Utah reached a new high for hotel capacities in 2022. In 2018, Utah had almost 14,000 short-term rental listings. Just a year later, it was 16,000.

As hotels make a comeback, are hosts ruining Airbnb?

Utah reached a new high for hotel capacities in 2022. In 2018, Utah had almost 14,000 short-term rental listings. Just a year later, it was 16,000.

Skye Holiday, an Airbnb owner in Southern Utah’s Oljato-Monument Valley, thinks she’s a lenient host.

“Turn off the lights, close the windows, and don’t leave a huge mess,” she says. “That’s all I ask for.”

Her cancellation policy is similarly laid back: cancel up to day-of for a full refund. No questions asked.

Holiday says other renters—those that charge cleaning, checkout, or late fees, for example—give her and the platform “a bad name.”

“It’s so annoying that anyone does that,” she says. I can hear the eye roll in her voice. “If I see a cleaning fee as a renter, I’m assuming I’m allowed to be messier, to leave stuff out—not a list of chores.”

Holiday’s family has a 75-year homesite lease on an acre of land where two cabins, a teepee, and a hogan—a traditional Navajo home—are located.

“We’re usually at 80 to 90 percent capacity,” she says, crediting her golden rule attitude.

A year of bookings at that rate can earn Holiday around $150,000, she says.

“We’re lucky to be in one of the most beautiful places in the world,” Holiday says. “And on top of that, you get pricing with no extra add-ons or expectations. When I’m traveling in Airbnbs, that’s what I look for, so that’s what I offer.”

But Kathryn Christensen, another active VRBO and Airbnb host, throws a bit of a wrench in that hypothesis.

“I’m a very particular host,” she says. “Probably more so than most owners.”

At Christensen’s properties, she has a list of cleaning tasks (take out the trash, empty the fridge, do the dishes, strip the beds, and start a load of laundry). And yes, there’s a cleaning fee too.

Christensen knows that’s different from a hotel experience—it’s supposed to be.

“That’s how an Airbnb works,” she says. “I usually don’t charge those fees unless something goes missing or is badly stained, but I don’t think it’s out of the question to ask for people to leave things clean.”

Where Christensen really draws the line is the types of renters.

“I only rent to families or groups of adults in their late 20s or older,” she says. “If I get a request for 12 adults, my first question is, ‘What are your ages?’ It’s just not worth it to me to rent to a party group that’s going to trash my house.”

Christensen’s family owns 11 short-term rentals scattered across the west coast. Three are in Utah: cabins in Mammoth Creek and Brian Head and a townhome in Provo. When they’re not listed, the homes are also used by her kids, grandkids, and friends.

One might think those seemingly ultra-strict policies would limit Christensen’s bookings. In reality, it’s been doing quite the opposite. She’s been renting properties out on Airbnb and VRBO for years, and before those companies even existed, her family was listing on their vacation rental company website.

“As an owner, I’ve learned you have to police your own inquiries,” Christensen says. “These renters have expectations for you, and in return, I think you can have requirements and expectations of them.”

But different approaches didn’t seem to matter when their industry was only getting more popular.

“Utah has experienced a 38.4 percent increase in short-term rental listings over the past four years,” Jennifer Leaver, senior research analyst at the Kem C. Garden Policy Institute, wrote in a blog post.

In 2018, the state had almost 14,000 short-term rental listings. Just a year later, it was 16,000.

Of course, hotels were still making plenty of bookings—even Holiday’s “lenient” branding asks guests to clean up a little bit, something hotels are famous for not requiring. Capacity-wise, a place where someone else made the bed won over the short-term rentals.

That is, until 2020.

Recent data collected by the vacation rental data provider Transparent and analyzed by Leaver’s team found that, using 2019 as a baseline, Utah’s rental occupancies increased about 2 percent over hotels in the first year of the pandemic.

In 2018, the state had almost 14,000 short-term rental listings. Just a year later, it was 16,000.

“Generally, this trend was expected,” Leaver says. “But the pandemic escalated that—there was a perception that short-term rentals were safer than hotels, and we saw that belief realized in bookings throughout Utah.”

While the data could see a big-picture increase, Holiday and Christensen were scared in the moment.

“Literally everybody canceled for the entire year,” Holiday remembers. “All of my bookings were gone in one day.”

That’s when her leniency became a double-edged sword—last-minute cancelers got full refunds, leaving her family to go from expecting six figures in revenue to zero.

The same thing happened to Christensen.

“We either refunded or rescheduled everyone, but it was still a really scary time period,” she says. “We had no idea what to expect.” 

Within three months of the mass cancellations, things started to look good again—record-setting good.

“On Memorial Day weekend in 2020, every single property was completely booked. We’d never had that happen before. Ever,” Christensen says.

That increase in bookings carried through 2021. “We had two of our best years through Covid,” Christensen remembers. “People were booking us out in the off-seasons—we had our Brian Head cabins full even in October and November.”

Leaver’s analysis found that Christensen’s experience as a short-term renter held true across Utah—to the detriment of the state’s hotels. By the end of 2021, the occupancy disparity was drastic: 61.8 to 55.4 percent capacity for short-term rentals and hotels, respectively.

Holiday says the normalization of remote work and school drew in all kinds of new renters.

“Our clients changed,” she says. “We started seeing people who lived closer to us who just wanted a change of scenery or to get out of the house.”

Anecdotally, Leaver thinks those cleaning tasks and fees might have something to do with the decline. But the story’s a lot more complicated than that. 

In Q1 of 2022, short-term rental capacity dropped to 59.6 percent while hotels climbed back to 58.9 percent. Q2 looked a lot like 2021 but now in favor of hotels—51.2 percent capacity against 69.1 percent, a new high for hotel capacities.

Leaver says those “new renters” Christensen and Holiday saw mid-pandemic returning to the office is a big, but not the only, driver of the drop-off.

“It’s market saturation. We’re seeing more short-term rentals now than before,” Leaver says. “It’s also the factor of local communities clamping down on short-term rental ownership, enacting laws for owners to try and reverse the shortage of seasonal employment we’re seeing in Utah.”

She points to Washington County, where the commission voted to restrict short-term rental licenses.

While short-term rentals’ 51.2 percent is still above the 2019 baseline, Leaver predicts a further downturn in Utah’s short-term rental market.

“If I had to forecast, I would say we’ll soon see a plateau and then a slight downward trend in the number of listings,” Leaver says. “We’re very interested to see where things fall in the next couple of years. In that time, we’ll know if these downward trends are meant to be long-term, especially as hotels make their comeback.”

Despite the potential doom and gloom, Holiday isn’t worried about the future of her Airbnbs—or anyone else’s.

“There are all these things popping up on TikTok that people are losing all their bookings, that numbers are way down,” Holiday says. “But in all the time I’ve done this, I’ve never thought, ‘That’s it, this is the end.’ The demand for traveling like this won’t go away, even if it fluctuates.”

In the Oljato-Monument Valley, new rentals pop up all the time, she says. Even through 2022, there hasn’t been a shortage of demand.

“I say more the merrier when it comes to short-term rentals out here,” Holiday says. “The competition motivates us to continue to improve our rentals, but we’re not struggling to fill bookings—and neither are our hotels.”

For Christensen, there’s no other way to travel.

“It’s more intimate, you feel like part of the city, and my whole family came to stay together,” she says. “If you want convenience, go ahead and book a hotel. But if you want to feel part of something, to get an experience, you have to rent.”

She says in her years of renting, the public has discovered that, too.

“New York City and San Francisco outlawed vacation rentals and it’s a joke,” she says. “Go look on VRBO, go look on Airbnb—you can rent tons of places. Restrictions like that are unenforceable. The demand is there. Now that we can travel like this, there’s no going back. You can’t put the genie back in the bottle.” 

Jacqueline is a Master of Accounting graduate from the University of Utah. Specializing in tax, she's interested in business, government, and the intersection of the two. When she's not studying or writing, she loves to run, play Candy Crush, and read novels.