‘Create something bigger than yourself’: Inside one fan’s F1-themed Airbnb

Every sport is a business, but few are as closely connected to their budget lines as Formula One: Wipe away the oil and the champagne, and you see an entire economic world — one The Athletic will map out in Business of F1, our series all about this increasingly important element of a booming sport.

SCOTTSDALE, AZ — Nestled just off the 101 Freeway, not far from Old Town’s entertainment district, sits an unassuming Airbnb.

It looks like a standard home from the street, with a single-car garage and desert landscaping that includes gravel, cacti and turf. But the doormat with crossed checkered flags hints at what awaits behind the front door.

Inside, guests are greeted with a neon sign that says, “She Loves F1,” sandwiched between photos of Michael Schumacher and Lewis Hamilton. Sprinkled throughout the short-term rental property are different Formula One-themed decorations, like a pop culture Ayrton Senna photo in the primary bedroom or the Valtteri Bottas-themed bathroom – including a sign that reads, “Time to get Bott🍑ss naked.”

Formula One racing decor sits in every room. (Patrick Breen for The Athletic)

The decor is subtle on purpose, appealing to not only the die-hard fans but also to the bachelor/bachelorette trips and non-motorsport guests that’ll book to Airbnb. The property mirrors what the She Loves F1 brand and company is meant to be — welcoming and inclusive. It’s a sign of F1’s growth in new markets and what it means to be a fangirl in this sport.

“There’s so many different levels to being a fangirl and not that anyone is better than the other,”  said Mikaela Kostaras, the Airbnb’s owner and the person behind She Loves F1. “But there’s so much potential and so much opportunity there to grow and create something that’s bigger than yourself. And something that can hopefully sustain you financially or bring you a lot of self-empowerment, because I think in life, it’s really important to feel fulfilled by whatever it is that you’re doing.”

A lifelong fan

Kostaras launched She Loves F1 in Oct. 2021, shortly after attending the United States Grand Prix.

She’s long been a motorsports fan, starting with NASCAR and IndyCar before eventually following F1, and has attended every U.S. Grand Prix in Austin since its creation in 2012 except for one. Over the years, Kostaras watched as the fan experience changed, not just in terms of the number of fans skyrocketing but also the amount of women attending the race weekend.

“When I was there in 2021, I was so excited to see people like me, but I was getting all of those comments like, ‘Oh, you’re just there for the drivers’ and being quizzed, like the typical fan experience of kind of having to prove your knowledge, which I find ironic because I’ve been watching the sport for a really long time,” she said. “And while I might not look like someone who they might think would know a lot about things, I actually do.”

Motorsports traditionally are male-dominated, and F1 is no exception. Earlier this year, More than Equal, a not-for-profit initiative that focuses on growing female participation in the sport, found in their research that only 51 percent of surveyors knew women can compete in F1. And that was after the sport’s boom that occurred during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. Stefano Domenicali, F1’s CEO, revealed earlier this year that around 40 percent of all F1 fans are women. But, gatekeeping culture, similar to what Kostaras highlighted, remains.

Thus, She Loves F1 was born: a company and brand that aims to create a welcoming community for motorsport fans.

Kostaras said, “I really wanted to create a platform where I could talk to a lot of people about motorsport in the way that I like to talk about sports, which is a very atypical way of talking about a sport — astrology or pop culture or fun little things Thirsty Thursday, for example.” Expansion didn’t come until a year later.

Building a home

This particular Airbnb idea came while finding a way to merge Kostaras’ experience in hotels, hospitality and real estate with her love for F1. She’s invested in properties before, but the Scottsdale house was her foray into the short-term rental market, which is a riskier move. She weighed whether to make it a themed property given it’s a popular city for bachelor/bachelorette parties because of the nice weather.

She opted for a subtle F1-themed Airbnb with the She Loves F1 branding and small businesses’ decorations.

F1 race tracks decorate the wall above a television. (Patrick Breen for The Athletic)

Scottsdale, though, isn’t a major F1 market. The closest race is the near-five-hour drive to Las Vegas. Kostaras said, “I was really hesitant, I would say, for the first six months,” and she wanted to see if the idea would click. Eventually, back-to-back bookings and five-star reviews started rolling in – likely thanks to her hospitality background. Kostaras takes a different approach to her Airbnb than what many guests might expect from other short-term rentals.

“I’ve tried to be a host that keeps costs low,” Kostaras said, adding she did a good bit of the renovations and upkeep on her own, like once replacing drywall after learning how to on YouTube. “I try to say yes to everything I try to accommodate, the late checkouts (and) the early check-ins, and I try to have drinks in the fridge. I try to do things and touches like that that make people want to come back, regardless of if they’re a fan of motorsport, or they’re just looking for a really nice place to stay with a lot of amenities.”

She doesn’t leave a laundry list of tasks guests must complete before checking out. When I was there, the bathrooms were stocked with common necessities, such as shampoo, conditioner, body wash, soap, cotton pads, Q tips, make-up remover and feminine hygiene products. The fridge held a variety of drinks, and the Keurig pod coffee selection would appeal to any coffee fan, like Starbucks’ Pike Place. The backyard features a covered patio with a television, different sitting areas (plus a fire pit) and cornhole. Though the entire lot is just 6,803 square feet (0.156 acres), it feels spacious.

Even the coffee has an F1 twist inside Mikaela Kostaras’ Airbnb in Scottsdale, Arizona. (Patrick Breen for The Athletic)

It’s appealing enough that people have wanted to host parties or events in the backyard. That’s where Kostaras legally has to draw the line due to the short-term rental regulations. Saying no to these types of requests, though, isn’t the biggest (or unexpected) challenge.

“Honestly, I don’t think that I understood how many linens and towels that you go through.”

The shift within F1

The term ‘fangirl’ has long held a negative connotation. It’s a phrase that often is used to ridicule women in an attempt to lessen the legitimacy of their fandom, focusing on ‘obsession’ and spinning it as immature or superficial. But the weaponization of the word underlies why the work people like Toni Cowan-Brown (who created Sunday Fangirls), Maria Sherman (who wrote The Fangirlification of F1), and Kostaras are doing is critical and powerful.

“I think a fangirl is someone who unapologetically and fervently celebrates whatever she is passionate about,” Kostaras said, “whether it’s a person, a place, a thing, a motorsport, whatever, and just gets excited about it and talks about it in the way that she wants to talk about it.”

This idea of what a fangirl is — a market that’s long been around F1 but not embraced — matches how Kostaras approached creating the Airbnb and her brand, such as providing feminine hygiene products and eye makeup remover in the bathroom. With She Loves F1, Kostaras has strived to create a community where anyone can “come and unapologetically be themselves and engage and talk about the sport in a way that feels authentic to them.”

“I think that’s really important because, traditionally, there’s one way to talk about motorsport,” Kostaras said. “If you didn’t talk about it that way, then you would be ridiculed and mocked. And I think now we’re starting to see a shift where people are talking about it in so many different ways.”

“I try to do things and touches like that that make people want to come back, regardless of if they’re a fan of motorsport,” Kostaras said. (Patrick Breen for The Athletic)

The boom of the content creator economy and Kostaras’ Airbnb are just a few examples of how the larger ecosystem around the sport is changing. Fashion and pop culture are now regularly discussed topics online, and drivers beyond just Lewis Hamilton are leaning more into their brands and trends. Take Esteban Ocon, for example. When he made the podium at Monaco in May, he said “Estie Bestie’s on the podium, baby!” Kostaras coined the phrase, (along with other SheLovesF1-isms, like the “Pierre Effect,”) and Ocon later gave her credit.“For the brand, (it) was really exciting that you’re being shouted out by someone who has such a large platform, but I want it to be really for us as a whole because I think when one fangirl wins, every fangirl wins,” Kostaras said. “That’s the way that we’re really going to make moves in this community that has been so male dominated for so long, and now we’re starting to see us kind of gaining power.

“I think 2024 is the year of fangirls.”

Within the 1,207-square foot house back in Scottsdale, Arizona rests a physical representation of the shift within F1. Etched in neon light and sandwiched between F1 greats is the phrase She Loves F1. It’s not just Kostaras, even though she runs and profits from the brand and company. It’s the community and larger meaning behind the phrase and Airbnb that hold hope for the future of the sport.

The tone is changing — slowly — around F1.

“Of course, there’s always a little bit of gatekeeping that we’ll work through, but I think for the most part, we’re seeing a lot more diversity and celebration and inclusion.”

(Lead image: Patrick Breen for The Athletic; Design: Ray Orr/The Athletic)

The Business of F1 series is part of a partnership with Michelob ULTRA. The Athletic maintains full editorial independence. Partners have no control over or input into the reporting or editing process and do not review stories before publication.

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This appeared first on: https://theathletic.com/5052885/2023/11/13/f1-airbnb/

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