Friday, January 19, 2018
Business

An Airbnb on wheels? St. Pete entrepreneur promotes new option to host out-of-town guests

ST. PETERSBURG — As a business model, it falls somewhere between Airbnb and an equipment rental service for single-family homeowners.

For the cost of a hotel room, homeowners can keep out-of-town guests close (but not too close) by putting them up in a retro Airstream trailer delivered to their driveway, complete with fresh towels and sheets that they don't need to worry about washing.

"It looks just like a New York City apartment," said Terri Shapiro, founder and president of GuestWings, a St. Petersburg company that launched the spare-room-on-wheels concept in late 2016. Units are 24 feet long, 8 feet wide, with 10-foot ceilings and contain a queen bed, pullout bed, kitchenette and full bathroom.

The former marketing and advertising executive said she thought of the idea last year when her family flooded to the area from around the country to attend her daughter's wedding.

"I hardly ever see them and I wanted everyone to be together," she said. So they filled up her three-bedroom home in Shore Acres and a few slept in her Airstream trailer, which was parked on the driveway.

Cue: Epiphany moment.

"If we had that situation, maybe other people do too," she said. It's for "people (who) need extra space but they don't need it often."

Her pitch? Of Pinellas County's 16.5 million annual overnight visitors, 18 percent are in town to see friends or family. If her business could capture even one percent of that market for a two- or three-night stay, boom! A $2 million company.

Unlike Airbnb, which is for homeowners renting out their homes, spare rooms or couches for travelers who would otherwise stay in a hotel, GuestWings is for homeowners providing accommodations to people they know.

Shapiro compared GuestWings to renting a table or chairs for wedding: The equipment is dropped off, stays in one place and later picked up at a specified time. Since it is a service for the homeowner and charged to the homeowner, it wouldn't need to pay the county's tourist development tax that is tacked onto Airbnb and hotel bills, she said. The cost is comparable to a hotel stay, however, at $239 per night plus sales tax with a two-night minimum.

Renting a unit requires a site visit from the company to make sure that the property can accommodate the trailers. The driveway or property has to be big enough for the trailer and has to be on a relatively flat surface. It can not go into deed-restricted or gated communities.

To launch the business, Shapiro registered with the state, hired a marketing company and purchased two new Airstream International Signature trailers with white leather furniture, dark wood interior and cushy mattresses. She has been working with a small business lawyer and the Pinellas County Economic Development Center as she sorts out the appropriate pricing and works out the kinks.

Her first customer, Virginia Stringer, was a referral from a waitress she met at a local diner. Like Shapiro, Stringer were hosting family members in town for her daughter's wedding. Her second customer she found through a charity event, and the third has yet to make a reservation.

"We just needed that one extra room for my niece and nephew," Stringer said.

They considered renting an RV from a dealership, but they weren't impressed with the units and that option would have required them to go pick up the RV, set it up in their driveway and supply linens. Though less expensive, a hotel would have been too disconnected from the rest of the family.

"It's about the family and the convenience and that sort of thing," she said. "As a niche cottage industry I think it's a great idea."

Contact Alli Knothe at [email protected] Follow @KnotheA.

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