Are you looking for a way to make a little extra money and meet interesting people, too?

Airbnb, an online marketplace that brokers unique and inexpensive lodging reservations, is gaining popularity in large cities and metropolitan areas across the U.S. and Europe as an alternative to the traditional hotel experience. Now, it’s gaining popularity right here in Pierce County.

Several forward thinking entrepreneurs are taking advantage of the service as a way to make a little extra money by listing a spare room, guest cottage, cabin or home for folks visiting the area to rent.

Blackshear resident Dora Lawson is one of the newest hosts to join Airbnb’s local lodging options. Lawson listed a one-room ‘mother-in-law’ suite adjacent to her home after several pleasant experiences booking a room through Airbnb during her travels with her husband, Earl, to the Carolinas and Tennessee.

In the three years since Lawson began booking through Airbnb, she’s never had a bad experience, she says.

“We’ve gotten to where we stay in them more than hotels,” Lawson says.

The couple enjoys the privacy and quiet most Airbnb’s offer, and the variety of low-cost options, particularly in pricey tourist destinations, is a plus, too.

Why not capitalize on that right here at home, Lawson asks?

The Lawsons originally built the suite attached to their home for Dora’s mother, but since she doesn’t visit often, Lawson seized the opportunity to make a little extra money and put the space to good use. She enjoys meeting the people who book her suite, too.

“I just enjoy talking to them,” Lawson says.

Lawson’s first booking was long term. Someone working in Waycross temporarily booked her suite for two months. Since then she’s housed people visiting the area for a wedding or other functions.

Lawson didn’t expect, however, to discover so many other locals had the same idea.

Lawson is one of 19 Airbnb listings Blackshear, but some of those are located in Waycross.

“I was surprised to see other Airbnb’s on there (for Blackshear),” Lawson says.

Local listings include a recently renovated home downtown that can accommodate up to 8 people, Lawson’s charming cottage-style suite, and a secluded cabin out in the county. All local listings appear to offer a uniquely private, yet affordable get-away.

“The competition is out there and everyone is getting great reviews. We’re all in it for the right reasons,” says Melanie Fields, another Blackshear Airbnb host.

Fields owns a home on the corner of Greenleaf and Church Streets that is steadily booked on Airbnb. Her home was one of the first listed for the Blackshear area a year and a half ago, but it took Fields and her family nearly two years to restore the fixer-upper before they listed it on Airbnb.

Like Lawson, Fields and her husband, Ronald Keur, ventured into Airbnb hosting because they fell in love with staying at Airbnb spots across the country as they followed their son’s college golf team.

“We loved them because you have so much extra space,” Fields says. “It’s really neat and will open your eyes to new places … Now it’s my go to for when we go out of town.”

Fields and Keur enjoy having a furnished kitchen for cooking, and accommodations for their dog when traveling. Fields says the Airbnb smartphone app is fun to work with, too.

But, the Charleston, SC couple landed in Blackshear for more personal reasons  — Fields’ parents live here  — and they wanted a home away from home for when they visit every few months. They bought the home on Greenleaf and started renovating it with the help of Field’s mother, Linda Nessmith, her brother, Dan Strickland, and other family members.

“That was a lot of fun. It was a labor of love,” Fields says.

When the home renovations were complete and the house fully furnished, Fields listed it on Airbnb, hoping to recoup some of the remodeling costs, share the love her family had found in the home with others, and perhaps meet some fascinating people along the way.

“The family who owned this home originally must have had a lot of love to give,” Fields says.

“When you go in the house, you’re going to feel it (the love),” Fields continues. “It’s just cozy and loving … the vibes are so neat.”

“I built a profile on Airbnb and said, ‘we’ll see how this goes’,” Fields says. “It has been a lovely experience.”  

Fields has hosted all kinds of interesting people in the last two years, including a Nebraska family of snowbirds who moved south for two months to escape the bitter winter. Others book her home for a weekend get-away and some stay there during the week while they work in town or across the bridges in Ware County.

Fields is averaging up to four reservations a month now.

Local Airbnb hosts are hoping to not only add a little extra to their own pockets with this venture, but are also promoting Blackshear businesses, shops and eateries to their guests  — much like the guidebook many hotels place in each room. Fields only recommends Blackshear eateries to her guests.

“I really tried to keep it all about Blackshear,” she says.

Chamber of Commerce Director Angela Manders agrees Airbnb hosts contribute to the local economy.

“While most Airbnb hosts are not chamber members and currently are not required to pay local lodging taxes, these properties do service a need in our community,” Manders says. “A few of the available options in Pierce County are attracting visitors to our community who would typically go to the coast or to a larger city.”

Peggy Wall, manager of Comfort Inn in Blackshear, was surprised to hear locals are hosting on Airbnb, but says the service might provide her with another resource when the hotel is booked and she has to turn people away.

“When we’re overbooked or sold out, that might be a good thing for me to tell people,” Wall says.

Lawson and Fields both researched local regulations carefully before listing their homes, and found nothing prohibiting them from listing their properties on the site. Airbnb advises all hosts to check local regulations first.

That’s not to say Airbnb hosts might not face regulation by way of business licenses or taxes in the future.

Chris Wright, special projects manager for the city, has looked into the matter recently.

“It looks to me like the lodging tax does apply to these types of companies,” Wright told The Times. “I’m not sure about occupational and sales taxes though. I have a couple of calls in for guidance.”

County Manager Jason Rubenbauer directed The Times to a Pierce County code section requiring all businesses operating within the county to pay an occupational tax.