Brenda Thompson takes pride in researching her vacations, and while planning a fall trip from Texas to coastal Maine for her sister’s 60th birthday, decided Salem was the perfect spot for an early October visit. Her sister began scouring rental sites like Vrbo and Airbnb for a place to stay.
But neither knew just how busy the Witch City has become around Halloween, with tourism soaring to new levels in recent years, even weeks before the holiday. Thompson was stunned when her sister revealed the cost of the place she had settled on, a historic home on Daniels Street, a prime spot near the water.
“It was $1,000 a night. It was like, what?” Thompson, 62, said. “It seemed so outrageous.”
Then they arrived and saw the crowds.
About 1 million people visited downtown Salem last October, a record number and a 35 percent increase from 2019, said the city’s mayor, Dominick Pangallo. That surge shows no sign of slowing, officials say, and has sparked runaway demand for rental stays. Last October, the average daily rate for Airbnb and Vrbo listings was $443 a night, up from $241 in 2019, according to AirDNA, a platform that analyzes Airbnb and Vrbo data.
This fall, tourists eager to stay in the heart of the Halloween excitement are shelling out even larger sums for short-term rentals, according to property owners, city officials, and visitors.
“Hotels are getting in-season rates for their rooms. Why shouldn’t the trend of the market carry over to the short-term rental?” asked Stacia Cooper, the interim director of Destination Salem, the city’s tourism organization. “They’re going to charge just as much because the demand is there.”
A limited number of rooms are available at hotels and inns within the city, so Airbnb and Vrbo hosts “have that seller’s market,” Cooper noted. Still, the surge in prices has been startling, she said. She recently saw a room listed on Airbnb for $4,000 per night and was “aghast at that amount of money that someone would pay.”
A look at some of the listings still available on Airbnb and Vrbo for October showed prices ranging from around $1,500 to $2,400 per night at a condo unit (the most expensive found was an apartment going for $5,000). Descriptions boast the proximity to popular sites such as the Salem Witch Museum, showcase festive displays like glowing skulls, and reference movies such as “Hocus Pocus” and “Practical Magic” with oft-quoted lines from the films.
Known for the infamous Witch Trials of 1692, Salem has long been a tourist destination. Historic landmarks abound, including the Witch House, the only building with direct ties to the trials, and the House of the Seven Gables. The streets are lined with kitschy attractions and shops and October brings a host of special events, from costume balls to haunted house tours to parades.
But crowds have swelled since the pandemic, and residents have capitalized on the demand, with many visitors booking short-term rentals a year in advance.
Phil Marchand rents his childhood home on Airbnb, and it’s become a prized accommodation, especially among large groups and fans of the supernatural (some have told Marchand the house is haunted). If you’re interested in staying there on a weekend, you’ll have to wait until 2025. Each one is already booked for next October, he said, and the demand is increasingly spilling into September and November.
This year, his rates for the fall season were $1,300 a night on weekends and $1,000 on weekdays. Marchand, 44, said he could probably charge more but is wary of price gouging.
“I’ve seen some other Airbnbs that are similar to mine, where they’re asking for like $3,000 a night or something just absolutely ludicrous,” said Marchand, who lives in Danvers with his young family and works for the postal service in Salem.
Five years ago, city officials adopted rules regulating short-term rentals, and with few exceptions, residents must live in the property for at least six months of the year. But Marchand, who also rents out the John Edwards House, was “lucky enough to get grandfathered in” because he had been in the business for a while, he said.
Salem has 250 to 300 short-term rentals, Pangallo said, and most are owner-occupied properties that residents list on sites like Airbnb and Vrbo so they can “get out of town in October for a weekend” while making “a little extra income” in the process.
Marchand has friends and neighbors who do that every weekend of the month, choosing to “stay at friends’ or family’s houses and then rent out their place. Just to take advantage of the Airbnb market craze,” he said.
“There’s just no shortage of demand,” Marchand said.
The number of listings in Salem has grown in recent years, said Chloé Garlaschi, senior communications specialist with AirDNA. So far this year, “revenue for specific days, like the Thursday before Halloween, is up by 46 percent,” she said. Revenue is 39 percent higher for the following Friday.
Adrian Colmenares and his fiancée bought a condo in Salem in April last year and saw properties were being rented for “astronomical numbers” on Airbnb throughout October. They started listing their condo in May and are now reaping the dividends. He noted they have a required minimum of three nights per booking, but rental fees for dates this month include $1,567 on Oct. 20, $1,628 on Oct. 21, and $1,920 on Oct. 28.
Colmenares, 28, is a member of the “Things To Do in Salem” Facebook group and often sees tourists asking for suggestions after finding out that hotels are long since booked.
“I think that also creates an effect of fear of missing out,” he said. “When they see the limited options that they have, they’re willing to pay a higher price in order to be able to come into Salem.”
Debbie Randall and her cousin, Kathy Adams, have come to Salem from New Jersey every October since 1995, when they fell in love with the city. They always stay at the Hawthorne Hotel, learning early on that not having to drive made staying in town “worth any price.”
Early in 2022, the two formed the “Salem Mass” Facebook group to share tips and recommendations about places to go and stay in Salem. The group now has nearly 100,000 followers. Randall said she does not discourage people from using Airbnb but cautions them to do their research after seeing numerous people report hosts canceling reservations at the last minute, leaving them scrambling.
“Some of them can be astronomical,” Randall, 58, said of rental prices. “Because somebody will pay it.”
But Randall and Adams, 57, have their own system.
When they checked out of the Hawthorne Sunday, the cousins put down a nonrefundable one-night deposit to reserve a room, which cost them about $400 per night this visit, for next year.
“It’s worth it,” she said. “We literally look forward to it from the moment we leave.”
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