In age of coronavirus, battered vacation rental market touts quarantine pads

With high rate of Passover and summer cancellations, short-term rental businesses try to salvage profits through rentals to stranded tourists and returning Israelis

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

An apartment that was available for quarantine rental in Tel Aviv during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Courtesy Eyal Leventhal Ben David)
An apartment that was available for quarantine rental in Tel Aviv during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Courtesy Eyal Leventhal Ben David)

Lots of Israeli travelers straggling back home and heading into the mandatory 14  days of quarantine, and lots of tourists stranded in Israel due to canceled flights, have a common need: Somewhere temporary to live.

That has proved an unexpected opportunity for the vacation apartment businesses, which have been decimated by cancellations for Passover and the summer.

“We suddenly realized that people have to stay here for two weeks and can’t travel, so we could either lose business or turn it around,” said Eve Jacobs, the co-owner of Jerusalem Holiday Homes, which handles some 30 apartments that are rented out to clients.

At some point last week, the company changed its advertising to read “Jerusalem Stay-Cation Homes,” said Jacobs, in order to eke out some income during this uncertain time.

Since changing the change, the firm has had as many requests as during normal times, said Jacobs.

It’s helped, at least a little, she said.

Need a place for BIDUD? (with or without your spouse….) Need to see BATIM M'BIFNIM…RAK M'BIFNIM? Need a place to…

Posted by Jerusalem Holiday Homes on Tuesday, March 17, 2020

One client was returning to Israel and had to go into quarantine, and preferred not to be confined to one room in his family apartment. Another Israeli client lives in China but can’t return there yet, and decided to rent something indefinitely.

“I am sleeping better at night,” said Jacobs.  “Right now, we’re just trying to swim against the tide and make back some of our income.”

Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, most of their reservations through May have been canceled, said Jacobs.

While some of their clients are merely postponing, others wanted their money back. The business, like many others in the short-term rental market, requests a 50 percent deposit with each reservation. For now, said Jacobs, they’re giving back whatever is asked.

“Whatever we have from them, we’ll give back,” said Jacobs. “Whatever they ask of us, that’s what we’ll do.”

Eyal Leventhal Ben David, an agent for short-term rentals who works with several businesses marketing some 300 apartments in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, also turned to the quarantine option.

The various companies he works with made a group decision to make their accommodations available for quarantine stays, with prices that are one-quarter of what they once charged — NIS 150 ($40) to NIS 300 ($80) a night for luxury apartments — but they didn’t have much of a choice, he said.

“We’re trying to get used to this tsunami in the world of tourism, and keep our heads above water,” he said. “It’s damage control, it’s like a whole new business, it’s not the same thing at all.”

In the meantime, Leventhal Ben David opened a Facebook group called Quarantine apartments in Israel. Another similar group is You are not alone” in cooperation with Airbnb hosts in Israel, and it already has 1,719 members.

Both Facebook groups talk up the available apartments for their quarantine characteristics: in the time of corona, what matters is smart TVs, Netflix and a spacious balcony.

“That’s what people are looking for when they’re stuck inside,” he said.

The Facebook page has helped, said Leventhal Ben David.

There have been several requests by large groups of post-army travelers who cut short their treks in South America or India and need to return home to Israel, but first must spend 14 days under quarantine and decide to do so together.

“This way, they’re still together and they’ve got room to move around,” he said.

Posted by Eyal Leventhal Ben David on Monday, March 16, 2020

Some short-term rental businesses would not talk about whether they’re renting to clients going into quarantine.

“Why would I do that?” said one representative from a short-term rental business in Tel Aviv. “We’re totally ruined by corona, but I’m not going to ruin the apartments by renting them for less and getting them full of corona germs.”

And it’s unclear what’s happening to the thousands of Airbnb apartments in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

Last Saturday, global home rental company Airbnb put in place a blanket policy allowing all guests to cancel eligible reservations for a full refund—including all Airbnb fees.

“We know this decision has caused incredible hardship for many of you,” stated Airbnb on its site, adding that many hosts were already accepting cancellations outside of established policies.

In Israel, Airbnb owners are also hawking their apartments for quarantine purposes, although it’s unclear how much success they’re having.

Another Tel Aviv apartment — with a balcony — available for quarantine rental during the coronavirus crisis in March 2020 (Courtesy Eyal Levanthal Ben David)

What has helped their business, said Nadia Levene, Jacobs’ partner in Jerusalem Holiday Homes, has been the trust her clients place in her and the well-connected world in which she operates.

“We have had to give back a lot of money from Pesach [Passover] and it looks like the summer bookings will be canceled,” she said. “People want to try and help us as a small business.”

Among their new clients are an Israeli who was visiting from Berlin and an American family that got stuck in Israel when they came for a wedding. (On Wednesday, the Israeli government banned all foreign citizens from entering the country, with the exception of permanent residents).

“We’re just trying to give the best deals, knowing that people are in really bad situation emotionally, and financially,” said Levene.

They’re helping their clients who are in quarantine, supplying them with gloves and masks along with the food shopping that is a part of their usual basket of services. When a group of lone soldiers needed to go into quarantine, Levene and Jacobs set out to find a place for them at a steep discount.

If the situation continues, said Jacobs, and the semi-closure rules are loosened a bit, they may advertise their larger apartments for family groups that normally travel for Passover but have to stay put this year.

Of course, the quarantine business plan hasn’t worked for all short-term rentals.

Chaim Cohen of CC Realties handles about ten apartments in Jerusalem, most of them around the Nahlaot neighborhood, and many of them are very spacious in size, sleeping 12 to 15 people.

“They’re really not good for quarantine,” said Cohen, “they’re too large.”

Most of his Passover and summer reservations have been canceled, and it doesn’t pay for him to rent the apartments for NIS 100 or NIS 200 a night.

“For now, I’d prefer to keep them empty,” said Cohen.

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