Nfld. & Labrador

From Airbnb to self-isolation space: A scramble in a pandemic

Cancellations keep rolling in for people who have earned money from Airbnb bookings. Now, they're innovating to find ways to earn money.

Waived cancellation fees leave property owners in free-for-all

Emilie Bourque, in this file photo from 2017, says property owners like her who rent on Airbnb are scrambling as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Danny Arsenault/CBC)

Airbnb in Newfoundland and Labrador has boomed in recent years, but thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, property owners are left scrambling to figure out a new business plan. 

"It wasn't unexpected, but of course the cancellations just kept rolling in," Emilie Bourque, property manager for Fabstay Accommodations in St. John's, told CBC Radio's On The Go.

"One, two, three a day."

Bourque said more than 30 per cent of her bookings up to September have already been cancelled, and her properties haven't seen business since early March.

She said cancellations for later in the year have come now after Airbnb waived cancellation fees until May 31. In talking with the company, Bourque said it's likely that date will be extended.

"It's a trend that we expect to continue, and we have to work to figure out what [happens] next," she said. "It doesn't seem like money you can bank on when everything is unfolding as it is."

New uses include self-isolation

As the province's measures around self-isolation tighten, Bourque said some of her rental properties can find different uses during the pandemic. She has spoken to other owners who have rented out their Airbnbs as office space, helping people who want to work at a distance from their families.

Bourque said she has also been contacted by health-care workers who want to use the properties to isolate themselves from their families while they work on the front lines.

"[It's] heartbreaking, but it also shows us how much we need to come together to support our health-care workers," she said.

Other property owners are following suit in helping front-line workers find temporary living arrangements. Websites like At Ease Accommodations have been set up to allow renters to list their properties available for people who need space to isolate.

Airbnb waived all cancellation fees on properties until May 31, with the period likely to go into the summer. Bourque said this leaves owners in a free-for-all as cancellations impact business. (Martin Bureau/Getty Images)

"In some ways, we have all these new risks to consider," Bourque said. "With an isolation stay, you have to plan for the circumstance that could happen if someone got sick. Any interaction at all with these spaces has to be regarded as a risk right now."

Some costs are way up

Bourque said these kind of property uses, along with Airbnb's rule changes surrounding COVID-19, force property owners to put a lot more thought — and potentially more cost — into each rental. 

She said owners have to wait up to 72 hours after a tenant has left the property to begin a deep cleaning, which usually means added cost for property managers.

"I can't imagine something like this [deep cleaning] not costing at least double," Bourque said.

It's definitely changed the travel industry itself.- Emilie Bourque

Like many industries, Bourque said the effects of COVID-19 will be felt by Airbnb renters for the foreseeable future.

"It's definitely changed the travel industry itself," Bourque said. "Because until we have a vaccine or better treatment, it seems that in some ways we need to think of travel as risky.… It's definitely made us all rethink what an Airbnb could be repurposed for."

Bourque said the impact will most certainly felt this summer, when renters take advantage of the province's tourism season.

"It's definitely not going to be a normal summer," she said.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from On The Go