Suzanne Cloud has been renting out a couple of rooms on Airbnb for about a year and half. Usually she pulls in about $65 a night from interns or medical students looking to crash at her Collingswood, New Jersey, home about 10 minutes outside of Philadelphia. But she cleared the books the last weekend of September for Pope Francis' highly anticipated visit to the City of Brotherly Love.
Cloud, 64, said she thought she would see a big payday. People expected hotel vacancies to vanish and home-sharing services like Airbnb could come in handy for the faithful hoping to celebrate mass with the pope.
“I was being very, very optimistic. I was looking to get $500,” Cloud said of the nightly rate she intially hoped to charge. “I’m a boomer whose 401K got wiped out in 2008; I‘ve got to make up some retirement income,” she added, laughing.
When the news broke late last year that Pope Francis would visit Philadelphia, lodging prices skyrocketed with more than one million visitors expected to flood the city. People listed, and in some cases continue to list, their homes at prices that would have netted thousands of dollars. But as hotels inch toward full occupancy, campers prep tents for the papal weekend and church groups plan cost-saving trips, people renting homes said they were now expecting a more modest windfall from out-of-towners.
The Almighty Dollar
Philadelphia boasts more than 11,200 hotel rooms in the heart of the city and some 35,000 rooms in the region, according to the Philadelphia Conventions and Visitors Bureau. Philadelphia Mayor Nutter has said the city expected anywhere from 1 million to 2 million visitors during the papal trip, with recent estimates reaching 1.5 million. After arriving from a visit to Cuba and stops in Washington, D.C., and New York City, the pope is scheduled to stop in Philadelphia on Saturday, Sept. 26. He is expected to stop at historic Independence Hall and local churches before celebrating Mass on Sept. 27. Before leaving Sunday night, he will meet with organizers from the World Meeting of Families. All that week, a higher than usual influx of visitors will fill Philadelphia and its environs.
At first, many expected hotel rooms to fill quickly, but there are still vacancies in the city just a couple of weeks out. "We’re right now at about 60-70 percent [occupancy]. It’s a moving target," said Ed Grose, executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Hotel Association, adding he expects that number to continue to tick upward as the papal visit grows nearer. "We’re expecting to be 100 percent full."
When the news about pope's visit broke, rental home-sharing services like Airbnb and HomeAway, which books vacation rentals, saw prices skyrocket as hosts attempted to cash in. Many of them expected the services would catch overflow as hotels filled and options dwindled. And in a move that appeared to promote home sharing, the city legalized short-term rentals while instituting an 8.5 percent tax for the services in July.
Both services were reporting a substantial uptick in demand for the papal visit. Airbnb said that searches for the pope's visit dates were frequent, that guest demand was eight times higher than usual and that there were nearly 6,000 listings currently available. Through tracking both inquiries and bookings, HomeAway reported that demand was up about 800 percent compared to the same time last year. It said listings were way up as well.
But hosts, many of whom signed up only for the pope's visit, have expressed frustration with the results. Airbnb even held a meeting in late August to help guide people opening their homes, many of whom aired grievances about a lack of visitor interest. On Popedelphia.com, a clearinghouse of sorts for home rental listings, principally Craigslist and Airbnb, rentals that seem to be languishing are those going for up to tens of thousands of dollars for a weeklong stay.
Cloud, a director of a local nonprofit, said two rooms in her usually full three-story home remain unfilled for the papal visit, after she was able to book one for a slightly higher price than usual. She said she thinks potential hosts were expecting too much, but she was still hopeful that her rooms would rent out as last-minute travelers make plans. "We’re all trying to make the almighty dollar, and if the pope can generate some of the income for people who need it, I say hallelujah," Cloud said.
Hosts scrambling to figure out a price that will sell should look to room rates at more traditional lodging. "Hotel rooms are a sort of bellwether for what the market will bear," said Jan Freitag, senior vice president at STR, a leading hotel research company based near Nashville, Tennessee. Freitag said that, overall, services like Airbnb and HomeAway should expect to see a bump in business but that the papal trip would mostly benefit hosts charging reasonable rents.
"For people to say: 'Oh, there's a one-time event that will help me pay my mortgage for the next three months,' is not reasonable," he said.
Pilgrims On A Journey
Hosts might have miscalculated the type of people attending the papal visit and where they will want to stay. Some 16,000 faithful could end up camping in the city's East Fairmount Park. Others may stay with people who have opened their homes to pilgrims for free, or for cheap, in keeping with the request of local Archbishop Charles Caput.
Belinda Lewis Held, president of religious travel service APilgrimsJourney.com, said many vendors didn't consider that the papal visit wasn't simply an entertainment event drawing big spenders. "Its not the World Series," Held said. "These are pilgrims on a journey of religious significance to them."
Held assisted more than 1,000 people, ages 2 to 90, from varying groups to organize a trip to see the pope in Philadelphia. For one group, she secured hotel rooms in central Philadelphia, but others are staying in suburban Exton, Pennsylvania. Some of her younger pilgrims, college students and high schoolers, are crashing at fitness centers in the city and at a rented church.
— PhillyVoice (@thephillyvoice) June 19, 2015
Scott Palowski, 24, said he misread what to expect from visitors honoring the pope's visit. Palowski runs a hostel in the youthful neighborhood of Fishtown in Philadelphia and uses Airbnb to book guests. At first, he followed trends he saw on the site and upped prices for his three rooms during the planned papal visit. "Going off of the buzz and what the hotel rates were going for, we started off at 500 a night," he said. But there were no takers. He then thought he would "chalk this up as a loss and go back to our normal rates."
Usually Palowski takes in an average of $60-70 per night for his rentals. He's now about 80 percent booked for the weekend of the papal visit and about 40 percent booked for the entire week, charging marginally higher prices at about $100 a night. Still, he noted that the papal visit hasn't come close to eclipsing another big Philly event -- the popular early-September Made In America music festival headlined by pop star Beyonce. Palowski noted that his pricing is reasonable, unlike some of the more outlandish figures others have been throwing around.
"People could probably fly to the Vatican and see the pope for [those] price[s]," he said.