- Associated Press - Monday, October 23, 2017

SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) - After learning in August that her stage 4 colon cancer had resumed its aggressive growth, Notre Dame football fan Megan Hughes and her family wanted to make a final game day memory around their beloved team.

Megan’s family has been avid Notre Dame fans since her grandfather, James Curran, earned two degrees from the school and played on the 1938 team.

They drove in from Maryland to attend the Sept. 30 game against Miami (Ohio), and on that Saturday, the university gave them a pre-game tour of the stadium and locker room, where they solemnly slapped the famous “Play Like a Champion Today” sign at the bottom of the locker room steps.

Making the trip with Megan was her mother, Caroline Hughes, brother, Matt, and Kurtis Michaud, Matt’s friend and fellow Fighting Irish fan. Three weeks before the game, the foursome could have rented two hotel rooms for the weekend at a cost of about $1,000.

Instead they jumped on the Airbnb website and booked a home in the 1400 block of Cedar Street, within walking distance of the stadium, for about $100 more.

Megan, 42, had assumed they would stay in a hotel like she had on her first three game visits, but they surprised her with the house when they arrived in town.

“It made it so much more relaxing,” said Megan, who was still feeling the effects of her chemotherapy treatment the day before. “If we were to get a hotel we would have had two rooms and we really wouldn’t have been able to be together as much. We had a living room where we could all sit down together and watch TV or get our plan together for the day. We had a full kitchen where we could make breakfast. They had a fire pit outside and grill where we could make some burgers.”

The home’s proximity to campus also was a huge plus.

“You got to see South Bend more because we could walk to and from,” she said. “You got to know more of the neighborhoods and really see more of South Bend, which I loved. It made it so much more like you were really a part of being there that weekend.”

Such experiences are driving a huge trend in college football towns, including South Bend, as more people opt for short-term rentals.

Part of the same web-based “sharing” or “peer-to-peer” economy that has made Uber a common form of transportation, these rentals are changing the way people spend their leisure time and, on the flip side, creating lucrative ways for homeowners to supplement their incomes.

A recent study by NerdWallet ranked South Bend as the nation’s third hottest market, behind Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Tuscaloosa, Alabama, for renting out homes during college football games.

Michiana Airbnb hosts booked 4,230 rentals, totaling $825,000, during home football games last year, more than double the 1,946 hosts and $325,000 from 2015, said Airbnb spokesman Ben Breit. That’s just one platform. Competitors include VRBO (Vacation Rentals By Owner), HomeAway, Rent Like a Champion and Gameday Housing.

A few blocks away from that Cedar Street home, just under two miles from the stadium, married couple Jason Hunter and Paige Risser rent out their home on Weber Square, off Corby Boulevard, on some game weekends. Their first experience was during the BYU game in 2012, a year after they bought the house, and they were initially a little leery.

They drove by on that first Saturday and saw an RV in the driveway, and a mutual friend of their guests told them they were combining the football game with a bachelor party.

“He said, hey, you might want to think about getting your security deposit back because I know some of those guys,” Hunter recalled. “We were like, oh my gosh, what have we gotten ourselves into? But when we came back into the house it was in perfect shape. They had cleaned, vacuumed, left it just like we had left it.”

In 2013 they rented it for three games, and in 2014 they did all five home games. That seemed to be too much, between cleaning the house beforehand and finding places to stay with their two teenage children and a dog. This weekend for the Notre Dame-USC game they tent-camped at Warren Dunes.

“It’s not like it’s a huge effort but it’s kind of a pain,” Hunter said. “You have a flow sheet. We’ve done this, we’ve done this. But it’s not like we’re digging ditches.”

Gameday Housing suggests that hosts try to remove as many personal items as possible.

“We take down family photos, all the books on the bedside table,” Risser said. “We call it decluttering. The idea being that you come in and it is like a hotel. They walk into her bedroom and they can tell a teenage girl lives there, but.”

Last year, when the team was 3-9, they had more trouble attracting guests.

They hadn’t planned to rent it for any games this year, but changed their minds after a former repeat customer called and asked them if he could rent for the Georgia and USC games.

Hunter is a teacher at Stanley Clark School, while Risser handles public relations for the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians. Because of their proximity to campus, they charged $3,000 for each of those two weekends, clearing about $2,400 after Gameday Housing’s 20-percent fee.

“It helps pay off debt, it helps pay for Christmas,” Hunter said.

Risser said some of their friends can’t imagine letting strangers sleep in their beds, even though they put out different sheets, blankets, pillows and towels.

“You either really care about that stuff or you really don’t,” she said, “or maybe the money makes you care less about it.”

Not all of the hosts live near campus. Mike and Heather Lee, using Rent Like a Champion, are renting out their Granger subdivision home on game weekends for the fourth consecutive season.

They first heard about it from Mike’s nephew at a Christmas gathering. He had also rented out his Granger home.

“We have this big empty house and it’s just us (along with her 15-year-old daughter, Sequoia, who has the entire basement as her bedroom), so we were like, why not? Let’s try it,” Heather said. “I was a little nervous at first about how people would treat your house.”

They didn’t profit much the first year because of upfront costs, including new mattress sets, bedroom furniture, bed linens and towels.

What they charge depends on interest in the game. They charged $1,800 this weekend for the USC game, and the same price for the Georgia game Sept. 9, and netted $1,500 after Rent Like a Champion takes its cut. They charged only $1,200 for the Miami (Ohio) game.

Guests arrive Friday at 5 p.m. and leave Sunday by noon. Mike and Heather sometimes camp in her vintage travel trailer at KOA Campground in Granger, and Sequoia often stays with a friend.

The house will sleep 16 people, between four bedrooms, couches and the basement. They estimate earning about $5,000 to $6,000 a year.

The Lees said their guests, some of whom come year after year, prefer their location over those near campus. Adults and children can toss a football or Frisbee, or play corn hole, in the large yard. They’re closer to the Grape Road/Main Street restaurants, grocery stores and the Indiana Toll Road.

Gameday Housing and Rent Like a Champion were founded in South Bend in 2006 and now operate in college football towns across the nation. Wes Smithe, CEO of Chicago-based Gameday, said the company started up because hotels were “gouging” customers.

Hotel prices in South Bend were up 186 percent Saturday night for the USC game, compared to the prior weekend when Notre Dame didn’t play, according to hotel price comparison platform HotelsCombined.

Despite the increase in short-term rentals, South Bend area hotels have remained busy on game weekends, having averaged 90 percent occupancy in 2014, 2015 and 2016, and 92 percent through this season’s first three home game weekends, according to Visit South Bend Mishawaka, St. Joseph County’s convention and visitors bureau.

The agency tracks and distributes the county’s hotel/motel tax, which generates money to boost local tourism. Short-term rentals aren’t assessed the tax. Rather than merely holding steady, hotel occupancy rates might have increased in recent years if not for the short-term rental trend, said Rob DeCleene, Visit South Bend Mishawaka executive director.

“At the end of the day, the most important thing is these house rentals are bringing in exponentially more people to St. Joseph County who are staying in St. Joseph County and spending their money here,” DeCleene said. “That is the most important benefit of tourism - visitor spending in the local economy. And house rentals are making that even more accessible.”

If hotel occupancy rates haven’t declined and Notre Dame Stadium hasn’t added more seats, it must mean more people are coming to town for the gameday environment without ever entering the stadium. Smithe said that jibes with his company’s experience.

“Anecdotally I know many groups who stay with us will have some members who go for the tailgate only, and then retreat back to the homes with their kids,” Smithe said.

Rachel Marley, a 30-year-old behavior therapist for autistic children, and her boyfriend, Timm Murphy, own the Cedar Street home that Megan Hughes stayed in. She was happy to learn from a Tribune reporter the role her home played in one more Notre Dame football memory for Megan and her family.

“I had no idea,” Marley said when told of Megan’s cancer. “It makes me happy that I was able to provide such a relaxing and significant experience for her.”

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Source: South Bend Tribune, http://bit.ly/2iuqa0C

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Information from: South Bend Tribune, http://www.southbendtribune.com

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