OPINION: Ditch the short-term rental apps and go with a Michigan classic. Yes, breakfast is included.
PORT AUSTIN, Mich.—A couple of weekends ago, my girlfriend and I ventured to the tip of the thumb to check out the small beach town and artist community of Port Austin.
The town was lovely and the vacation was just what the doctor ordered. We played $6 mini golf and quickly scrapped a game of Monopoly because it was taking too long. I had an eight-skipper rock that skimmed beautifully across Lake Huron.
But likely the biggest reason for our memorable, fulfilling weekend away was this: I booked the room less advertised, and that had made all the difference.
To not rip off the rhyme scheme of Robert Frost, what I mean to say is that an old-school bed and breakfast made the trip, supplying replete relaxation, a sociable base of friendly travelers and knowledgeable hosts, and, of course, unbelievable breakfast. It was the type of idyllic experience that so many ads promise and so few deliver on.
Nowadays, travel apps on your phone and websites on your computer are all too eager to “help” guide you to a place to stay on vacation. Out of sheer intellectual curiosity, pull up a page to see how much an Airbnb goes for in Melbourne, Australia, and soon you’ll get a notification: “Traveling to Melbourne? We think you’ll love these homes.” Then the ever-so-considerate follow-up: “Don’t miss out while prices are still low!”
By the time those same pages show up as targeted ads on other websites, it can feel like you’ve already grown tired of the room that caught your eye in the first place. Exhausting.
So for once, and not for the last time, I decided to close the apps and pick up the phone to call the Port Austin Bed and Breakfast, which looked to be exactly what we wanted: A decently priced room (about $360 before taxes for two nights) in an elegant late 1800s mansion, remodeled in a chic style that preserved the patterned hardwood floors, staircase banisters, and bold outdoor columns, without skimping on lovely 21st century comforts like internal cooling and a Roku television set.
I had one last question before I was ready to finalize: Was breakfast included at the Port Austin Bed and Breakfast? Of course breakfast is included at the Port Austin Bed and Breakfast!
You never know in this day and age.
Waking up the first morning to that breakfast was a dream-like delight I’ll remember for some time. The first dish was a cruffin—the crossbreed of a croissant and a muffin, somehow preserving the flakiness of a croissant in one bite and then the buttery consistency of a muffin in the following. Next, a mango sorbet, made from real fruit and the perfect palate cleanser to prepare your taste buds for the pièce de résistance. That was a Dutch baby pancake, a cratered, eggy, absorbent platter on top of which I received fresh fruit, powdered sugar, and a heavy pour of maple syrup (yes, it was real). While I opted for the sweet, my girlfriend had the savory and couldn’t finish it. Selflessly, I stepped in to prevent our hosts’ hard work from going to waste, saddling a bloated stomach for the majority of the day.
Rather than continue in my all-too-literal drivel about the second day’s offerings (highlighted by a breakfast BLT), there is a point to be made here. The bed and breakfast experience has been watered down by Airbnb.
I admit: I loved my first few stays at Airbnbs. They let me live like a local in places I never would have been able to afford as a miserly college student. And I, like many others, found vacationing in residential neighborhoods to be a welcome reprieve from downtown loops and a more authentic, individualistic window into what different places are “all about.”
A quick peruse of the history of Airbnb suggests that even the second “b” once had meaning. Two roommates, Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia, came up with the idea of putting an air mattress in their living room and offering it online to guests in San Francisco, a saturated market for hotels. Along with the bed, guests would get a desk and breakfast each morning.
Now, as the concept has expanded far beyond mattress-crashers, the “breakfast” has been tossed—along with real B&Bs put out of business by the app. Airbnb has eaten such a large share of the market that it’s moved into five-course dinner territory, scarfing down cheap houses and turning them over to out-of-state investors who do a quick remodel, throw in some IKEA furniture, and put it up for $120 a night (before cleaning fees).
Recently, my dad (an architectural geek) and I embarked on a bike tour of New Orleans, our hometown. We pointed out different features of the homes we saw, noticing the historic doric columns and the floor-to-ceiling, front-facing windows so common in early 20th-century New Orleans.
Under construction just blocks from where we were, however, are new builds made for short-term rentals that bastardize all distinguishing features of old New Orleans. The grilles are fake. The palettes are contrived. The houses are cheap monstrosities, profitable piggy banks for the out-of-state investors who enjoy the idea of an out-of-sight moneymaker.
But worse than that, these investments are driving people out of their homes. Look at the historic neighborhood of Treme (yes, like the HBO show, and the birthplace of jazz), where long-term residents have been swept out by tourists looking for an “authentic” creole experience. Now, 45% of the land parcels there belong to short-term rentals.
So, New Orleans banned full-unit short-term rentals when an owner isn’t present on the property. It’s not the only city trying to tamp down the explosion, as even small Michigan towns are looking for answers: East Bay Township in Grand Traverse County, for example, has put a temporary pause on short-term rental licenses, and may consider further action.
“I’m so concerned about what’s happening in our neighborhood I could cry,” one resident said, as quoted by UpNorthLive, at a local trustees meeting.
At this point of the article, it’s worth noting that this isn’t a Republican-Democrat issue or a rural-urban divide. In fact, a bipartisan Michigan bill passed by the state House and yet to be considered by the Senate seeks to ban locales from banning Airbnbs, and the vote tally shows assent and dissent both cross party lines.
You read that right. State legislators want to stop cities and towns from banning Airbnbs—claiming that it infringes on property owners’ rights, never mind elected local officials’ voiced concerns. But aside from property rights, cash rules everything around us, and Michigan properties generate cream-of-the-crop profits worth more than residents’ tears. With a 6% slice of the pie, levied as a use tax, the state shares in the wealth off of every booking.
In May, Airbnb published their earnings reports for Michigan properties. The numbers were massive. Since the pandemic began, Airbnb has expanded into more than 30 new Michigan towns and cities, the company stated, a large number considering the prior ubiquity of offerings.
Good for those who have capitalized on the model and made it work to supplement their lake-front home or cash in on an empty-nest bedroom. But bad for those who have been forced out of a place they’ve rented for years and those who see their neighborhood change before their eyes, from a tight-knit, everyone-knows-everybody sort of place to an endless parade of suitcases.
Even if the Michigan bill stalls out permanently, enforcing full-residence bans is already difficult, because Airbnb has no incentive to offer data to the city officials who are tasked with oversight. While big-money investors can afford to gobble up open properties (See airdna.co, which breaks down who owns these rentals—no surprise that it’s often not mom-and-pop shops), the rest of the neighborhood and residents nearby have to deal with the consequences, economic and intrinsic.
The Airbnb business might not have any more faults than, say, a national hotel chain, but its impact spreads through communities that the hotel chains haven’t homed in on. That includes parts of Pure Michigan, like Traverse City, Mackinaw City, and New Buffalo.
A final contrast between the bed and breakfasts of air (that’s a double entendre) and the bed and breakfasts of old: While one cheapens old homes with tawdry features, tasteless expansions, and dorm-room furniture, the other enriches them.
Michigan is a state in special regard for the wide distribution and diversity of Queen Annes and 19th-century Victorians, stretching from Detroit to Houghton (a quick Google search will show you a bed and breakfast there, too–if you visit, please drop me a line). Bed and breakfasts give these mansions life and value in ways that benefit the on-site owners, their guests, and their community.
Airbnb, at its best, can fulfill that vision. But it requires owner investment and constant attention that realistically isn’t there far too often.
The Port Austin Bed and Breakfast, where my girlfriend and I had our memorable stay, was up for demolition before the current owners decided to take it on full-time. Now, it stands proudly in its historic and well-loved glory, visible in a fresh coat of paint to all who drive down state highway 53.
So please, consider a bed and breakfast. An actual one.
It will, guaranteed, awaken a whimsy of old-school life from your childhood. You’ll suddenly find yourself in the mood for Monopoly, Solitaire, and Euchre.
And breakfast. You’ll become a breakfast person.