After 30 years of vacations at Cape May hotels and bed-and-breakfasts, Douglas Henigan and his wife changed it up last year.
The Dingmans Ferry, Pennsylvania, couple booked a two-day stay at a private residence through Airbnb last fall, part of a growing trend local tourism officials are struggling to get a handle on.
Online vacation booking services such as Airbnb can be convenient for vacationers, but the web-only services are also challenging typical business models for rentals a $2.5 billion industry in Cape May County — and forcing the local tourism industry to adapt.
This whole home-sharing thing is kind of new. It’s been all over the world, but it’s new for us, said Diane Wieland, Cape May County’s tourism director.
The trend poses new problems on how to market to these tourists and track their habits, as well as the question of whether their stays should be regulated and taxed like those at traditional lodgings.
Wieland did a quick search of the booking sites and found more than 1,000 rental listings in Cape May County as of May 1.
The online-only booking services, which also include VRBO.com, HomeAway.com and FlipKey.com, allow renters to book directly with the property owners or managers and offer a variety of vacation destinations for varying lengths of stay.
In Cape May County, half of residential dwellings are considered second or vacation homes.
Here, the regulation of online vacation booking services is critical to both private and public revenues, so local businesses and county officials are paying close attention to several different bills in the state Legislature proposing to regulate and tax the industry.
Cape May County’s tourism industry is its bloodline. The population of 95,000 residents swells to 824,000 during the summer. Rental income in 2016 was a record $2 billion — the highest in the state.
Spending on total lodging was $2.5 billion, and the occupancy tax collected in 2016 was $9.9 million.
Wieland said the online booking sites have drawn criticism and concern from chambers of commerce and Realtors, but she said the services might also be a boon to shoulder-season events, the wedding industry and a way to attract new visitors.
Stockton University is preparing to do a survey on visitors who use online booking services, and Wieland is eager for the results.
It’s more than about just revenue. For county tourism officials, the new platform presents marketing challenges.
The biggest concern that we don’t know is: Who is this customer? Wieland said.
She said Airbnb and its like are changing the way vacationers experience the Jersey Shore.