As the share economy expands, Chattanooga begins to get its share.
In the classic 1935 Marx Bros. farce “A Night at the Opera,” Groucho Marx finds his overpriced and tiny hotel room filled to the brim with a stream of incoming visitors. A knock on the door reveals a man offering room service, and Marx, with his spot-on comedic timing, replies, “Room service? Send up a larger room.” That joke is still funny, not just because of the continued number of guests who keep knocking on his door, but because travelers still encounter overpriced and occasionally teeny hotel rooms.
The average daily rate for a hotel room in the United States has risen significantly since 2010, and according to a graph produced by Statista, this year, the average American shelled out $115 per night. With that number projected to swell above $120 by next year, those for whom that rate would be wallet-busting are increasing turning to the “share economy” for alternatives.
Airbnb arrived with a modest attitude and simple aspirations. It was created to connect people to people while, essentially, eliminating the middle man. The company was founded in 2008 in California by Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia. Growing steadily each year, it went international in 2011. Airbnb has now hosted more than 17 million guests, stretched across 34,000 cities. Including, as it happens, Chattanooga, Tennessee.
I recently met with 30-year-old Jenny Park, one of Chattanooga’s most gracious hosts. In 2010, she decided to purchase a one-bedroom bungalow in St. Elmo. Built near the beginning of the 19th century, the house underwent a renovation in 2009. It’s 1,500 square feet and offers a living room, dining room and full kitchen with a spacious front yard covered in flowers and a fenced-in back yard.
Her family owned a bed & breakfast in South Carolina, so Park spent her entire childhood living in a home that welcomed strangers. After college, she traveled around the world, using hostels as her main lodging. Inspired by both the hostel environment and her childhood memories, she registered her house on Airbnb.
“Being in a home environment with strangers is really a normal way to be for me,” says Park. “I have hospitality in my blood and it’s something that I just wanted to…” The sound of a timer going off in another room interrupts Park’s flow of speech. ”Sorry, I’ll be right back.”
The timer was on the washer. We’re meeting on a rare Saturday when nobody is scheduled to stay at her house, and Park takes advantage of the morning by committing to a deep clean of the house. She returns with two cups of freshly brewed coffee.
“Having people stay at my house is just something that I wanted to do,” Park says, and then looks back at the laundry room and begins to laugh. “I’ve never had anyone leave the house messy. Most of the time they make up the bed even though they know I’m going to have to strip the sheets before they leave; they always leave the house tidy.”
When Park registered with Airbnb, there were only three other hosts located in Chattanooga. Flash forward to 2014—and the Chattanooga area now offers 69 places to stay.
Visitors can chose what type of environment they wish to enjoy. There’s a two-story, four-bedroom “Southern plantation home” located right across from the Chattanooga Golf & Country Club that asks for $640 per night. On the opposite end of the spectrum, spend $28 and stay in one-bedroom house in Soddy-Daisy where the host lives on-site but promises to cook and clean for you.
Searching through the Chattanooga offerings, it’s hard not to notice Park’s quaint bungalow. She’s on the front page and she prices her house at $75 per night. Forty-five of her guests have reviewed her, and all left glowing praise. One review, left by a traveler named Matthew, remarks, “She provided clear instructions [for check-in], left homemade cookies for me, AND went above and over the call of duty by letting me borrow a computer battery cord for the weekend.”
The group review method helps possible visitors make their choices. The review method that Airbnb employs helps weed out the possible “bad seeds.” Not only are guests allowed to review hosts, but hosts have the opportunity to review guests, building credibility on both ends.
Park earned her first guest because someone decided to take a chance by staying at a home with zero reviews, so Park, in typical share-economy fashion, purposefully responds to potential guests who have yet to receive their first review.
“I give a certain amount of due diligence [to a first timer] that a host has to take,” Park says. “I always sit down with them and have a conversation.”
Airbnb is far from alone in the burgeoning share economy. Other start-up companies such as Relay Rides (a site advertised as a place where you can rent cars from your neighbors), Dog Vacay (allows you to find people living nearby who will watch your pet at a cheaper rate than kennels offer), Liquid (a bike-sharing service) and, most notably, Uber, which is a ride-sharing service, have helped the share economy grow exponentially within the past few years.
This summer, reports about Uber posting on Craigslist for experienced Chattanooga drivers stirred rumors that the alternative transport service had plans to expand here.
After I sent an email inquiring about the expansion, Kaitlin Durkosh, official spokeswoman for Uber, replied, “We often use driver ads as a way to test the viability of the market. We have heard from drivers eager to partner with us, and have seen riders download and open the app looking for safe, reliable rides in Chattanooga. While we have no firm plans to launch in Chattanooga, we’re continuing to explore the market.”
Uber may not yet have concrete plans for offering their services in Chattanooga, but that doesn’t stop our town from playing an important role in the development of the share economy. Chattanooga isn’t just simply jumping on the share-economy bandwagon. Instead, this city is helping revolutionize the idea.
Bellhop is a moving company that contracts local college students as employees and operates in 136 cities and 48 states. Nationwide, the company has assisted in more than 10,000 moves during the last 18 months, and their website has garnered close to a million visitors.
Bellhop migrated to Chattanooga in 2012 after the Lamp Post Group expressed interest in their company. Adam Haney, the chief technology officer for the company, notes that there are 2,000 college students working all across America for Bellhop—200 of them employed in Chattanooga.
Will the share economy replace the billion-dollar corporations controlling most of America’s consumer operations? Odds are, no—but that idea is not the intended goal. Some people will prefer to trust standard hotel, taxi and moving services. The people who offer their homes on Airbnb, along with the drivers from Uber and the college students who work at Bellhop, are technically unlicensed, The only credentials they present are a friendly face and strong user reviews.
However, what the share economy does offer is an alternative choice, and judging by the millions of users who have used these websites to their advantage, that alternative choice was much needed. It’s hardly a surprise to see websites like Airbnb and Bellhop succeed in Chattanooga.
This is a town that has growing faith in its entrepreneurial community. If the character played by Groucho Marx in “A Night At the Opera” had stayed at a certain home in St. Elmo that he found on Airbnb, instead of a larger room, he would be asking room service for more of Park’s homemade cookies.