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July 6th, 2017 under West Texas Talk » West Texas Talk Highlight

The Marfa Airbnb phenomena

By LONN TAYLOR

The fastest-growing business in Marfa may be the operation of Airbnbs. Tom Jacobs tells me that he and Vilis Inde opened the first one in 2006, before there was a name for them. According to a KRTS Youth Media Project program on the subject there are now 75 of them in Marfa; other folks have estimated that there are at least 100. The Airbnb website for Marfa this week lists 81.

An Airbnb is essentially the short-term rental of space in someone else’s home. Unlike a traditional b&b, the second b, which stands for breakfast, is seldom operative; most Airbnb guests must prepare their own breakfasts. The “air” is a reference to the Airbnb, which opened in San Francisco in October 2007 when two roommates, Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia, realized that they could not pay the rent on their San Francisco loft apartment. They put an air mattress on the floor of their living room and advertised the apartment on the internet as an Air Bed and Breakfast. Within a few months they had put together a website, which served as a broker and collected commissions from both hosts and guests; today that website, Airbnb.com, lists 3 million lodgings in 65,000 cities and 191 countries. The website claims 150,000,000 users. It seems that no one who travels stays in hotels anymore.

Marfa offers a wide variety of Airbnbs at a wide variety of prices, from a cabin cruiser that is up on blocks in the trailer park across the street from El Cosmico at $75 a night to a 5-bedroom “Hollywood-style retreat” with a heated swimming pool on Plateau Street that goes for $1,400 a night, with a three-night minimum. The average nightly fee is about $200, which is considerably less than a room at the Hotel Saint George. Most Marfa Airbnbs advertise a “genuine Marfa experience” or “true Marfa vibes.” Few accept guests with children; some have house rules that some people might find slightly finicky, such as “Please don’t use the oven for more than 30 minutes at over 350 degrees.”

Airbnbs seem to be a positive experience for both owners and guests. Buck Johnston and Camp Bosworth rent the casita behind their Wrong Gallery as an Airbnb, which they call Faxonia. I asked Buck what the best aspects of running Faxonia were and she said, “Well, the income, of course, but the best part is meeting people from everywhere. We’ve had guests from all over the United States and Europe, the nicest people you can imagine. We have no complaints.” When I asked her about the downside, she said, “I’d have to think about that for a minute.” After a pause she said, “I have to clean it, but I have to clean house anyway and it’s not much extra work. There is no downside.”

Buck and Camp’s guests love Faxonia, to judge from the comments they have posted on the Airbnb website. Their evaluations are sprinkled with phrases like “a gem,” “one of a kind,” “beyond our expectations,” and “memorable and unique.” They even liked the outdoor shower. And every one of them mentioned how helpful Buck was in guiding them to the sights of Marfa. Such comments are not unique; every Airbnb guest liked their Marfa hosts.

Visitor comments about all of Marfa’s Airbnbs are almost overwhelmingly positive, although someone who stayed in the 200-square foot cabin cruiser wrote that it was “perfect for two smaller-framed people.” Even people who stayed in the place that bills itself as The Train Depot, which is literally right next to the Union Pacific tracks, did not complain about the trains going by at night, although one guest did write, “The train whistles, rumbles, and shakes the place but you have to know that I love trains.”

Some folks argue that the proliferation of Airbnbs in Marfa has reduced the number of affordable long-term rentals, and we all know that affordable rent houses are scare as hen’s teeth in Marfa. Others say that this is not the case since most Marfa Airbnbs are operated by part-time residents who only rent their houses when they are not using them and would not accept long-term renters. A few Airbnb neighbors object to a constantly changing cast next door, loud conversations late at night, and lights shining in their windows. On the other hand, one of the few negative Airbnb guest comments that I read was a complaint about the permanent residents of a nearby house yelling at each other in the middle of the night.

One thing is certain: Airbnbs can lead to interesting situations. My friend Theresa Chambers Stolte owns an old adobe house in Marathon that she lists on Airbnb. She recently accepted a 4-day rental from a gentleman in Austin, who said that his cousin was visiting Texas for the first time from China and he wanted to show him the Big Bend. Stolte carefully explained that the street address of the house on the Airbnb website was wrong, and gave them the correct address, adding that she would be on a river trip the entire time that they were there and could not be reached by cell phone, but that the door would be unlocked and the key would be on the dining room table. The two men agreed to these conditions. They arrived in the middle of the night, having used a GPS to locate the house. They got up early the next morning and went to the national park, came home after dark and repeated the routine the next day. The third day they were having breakfast in the kitchen when there was a knock on the front door. They opened it to find a very large cowboy standing there. He said, “What are you all doing in my mama’s house?” It seems that the house was not Stolte’s but belonged to an 88-year old woman who was spending the week at the family ranch and like everyone else in Marathon, never locked her front door. The men had put the wrong address in their GPS. They later told Stolte that the owner’s son was very nice to them but first scared the bejesus out of them by telling them that he would show them where they were supposed to spend the night and then driving them to the old Marathon jail before taking them to Stolte’s house. Stolte gave the woman a check for the two nights they spent at her house, and the latter vowed to lock the front door the next time she left town.

Lonn Taylor is a historian and writer who lives in Fort Davis. He can be reached at taylorw@fortdavis.net.

Story filed under: West Texas Talk

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