Andrea McDougal settled herself onto a bone-white sofa — a cloudlike meringue in her impeccably neat four-bedroom Baton Rouge home in the Sherwood Forest neighborhood.
“I just love meeting people, meeting new people,” she said, describing part of the reason McDougal, a minister at Abundant Life Church in Hammond, now makes her home available to traveling guests.
But these guests are not just the usual coming and going of friends and family passing through town. There was the college student biking back to campus in Ohio from his home in Austin, Texas. More recently a senior noncommissioned Air Force officer stationed in Germany stayed over while visiting family in the area.
These are not people McDougal has even casual relationships with. They are, for the most, part strangers.
The travelers found their way to the McDougal home on Queensbury Avenue primarily via Airbnb, a new online platform which puts travelers in touch with residents in the city they are traveling to. These are individuals who may have an extra bedroom, garage apartment, pool house or other accommodation.
Rooms in McDougal’s home go for between $50 and $100 a night. She describes them as “beautiful, eclectic and artsy.”
The transaction and booking is handled by Airbnb. Listing a space with Airbnb is free, though hosts pay 3 percent of bookings. Guests pay 6 to 12 percent of the reservation costs.
“The more expensive the reservation, the lower the fee,” said Andrea Skerritt, an Airbnb spokeswoman.
The company, headquartered in San Francisco, was launched in 2008. Its listings — which can run the gamut of treehouses, boats and the ubiquitous spare room — can be found in some 19,000 cities around the globe. More than two million nights have been booked.
Airbnb is similar to other listing sites like Vacation Rentals By Owner, an online platform putting travelers in touch with more than 160,000 apartments, homes or condos in thousands of cities around the world. VRBO charges about $300 a year to list a property. More than 30 cities and towns across Louisiana have properties listed with VRBO. This arrangement differs from a service like Airbnb by serving primarily the second-home upscale market.
Listings in Baton are mostly for corporate apartments or condos and are generally priced several hundred dollars a night.
In the case of Airbnb, travelers are guests in a home. There are only about three locations listed in Baton Rouge and most are listed for about $100 a day. Lafayette has about 10 listings, with those ranging from $50 to $125 a day.
William Macgruder, who has a downtown Lafayette garage apartment listed with Airbnb for $90 a day, said he’s mostly hoping to attract vacation travelers, and would be pleased to get five paid nights a month out of the space.
“Really it does not matter who it is as long as they are good folks,” he added.
Understandably, the idea of allowing complete strangers into a home could be fraught with anxiety. To hopefully calm nerves, Airbnb has a range of safety features such as releasing the full name of a guest before the host accepts the reservation, and trip information must be filed.
Also, when a host accepts a reservation, Airbnb charges the guest right away, but holds off payment until 24 hours after the check-in date. That way, guests know their money is safe and don’t have to be worried about the property being misrepresented. And hosts know that they are guaranteed payment in a timely fashion.
Airbnb also offers a $50,000 warranty to protect hosts against costs related to thefts or damage. Guests and hosts can also read reviews of each on the Airbnb site. Features like these are particularly helpful when it comes to scoping out troublesome locations or guests, say users.
“I always compare it to buying off of eBay,” said Michel El Koubi, who used to make his home available via couchsurfing.com. “You want to make sure the seller has a high ranking.”
CouchSurfing is another online platform to connect travelers with hosts. It’s probably for the more budget-minded since no money gets exchanged. El Koubi, 29, who works in teacher recruitment at the Louisiana State Department of Education, suspended offering his home a few years ago when he and his girlfriend began living together.
“She had some concerns and so I kind of just stopped,” he said.
“If someone is a jerk then you don’t want to host them,” said El Koubi, who over time hosted about a half-dozen couch-surfers. “But I’ve always had positive experiences. I had a couple who stayed with me leave some cookies they had baked for me on the counter when they left during my work day.”
McDougal, in Sherwood Forest, said she doesn’t have any out-of-the-ordinary house rules other than, no smoking indoors. And guests are OK, she says.
“I only ask that because it is our home and we take care of it that our guest would respect our property and belongings while they are?with us?and return it in the condition they found it,” McDougal said. “And of course, no unruly or rowdy behavior.”
Online accommodation booking platforms like Airbnb or CouchSurfing have flourished in recent years largely among the more intrepid travelers looking for a genuinely unique experience, both in terms of accommodations and the people they meet, say industry insiders.
“We’re seeing that the folks that are really willing to travel on Airbnb are the type of people that really want a unique experience,” said Emily Fields Joffrion, a communications spokesperson for Airbnb. “They really want to get off the grid.”
“And I think a lot of it is just to be around people,” added Christen Romero, 25, and a first year law student at Yale. Romero grew up in Baton Rouge and has spent time on couches in lands as foreign as France, Haiti and Pakistan. He’s also served as a Couch-Surfing host in Baton Rouge. “I mean no one wants to be holed up in a hotel in Baton Rouge when you can be around a person and be a little bit more community.”
Cosmopolitan markets are also the ones seeing the most activity, Joffrion said noting strong growth places like New York, Paris, Chicago and Austin, Texas. That may be because those residents and travelers have a higher comfort level with social networking, which these sites seem to require, she added. Or, because one night in a downtown New Orleans hotel can top $200.
“It’s not surprising that New Orleans is leading the forefront there. They are a more tech savvy — plugged into Twitter and social media — type of culture than Baton Rouge,” Joffrion said. Airbnb has more than 100 New Orleans listings, many of them around tourist destinations like the French Quarter, Garden District or the Bywater.
“But that being said, we definitely anticipate this catching on, (in Baton Rouge) especially with universities. And of course LSU Football is a huge, huge thing,” said Joffrion, who incidentally grew up in Baton Rouge. “So we definitely see people in the future using this as a way to find accommodations in a place that isn’t equipped with a ton of hotel space for those, you know, big events.”
Back on Queensbury Avenue among McDougal’s tchotchkes and other comforts of home like the lush green garden out back, she hopes to offer something beyond the typical hotel experience.
“I travel a lot,” McDougal remarked. “I’m a minister and I speak in churches and conferences and retreats. So my husband and I travel throughout the states, but we also travel internationally.
“And it seems like I always have bad experiences with hotels — they’re uncomfortable, the air conditioning’s not right, just all kinds of things,” she continued. “And I saw this trend of people wanting a more homey environment.”