scorecardThe meteoric rise — and spectacular fall — of the Queen of Airbnb
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The meteoric rise — and spectacular fall — of the Queen of Airbnb

Dan Latu   

The meteoric rise — and spectacular fall — of the Queen of Airbnb
LifeThelife12 min read

On a mild Tuesday evening in early 2022, some 150 people packed into the VFW hall in Tulsa to hear the Queen of Airbnb make her pitch.

Post-pandemic, with interest rates low and travel once again booming, Airbnb listings had been popping up all over the city. For average investors, the back-of-the-napkin math was irresistible. In Tulsa, you could buy a suburban-style home for less than $75,000 and rent it out for $117 a night. If you booked three-quarters of each month — as hosts were averaging at the time — you could bring in as much as $30,000 a year.

Tulsa had the feel of a rental gold rush. And Dani Widell was the city's self-styled Queen of Airbnb.

A small-time real-estate investor turned Airbnb property manager, Widell claimed to be nearing a total of 100 listings, more than anyone else in Tulsa. Tax returns would later show that Widell Renovations was generating over $1 million in annual bookings. She was a fixture on Facebook, where she doled out advice in short-term-rental groups and offered her services to turn homes into cash machines. She promised to give properties the look of a boutique hotel, handle the guests, and ensure there were fresh sheets and plentiful supplies of toilet paper. Investors could set it and forget it.

Now, after she made her pitch at the VFW hall, attendees clamored around Widell, eager to have her manage their Airbnb rentals. "At the time, the feeling was, if you weren't already in short-term rentals, it was too late," recalled Kathy Portley, the president of the Tulsa Real Estate Investors Association, which sponsored the event.

For Widell, though, it was already too late. Within a year, her Airbnb empire had come crashing down. Hosts weren't receiving their rent. Employees weren't being paid. Creditors came knocking. Her marriage had imploded. The sudden collapse — and the web of accusations that accompanied it — offer a cautionary tale of what comes from putting too much faith in a volatile market, an untested guru, and the promise of easy money. The reign of the Airbnb Queen of Tulsa was over — and her subjects were left to pick up the pieces.


Airbnb was one of the great turnaround stories of the pandemic.

In the early months of 2020, as the world shut down, the company lost nearly 80% of its business, laid off 1,900 employees, and watched its valuation slip from $31 billion to $18 billion. Experts mused that the pandemic might have permanently turned travelers off from the idea of home-sharing.

Instead, as lockdowns lifted and remote work became the new normal, Americans displayed an unprecedented itch to travel — assuming it could be done at a safe distance. Many found the space and security they were after in Airbnb. When the company went public at the end of 2020, it was the biggest IPO of the year. On the first day of trading, Airbnb's stock price doubled. As bookings soared, first-time real-estate investors rushed to get in on the action, transforming residential homes into short-term rentals. Before long, 260,000 new Airbnb and Vrbo listings had been added nationwide, according to the analytics firm AirDNA.

Tulsa, a city of 400,000 long known as the "oil capital of the world," looked to be a fertile ground for Airbnb. The city, with its Art Deco downtown and spacious Craftsman bungalows, was already a destination for homebuyers in search of affordability, a lively arts scene, and easy access to outdoor activities. What's more, Tulsa was actively courting remote workers, offering $10,000 to anyone willing to relocate to the city. Savvy investors were making healthy profits buying up homes and flipping them to the sudden influx of out-of-staters.

"I was not sleeping at that time," Emily Burke, an Airbnb manager in Tulsa, said. "I was up at two, three in the morning," taking phone calls and looking over properties.

Widell placed herself at the center of the boom. A former accountant who graduated from Oklahoma State University, she exuded polish and confidence. In 2017, she graced the cover of Tulsa People magazine, showing off the Brady Heights home she shared with her husband, Will Widell, a federal public defender. They'd bought it after flipping another house up the street, and Widell had spent hundreds of hours "salvaging every bit of the original craftsmanship" while infusing it with "21st-century functionality."

Now, as the Airbnb market accelerated, a rift opened between the couple: Will, who considers himself thrifty and risk-averse, wanted to cash out and retire, while Widell was consumed by the new opportunity to grow their business. "The more difficult the thing was, the more possibility it could fail, that's where she seemed to thrive," Will said. "She wasn't going to be happy if she was doing a project that was not risky." (Widell declined to be interviewed for this story.)

Widell started channeling her house-flipping expertise into managing short-term rentals. For a fee of a few thousand dollars, she would stage an Airbnb unit in tasteful shades of beige, hang some abstract art, and install remote locks. For a 25% cut, she would handle everything from booking reservations to fielding late-night calls from guests who'd been locked out. "To someone just getting into Airbnb," Logan Haskett, one of Widell's early clients, said, "this would be a dream."

The "Queen of Airbnb" label, which started off as Widell's Airbnb account name, helped create an aura of omnipotence. "Maybe she is the Airbnb queen," Burke remembered thinking. "It just seemed like she just must be killing it."

By all appearances, Widell certainly seemed to be thriving. She took business lunches at Mahogany Prime Steakhouse, a leading Tulsa destination. She was a member of the Summit Club — "Downtown Tulsa's Only Private Social Club" — perched atop the Bank of America Center, with its panoramic views of the Arkansas River. She hobnobbed with the local elite and claimed to have more Airbnb listings than anyone else in the city. She cut her hair short and, to her husband's annoyance, swapped out her conservative style for big sunglasses and more "flamboyant" fashions.

Widell, who hadn't had much growing up, also projected an image of benevolence. She made a point of hiring people with criminal records to work in her warehouse, and she talked about buying a church that had just come on the market and turning it into a women's shelter. She was making a mark, one of Widell's early employees, Knikki Nash, recalled Widell saying.

But then investors started asking questions. And soon enough, Widell would be turning on the very people she'd promised a second chance.


In May 2022, three months after Widell made her pitch at the VFW, the Airbnb market in Tulsa was at its height. That month, some 50,000 golf fans descended on Tulsa for the PGA Championship, which the city was hosting. Airbnb rentals were fetching as much as $1,000 a night. That May, according to tax returns, Widell Renovations took in $166,000 from Airbnb — its best month of the year.

It wasn't just Tulsa. Across the country, the Airbnb market was saturated. Demand was still surging, but as more and more people listed their homes with the company, the average occupancy rate plunged to 55%. Burke, who was managing 25 properties, sensed the market might be overheating. She decided to hold off on taking any new listings. "Tulsa jumped from like 600 to 1,500 listings in a very short time period," she said. "I just wanted to see how things kind of would shake out."

Widell, in contrast, showed no signs of slowing down — even as the money from Airbnb rentals dried up.

Investors began to complain that Widell was passing along lower earnings than they had expected. When pressed, Widell would blame the drop in revenue on unexpected cleaning costs or say that a guest had suddenly switched to a different rental.

But some investors grew suspicious. Mallory Massey, a local real-estate investor, had handed nine of her properties over to Widell in fall 2021 to list as Airbnbs. The largest, a five-bedroom home, was advertised at $249 per night. Then, Massey began to notice that reservations were mysteriously disappearing from her Airbnb hosting calendar. She started looking at the logs of messages between Widell and prospective renters — and was startled by what she found. Widell was offering "upgrades" to other properties, effectively steering renters away from Massey's units to other Airbnbs she managed, according to a lawsuit Massey filed in 2022. Massey has filed to put a lien on 11 of Widell's properties to recoup her losses in case they are sold.

"I don't trust the words that come out of her mouth," one investor's wife warned. "She tries to hype things up too much."

Another investor, David Brunson, started working with Widell in July 2022. He recalled being impressed by her enthusiasm and her experience. His wife, however, was more skeptical. "I don't trust the words that come out of her mouth," she told him. "She tries to hype things up too much."

But the promise of an easy source of passive income was too good to pass up. Brunson started by listing one of his properties, a two-bedroom home, with Widell. Then one night, he noticed that a three-week booking, totaling $2,200, had disappeared from his hosting calendar. After he and Widell argued over who was to blame for the cancellation, he withdrew his listing with her.

Other investors were also complaining that Widell was shortchanging them. Renee Brummett, who worked with Widell in the early days as head of housekeeping, had risen to serve as her right hand. In 2022, she started getting alarmed calls from investors. "We've had an Airbnb for two months, and Dani hasn't paid us anything," Brummett recalled them saying. "She's keeping our money. Or she says we owe her money."

According to those familiar with the business, Widell seemed to be shifting her focus away from Airbnb rentals to the house-staging business. She spent lavishly on furniture, filling her warehouse with expensive pieces. "The spending became excessive," Brummett said. "That was just the beginning of the end for her."

Then, in December 2022, staff confronted Widell. They, like the Airbnb hosts she managed, weren't getting paid. Unsatisfied with Widell's response, some quit on the spot. The following day, two employees doorstepped Widell at one of her properties. During the encounter, which was captured by security cameras, she offered a very different spin on why she had hired so many employees with criminal records.

"I can use the legal system to my advantage," Widell crowed. "Do you know how many people work here that don't want to go back to prison or jail? Fuck all of them."


As her reign unraveled, the Queen of Airbnb took measures to shore up her floundering business. Widell reached out to Nash, the former employee who had gone to work for a rival Airbnb manager, and offered her an all-encompassing role as operations manager. After checking Widell's Instagram account, Nash agreed.

"Everything looked all right, because Dani was just throwing money around," Nash said. "If you looked at Dani online, she's traveling and she's buying things and she's paying for advertisements. Everything looks on the up and up. It looked like she was trying to make this church thing happen with the women's shelter. It looked like she was trying to get everybody paid."

But when Nash showed up at the warehouse, she was taken aback. Employees were lounging around and smoking marijuana. The master spreadsheet for staging jobs hadn't been updated in weeks, and it was missing names and contact details for clients. Widell's behavior, meanwhile, struck Nash as increasingly erratic. She seemed preoccupied with renewing her vows with her husband, Will, rather than tending to the business. Nash couldn't understand where all the money from short-term rentals had gone, at a time when many Airbnb managers were still reporting strong profits. "I don't see how you're not making good money off Airbnb," she told Widell.

It didn't take long to get an answer. On February 3, Widell's husband filed for divorce.

Over the past six months, Will claimed in his filing, Widell had taken out $500,000 in loans and had racked up $350,000 in credit-card debt, much of it without his knowledge. A few days later, as Nash was staging a three-bedroom ranch home on a quiet street in Tulsa, she got an urgent call from the warehouse: Will was there, carting away documents. Widell had left Tulsa in a brand new Land Rover. As she'd tell Nash, she was "driving off into the sunset."

"There is no more business," Will told Nash when she got him on the phone. "She has squandered every penny."

The marriage had been souring since the previous fall. Widell seemed to be working constantly. "She would tell me, 'I don't need to sleep anymore. I just feel so much energy all the time. I just want to work,'" Will recalled. In January, Will cosigned a $100,000 loan against their property on the condition that Widell start coming home in time for dinner and agree to see a mental-health professional.

Eventually, multiple people would claim that Widell had taken out credit cards in their names and run up bills, some as much as $6,000. Brummet says her boss even took out a card in the name of Brummet's daughter, who had died a year earlier.

Widell "had gotten herself into a lot of trouble," Brummett said. "By December, a lot of owners were very unhappy. By January, there were threats of lawsuits. And by February, she had fled the state."

In the days after Widell left Tulsa, Nash got an urgent message from an Airbnb tenant who had stepped into the February chill to accept a DoorDash order — only to find herself unable to reenter the house. The unit's remote locks, it turned out, had been changed for nonpayment. Widell, it appeared, had taken the money and run.


The spectacular downfall of Tulsa's go-to savant for short-term rentals didn't dampen the city's passion for Airbnb. Widell's investors found new property managers. Her employees found other work, in some cases with Widell's old rivals. Today, her "Tulsa Airbnb Group" on Facebook remains active, with some 1,000 members.

But what happened with Widell sounded an alarm. "I don't think it gives the industry a good name," Burke said. "I remember speaking with a contact at the city who said, 'You know, it's unfortunate, because sometimes there's just, like, one or two people that are ruining it for everyone else.'"

Airbnb's cycle of boom and bust has also scared off some "naive, first-time operators," Meagan McCollum, a professor of real-estate finance at the University of Tulsa, said. "You hear stories about people who had a tough time with it, instead of just hearing the success stories when the market was hot. As those stories permeate, that definitely gives people pause."

Experts who watch the national market for short-term rentals now believe that the COVID-era boom was a once-in-a-lifetime event. "We don't expect that short-term rentals will ever see occupancies that high again, barring another pandemic," said Bram Gallagher, an economist at AirDNA, which tracks the performance and pricing of 10 million vacation rentals. Nationally, revenues per listing dropped by 6.6% last year, and the market is settling into a more stable equilibrium — one that won't be as lucrative as the market that emerged during a historic anomaly. But that won't stop people from trying to turn their property into a side hustle.

"It's so interesting, the whole pandemic, you know, what it revealed about human nature," Gallagher said. "I guess it's human nature to sort of capitalize on that."

As for Widell, she has failed to appear in court multiple times — or even explain what happened. In February and again in March, she showed up at the building where her husband and Brummett lived, and, according to Brummett, harassed them with a gun. Both have obtained restraining orders against her.

Those who believed in Widell, meanwhile, wound up paying a steep price for their faith in her. Nash, who said Widell owes her $8,200 in back pay, narrowly avoided being evicted from her home. "I felt sad about it," Nash said. "I made it through a hard time, so I guess I'll have to figure it out some other way."

Nash has picked up some work managing Airbnbs for other companies, but it wasn't enough to pay the bills. She was evicted by her landlord for falling behind on rent and moved out of her apartment with her 16-year-old son and her 7-year-old grandson. The only living arrangement they could find was in midtown — a 16-minute drive from where the kids went to school.

It was a two-bedroom Airbnb.


Dan Latu is a reporter on Business Insider's Real Estate team.




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