World Wide Wanderlust

Oklahomans take to the Internet in search of – and to supply – hospitality.

Jessica Brent regularly rents her home to travelers on the website Airbnb.com. Photo by Brandon Scott.

Jessica Brent regularly rents her home to travelers on the website Airbnb.com. Photo by Brandon Scott.

Some motels may leave the light on. Others might love having you there. But with Airbnb.com, you can be king of your choice of castles.

Founded in 2008, Airbnb is a network of hosts from nearly 200 countries offering any kind of accommodation you can think of – from single rooms to entire villas, Airstream trailers to tents. Travelers bored with the flat pillows and institutional paintings typical of traditional hotels are flocking to the unusual options Airbnb hosts provide, often at a fraction of the cost of a hotel room.

Cynthia Mitchell, of Oklahoma City, says she was a bit apprehensive at first about using Airbnb to travel.

“I heard about Airbnb from an Internet news story about cheaper ways to travel,” she says. “I looked at their website and just kept it in the back of my mind as an option, but since I’m okay with staying at cheaper hotels, I never really thought it would be something I would take advantage of personally.”

Then in November 2012, Mitchell faced a travel dilemma: No hotels were close enough to her remote destination. That’s when she decided it was time to give Airbnb a try.

“I found a perfect place to stay just minutes from where some of my family would be staying,” she says. “I filled out a profile and contacted the host. She had a cabana-type room off of her house that she had available. I was not quite sure how it would be, but it ended up perfect.”

Since her initial experience, Mitchell no longer hesitates to book via Airbnb. She has nabbed some cozy accommodations in multiple cities, and even made a few friends.

“Getting to stay with local people is one of my favorite parts,” she says. “Sometimes at hotels, the workers don’t know the area well, but when you are staying in someone’s home, they usually know what is available close and in the town in general. There is also the potential to meet people from all over the country and the world and get some of the best advice about local activities.”

For Airbnb novices, “make sure that you read everything that is available about a place before you book. If something or someone gives you the creeps, move on; there are usually plenty of places to stay in the areas that I have looked,” Mitchell says.

Most hosts, far from being unsettling, are more like Mark McConnell, a freelance carpenter who rents out his home in Oklahoma City to Airbnb travelers. McConnell says that growing up with parents who often opened their home to guests, friends and those in need inspired him to become an Airbnb host. In addition, McConnell says his own experience in traveling using the website Couchsurfing.com placed him in unique accommodations with generous hosts.

“Several years later, when I was back in Oklahoma City and had a place of my own, I was happy to begin returning the favor by opening my own space to other couch-surfers who needed a place to stay when they passed through,” McConnell says. “In the past few years, I’ve had individuals, friends, couples and even small groups come through and stay with me who were traveling by such diverse modes as bicycle, motorcycle, car and even hitchhiking. It’s actually a lot of fun.”

Lured by the promise of a bit more reliability, McConnell soon moved his hosting offers to Airbnb. During a typical week, he has a couple of guests at his studio home near the Linwood and Crestwood neighborhoods. His studio is a good example of why so many travelers are being lured to Airbnb for unique places to stay; McConnell has renovated the space to be an example of “green” living.

“When I moved into the studio several years ago, I gutted the place once more, started over and recreated the space to make it more my own style,” he says. “That style is eclectic, it is minimal, it is creative, it is natural and it is as environmentally friendly as I could manage.”

For instance, McConnell chose paints that contain no volatile organic compounds. Instead of utilizing chemicals, he stained the concrete floor using coffee grounds and iron sulfate. He also furnished the space with many items that were either found, reclaimed or exchanged in barter.

“I stained my oak butcher block counters with an iron oxide ebony stain I made by mixing apple cider vinegar and steel wool,” he says. “I put in slate tile. I installed all-wood blinds. It’s really a fun place,” he says.

Like McConnell, Jessica Brent had previously hosted travelers through Couchsurfing.com. She made the switch to Airbnb to make a bit of extra money and to provide visitors with a great local experience.

“I really enjoy making sure travelers leave with a positive impression of Tulsa,” Brent says. “…I like enabling visitors to experience Tulsa from a local’s perspective by staying in a unique neighborhood and exploring downtown based on local recommendations. I think the first time, visitors are surprised by what Tulsa has to offer, and we are increasingly becoming a regional destination. I often use Airbnb when I travel, so I know that the experience you have staying at an Airbnb place versus a hotel can be a lot richer, and I’m glad to provide that for people traveling to and through Tulsa.”

Brent, who has hosted for about a year and a half, rents out her historic Dutch colonial in Brady Heights for $100 per night, plus a small cleaning fee. It’s a win-win for both Brent and her guests.

“A lot of hosts will just rent out a bedroom in their house, but I prefer to make my entire home available because I don’t really like sharing my personal space with strangers, and I can also charge more for the entire house,” Brent says. “When I have guests, I just tidy up the house, pack up a bag and my dog and go stay with my partner for the duration of the reservation. The guests have to agree to take care of the cat, but everyone seems to love having him around.”

Both guests and hosts alike emphasize that Airbnb is, above all, a network built on mutual trust.

“First, you have to recognize that Airbnb is very much a community of people that are looking for something different and unique in their travels,” Brent says. “Even though I rarely meet my guests face-to-face, I have to put in time answering their questions and making sure they have a great stay. Second, trust your gut. Airbnb, as with most of the new sharing economy platforms, is built on trust. It takes a leap of faith to hand your keys over to a complete stranger, and you have to be discerning. I’m quick to turn down requests if something seems weird or if it seems like the person doesn’t quite get it. For Airbnb to work, both the guest and the host have to approach it with shared respect and trust.”