When Kehau Hall set up her Airbnb glamping tent in 2014, she didn't think twice about it being roughly 10 minutes away from volcanos. She's used to their unpredictability, having lived in Hawaii since age 2 — and says she isn't threatened by them.
"Years ago from my mom's house, I could actually see one of the volcanoes erupting," Hall, 28, tells CNBC Make It. "From her back porch, you could see the lava glowing at nighttime. It's just something you become accustomed to."
Like her mother's home, Hall's glamping tent is in the Glenwood neighborhood of Mountain View, Hawaii, about 12 miles from the heart of the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park – which has two active volcanoes. Her inspiration for creating an Airbnb site was simple, she says: She saw a photo of a glamping tent in a magazine and thought it would be a unique way for mainlanders to experience Hawaii.
She spent less than $300 on the tent and roughly $8,000 on amenities like a kitchen, an outdoor shower and a king-sized mattress. Now the property, which Hall says requires about 10-15 hours of work per week, earns her $28,000 per year in revenue, according to documents reviewed by CNBC Make It.
Those earnings represent a sliver of a highly competitive tourism industry: In 2019, visitor spending on all of Hawaii's islands amassed $17.75 billion, according to the Hawaii Tourism Authority. The main island, where Hall's tent is located, brought in $22.4 million daily, on average.
Hall's tent, by comparison is modest: It costs visitors about $70 per night. But to her, it represents independence — and the money she earns helps her spend more time traveling.
A good use of inheritance
Hall, whose father is Hawaiian, grew up on the property: The 90 acres of land, which have been passed down through her family for generations, host a handful of family homes as well as wild pigs, cows and chickens. Hall says she partially set up her tent to share the property's natural beauty more broadly.
"I wanted to use the land for good, where other people could come and benefit from it and really immerse themselves in nature," Hall says. "Nowadays, everybody's working. Everybody's connected to electronics. It's important to detach and relax from the virtual world for a moment."
She had industry experience, too. In high school, Hall helped out at local bed and breakfasts – which also used Airbnb – and worked with a realtor to manage local rental properties. For four years, she also worked for the nearby national park.
At age 20, she decided to lean into her entrepreneurial instinct and listed her glamping tent on Airbnb. She says it took about six months and five positive reviews for the tent to gain traction.
Since then, glamping reservations have remained fairly consistent: Hall says she averages three bookings per week, and the average guest stays for two-four nights.
Before Covid hit, Hall says, the job felt like a Hawaiian daydream. She worked 10-15 hours per week managing the bookings and cleaning the property herself after every stay. She spent 15 additional hours per week helping manage other guest stays in homes on her family's large property, bringing her another $20,000 per year.
Then, in March 2020, Hawaii issued a mandatory 14-day quarantine for travelers to prevent the spread of Covid. Tourism — Hawaii's "largest single source of private capital," according to the Hawaii Tourism Authority — immediately plummeted. Between the first and second quarter of 2020, the state's unemployment rate jumped from 2% to 20.1%, according to Hawaii's Department of Business, Economic Development & Tourism.
Hall suffered the effects: She received zero bookings for about six months, during which mainland travelers weren't allowed to visit Hawaii without abiding by a 14-day quarantine. She got by on savings and started cleaning personal homes to make money. Over those six months, she says, she lost most of her sources for disposable income and barely left her home — only to work or grocery shop.
The price of Aloha
Business at Hall's glamping site picked back up in early 2021: Guests booked month-long stays with expanded options for remote work. With a more consistent cash flow, Hall says she now blocks off four weeks of the year to travel to the mainland or abroad.
"I've always wanted to be able come and go as I want to, so running this glamping tent has been a huge help toward that," Hall says.
Hall says she wants to open three more tents across Hawaii over the next two or three years. Airbnb currently charges most of its hosts a flat 3%, and charges guests a 14% service fee. Hall says the exposure, responsive customer service and user-friendly interfaces make it worth the price: Her tent is also posted on GlampingHub, which charges hosts 1% more than Airbnb and only results in a couple bookings per month for Hall, leading to only a few thousand dollars each year.
The main obstacle Hall faces now is competition. Hawaii's tourism industry can be fierce, and when people see a good idea, they often take strides to copy or one-up it. Hall says she is up for the challenge, and has no plans to expand her hospitality to the mainland.
"There's so much Aloha here, which is like love," she says. "There are so many caring and nice people. I like to be laid back, on Hawaii time."
Sign up now: Get smarter about your money and career with our weekly newsletter