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DC's Airbnb hosts offer off-the-beaten-track hospitalitySharing--recommendations, even a home-cooked meal--is caring for these DC residents

LaShawndra Thornton, 29, is one of the D.C. area's thousand-odd Airbnb hosts. ""Staying with me offers a personal connection to the neighborhood and D.C. at large," she says

This larger bedroom, which Thornton decorated herself, sleeps two guests

Thornton encourages her guests to sign in on her chalkboard wall

Thornton shows a new guest the downstairs bathroom

A sunny patio is part of the experience at Heather Block's Airbnb listing on Capitol Hill

Master bedroom on Capitol Hill

A cozy living room in Chris O'Brien's eco-friendly Columbia Heights home

As tourists descend on D.C. in record numbers and as the sharing economy grows in strength, it's worth thinking about the hundreds of Airbnb hosts in the District who help visitors discover unique experiences you won't find in any guidebook.
The White House. The Capitol building. These destinations top most lists of D.C. must-sees. But a burlesque or spoken word performance? A tour of the Frederick Douglass house or a local pub recommendation from a guy who literally wrote the book on beer? Such experiences aren’t as common, but are popping up on more and more tourist itineraries. The source: Washington residents who offer accommodations with a side of insider advice via Airbnb.
Of course, guests who book via the online peer-to-peer accommodation service don’t always realize what they’re getting into.
“About 90 percent of guests choose Anacostia because it is very close to the main tourist attractions,” says LaShawndra Thornton, 29, who has been hosting in her three-bedroom, two-bathroom duplex since July 2014. Even before they book, photos on her Airbnb page show guests what they’ll see: Décor accented with bold blues, reds, and yellows; one wall lined with bookshelves and another that doubles as a blackboard. Before long, though, visitors often discover more. That was the case for a woman and her two 20-something daughters visiting from Australia over the summer.
“Staying with me offers a personal connection to the neighborhood and D.C. at large.”

“It was their first time as a minority and [they] desired information about the African American culture,” says Thornton, who has lived in D.C. for four years and works at the U.S. Department of Education.
The daughters partied on U Street, met the neighbors, and processed all they were experiencing with their host.
Thornton does overlap with the guidebooks and travel sights with recommendations like  baseball games at Nationals Park and paddle boating in the Tidal Basin. But Thornton also encourages guests to take walking tours of downtown D.C. neighborhoods, attend a spoken word performance at Busboys and Poets, and visit the historic Douglass House. The Capital Bikeshare system is a resource Thornton also emphasizes. It’s easy to access through a bike station two blocks from her place. And finally, Thornton tells guests to bite into a Georgetown Cupcake confection and a hot dog at Ben’s Chili bowl before they leave.
“Staying with me offers a personal connection to the neighborhood and D.C. at large,” Thornton says.
Chris O’Brien’s Columbia Heights bed and breakfast is another of the approximately 1,000 D.C.-area listings on Airbnb’s website. Guests are drawn to the third floor bedrooms of his Victorian house for a number of reasons, including a certain demographic that has proliferated in the neighborhood recently. “Many of my guests are parents visiting their adult children who are young professionals,” says O’Brien, 43. “But many other guests are tourists from all over the world.”
Whatever their reason for choosing O’Brien’s place, guests get the chance to stay in a green home. “The house is solar-powered, and it is heated by a corn-burning pellet stove. Our two rain barrels and lots of trees help to reduce stormwater runoff from polluting the Chesapeake Bay,” the Airbnb listing explains. Not only that, but O’Brien’s guests can try jam made from his own fig tree and honey from his beehive.
O’Brien, who served as the director of sustainability for American University for five years and is moving into work on renewable energy contracts, enjoys hosting other sustainability enthusiasts. “But of course,” he adds, “I welcome people with all kinds of personal worldviews!”
Also a crusader for craft beer and the author of a book about beer and sustainability, O’Brien can point guests to brightest stars on D.C.’s burgeoning brew scene. His personal picks are Meridian Pint and Right Proper Brewing Company.
A few miles southeast, Heather Block runs an acupuncture practice out of her Capitol Hill home during the week, and opens the master bedroom of her house to guests on the weekends. The limited booking schedule isn’t the only way Block’s place differs from a D.C. hotel.
“The majority of people are just like 'Where's the White House? Where's the Capitol building?’” Block says.  But with a few tips from their host, they find the artisan foods and crafts of Eastern Market, good coffee shops, grocery stores, and other features that might not occur to concierges, show up in guidebooks, or even appear on Yelp.
Guests may also get recommendations for improv theater and burlesque.
“I don't think those kinds of shows are advertised as much,” Block says, so if the people seem open to edgier entertainment, or she has plans to go herself, she’ll share the idea. 
Block, who is in her 40s, has also given guests acupuncture treatments in her home and once, a local artist shot a music video in the guest bedroom.
This flexible and responsive style seems to be paying off. Block’s place books up fast, and lately she’s seen an influx of inquiries from Chinese travelers. How this came about – from a positive mention on a Chinese language website or word of mouth or other means – Block isn’t sure. But she appreciates the visitors.
Another host popular with the international set is Vincent, a librarian who hosts in Dupont Circle. The business travelers who make up the majority of Vincent’s guests won’t find a business center to print boarding passes, but they will get a raft of other services. Two recent job candidates saw that firsthand.
“I kind of talked them through their interview, gave them a little pep talk,” says Vincent, 35, who asked that his last name not be used. On the morning of the big day, he sent them off with a good breakfast. Both candidates, he says, got job offers.
If the weather is chilly, Vincent will light the fireplace. If the guest craves a run, the two-time marathoner can suggest a route. If you’re looking for the outlet malls, as one father and his sons visiting from Chile were, this host will point you in the right direction.
Vincent says he loves to meet new people, and is fluent or conversational in Spanish, Polish, Italian, German, Russian, and Hebrew. This may explain why the reviews on his Airbnb page come in more languages than a sign at an international airport.
Though Vincent just started hosting in October 2014 to see how Airbnb would compare to having a roommate, he has not only racked up a world of positive reviews, but also developed a signature service: Home-cooked meals.

“I’m a feeder,” Vincent admits. But it just makes sense. If he’s already cooking dinner for friends, he says, “why would I have a rando sitting over there, and I’m not going to feed them?”
“Why would I have a rando sitting over there, and I’m not going to feed them?”

While their stories and offerings vary, these hosts have some experiences in common. Each mentions quick popularity, their open days filling faster and farther ahead of time than they had imagined. They also enjoy interacting with new people.  

A common drawback is misunderstandings about how Airbnb works. A guest may expect a pickup from Union Station or the airport, or think that the host will purchase tour bus tickets. The hosts have to explain their own boundaries, which can meander through the realms of hotel accommodations, tour companies, and staying with family.
Most often, though, the experience is just as rich for the hosts as the guests. Vincent, for one, plans to continue for a while. “It’s a different kind of travel,” he says, “a different kind of roommate.”
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