On the Beach of a Sea of Change: How the Sharing Economy Is Changing the Way We Experience LBI

From VRBO to Lyft, Getting Rooms, Rentals, Rides and Even Surfboards From Peer-to-Peer Apps
By JON COEN | Aug 28, 2019
Photo by: Ryan Morrill How do current shared economy apps change the way people are vacationing on LBI?

Long Beach Island — The family is packed into the car with devices and the family dog. There are a cargo box, a stand-up-paddleboard and soft-top surfboard on the roof with a bicycle mount on the back. They sit in moderate traffic going east on Route 72. Mom and Dad tell the kids about the famed shack that used to greet them when they touched down off the big bridge. The kids are too young to remember.

But they do put the iPads down to look out the window. Shack or not, they’re coming over Barnegat Bay and reaching a place that the entire family looks forward to visiting – a beach house with an outside shower, playing in tidal pools, clam strips with creamy tartar sauce, going to the arcade, the favorite ice cream shop, and parents’ night out in Beach Haven. This is exciting.

But unlike a few years ago, they arrive at their rental house on a Thursday instead of Saturday. They know it has an outside shower because they double checked that feature when the booked on Airbnb. They order their seafood dinners, including the clam strips, and have it delivered through LBIDelivery. And if the parents take the shuttle for their night out with friends in Beach Haven, they get an Uber ride home.

In many ways, it’s the same traditional vacation, but today the shared economy, the Airbnb, the VRBO, the Lyft or Uber, and LBIDelivery have very much changed certain aspects of our trips. These are the rapid changes brought about by the shared economy, short term person-to-person transactions that easily match us with what we need, and occasionally untraditional situations through an online platform. The shared economy is growing rapidly – for accommodations, rides, experiences, food and even surfboards (check out TheQuiver) and moving almost exclusively to smartphone apps that handle everything from availability to communication and even the transaction.

“The key word to the shared economy is access,” explained Lori Pepenella, chief executive officer of the Southern Ocean County Chamber of Commerce. The customizable and seamless ordering has generated new revenue and expanded offerings that can be an asset to traditional businesses.

Of course, technology is always changing our experience. Because of Yelp Waitlist, there’s no hanging around in front of the Chicken or the Egg with hungry kids for two hours anymore. Families can put their name on the list before they even shower for dinner, drive to the restaurant and wait only a short time for their table. They can hire The Beach Crew to carry their stuff to the beach and set it up, go grocery shopping, deliver food or wash their car. The services are not entirely new, but the technology to get them is.

It’s made possible by an app, but it doesn’t change the business model all that much because it’s not cutting out any middleman. The shared economy is truly revolutionary and has been largely sparked by people currently in their 30s, but it’s now becoming adopted by those both older and younger.

“The market has grown past the millennial generation and towards the emerging Generation Z, peer-to-peer services, crowd sourcing, ride sharing, co-working and online marketplaces are now mainstream,” Pepenella said. “The next level trends are already rising towards convenience, like curb side insta-pick up, delivery and peer-to-peer payment systems.”

The real estate rental market may have presented the biggest shift with the growing shared economy. Realtors have listed summer rentals online for years, but Airbnb and VRBO make it possible for potential vacationers to browse huge catalogs of rental inventory and book directly with the owner. And since an owner can customize the offering, people can now rent just a room, or perhaps random days that work best for them instead of a whole house from the traditional Saturday to Saturday block.

This has shifted a lot of the business from real estate agencies directly to the owners. While it may have saved on Realtor commissions early on, however, today’s VRBO and Airbnb fees are about the same as realty commissions.

A newer site called VRLBI.com, launched by LBI property owner Duanye Watlington, seeks to give property owners and renters an alternative to VRBO and Airbnb, which have been bought by larger travel sites and have raised fees significantly the last few years.

“It’s a regional listing website that specializes in vacation rentals on the Island,” Watlington explained. “We offer owners a flexible, affordable platform that gives them complete control over how to manage their listings. It’s great for vacationers, too. They book direct with the our owners, or their Realtor, so they don’t have to pay the service fees or taxes that the online booking sites like VRBO, Airbnb and others charge. We save them up to 25 percent sometimes.”

Some traditional Realtors claim that they haven’t taken a hit at all.

“Our company continues to grow our rental business with preexisting clients and new clients even with the rent-by-owner websites in play,” said Elaine Atleee, a Realtor at Berkshire Hathaway Zack Shore Realtors of 15 years. “We offer both our homeowners and tenants five-star service and attention, which keep them coming back. For most travelers, searching through countless rental websites can become challenging. Many travelers choose to depend on the local knowledge of a Realtor to book the rental property that best meets their needs.”

In the case of mobility, service providers have had an effect on the way we travel as well. Lyft and Uber are fairly new to the area. And while the traditional taxi companies may feel the pinch, the result of these services has been overwhelmingly positive, mostly by keeping drinkers from driving.

Ben Scola, a longtime bartender at the Porthole Café in Ship Bottom, has been moonlighting as a Lyft driver for the past 18 months. Lyft and Uber drivers drive their own cars and choose which fares they want to pick up when contacted on the app. He recently gave his 922nd career ride.

“People aren’t risking driving home from the bar after having two drinks anymore. Now that they have the option, they spend a little more money on a ride home, instead of $10,000 on a DWI,” he explained.

Scola has heel and Achilles spurs; he needed to get off his feet and cut his hours behind the bar. He chose to drive for Lyft to supplement his income. He now bartends about 35 hours each week and drives about 30 during the season. As a Lyft driver, he has a five-star rating.

Lyft and Uber’s pricing is calculated by an algorithm based entirely on supply and demand. Because the LBI shuttle does not run late at night, Scola has found that fares from the few-block radius of Beach Haven’s bars at 2 a.m. are the highest in the area, as much as 50 to 70 percent more when the bars let out.

He explained that some people think the price is unfair. He’s had parents complain that their children rack up exorbitant charges, but he pointed out that the price is given to those kids before they agree to the fare with their parents’ credit card.

“If people were to walk a mile out of that zone, their fares can go down,” he explained.

He picked up a group of friends who were quoted $128 from downtown Beach Haven to Harvey Cedars. They walked to Nardi’s, and the fare back to Harvey Cedars dropped to $30.

He added that Lyft will allow him to charge up to $250 for anyone who vomits in his car. He feels fortunate to have avoided that situation so far.

Food delivery is an interesting dynamic on LBI, specifically because it really never existed before. There are only a handful of mainland restaurants that will deliver to LBI, and many of those only Brant Beach to Surf City. Unlike other apps, LBIDelivery, which delivers food from its partnering restaurants (including alcoholic beverages) for a $10 fee, is based on an app. But this business model actually adds a middleman. Depending on which restaurants participate could start to determine which eateries are patronized more.

UberEats is mostly used in cities and not yet available on LBI, but Scola said it’s coming and he will be happy to drive for it.

But all of this is changing LBI, and in order to stay competitive, businesses here have to be able to keep up or else we become the destination version of the Yellow Pages.

“Our visitors have different vacationing habits than they did previously,” Pepenella explained. “There are always cycles and change, but the transition is more accelerated now. People in their mid-20s may have some concept of what life was like before the shared economy, but this next generation – all they are going to know is getting things on demand and instant streaming.”

Under Pepenella, the chamber has won awards for branding of the region as a destination. But she’s not spending her time just marketing, she’s also busy keeping an eye on trends and attending seminars and trade shows, like the recent Future Fest in Philadelphia.

“Local businesses have to be on those platforms. When younger people get down here, yes, they will see a sign or a business and that will draw them in. But we have to be able to engage them before they get down here. If someone is in Boston using an app one day and then travels here, they will use that same app on LBI the next day.”

She pointed to data that shows people are ordering takeout more and for bigger groups than ever before. They are sometimes looking to stay for less than a week. And they are increasingly using the digital platform. Some trends suggest creative cooks might start offering meals out of their homes soon.

“And we’re not going back to analog,” she stated. “We have to be able to reach our market the same when they are home as when they’re here.”

Just like any other change, some people are resistant to it. Part of the Long Beach Island allure is nostalgia. But the nature of what people do here and spending time with family doesn’t have to change.

“People came here 100 years ago to go to the beach, eat ice cream and play mini-golf,” said Pepenella. “A hundred years from now, they will still be doing that. But the way they acquire those experiences is going to be different. It’s going to be all about customization and convenience.”

joncoen@thesandpaper.net

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