City of Marfa hires company to track short-term rental data 

MARFA — Marfa City Council recently voted to approve the hiring of a Colorado-based company called AIR DNA that tracks data relating to area short-term rentals (STRs). 

Despite recent efforts by the Marfa Chamber of Commerce and some citizens to encourage the city to more aggressively regulate STRs, the move to hire AIR DNA is more centered around effective advertising, said City Manager Mandy Roane, than regulation. 

“We do have to spend money on advertising every year. This will really help the other companies that do the marketing for us see when people are coming in, how long they’re saying and where they’re coming from,” said Roane. 

As Roane explained in the April council meeting, AIR DNA will help the city’s tourism department — now headed up by new Director Jennifer Conners — better grasp existing visitor patterns overtime and, in turn, target advertising to ensure those dollars are being spent effectively.

Still, through the platform, the city will have access to local AirBNB and VRBO occupancy rates and revenue information for individual properties — thanks to an add-on feature called “property performance data” the city chose to pay for — which will help city employees double check that STR operators’ self-reported taxes are accurate. 

“We’ll double check against paperwork when people turn it in,” said Roane in a follow up call with The Big Bend Sentinel. “We can make sure if people tell us that they’re not renting, it would show us if they were — but that’s not the primary use of [AIR DNA].” 

AIR DNA will work in tandem with existing companies the tourism department contracts — TheoryPraxis for marketing and Zartico for personal data collection — to maximize marketing efforts, said Roane. By figuring out low and high visitation rates, as well as where visitors are coming from and why — for art, nature — the city can place ads in the right places at the right times that appeal to specific demographics. 

“AIR DNA gets who is staying and where, Zartico gets what they’re doing while they’re here, and TheoryPraxis takes all that information and makes sure we’re sending ads to the right people at the right place,” said Roane. 

While the AIR DNA data will be accessible for city employees only, there is limited data available for general free account users on local STRs. The platform shows that the area’s top property manager, Trans Pecos Realty Management, has a total of 35 listings, that there are a total of 200 active listings in the area, the fact that 90% of listings are private homes, and that the average rental size is around two bedrooms for four guests.

Zartico, which the city first hired last year, utilizes personal location data collected from mobile devices — through the Apple weather app, for example — to show municipalities very specific information about individual visitors via a dashboard. 

“It will say people in this income bracket are spending this much money on average, this many people are coming with kids,” Roane said during the recent City Council meeting, listing out the data points. 

“That’s scary,” replied Councilmember Irma Salgado, which was met with laughs from other council members and council meeting attendees. 

“It’s a bit big brother-ish,” agreed Roane. “But it does really help us know what to do.” 

All of the services, which cost a total of $40,200, are paid for with Hotel Occupancy Tax revenue. By law, the city is required to use HOT revenue to promote more tourism, and out of the roughly $700,000 it’s projected to receive this year in HOT taxes, around $100,000 will be used for advertising. 

Roane also argued that more data would also be useful for new Tourism Director Jennifer Conners as she gets up and running in the role, allowing her to better understand trends and formulate accurate visitor numbers. As it stands, the city’s tourism department is unable to provide a number of visitors that attended last weekend’s Marfa Invitational, for example, but may be better equipped to do so with AIR DNA data. 

“We know people are staying, but it’s really hard to pin down how many people are here,” said Roane. “It won’t be perfect because some people will be in hotels, some people are staying with friends, some people are in Alpine, but it will give us a better idea of how many people are actually coming out. Because that’s something we don’t have right now.”