Kenneth Huang, a 28-year-old graduate student from Oklahoma State University, came into Wichita on a recent Friday night to hit the town.
The first stop? Chester’s Chophouse and Wine Bar, the posh Waterfront eatery where a steak can cost upwards of $50.
“What do you think? The oysters or the mussels?” Huang said, sitting at a candlelit table in the restaurant. “Or we could do both? I’m splurging tonight.”
The $47 tab for a New York strip steak – and shrimp cocktail – doesn’t hurt the wallet quite as much when you’re paying only $35 for lodging that night.
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Huang stayed Friday night in the basement of an equally swank four-bedroom house in the Vickridge neighborhood through Airbnb, an online marketplace where people rent out their homes or spare bedrooms.
His host, Charles Skinner, said Wichita is slowly starting to embrace Airbnb, and the number of Wichitans hosting rooms on the site has increased in the past year. On Sunday, 49 rentals were listed on the site for Wichita.
“There’s getting to be more and more,” Skinner said. “Airbnb ... is so big now, but there’s so very few people really doing it. When it really takes off big time, it’s going to put a lot of competition on motels and hotels.”
Airbnb was officially launched in 2008, and since its founding, it has grown exponentially. The global service is reportedly valued at $20 billion, which would make it the third most-profitable hospitality brand in the world, behind Hilton and Marriott, respectively.
Essentially, potential hosts can register their spare rooms on the site, set a price per night and provide photos of the room; Airbnb then creates a listing for the room.
Prospective guests then perform a search by city and night and request to book the selected room. Guests must be verified through Airbnb with identification and credit-card information, so the process is far from anonymous.
“It kind of brings you back into older, better times when a handshake was your word and you trusted someone like that,” Skinner said. “That’s almost like a virtual handshake right there.”
Skinner, who previously lived in Europe for six years, inherited the Vickridge house from his grandmother.
For a single guy in an almost 3,000-square-foot house, renting out extra rooms just made sense, Skinner said.
He has been doing it since November and has not had any issues with guests so far. He said that, on average, he hosts guests half the days out of the month, and sometimes more.
Once guests leave, they review Skinner as a host, and he can review them as guests to provide references for future stays.
He said Airbnb reminds him of the European sensibilities he had become accustomed to.
“America really lost that feeling – everyone thinks everyone is a child molester and there’s so much danger,” Skinner said. “This whole Airbnb, even Uber, is a very positive thing for social relationships between people. That’s what I really love about it.”
Airbnb advertises local listings on its website, airbnb.com, for free, a perk that Brent and Rose Litsey relish. The company makes money by charging fees to guests and to hosts when the bookings are made.
The Litseys, who own an art gallery in Wichita, rent out the second floor of their house near downtown as a studio apartment on Airbnb.
Walking through the Litseys’ apartment – with shoes removed, of course – it is plain to see their artistic influence. The walls are covered with the Litseys’ original pieces – there are even stained-glass pieces in the bathroom, complete with a Minion-themed shower curtain.
“I think it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread,” Brent Litsey said of Airbnb.
“It also kind of shows that Wichita has things going on, not like New York or San Francisco or London or Paris, but it shows that there’s diversity.”
The Litseys offer their studio apartment for $60 per night on average, but for guests looking for a more interactive experience, they also have a listing for the room and art lessons at their studio for approximately $300 per night.
“I don’t believe in ripping somebody off by charging for what we have,” Rose Litsey said. “It’s a nice place – it’s worth a lot more than what we charge, but we don’t believe in that.”
The couple has exhibited internationally, so Brent Litsey said he knows what it’s like to be a traveler.
“It’s not about the money,” he said. “It’s about helping others in their means to go other places. It’s like a stepping stone to be in town or traveling. We’re not about the money. We travel, too, so we like to experience that.”
Just as Uber, the ride-sharing service built around a similar concept, changed the taxi industry, some say Airbnb will change the hotel business.
Huang said he doesn’t think Airbnb will replace hotels, because each caters to its own audience.
“I can’t say it never will (replace hotels), but as of right now, I don’t think that it totally will,” he said. “Hotels still offer something Airbnb doesn’t offer. You have your own private room with service that’s also a lot more accessible – you can stop by a motel off the freeway, and with Airbnb, you’ve got to bother someone. If I were traveling with other people, I probably would not suggest Airbnb, because I’d have to accommodate their personal standards of what they can tolerate.”