by Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Many farmers have begun to diversify their operations and use their resources in different ways to bring in more revenue. Offering lodging via Airbnb represents one additional income stream, as explained in “How to Create and Operate a Successful On-Farm Airbnb” by Matt Baumgartner of June Farms in Sand Lake, NY, and Rob Maddox of Sun One Organic Farm in Bethlehem, CT, as part of the NOFA-NY conference.

“‘Is an Airbnb right for you?’ is the big question you want to answer,” Maddox said. “If it’s not, it could be a bloody disaster. If it is, it could be a wonderful experience.”

One important consideration is whether you mind having people on your property. Maddox said the second big question is “How is this going to affect my farming operation?”

“We work with a neighboring farm that’s a dairy farmer. He spreads manure on his fields. One weekend, we were having Airbnb guests. Fortunately, they thought it was kind of cool, though they didn’t know what the smell was,” he said. “This can have an impact on your operation.”

Baumgartner said communication is key to forming and meeting guests’ expectations. “Be as clear as possible in your description,” he said. “It’s a working farm. It’s muddy, there are certain farm smells and sounds. I like to be as clear as possible in the beginning to avoid complaints.” He also believes responding quickly to guests is important for a positive interaction. He said he doesn’t like the three-step process of communicating through the app. Instead, he prefers to give guests his cell phone number once they book so he can communicate with them directly.

Maddox happens to live in one of two towns in Connecticut without zoning laws; many other Airbnb hosts are not as fortunate. Baumgartner said zoning can be tricky if a host has numerous guests. One or two is likely fine, but check with what’s allowed if you plan to expand beyond that. “Check your zoning ahead of time before you start investing in infrastructure,” he advised.

Maddox said accommodations could be as simple as an extra bedroom in the house or space for tent camping on the grounds all the way up to a luxury lodge – but restrooms are a must. He added that the level to which a farmer wants to invest relies heavily upon the market they want to reach. If it’s a $10 campsite or a $50 or $60 room, a private restroom may not be warranted. But charging more than these entry-level rates requires a restroom.

Investing in building a cabin may seem like a lot of money up front, but farmers that have done it say the investment more than pays for itself. Photo courtesy of June Farms

Like any other place of lodging, an Airbnb rental must be spotless. “Cleaning can be an issue if you have a quick turnover,” Maddox said. “If it’s bring-your-own tent, you won’t have much to clean up. If it’s several structures, you will have more to do.”

Baumgartner maintains seven rentals and is building five more. He has a full-time cleaner who takes care of all of his properties, with a cleaning fee built into stay costs.

Maddox added that it’s wise to get guest areas clean as soon as they leave so that they’re ready for new guests. “If someone wants to book right away, you have to have it ready,” he said.

Some guests want to bring pets, presenting a caveat to hosts. If they forbid pets, they could lose business; however, misbehaving pets can cause considerable damage. “We opened up this year to permit pets and our business has really boomed,” Maddox said. He requires vaccinations, as wild animals are present on the farm.

Baumgartner permitted pets at first; however, he had a guest’s dog damage one of his high-end cabins. Not only does he have to pay for the damage (or go through the hassle of obtaining reimbursement from the guest), but he must also either take the cabin off the market or explain to guests why the cabin has damage.

Whether to include cooking facilities is also a big question for farm-based Airbnbs. Maddox said most of his guests prefer going out to eat. He provides a refrigerator and a propane stove. Baumgartner said to offer at least a camping grill. “Be as clear as possible that there’s no place to cook if you’re not offering that,” he added. “Back that up with good restaurant recommendations.”

Internet access and cell phone reception are also features guests need to know about in advance. Maddox shares off-farm activities in the area and what guests can do on the farm.

Airbnb collects a fee from both the host and guest and room occupancy taxes. The company also offers some insurance protection, which both hosts said is important. “You want to have a conversation with your insurance agent and add on extra protection,” Maddox said. Airbnb coverage does not cover downtime for property damaged.

Ratings and reviews help Airbnb users decide where they want to stay; however, hosts can also use them to decide whether they want to accept a guest. “What we find is it comes down to setting a fair price,” Maddox said. “This incorporates into what are you offering. If you have a hot tub and Airstream trailer, you can charge more as there aren’t many of those.”

Baumgartner advised new Airbnb hosts to start out with low rates to gain reviews and build interest. That was Maddox’s strategy before he eventually raised his prices.

High-quality pictures that accurately represent your site are crucial, according to Maddox. “Hire a professional or get someone who knows what he’s doing,” he said.

Sometimes, though, things just don’t work out. Maddox said knowing when to offer a refund comes with experience. He typically upholds a no refund policy; however, he had a couple leave early after one person had a miserable time. The getaway was a surprise and that person didn’t know where they were going. Maddox said this is rare, but since it’s so important to maintain high reviews, he gave them a refund.

“Good reviews are absolutely everything,” Baumgartner said. “You have to do whatever it takes to get a good review. You want to become a super host. That is the ultimate goal … You want five-star reviews for years.”

Maddox is working on renovating a silo as more lodging space. Baumgartner hopes to continue to expand to include a Hobbit house and an A-frame.

Baumgartner said each cabin costs $30,000 to build. His rate is $125 to $150 per night. “For return on investment, these are killer,” he said. “They do a really great job. You don’t necessarily need to have a lot of money to make an Airbnb work. If you can make it unique, you can get this done on a little budget.

“There’s such potential to make money with Airbnb,” he continued. “You can make significant money. It’s important to underscore the value of the experience you can give to people. There’s a team that takes care of people so they’re not getting in the way of what’s happening on the farm. That’s our business. We make more money on the Airbnb than we do on the farm.”