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Brian Chesky describes a faster, nimbler post-pandemic Airbnb

How the travel company rebuilt its business during the pandemic, and what it sees in the future of travel

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Brian Chesky of Airbnb at TechCrunch Disrupt
Image Credits: TechCrunch

As we transition from the pandemic to whatever comes next, Airbnb is evolving. The company announced a major redesign of its website and introduced a bevy of features focused on both hosts and guests today. All told, the release includes more than 100 new features or upgrades, with the goal of increasing and diversifying the supply side of the business to not only fuel overall growth but also meet the changing demands of guests.

The changes come in response to the way travel has evolved during the pandemic; Airbnb as a company has changed, too.

TechCrunch sat down with Brian Chesky, Airbnb co-founder and CEO, to discuss the future of travel, how his company worked to support a changing market and what it was like leading the world’s biggest travel startup during a global pandemic.

If you want to read more about today’s update, you can check out our article on it here.

The TL;DR version is as follows:

  • New search flexibility around dates, destinations and matching criteria.
  • Easier onboarding and efficiency for hosts.
  • Increased and enhanced customer support.

From a very high level, the first change is designed to help drive demand, the second to boost supply and the third to keep both sides of the marketplace healthy.

TechCrunch’s interview with Chesky follows. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

TechCrunch: A lot of the announcement today comes from the fact that we’ve been through more than a year of a pandemic and travel has evolved, and you are responding to that. As a CEO, you’ve been through so many big moments, from the IPO to the early launch days to a long regulatory journey. Where does leading a company during a pandemic fit into the CEO journey for you?

Brian Chesky: Yeah, Jordan, I would probably say that I never thought we would do anything as crazy as starting Airbnb. I kind of assumed, until last year, that that would probably be the craziest story I’ll ever have. Little did I know that a travel company in a pandemic might even be crazier than starting a company based on strangers living together. I kind of feel like I’m now 39 going on 49. It was definitely the craziest year ever.

Our business initially dropped 80% in eight weeks. I say it’s like driving a car. You can’t go 80 miles an hour, slam on the brakes, and expect nothing really bad to happen. Now imagine you’re going 80 miles an hour, slam on the brakes, then rebuild the car kind of while still moving, and then try to accelerate into an IPO, all on Zoom.

And then, after that, we didn’t sit around. Everything we announced today was basically worked on since January or February. We didn’t even really have a plan for the year because we were all focused on the IPO. So we scrambled and we’re like, “Oh my god, there’s going to be a travel rebound.” It was clear. Initially, it started as more of a spring cleaning, but everyone got really ambitious. We said, there are actually some opportunities to build new features here, and a few upgrades became 100 upgrades. So I would just answer your question by saying that I think last year was a year unlike any other, definitely the most defining year of my career, at least since the founding of the company.

Sam Shank, Airbnb’s head of guest experience, told me that these redesigns really boil down to growing and diversifying the supply side of the business. Do you think that’s an accurate characterization of what this design is all about?

I think it boils down to a few things. The first is that we’re going to make it a lot easier to become a host. The easier it is to be a host, the more regular people become hosts. That’s how we started. We made it easy for people to become a host. The second thing is that we’re going to make it easier and simpler to use Airbnb as a guest. And the third thing we’re going to do is design for this new level of flexibility.

Travel as we know it is over. There is a new kind of travel emerging and it’s a blur between living and travel. It means people are traveling to more places at different times or staying longer, and I think this is a whole new inflection point in travel that we’re designing for. If you can combine more regular people becoming hosts and there’s more flexibility, that means that a lot more regular people are going to be seen. As a lot more people list and travel disperses, you’re going to see a lot more matching of regular people who are hosts with guests that never would have discovered them. In the old world, this would have been hard because … let’s say I’m going to New York City on July 10 and someone has a really cool house in Vermont and it’s available in August — you’ll never see them. Obviously, with these changes, we have an ability to help point demand to where we have supply and really try to be more about matching people together.

Earlier you mentioned growing the number of individual hosts. Why is growing that supply so important?

Well, there are a couple of reasons why. No. 1 is that it’s the heart and soul of what we do. At the end of the day, I hope that what we do is more than provide space. Hotels provide space. A lot of places provide space. What we offer is a way for people to live a little bit more like a local and feel like they have a sense of connection to the places they go and the people they visit. The best people to provide that experience, typically, are everyday people. Individuals. Because they live in the community. They have a stake in the community and they typically live in the home at least part of the year. That means that there is real stuff in the kitchen, and there’s a sense of personality. That’s just anecdotal.

Statistically, though, individual hosts have a higher five-star rating than professional hosts. That doesn’t mean professional hosts aren’t good, but it does mean that, on average, the cohort of people with fewer properties do have a higher five-star rating. It’s probably because of some of the things I mentioned, or maybe people come to Airbnb because they want to get something that’s unique and different. Not everything comes from an individual host and not everything is the most unique, but that’s what we aim for and we supplement the inventory.

A lot of these new tools and features are geared toward existing and new individual hosts. How do you think about building features for professional hosts?

It’s important. The whole thing about focus is that something always has to be the most important. Individuals are the most important priority for us because we think that’s the thing that we uniquely do and really no one else does. That being said, I want all professionals to know that they’re welcome on Airbnb. We’re working really hard to improve tools for them. We’re working on improving the calendar and many of the different products that they need. The way we think about it is that people come to Airbnb primarily because they want something unique by individual hosts, but we don’t want people coming to us looking for a place to stay and not finding anything. So what we’ve tried to do is supplement the individual listings with professional property managers and hotels and we fill in the network gaps so there’s always a place to stay. First, we’ll show you something unique, and if we don’t have it or you don’t want that, we have something that’s a little bit more standardized.

I know that there was some tension between professional hosts and Airbnb during the pandemic related to how the company dealt with refunds and flexibility. Do you feel like that relationship is moving in the right direction?

I hope the hosts feel that way. Yes, there were a number of hosts that were upset last year. Why were they upset? Because I overrode a lot of our cancellation policies and I understand why [they’d] be upset. We felt like this is a once-in-a-generation pandemic, and if people are being advised not to travel, not to cross borders, not to enter into certain communities, we didn’t want guests feeling like they had to get on a plane and put themselves in harm’s way because they wouldn’t get their money back.

So, it was a decision we made and I stand by the decision. But I do know that some hosts were upset, and professionals are more upset because the majority of the individual hosts have flexible cancellation policies, so we didn’t have to override them. We took $250 million off of our balance sheet to send to hosts. It wasn’t enough to make them all whole. I think it was appreciated by a number of hosts. But then we worked really hard over the summer and in the fall and even recently to just start listening to them a lot more. We said, “Hey listen, we grew really big and as we grew, distance between us grew, so now we’re going to spend more time with you.” We have been doing listening sessions with thousands of hosts and we’ve made a lot of improvements. We updated our cancellation policy. We kind of went down the list. We built a host advisory board. We announced a host endowment that’s worth more than a billion dollars today that will sustain hosting for years to come.

I think of it as a relationship, which means you have to win trust every single day. I think we’re in a very good spot with a lot of hosts, but we know we have a lot more work to do with others.

Do you think the trends we’re seeing in travel right now, like more rural destinations and decreased business travel, are here to stay?

I think almost every single change is here to stay. It’s like a pendulum. Some things could slip back a little bit. But let me break down the trends that I think are here to stay. First, business travel is not coming back like it was before. It’s not like it was before. The bar to get on a plane and do meetings is higher now. This interview, even. Maybe in another era, you would have had to fly to me or I’d have to do a tour of New York for us to have this conversation. And maybe that will still happen in the future. But it doesn’t have to happen. So I think business travel is not coming back like it was.

People can travel anytime. I think that is a trend that is pretty much here to stay. Obviously, when kids are back in school, not every parent can roam nomadically while their kids are in school. But most kids in the United States are in school 180 days of the year, so on 185 other days, they can go places. I think you’re going to see three-day weekends every weekend. I see a lot of families, even middle-class families, going and living elsewhere over the summer. I think you’ll see entire generations of people that are living more nomadically, hopping around from house to house, apartment to apartment, maybe months at a time. It’ll be a bit more traveling and living blurring together.

I think population redistribution is here to stay. Before the pandemic, there was probably an overconcentration of people in New York, San Francisco, London and other really big cities. The cities aren’t over. They’ll be back. But more people realize that you don’t have to live in a huge city.

So I think in the future, people will only live in big cities because they want to live in big cities, not because they have to. Now, the place you have to be is the internet. You have to be on Zoom and be digitally connected.

I think that one of the trends that will reverse is cross-border travel being down. People will cross borders again. This flexibility is going to extend to … where people may go stay in Vermont for a month and then Belgium for a month, and they can rent their home while they’re gone to afford it. You’re going to end up with this flexible lifestyle.

The biggest trend of all is that traveling and living are blurring together. That is not created by Airbnb. That was created by the pandemic. But it’s potentially as profound as the invention of the airplane and what it meant for travel. It really redefines what travel even is as an idea.

Here’s another way of saying it: The internet never actually changed travel that much. It changed how travel was sold. You had travel agents and those agents were replaced by online travel agencies, but we’re using the same airplanes, the same hotels, the same double-decker buses, the same restaurants. It was really just a change to the distribution.

COVID has actually changed the end-product of travel. Changing where people travel, how long they travel. … To me, these are the biggest changes in travel since probably World War II.

Over time, we might have gotten here anyway. This might have happened 20 years from now, or 15, or 50, but COVID accelerated the timeline.

Yeah. It’s kind of like retail, where so many stores are online. That was going to happen anyway, but COVID kind of condensed the timeline. I think that travel even more so than in retail in some ways. Travel was among the most rocked industries. It probably was the hardest-hit industry, as far as I can tell. And we’re also a very seasonal business, so for many companies, if you lose a season, you’re kind of out. So there was a lot of reshuffling in our industry.

A big part of this update was around increasing and enhancing customer support. What grade would you give Airbnb’s customer support up until this point?

It’s hard to say. Our community would not have given us an A last year. We know that. We had to do a big layoff. We weren’t providing the service we needed to. I think the service we’re providing now is good. We have twice the support agents now as we did this time last summer. But I also want the community to know that it’s going to continue to get better. It’s not yet the world-class service that we aspire to have, but I do think by the end of the year, once every super host worldwide can get the dedicated support line, I think we’re going to have some of the best-in-class service. It’s going to be hard work to get there. We know we’re not A+ yet, but we’ll get there.

What do you think is the greatest challenge for Airbnb moving forward?

There are different altitudes of this question. At the most fundamental, I think it’s not a business challenge. Obviously, we need to get enough hosts, we need to make sure people are safe. There are a lot of things we need to do.

But I think the biggest challenge is going to be a lesson I learned from the pandemic. You’ve covered us for a while. We were quite successful for many years. Before the pandemic, I had noticed that the company was getting slower. We were losing our focus. It was harder to innovate and adapt and change.

But something that the pandemic did was like … I was captain of the ship, and a torpedo hit the ship. And out of survival, we simplified the company. We got back to being really focused. We got back to being functionally organized. We only focus on our core theme that we originally started on, which is individuals. That’s where we spend our energy. As we got more focused, we started acting more like a startup again. We started moving really quickly. We started being very innovative and we got back to our creative roots. There was a sense of pride again in the company that was always there, but I think is always more fervent when you’re a small company taking the hill rather than a big corporation where people join in to what’s already successful and it might feel like you’ve already won.

So I think the biggest challenge to Airbnb is living all the lessons that we learned in the crisis. It explains this rebound that we’ve had, when people a year ago were predicting this company might be out of business. Then we had the IPO we had and now this huge travel relaunch. Part of that is that our model is adaptive. But part of it is that our employees brought the A game. We set any complacency aside. We got much more focused.

So, my biggest worry isn’t whether we get enough hosts. It’s not regulatory. It’s not safety. It’s the fundamentals. There’s an old saying that the older you get, the stronger the wind gets and it’s always in your face. Well, if we can stay a startup and become the world’s biggest startup, that’s going to be the thing that that takes us anywhere we want to get to. It makes me think a lot of TechCrunch because it was the publication where we first broke the news of Airbnb to the world, on August 11, 2008. The first post was by Erick Schonfeld. That was 13 years ago. I hope we remain that company for years to come. And if there’s an end of Airbnb, it’s going to be because it was the end of those principles.

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