When Kehau Hall set up her Airbnb glamping tent in 2014, she didn’t think twice about the fact that it’s about 10 minutes from volcanoes. She’s used to their unpredictability, having lived in Hawaii since she was 2 – and says she’s not threatened by them.
“Years ago, I could actually see one of the volcanoes erupting from my mom’s house,” Hall, 28, tells CNBC Make It. “You could see the lava glowing from her back porch at night. You just get used to it.”
Like her mother’s house, Hall’s glamping tent is located in the Glenwood neighborhood of Mountain View, Hawaii, about 12 miles from the heart of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, which has two active volcanoes. Her inspiration for creating an Airbnb website was simple, she says: she saw a photo of a glamping tent in a magazine and thought it would be a unique way for mainlanders to experience Hawaii.
She spent less than $300 on the tent and about $8,000 on amenities like a kitchen, outdoor shower, and king-size mattress. According to documents reviewed by CNBC Make It, the property, which Hall says requires about 10 to 15 hours of work per week, now brings her $28,000 a year in revenue.
Those revenues represent part of a highly competitive tourism industry: In 2019, visitor spending across all of the Hawaiian Islands was $17.75 billion, according to the Hawaii Tourism Authority. The main island, where Hall’s tent is located, averaged $22.4 million per day.
By comparison, Hall’s tent is modest: it costs visitors about $70 a night. But for her, it means independence — and the money she earns helps her spend more time traveling.
A good use of inheritance
Hall, whose father is Hawaiian, grew up on the property: the 90 acres, passed down through her family for generations, are home to a handful of family homes, as well as wild boar, cows, and chickens. Hall says she partially pitched her tent to share the property’s natural beauty more broadly.
“I wanted to use the land for good, where other people could come and benefit and really immerse themselves in nature,” says Hall. “Nowadays everyone works. Everyone is connected to electronics. It is important to detach from the virtual world for a moment and relax.”
She also had industry experience. In high school, Hall helped out at local bed and breakfasts — which also used Airbnb — and worked with a real estate agent to manage local rental properties. She also worked for the nearby national park for four years.
At the age of 20, she decided to trust her entrepreneurial instinct and listed her glamping tent on Airbnb. She says it took about six months and five positive reviews for the tent to gain traction.
Since then, glamping reservations have remained fairly constant: Hall says she makes an average of three bookings a week and the average guest stays two to four nights.
Before Covid struck, Hall said the job felt like a Hawaiian daydream. She worked 10-15 hours a week, managing bookings and cleaning the property herself after each stay. She spent an additional 15 hours a week managing other guests’ stays in homes on her family’s large property, earning her an additional US$20,000 dollars a year.
Then, in March 2020, Hawaii enacted a mandatory 14-day quarantine for travelers to prevent the spread of Covid. Tourism — Hawaii’s “largest single source of private capital,” according to the Hawaii Tourism Authority — took an immediate hit. Between the first and second quarters of 2020, the state’s unemployment rate rose from 2% to 20.1%, according to Hawaii’s Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism.
Hall suffered the fallout: She didn’t get any bookings for about six months, during which mainland travelers weren’t allowed to visit Hawaii without adhering to a 14-day quarantine. She made ends meet with savings and began cleaning homes to make money. In those six months, she says, she lost most of her disposable income sources and rarely left home — just to work or shop for groceries.
The Price of Aloha
Business at Hall’s glamping site picked up again in early 2021, with guests booking month-long stays with expanded remote work options. With a steadier cash flow, Hall says she now blocks four weeks a year to travel to the mainland or abroad.
“I’ve always wanted to be able to come and go as I please, so running this glamping tent was a huge help,” says Hall.
Hall says she plans to open three more tents in Hawaii in the next two or three years. Airbnb currently charges most of its hosts a flat 3% and guests a 14% service fee. Hall says the presence, responsive customer service and user-friendly interfaces make it worth the price: your tent will also be published on GlampingHub, which charges hosts 1% more than Airbnb and results in only a few bookings per month for Hall, leading to just runs a few thousand dollars a year.
The main obstacle Hall now faces is competition. Hawaii’s tourism industry can be tough, and when people see a good idea, they often take steps to copy or improve on it. Hall says she’s up for the challenge and has no plans to expand her hospitality to the mainland.
“There’s so much aloha here, it’s like love,” she says. “There are so many caring and kind people. I like to be chilled out, like in Hawaii.”
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