Saturday, November 18, 2017
Business

Bed-and-breakfast owners closing their doors blame Airbnb, local government

RECOMMENDED READING


ST. PETERSBURG — Mornings at the Dickens House revolve around a large, tiger oak table. Guests at the St. Petersburg bed and breakfast plop down around it each morning to nibble on fresh fruit and pastries before innkeeper Ed Caldwell sets down a plate of egg-white frittata or blueberry pancakes. He had the table custom made for the inn, round because the shape is "better for conversations."

But over the last couple years, the table has been notably less full. And soon, there will be no more paying guests around it. That's because Dickens House is up for sale. Nearby, two other bed and breakfasts have already closed and another is about to join the Dickens House on the sales block.

The mom-and-pop operations in the Old Northeast neighborhood blame competition from Airbnb in the area — and a lack of enforcement by local and state governments — for pushing them out.

"I've been supporting my city, county and state for 17 years," Caldwell said, "and I've been stabbed in the back and kicked to the curb."

Beach Drive Inn, another bed and breakfast in the Old Northeast, will go up for sale soon. Larelle House, just around the corner, shuttered in January after more than 12 years. Sunset Bay Inn is closed. The only remaining licensed bed and breakfasts in the area will be the Watergarden Inn at the Bay and Mansion Inn.

The closures, owners say, are a symptom of the slow creep of short term rentals into the downtown area. Currently, it is illegal in St. Petersburg to rent a dwelling more than three times per year for less than 30 days at a time in an area zoned for housing, or to advertise for such.

But an online search to rent an Airbnb room in the 33701 zip code turns up more than a dozen listings, some for as low as $45 per night. Licensed bed and breakfasts in the area charge more than $100 for a night.

"There's no way you can compete," Roland Martino, owner of Beach Drive Inn, said.

Licensed bed and breakfasts charge more because their operating costs are much higher. Bed and breakfasts must comply with fire codes and health codes, among others, for their space. That means upgrading to an indoor alarm and sprinkler system and commercial kitchen items, as well as taking food safety courses for the breakfast aspect. They also pay for a license. That all costs money — money that people who rent out their homes or a room through Airbnb don't need to pay.

"It was frustrating dealing with people that didn't have to go through all the regulations and regulatory hoops that we had to and (incur) the costs involved," Larry Nist, who ran Larelle House with his wife Ellen, said.

For them, Airbnb competition "wasn't an overriding factor" in closing, but it still affected their business toward the end.

Dickens House, Larelle House and Beach Drive Inn all experienced a dip in revenue and occupancy in recent years. At a time when tourism in Pinellas County is up — 6,349,500 overnight visitors in 2016, up almost 3 percent from 2015 and an all-time high — bed and breakfasts weren't seeing a similar uptick in business.

For Caldwell at Dickens House, his rooms were filled 79 percent of the time last March. This March, he's down to almost 50 percent. When asked when his heyday was, Caldwell said he's "not sure I ever had it."

"Now that business is good (in the city)," he said, "Airbnb is coming in and sucking it off."

Airbnb would not specifically address complaints and allegations made by bed and breakfast operators. In a statement emailed to the Times, Benjamin Breit, an Airbnb spokesperson, said Airbnb hosts "offer affordable and alternative experience to traditional hospitality options… We will continue to utilize our platform to support Pinellas County merchants and small businesses, including B&B's."

Bed and breakfasts nationwide are struggling to compete with Airbnb. Troy Flanagan, vice president of state and local government affairs for the American Hotel & Lodging Association, said that while he didn't have data on closures specifically, he sees a trend of bed and breakfasts losing business or going out of business because of the unregulated competition.

"From what we've seen they're one of the more exposed segments of the lodging industry to unchecked competition," he said.

But not everyone in the hotel industry sees Airbnb as the villain. To some, it's more of an opportunity.

Patricia Detwiler, executive director of industry group Bed and Breakfast Inns Association, concurs a fair amount of the statewide decline in bed and breakfasts is tied to short term rental sites like Airbnb. But she doesn't consider Airbnb the threat, and even encourages bed and breakfasts to use the company as a marketing tool.

Rather, it's the lack of licensing enforcement that is forcing small bed and breakfasts to close and putting consumers at risk.

"It's not about shutting down Airbnb," she said. "It's about leveling the playing field for legitimate businesses."

Then who's to blame? Homeshare sites should shoulder a fair amount, the bed and breakfast owners said, but it isn't alone. Beach Drive Inn's Martino pointed to another culprit: "I blame some level of government," he said.

The state doesn't regulate Airbnb directly, but it does require a license for any vacation rentals that are a "whole unit" — an entire apartment, condo or house for example — and rent for 30 days or less more than three times per year. Anything less than a full unit, such as a room, doesn't need a license.

It's currently up to local governments to decide whether or not short-term renting in residentially-zoned areas is legal and to police for any violators.

Robert Gerdes, director of codes compliance assistance for St. Petersburg, said the city relies largely on citizen complaints for policing. Violations can incur a lien on a property or up to $500 per incident.

Since Jan. 1, 2016, the city found 77 violations of short-term rentals. While he didn't have exact numbers, he said "most often," violations of this sort include evidence from a short-term rental site.

But enforcing this is fairly difficult.

Part of the challenge is pinpointing which homes are listed on Airbnb. The company does not reveal addresses until a customer books a room. Instead, it gives a three- or four-block radius around the listing to give a general sense of where it is.

A few years ago, several licensed bed and breakfasts banded together to submit a list of around 100 Airbnb listings in the 3301 zip code to the city's code enforcement division. Bed and breakfast owners said the city visited each and asked them to stop, but the listings inevitably cropped up again. Gerdes wasn't able to confirm this specifically.

"It's not supposed to be our job to do code enforcement's work," Caldwell said. In a stinging move, one Airbnb opened up in the house right behind his.

"I look at it every day," Caldwell said. "It doesn't feel very damn good."

For any major changes to happen, the owners said, local governments need to retain power to decide whether short term rentals are allowed to operate as they have been, and enforce it. Two similar bills currently making their way through the state Senate — SB 188 — and House — HB 145 — would strip local government of that ability, affecting Airbnb and similar sites operating in those areas.

Bed and breakfasts have been a fixture of Florida tourism for a century, as much a part of the state's culture as juicy oranges and sandy beaches. But largely unregulated competition could change that.

For now, the licensed bed and breakfast scene in the Old Northeast will be quiet. Larelle House's Nist and Dickens House's Caldwell are retiring. Martino isn't sure what he'll do after selling the Beach Drive Inn.

Nist remains optimistic about the long-term future of the industry. "There will always be a niche for actual bed and breakfasts," he said.

Martino and Caldwell aren't so sure.

Contact Malena Carollo at mcarollo@tampabay.com. Follow @malenacarollo.

 
Comments
Florida jobs recover from Irma, unemployment rate drops

Florida jobs recover from Irma, unemployment rate drops

As economists predicted, the tough hit that Florida jobs took from Hurricane Irma was not long-lived. The state added 125,300 jobs in October, almost breaking even from the 127,400 jobs it lost in September. According to state figures released Friday...
Published: 11/17/17
Apple will postpone release of  HomePod

Apple will postpone release of HomePod

The Washington PostApple said Friday that it’s pushing back its plans for a Siri-powered smart speaker until sometime early next year.The HomePod speaker was announced in June, with an initial launch date set for December. Apple said that its smart s...
Published: 11/17/17
HSN, Good Housekeeping pick five contest finalists

HSN, Good Housekeeping pick five contest finalists

ST. PETERSBURG — Good Housekeeping and St. Petersburg-based HSN have chosen five finalists for their entrepreneur competition. The partners are searching for a novel item to promote as endorsed by the Good Housekeeping Seal, denoting reliability and ...
Published: 11/17/17
Trigaux: State of Tampa Bay startups? Disconnected we falter but there’s a plan to fix that

Trigaux: State of Tampa Bay startups? Disconnected we falter but there’s a plan to fix that

How are we doing?That was the Big Question posed more than once this past week in Tampa Bay. First, the Tampa Bay Partnership and USF debuted in-depth and new ways to measure Tampa Bay across a wide range of indicators to gauge whether we are gaining...
Published: 11/17/17
Tesla’s latest creation: An electric big rig that can travel 500 miles on a single charge

Tesla’s latest creation: An electric big rig that can travel 500 miles on a single charge

The main course was expected: a pair of sleek silver Tesla semi-trucks that get 500 miles per charge, go from zero to 60 mph in five seconds and — if the hype is to be believed — promise to single-handedly transform the commercial trucking industry.B...
Published: 11/17/17
We ask Tampa Bay startup leaders how best to advance entrepreneurial ecosystem

We ask Tampa Bay startup leaders how best to advance entrepreneurial ecosystem

What one thing could be added to the Tampa Bay startup community to help it grow and prosper?The Tampa Bay Times reached out to these leading area entrepreneurs and startup experts for answers.RELATED COVERAGE: Trigaux: State of Tampa Bay startups? D...
Published: 11/17/17
Before you hit the mall: here are some key holiday shopping hours

Before you hit the mall: here are some key holiday shopping hours

Plotting a shopping strategy for the holiday weekend? Here’s a look at holiday store opening hours for some major retailers:Thanksgiving8 a.m.: Kmart1 p.m.: JCPenney4 p.m.: GameStop5 p.m.: Best Buy, Macy’s, Toys "R" Us, Kohl’s6 p.m.: Old Navy, Target...
Published: 11/17/17
Electric, autonomous vehicles featured at Tampa auto show

Electric, autonomous vehicles featured at Tampa auto show

TAMPA — The two biggest trends in the automotive space are ones you’ve likely heard of: electric vehicles and autonomous cars. Both will feature prominently at the Tampa Bay International Auto Show today through Sunday. The event at the ...
Published: 11/17/17
Developer changes approach as downtown Largo project lags in financing

Developer changes approach as downtown Largo project lags in financing

LARGO — Driving down West Bay Drive, you may notice some changes to downtown Largo.A new 29-unit apartment complex on Ridge Road stands finished and ready for residents. South of the complex, land that was formerly home to a community of rundown cott...
Published: 11/17/17
Want to travel solo? Local enthusiasts share stories, tips for holidays trips

Want to travel solo? Local enthusiasts share stories, tips for holidays trips

Stephanie Maisonneuve visited the walled city of Cartagena, a port city off the Caribbean coast of Colombia. She rode horseback down the city’s cobbled streets clucking past flower-filled balconies and massive, wooden arched doors. The travel enthusi...
Published: 11/16/17
Updated: 11/17/17