Cornwall risks becoming ‘xenophobic’ without outsiders
The decision to adopt this nomadic lifestyle is partly a celebration of the opening of travel after two years of lackluster tourism. Airbnb was mired in crisis in the early months of the coronavirus, before hitting record sales in the first quarter of this year. In the first three months of 2022, 102 million nights were booked on the site. Today, 4 million hosts rent rooms or properties in more than 220 countries and regions. The only places where you can’t rent an Airbnb today are Iran, Syria, Crimea and North Korea, and – currently – Russia and Belarus.
However, Chesky’s commitment to personal travel is also a test of his idea that his employees and millions of other workers will be able to do their jobs from anywhere in the world.
“You can run an almost $100bn (£82bn) business from a laptop in other people’s homes,” he says. “It’s possible – and if I can do it, a lot of people can do it.”
Last month, Chesky announced that Airbnb’s 6,000 employees could work from anywhere – a wish that comes amid heated debate over the office’s future. And last week the company unveiled a redesign of its app designed to send travelers to areas outside of the main tourist hubs.
Chesky founded Airbnb in 2007 when, as a fresh graduate working as an industrial designer in San Francisco, he and his roommate Joe Gebbia couldn’t pay their rent for a month. The couple purchased three air mattresses and rented space in their apartment to visitors to the city for a conference, marketing the idea as “Airbed and Breakfast”. They charged customers $80 a night (about £90 today); one of the meeting rooms at the company’s San Francisco headquarters is modeled after the apartment that launched the company.
Chesky and Gebbia, along with former roommate Nathan Blecharczyk, decided to turn the idea into a business and attracted Silicon Valley investors when they raised money selling boxes of breakfast cereal in limited edition (“Obama Os” and “Cap’n McCains”) during the 2008 presidential election.
Founders were encouraged to blitzscale their way to world domination. Airbnb, as it was known, became relentlessly popular, but along the way clashed with hotel groups, city governments and critics who accused it of gutting communities and driving up housing prices.
However, more has changed in the past two years than in the previous decade. At the start of the pandemic, travel collapsed to an almost total halt. Airbnb has been forced to refund millions of tourists, angering its millions of hosts who have been left with empty homes, while the company’s own revenue has plummeted.
“We were making $40 billion [in bookings] and we lost 80% overnight. No one really had ever lost so much business and lived to tell about it,” says Chesky, who speaks to the quick clip of someone who has more to say than time to say. “I never thought we were close to death, but I looked into the abyss.”
In May 2020, Chesky tearfully fired thousands of employees on Zoom and borrowed billions in an attempt to hibernate via Covid. Yet within weeks, the unexpected began to happen: people ventured out of their homes and started traveling again. Instead of flying to city hotels as before, they shunned cities and stayed in treehouses, mountain cabins, and lakeside homes.
Many did this for weeks or months, no longer tied to a desk. Airbnb’s business rebounded enough that by the end of this year, the company completed the largest initial public offering of the year. On Wall Street’s first day of trading in December 2020, it was valued at over $100 billion and Chesky was worth over $10 billion. A clip of Chesky went viral when CNBC gave him the latest stock price on live TV, which caused his eyebrows to practically hit the ceiling.
Pandemic winners from Peloton to Netflix mistakenly believed that the Covid-19 crisis had changed their world forever, for the better, only to now slide in reverse. But Chesky is confident that his industry will not back down.
“I think we’re probably going through, from a macro perspective, the biggest shift in travel, maybe since World War II,” he says. “After the war, you had highways and you had public transport. The pandemic has been either the biggest change since then or the second biggest change after the advent of the internet.
“When the borders were closed and people weren’t traveling for business and they weren’t going to the big cities, they were forced to basically experience other things and a lot of people were discovering the outdoors and other communities. Now the genie is out of the bottle. I think people now realize that there are not 100 places to go, but 100,000 places to go.
Airbnb’s redesign this week — what it calls the biggest change to travel websites in 25 years — reflects that shift. Instead of asking people to enter a destination and dates, users select from categories such as mansions, castles, national parks or vineyards, and scroll through Instagram-worthy homes instead of bothering of where they are. They are just as likely to end up in Portsmouth as in Paris.
Chesky says the goal is in part to redistribute travelers, tackling claims that Airbnb contributes to overtourism. His decision is likely to be music to the ears of locals in places such as St Ives, which last week rebelled against tourists by starting to charge them to use its public toilets. Airbnb has also been accused of spoiling parts of the Lake District where rental properties outnumber residents by ten times.
Chesky says he seeks to avoid overcrowding rural hotspots. “I hope they don’t all go to Cornwall, that they don’t all look at the same place. [Overtourism] it’s even worse if you think about small towns because you can overwhelm them faster, so this is our attempt to address that,” Chesky says.
“We want everyone to be distributed rather than everyone going to a small community.”
He argues that cities and towns shouldn’t completely close to tourists, however. “My opinion is that foreigners and travelers are good, but it’s like a recipe. And you want most of the communities to be mostly local, with a few foreigners, and when there are too many foreigners, there’s no community.
“But when there are no foreigners, I mean, think about those kinds of committees. They are xenophobic; they are not open to new ideas. They are not really healthy communities either. I think you want a mix, I don’t know what the perfect ratio is.
Chesky is already quite unpopular among hoteliers around the world, whose businesses have been squeezed by the rise of Airbnb. He now predicts that coming out of the pandemic, hotels will be hit far harder than Airbnb by a slump in business travel, much of which will become redundant because of Zoom.
“For many decades, business travel has essentially fueled nearly all hotel and airline profits. All those economy class seats are only possible because first class seats pay for them,” he says. “Your company pays for you to travel on business and you pocket your points. They are like personal grants. It’s a racquet that’s pretty much gone now.
Chesky is distancing himself from much of the whole of Silicon Valley. He’s a designer at heart, rather than a coder. He is close to Sir Jony Ive, the British creative mind behind the iMac and iPhone, and former Burberry chief Angela Ahrendts sits on the company’s board.
He has a community of advisers, including Barack Obama and former American Express boss Ken Chennault, who he says helped him manage the delicate balance between hosts, guests and places that people are visiting – although he says he would like Elon Musk’s help in allocating the time. .
“He has five businesses and six kids, and I have a business and no kids,” Chesky says. “So he beats me like 11 to one. He’s going to become a historical figure like Steve Jobs or Henry Ford.
Chesky is single and admits his nomadic lifestyle isn’t for everyone, especially those tied to physical workplaces or schools.
“When I have a family, I will not live in a nomadic way. In fact, that’s one of the reasons I do it because I’m at a point in my life where I can do it. When I tell people the world is flexible, I’m experiencing an extreme version of that.
But while he may not live on Airbnb forever, Chesky and his team have largely said goodbye to the office. Going forward, Chesky thinks many of its customers won’t be tourists so much as traveling workers, no longer tied to a physical Monday-Friday workplace.
“More and more of us have tasks that can be done from a laptop. And so the question is, should the laptop be tethered? Or can the laptop move with you? »