The ongoing pandemic has changed the “typical” tourist, said industry spokesperson Jonah Mechanic, owner of SeaBreeze Vacation Rentals in La Jolla and president of Share San Diego, Airbnb's San Diego arm.
“The client now is not your typical tourist who comes here to go to the beach and see all of San Diego’s attractions like the zoo, Balboa Park and SeaWorld, which are all closed,” Mechanic said. “People are now staying here for more extended periods of time. For example, many people living outside San Diego, who have family here, are coming and renting for a month or multiple weeks, so they can stay in the same house and quarantine together. It’s something we haven’t seen before.”
With kids, and sometimes parents both at home, they’re finding their space has “shrunk,” which Mechanic said is causing some to consider taking on a short-term rental “to have a larger house and maybe some outside space with a yard to help with the kids while quarantining together.”
Will the new normal ever get back to normal for short-term rentals?
“Two theories on that,” answered Mechanic. “The first is that unemployment rates are through the roof right now and finances will be tough. Even when things go back to normal, people may remain hunkered down and not go on vacation. The other is that people, being cooped up during the lockdown, that they’ll really want to get out of the house and go on vacation (post-pandemic).”
It’s Mechanic’s take that not only who is coming – but how they’re getting here – could likely be permanently altered by the pandemic.
“What I’ve read is that international travel will be the last to come back,” he said. “What will be coming back more quickly is road trips for drive-to destinations. San Diego has always been a predominantly drive-to destination. Once we get back to some sense of normalcy, people are going to choose to drive to Southern California. But these are all theories. We’re in unprecedented times.”
Kimberly Wise, a longtime real estate agent in Mission Beach who deals with short-term vacation rentals through her company, Magical Mission Beach, noted Covid-19 restrictions are hamstringing everyone in the industry right now.
“The governor’s executive orders say vacation rentals are not an essential business and I could be fined,” said Wise, who presently manages 18 short-term rentals. “And we may not rent to anyone who is not essential. I’ve been going along with that because I’m trying to follow the rules.”
Wise is now getting phone calls from clients saying, ‘The beach is open, start renting again.’” To which she responds, “No, the ocean is open – the sand is not. It’s just a delicate situation.”
Of the future of short-term rentals, Wise counseled, “We all need to take a collective breath until we find out what’s next, instead of becoming arm-chair scientists.”
Post-pandemic, Wise sees short-term rentals coming back gradually.
“I think we’re going to have people coming from driving distance,” she said. But with current pandemic restrictions presently in place, Wise warned, “You can’t just let people come to this community and party and play volleyball on the beach as if there weren’t any restrictions.”
Blaine Smith, owner/operator of 710 Beach Rentals at 4990 Mission Blvd., concurs with Mechanic that the “new normal” in short-term rentals likely will be different.
“After the lockdown order in mid-March, the cancellations started coming in,” Smith said, adding, “I’m optimistic that we’ll rebound once the lockdown is lifted. But I think it’s naive to think we’re going to have the same demand we had prior to the pandemic.”
Added Smith: “I think people will be uneasy about traveling in an airplane, and that demand for air travel will be down. Obviously, it’s also going to take time for people to be comfortable going and staying in new places and venues, once they’re allowed to leave their homes. It’s my take that it’s going to take time to get consumer confidence back.”
Smith said the jury is still out on whether short-term rental operators will convert to longer-term rentals, as a consequence of the pandemic.
“It’s a little too early to tell the impact of how many short-term rental properties will convert to long-term,” he said. “There has been an uptick in mid-term rentals. But as far as full conversion to long-term and pulling out of short-term … I do think that’s going to happen. I just don’t know to what extent. After the lockdown is lifted, what we’ll be seeing is anybody’s guess.”
Samuel Cryan, a longtime short-term rental operator who represents properties countywide including Ocean Beach, said he is holding his own right now during a depleted market.
“I’m still getting bookings here and there,” Cryan said. “During this time of quarantine, I’ve gotten five bookings now not on the beachfront. I don’t know if they’re low-cost rentals, or nurses dealing with Covid or random strangers.”
Noting he’s been dealing with short-term rentals since the beginning, Cryan added, “We’ve been very lucky. It’s covered the costs. We’re making do.”
Regarding the future of short-term rentals, Cryan advised short-term operators to stay the course.
“The reality is a lot of people are getting scared and putting their houses on the monthly rental market,” he said. “They’re freaking out, not getting their money. But I guarantee you 100% that when it (market) comes back, the ones who stick it out are going to be the breadwinners and make a @#$%load of money.”
Cryan concurs that tourism, once it revives, is likely to involve, at least early-on, driving to San Diego, not flying.