By HALEY HARVEY
The 1936 Oklahoma bungalow is furnished mid-century style. Subtle pieces express its vintage vibe — an old Lite-Brite sitting among the array of games stored under the living room TV, a 1961 Frigidaire Flair taking the place of a modern stovetop and oven and rooms adorned with lava lamps and antique items.
Yet still providing new convenient amenities, the old-school treasures are met with a stone-tiled walk-in shower, a flat-screen TV, Wi-Fi and a keypad on the front door for keyless entry to the home.
“Mar’i’s Place” can be found not only nestled in First Courthouse neighborhood in central Norman, Oklahoma, just north of downtown, but Airbnb.com. The quaint home has been available for overnight stays since September 2017, and the couple next door are the ones behind it — Oklahoma City and Lawton natives Kamala and Adam Stewart.
The Stewarts originally bought the neighboring home with the intent to have a place for their 19 nieces and nephews — “niecephews,” they call them — to stay when they come in town. The idea to open it up for business to travelers came later when the couple was renovating their own home.
“The architect renovating our kitchen had owned a bed and breakfast in town and suggested when the house next door to us became available, we buy it and list it on Airbnb,” said Kamala, who is self-employed through renting their Airbnb.
The couple said they didn’t expect to get as many customers as they do since their main motivation was to house visiting family and friends, but said the extra income is a plus, charging $75 a night for the two bedroom, one bathroom house.
“We thought, ‘OK,’” she said. “This could possibly work.”
Mar’i’s Place was named after its old inhabitant and dear friend of the couple. Mar’i McCrory lived next door when the Stewarts moved to their current home in 2009. Little did they know their neighbor was hosting an unwelcome guest.
“She lived for 10 years with stage four cancer, but very few people knew that because she was just the most optimistic, genuine person,” Kamala said.
When McCrory died in 2015, her daughter inherited the home and the couple later purchased it.
“We named it after Mar’i because she was so special to us, and we wanted to make sure it was forever her place,” Kamala said.
The couple’s purpose for the house became not only providing a cozy guest house for visitors to stay but keeping a legacy alive.
From check-in to check-out, the Stewarts make guest accommodations a top priority.
“We are set up for instant booking, so if someone has reviews from other hosts and has government IDs that are verified, then they can book instantly,” Kamala said. “For our safety and for our neighbors’ safety, we prefer they have some sort of government ID so we know the people that are staying are who they say they are.”
She said when they get a notification that someone has booked, they also see what their arrival time is. The guests are greeted upon arrival and provided with a list of questions regarding their living preferences. Special requests are handled along with other little but thoughtful touches, like providing local coffee to guests along with a roast preference, local teas for tea-drinkers and cleaning the home only with gentle, non-irritating products.
“We’re very sensitive to food allergies, and we don’t use any harsh chemicals or fragrances in the house,” Kamala said. “We ask all of that and then we prepare everything for them.”
She said she and her husband always try to walk over and meet the visitor to show them around the house and help them settle in. From there, they are at the disposal of the guest.
“Throughout their stay, we are available as much as they want us to be,” Kamala said.
She said some guests have arrived when she and her husband were not home, so they didn’t get the chance to greet their guest, but with others, they have been very friendly — to the point of going to dinner with them.
Kamala says the interaction is what she looks forward to most during their guests’ stay.
“I love meeting people from different places and finding out why they’re in town and that kind of thing,” she said. “That’s my favorite part.”
Airbnb officially started in 2008 in San Francisco by two men trying to make extra money to pay rent. Roommates Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia met at Rhode Island School of Design and opened their apartment for guests to stay in their loft on an air mattress with the promise of breakfast, calling it “Airbed and Breakfast,” according to Business Insider. Ten years later, the lemonade stand-esque idea has transformed into a $25 billion company.
Airbnb rentals have gained a presence across Oklahoma, especially during the fall with people looking for a place to stay for football games. According to a press release from Airbnb on Dec. 2, college football in Oklahoma brought in the cash for Airbnb hosts in Norman and Stillwater during the 2018-19 season, Airbnb Public Affairs Manager Laura Rillos said.
Hosts in Norman welcomed 1,840 guests and earned $185,000 during seven home games, with Stillwater hosting 1,350 guests generating $156,960 this season.
An article on the best-reviewed college towns by Airbnb last fall showed Norman taking the top spot when it came to hosting, with a 74 percent hospitality score — higher than any other major college town in the country.
Having a high public profile and well-respected sports team nearby is a good indicator of the number of satisfied customers, according to the article. In fact, nearly every city on their top 10 list is home to that state’s major university.
One OU student recognized this flood of guests and began renting out her Norman apartment on Airbnb as a way to make extra money. Sophia Phillips, social work graduate student, said she became a host this fall.
“I knew a lot of people would be coming in town for that,” Phillips said. “I thought, ‘I have an extra bedroom, so why not make some money on the side?’”
As opposed to the Stewarts who rent out the entire home, Phillips offers the guest bedroom in her apartment.
“On Airbnb, it’s described as a private room with a shared living space,” Phillips said, who charges $70 per night. “You can use the kitchen, laundry room — help yourself.”
Like the Stewarts, Phillips said most of her guests have been parents in town to see their children at OU or for football games.
Hospitality is an added plus her visitors can expect.
“I provide them with all the essentials — toothbrush, toothpaste, stuff like that,” Phillips said. “After guests come, they can rate their stay. I have all five stars.”
AirDNA, a company that tracks Airbnb prices, shows there are currently 163 active Airbnb rentals in Norman. Of those, 71 percent are entire home listings, 28 percent are private room listings and one percent is a shared room rental.
The option to have an entire home for a stay is optimal in college towns like Norman where families travel to attend football games, visit their children who go to OU and for other reasons.
Kamala said the location of Mar’i’s Place has been an advantage to visitors.
“With downtown and Campus Corner between us and the stadium, we’re in a really good location,” she said.
Located just north of Main Street near the intersection of Porter Avenue and Gray Street, Kamala said walks to the stadium are a plus that you wouldn’t have staying in most hotels in town.
“We’re not quite two miles (from the stadium), and some people think that’s too far to walk, but if you know where you’d typically park for a game it’s really not that far,” Kamala said.
As for peak seasons, Kamala said October and November have been the couple’s busiest months so far, with many of their guests in town for OU games.
“The vast majority of our guests are parents visiting their children attending OU, but we also host a lot of people who are in town for work-related travel or for special occasions,” Kamala said.
The couple said they have received positive feedback from their guests, many saying they prefer staying at Mar’i’s Place over a hotel.
“I think it’s just more comfortable for people to have that home experience while they’re visiting,” Kamala said. “Even if it’s spending time tailgating or otherwise.”
One interesting part of the job is the interaction with their guests with diverse backgrounds. The Stewarts have hosted people from not only all across the U.S. but other countries as well.
“We’ve had people from both coasts, up and down the coasts,” Kamala said. “We’ve had people from Mexico, Peru and Puerto Rico, so we’ve had a few international travelers. It surprised us — we were only about seven or eight guests in until we had anyone from a state that even touched Oklahoma.”
Apart from football games and other OU-related events, she said guests have come to Norman from all over and for various reasons — concerts, conferences, weddings and yoga workshops.
Kamala said the artistic scene in town is also what draws many of their guests to Norman, and is also what brought the couple there, with Norman offering much more than just football.
“My husband is an artist, so we love being close to the arts district and to activities very central to Norman,” she said. “It’s really fun to see your town through a tourist’s eyes. When you live here you kind of take things for granted, but when you get to show your town off to people who haven’t discovered it before, it’s surprising the things you see that remind you just how special home can be.”
Nothing but rave reviews have been written about Mar’i’s Place and the host couple.
“I’m so thankful I came across Adam and Kam’s place as it is truly such a special Airbnb experience,” said Mattie, Airbnb guest from New York. “From the moment I arrived, I felt so welcome. I loved being around the vintage vibes and really appreciated all the local tips provided. The location is awesome for enjoying your time in Norman, right there in the coolest area of town.”
The hospitable hosting of the Stewarts has drawn several repeat-guests to Mar’i’s Place. One family used the Norman Airbnb during their son’s journey to make a college decision.
“They were doing campus visits and the son had five different schools over spring break, and (OU) was one of them,” Kamala said. “In July they contacted us and said they were coming back for summer enrollment, and then they later came back to move their son in. They stayed with us three different times from March to August, so to then find out he chose to be a Sooner was pretty neat.”
Kamala said hosting has brought along other special experiences, one being a surprise engagement proposal.
Although the couple wasn’t there to witness it, they were able to read about it from the detailed entry left in the guest book they provide for visitors.
“We have a guest book that’s a little doodle book, so we have guests pick a page and finish the doodle or write something, sign and date it,” Kamala said. “They left us the neatest little two-page spread of a list of all the events and things that happened while they were there, so we had that little memento of their stay.”
The Stewarts’ friendly hosting can be owed in part to their own experiences as guests in other Airbnbs they have stayed in when they travel.
“Hosts all have very different approaches,” Kamala said. “There are some things that make some hosts more hospitable than others. We’re pretty passionate about hosting.”
Kamala said hospitality is especially important to her. She spoke of recent guests celebrating a birthday, so she brought them cookies.
“We try to do those little extra touches,” she said. “That’s probably not as typical for hosts to do, but it’s something that I really love — to help make their stay special.”