By Thomas Simpson
TUPELO – Stephanie Rhea Barcia is the face behind the camera at Stephanie Rhea Photography in Tupelo. When she isn’t splitting time between Tupelo and Los Angeles, she is specializing in wedding photography, event photography, travel photography and lifestyle photography.
However, she (along with her husband Juan Carlos Barcia) is also a member of a fast-growing trend in the state: the Airbnb host community.
“I believe southern hospitality goes hand-in-hand and thought it would be a great idea to host our own Airbnb in Tupelo,” Barcia said. “I love to decorate my home, host dinner parties and meet different people, and Airbnb seemed like the thing to do.”
Airbnb, founded in 2008, is an online marketplace and hospitality service based out of San Francisco that enables people to list, discover and book unique accommodations around the world, including vacation rentals, apartment rentals, condos, homes and others.
Today, there are Airbnb hosts in more than 34,000 cities and 191 countries in the world.
In 2016, the state of Mississippi raked in a combined $3.5 million in supplemental income while experiencing 25,000 guest arrivals to the state.
The 25,000 guests represent an astonishing 134 percent increase since 2015, while the state’s Airbnb host community grew 50 percent to 1,000.
This rise correlates with Airbnb’s successful year in 2016.
The home-sharing company saw its revenue increase 80 percent over the year, according to Business Insider, and is on pace to sustain profitability through 2017.
Crystal Davis is the press secretary of Airbnb. She believes Mississippi’s increase correlates with the rise in guest arrivals and revenue in other Southeast states, such as Georgia and Alabama.
“People are realizing that they can rent out a part of their home and makes some extra cash to pay down any expenses or even use the money for their own pleasure,” Davis said. “I know there is a rich history in Mississippi, so I imagine that the history coupled with the increase in hosts has played a vital role in the state’s rise.”
Instead of booking a hotel room in another city, Airbnb gives guests the chance to “live like a local and be a part of the community at an affordable price, especially for a family,” Barcia said.
“Renting someone’s apartment or home through Airbnb makes it feel like we aren’t visitors,” Barcia said. “Instead of walking out of a hotel room every morning with other visitors, you put yourself in a resident’s home and see what goes on in a local’s life.”
Rufus Van Horn is another member of the Airbnb host community in Tupelo. Van Horn, who works as a banker in the city, started with the hospitality service when the organization first started.
Van Horn said he has been able to meet people from across the United States, China and Yemen.
“I started hosting to meet people around the world and enjoy the social aspect of the website,” he said. “It helps build personal bridges with people inside or outside the country. Sometimes, the guests bring their own food and music, and we end up having a lot of fun.”
Van Horn said that while Tupelo is the birthplace of Elvis, very few of his guests come for the musician.
“Tupelo is in the middle of everything it seems like, with Memphis, Oxford, Birmingham and such,” Van Horn said. “I host with a site that focuses on cyclists and another that focuses on college kids, as well as Airbnb, so I get a lot of them.”
There are several options to host a guest through Airbnb.
The original idea for the hospitality service was that guests would sleep on an air mattress in a host’s living space for a more affordable price than other lodging options.
As the company grew, the site’s content has expanded from air beds and shared spaces to entire homes and apartments, private rooms, castles, boats and other properties.
Van Horn rents out his guest bedroom and bathroom.
“I can choose to stay with the guest or leave a key and go travel, depending on how I feel,” he said. “The guest has access to all of the living areas like the living room, laundry room, kitchen and such.”
Barcia, who rents out her entire house, said it is pretty slow in Tupelo since “it is a little pricier” to book with her and her husband compared to those who offer a room or two.
However, Barcia said she has been able to make connections with people she probably never would have met otherwise.
“Several years ago, we hosted a musician, who played at the Blue Canoe, and his girlfriend,” she said. “We went to see the show, hung out with them afterwards and had a lot of fun. We ended up bumping into them a while later while traveling in New York and Los Angeles.”