Sisters Mary Hartman and Elisabeth Cannell were both born and raised in Charleston but live out of state now, and return frequently to visit their mother and other relatives and friends — a fairly common circumstance that presented them with both a challenge and a remarkably well-timed opportunity.
It centered on an old farmhouse that was built in the late 1800s and once sat on their grandparents’ property. They had it moved to a couple of acres their mom, Dolly Hartman, still owns in Loudon Heights.
“We wanted to keep the structure, so we renovated it. ... We had hoped to rent it out,” Mary said.
But a standard rental didn’t quite work.
For starters, the little house, as they called it, quickly became a labor of love — they tore it down to the studs, kept the exposed beams and an original chimney. They added a vintage but modern kitchen, bathroom and porch.
There was also a practical matter: They wanted to be able to stay there whenever they came to town.
Enter Airbnb, a global company that facilitates in-home, overnight accommodations.
“I was an Airbnb member and enjoyed being a guest myself since about 2015, I guess. So we listed it with them instead of doing a long-term rental, so we could also use the house ourselves,” Mary said.
Their first rental was in December 2017 — right around the time bookings for the 10-year-old company were skyrocketing in West Virginia.
“It’s really been within the last year or two where we’ve seen significant growth, whether it’s in the larger metropolitan areas, like Charleston and Huntington, to the small or very outdoorsy mountainous towns, particularly in the Snowshoe area,” said Airbnb public affairs manager Ben Breit.
“We’ve seen significant interest and demand in guests on our platform who want an authentic, outdoors, beautiful, tranquil experience, and they’re finding it in West Virginia.”
In the company’s earlier days, he said, they saw quick growth in young, very tech-friendly cities like Austin, Texas, or San Francisco.
“There was a stereotype for a while that, ‘Oh you know, it’s just for the big, enormous cities and it’s just for millennials.’”
The fastest growth the company is seeing is in rural America, including West Virginia.
Airbnb reports over 900 hosts in the Mountain State, who welcomed roughly 90,000 visitors in 2018 — bringing in a combined $10 million in supplemental income. The company keeps three percent.
Kanawha County, according to company records, brought in $457,000 with 4,900 guest visits last year — roughly 2,900 of them in Charleston, a 52 percent increase over 2017. Cabell County brought in $206,000 last year, with 1,900 bookings in Huntington.
The listings are incredibly diverse and often come in a squeal-worthy rustic chicness ready-made for Instagram — everything from single rooms to entire homes, including a treehouse, a carriage house and a renovated bus.
“Last year, I was booked for 240 days,” said Will Sutherland of Shepherdstown, who spent $1,000 on an old school bus, intending to turn it into a portable home for trips around the state.
When someone suggested he list it instead on Airbnb, “I was very doubtful,” he said.
“I was unsure about sharing my property with strangers, and I didn’t know if anybody would like the bus.”
That was in late 2014. Today, he’s hosted over 1,000 people and has over 500 five-star reviews, including a recent guest who raved, “The bus is charming, cozy, and thoughtfully designed. Shepherdstown was surprisingly fun — great restaurants, unique shops, awesome locals.”
A lot of hosts serve as unofficial guides and ambassadors for their region, Breit said. They also provide the informal infrastructure that allows rural communities to tap into tourism dollars that were out of reach before.
“I’m very surprised,” Will said. “I used to travel a lot. Now I feel like culture comes to me.”
In four years, he’s greeted guests from every continent except Antarctica. In the span of a single week, he had two ambassadors from South Africa, a battlefield analyst working on a project about the historic Antietam National Battlefield, and a couple from China who had never been to the United States before.
“I can tell you that people leave feeling very welcome in our state,” he said.