Inside the most popular Airbnb listing in the world


August 22, 2021

The Hustle Issue #172
The Hustle, Sunday, August 22, 2021
Sunday, August 22, 2021

Inside the world’s most booked Airbnb

Why a tiny mushroom-shaped dome in the California redwoods outperforms millions of other Airbnb listings.

BY Zachary Crockett

The world’s most popular Airbnb listing isn’t easy to find.

From San Francisco, the journey begins with an hourlong drive down Interstate 280 and a windy traverse of “Killer 17” — one of the most accident-prone highways in California.

In the small coastal town of Aptos, you ascend into the Santa Cruz mountains, past centuries-old redwood groves and herds of deer. A few miles in, you lose cell service and have to rely on paper instructions printed out in advance.

When you spot the cluster of weathered mailboxes, you cut right and climb up a steep single-lane driveway until you reach an old, mint green shed.

You park and walk up the driveway, past black cats, clucking chickens, and dense thickets of foliage.

Here lies the world-famous Mushroom Dome.

Airbnb’s most booked property (The Hustle)

Over the years, this 100-square-foot geodesic structure has hosted more than 5.8k Airbnb guests from all over the world.

People have traveled here from more than 40 countries — Djibouti, Mongolia, China, India, Australia, Peru — on 6 different continents. It’s been the subject of news articles, Instagram shoots, and video tributes.

The Mushroom Dome is the most booked and most wish-listed property on Airbnb’s platform, besting 5.6m other listings, including a house shaped like an elephant, a cave in France, and a 12th-century Scottish castle.

What makes it so popular? Why do people flock here? And how has this tiny cabin’s fame impacted the owner’s life?

On a recent afternoon in August, I went there to find out.

The origins of a legendary cabin

Within seconds of stepping out of the car, I was greeted by Katherine “Kitty” Mrache, the Mushroom Dome’s 71-year-old proprietor.

With kind eyes and a head of white feathery hair, Kitty emerged from her garden, a throng of hummingbirds in tow.

“You made it,” she beamed.

Kitty migrated to the woods in 1984 when her parents — a renowned geologist and an anti-war activist — moved here from the Bay Area suburbs in search of solitude. They asked her if she’d be interested in joining them if they bought her land next door.

“Hell yeah!” she said.

For the next decade, she lived on the property, cobbling together an income as a Kumon instructor, a Montessori teacher, and a crystal healer.

Kitty poses in front of the Mushroom Dome (The Hustle)

In the mid-’90s, Kitty’s parents allowed a friend who’d recently become homeless to build a small cabin on the 10-acre property.

Kitty agreed — so long as the structure was 100 square feet or less.

A local builder sold the woman a set of blueprints for a unique geometric structure; with the help of an ex-Navy SEAL, she built it from scratch and lived there for the next 7 years before marrying and moving out.

After Kitty’s parents passed away, her family sold off the property. But Kitty, who still lived next door, wanted to keep the strange cabin.

“We hired a crane and loaded it onto a flatbed truck,” she says. “And then, I got to see a house fly.”

A Jill-of-all-trades, she fixed up the relocated cabin as a crash pad for her kids. She cut out 144 wood triangles by hand, built a foundation, and retrofitted the roof with elastomeric paint.

When she and her husband, Michael, became empty nesters, they decided to try their hand at renting it out by the night.

An early Airbnb adopter

In July of 2009, Kitty listed her cabin on Craigslist for $60/night but quickly found out the site was rife with scammers and unreliable guests.

“People would book it and then cancel at the last minute, never to be heard from again,” she says. “They didn’t pay in advance, so I’d just lose out on the income.”

She looked for an alternative and stumbled across a newfangled, short-term rental platform called Airbnb.

At the time, the company was 11 months young and relatively unknown.

Kitty decided to give it a shot and signed up.

The Hustle

The Mushroom Dome was the 8,357th property to join Airbnb. Almost all of the other listings were urban properties in San Francisco and Manhattan. Kitty’s place — a weird-looking dome in the middle of the woods — was something of an oddity. And that worked in her favor.

Within 2 weeks, the Mushroom Dome was fully booked.

Since then, the cabin’s popularity hasn’t let up

Today, the Mushroom Dome is so popular that it only has 2 or 3 vacancies in a typical year.

Guests typically have to make reservations up to 8 months in advance. Even Kitty’s own children — now fully grown adults — have to contend with the masses to get a night on the calendar.

Despite its popularity, Kitty has chosen to keep her property relatively affordable at $156/night, ~$100/night cheaper than hotels in town.

“I don’t want just the techies to stay here,” she says. “I want it to be accessible to all different types of people.”

Her guests run the gamut from millionaire founders to lower-middle-class families who save up all year to stay here.

The Hustle

Part of Kitty’s success can be chalked up to Airbnb’s marketing love affair with her cabin.

She joined the platform when the company was just a few employees working out of an apartment. To this day, she knows the founders on a first-name basis — and they see her as an embodiment of the company’s stated purpose: helping everyday people monetize their extra space.

The company featured the Mushroom Dome on a series of billboard ads in 5 US cities, with the caption: “Millions of Airbnb hosts. Only one like Kitty.” It also had a replica of the structure installed on the 4th floor of its San Francisco HQ.

A billboard featuring Kitty’s abode (Via Emilee Goo)

Airbnb says the Mushroom Dome’s prosperity is part of a larger trend on the platform: a rise in the popularity of unique-looking properties.

“Travelers are turning to unique abodes like cabins, tiny homes, and treehouses to break up the monotony of the past year, with the type of stay — not the exact location — becoming the destination,” a spokesperson for the company told The Hustle.

  • The platform says it has 170k+ of these listings — a 30% jump from 2019.
  • Searches for “unique” properties (like hobbit holes and potato houses) shot up 94% during the 1st half of 2021, compared to the same period 2 years ago.

Kitty chalks up her success to a focus on the human touch.

“It’s kind of woo-woo to a lot of people,” she says. “But to me, it’s important to focus on service, not what I can get out of it.”

She decries Airbnb hosts who leave a key in a lockbox and never make contact with their guests. Her property, she claims, is more than a place to sleep: “It’s a doorway for people to discover themselves.”

The guest books in the cabin are full of notes from travelers who describe the dome as a conduit for transformative experiences. In these tight quarters, guests have proposed to each other, taken pregnancy photos, and celebrated major milestones in their lives.

Kitty holds a map showing where all of her guests have come from (The Hustle)

Kitty wants to be a central part of that experience.

A 40-year practitioner of meditation, she often guides guests on mindfulness quests and metaphysical journeys.

During my 2-hour chat with her — which was intended to focus on what makes an Airbnb listing popular — we discussed:

  • Telepathic dogs
  • Quantum physics
  • Mineral healing
  • Thought field therapy (“tapping”)
  • Tectonic plates

Reared in the countercultural chaos of the ‘60s and sculpted by the New Age spirituality of the ‘80s, Kitty is as unique as the property she rents.

She regaled me with tales about alchemic substances, spirit channeling, and the night her activist mother once spent in a jail cell with the singer-songwriter, Joan Baez.

We talked about the immortal Indian yogi, Babaji, ‘70s rock band Supertramp, and Mellen-Thomas Benedict, a man who supposedly died and came back to life in 1982.

At some point during the conversation, it struck me that Kitty — not just the dome — is integral to the listing’s popularity.

Kitty reads through reviews left in an old logbook from 2009. “We chose this place as a part of our honeymoon,” wrote one guest. “Thank you for providing us with a beautiful place to start our lives together.” (The Hustle)

The Mushroom Dome isn’t for everyone, though.

Kitty’s gotten a few bad reviews for being too talkative. Others don’t understand just how rustic the property is.

“I had one woman bring her mother here from China. They drove all the way up, took one look at it, and drove straight back down the hill,” she says. “It wasn’t her idea of a good time.”

But by and large, guests know what they’re getting into — and a break from city life is a part of the charm.

A live-saver

Financially, the Mushroom Dome has been a lifesaver.

Before she joined Airbnb, Kitty was struggling to get by on her $250/mo. Social Security checks.

Today, the cabin brings in $8k/mo. ($96k/year) — more than 8x what the average Airbnb makes.

The extra cash helped her husband, Michael, retire from his job working with international students at the UCSC extension school.

“For the first time in our lives, we don’t have to worry about money,” Kitty says.

The Hustle

She is well aware of the controversies surrounding Airbnb. The platform has been derided for having a detrimental impact on housing stock, rising rent and home prices, and gentrification.

But there is a difference, she says, between renting out a remote cabin in the woods and snatching up a property in a housing-starved urban neighborhood solely for use as a vacation rental.

The cabin has been a boon for Santa Cruz County: It brings in ~$50k/year in transient occupancy taxes, and more than 2k other property owners in the region — mostly empty nesters over the age of 50 — have followed Kitty’s lead and rented out extra rooms of their own.

The success has allowed Kitty to renovate and rent out a 2nd property on the land — a den that she calls the Hummingbird Haven.

Outside the door, dozens of hummingbirds congregate around red feeders, sucking up 2 liters of nectar every day.

Hummingbirds zip through the air all over the property (The Hustle)

Like many Airbnb hosts, Kitty was strained by the pandemic.

Last year, she had over 70 cancellations and the Mushroom Dome sat empty for nearly 2 months. She stayed positive, using the time to install a new hardwood floor and build a new couch.

The lull in bookings — a 1st in more than a decade — also gave Kitty some time to reflect on everything this odd little cabin has given her.

“I’m 71 now, and sometimes I think I’d like to go travel and see the world,” she says, gazing out at the redwood trees that enshrine the deck.

“But then again, the whole world has come to me instead.”

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