tourism, and even as home stay bookings boom hotels are nearly at capacity too. Growth in the smaller short-term sector has outpaced traditional hotel growth, though.
According to Nick Helmholdt, principal planner and tourism program director for Tompkins County, there are about 2,300 rooms registered with the county for overnight rentals. That tally includes large, chain hotels and smaller inns and bed and breakfasts. Registered properties with more than 10 rooms pay a 5% room tax to the county while owner-operated properties with 10 or fewer rooms pay 3%. Airbnb listings generally do not register with the county, because the company reached an agreement with the county in 2016 to collect the 3% room tax from all its hosts. A search on the Airbnb site turns up about 300 Ithaca listings.
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Since conventional hotel rooms still far outnumber Airbnb listings in the county, most county revenue comes from properties in the 5% tax bracket. Helmholdt said revenue in the 3% category is growing at a faster rate, though, suggesting the ratio between traditional and home stay rentals is shifting.
Scott Wiggins, managing director of La Tourelle Hotel and an at-large member of the Tompkins County Strategic Planning Tourism Board, said platforms like Airbnb haven’t put a dent is his bookings during peak tourism weekends. “In general I would say that Airbnb type rentals do not have a negative effect on demand for La Tourelle during Ithaca College or Cornell commencement weekends. We cultivate relationships with parents from both schools over the four years they are visiting their kid(s) at Cornell and IC, and we become a home-away-from-home for them,” Wiggins said.
Throughout the rest of the year, though, he said competition for clients has increased.
“We do see short term rentals as a major competitor the other 50 weekends of the year, as well as summer weekdays. We support a free market and believe competition is good for everyone,” he said, “as long as everyone is playing by the same rules including being listed with the municipality as a short-term rental, undergoing annual safety inspections, carrying appropriate insurance, and collecting and paying sales tax and occupancy tax.”
While Tompkins County was the first in the state to reach an agreement with Airbnb to collect occupancy tax, local municipalities are still working out regulations like inspection requirements and limits on how often home stay hosts can book guests. In the Town of Ithaca, for instance, a short-term rental committee has been working for several months to draft legislation potentially capping yearly bookings.
Heather Hughes, director of sales and marketing for Visit Ithaca, said the “booming industry of people being able to list their housing through platforms like (Airbnb), we’ve definitely seen a softening of bookings over time at traditional accommodations.” Visit Ithaca’s lodging listing, which includes all properties registered with the county, showed some vacancies this weekend but only a handful.
An Airbnb host in the Town of Ithaca, meanwhile, said she’s been able to book guests every weekend for the past two years with the exception of November through January. “It’s a business, and I enjoy doing it. It’s been successful,” said host Laurene Gilbert.
Gilbert said she likes the control of having guests when she wants them and keeping the extra apartment vacant when she wants it available for family to visit. She said the income has helped her stay in her house since retiring. “It helps me pay the taxes.”
According to Liz DeBold Fusco, Northeast press secretary for Airbnb, local hosts earned about $772,000 from this weekend’s bookings. About a quarter of Ithaca hosts are seniors, she said.
The weekend’s guests, meanwhile, are about as diverse as the Cornell graduating class if a generation older. About half the weekend’s Airbnb guests are over the age of 50, and they come by way of 44 states and 467 cities around the world.
Featured image: View of Cayuga Lake from South Hill, autumn 2018 (Jacob Mroczek)