Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky: “It’s going to be a year of focus”

If there’s one thing Brian Chesky is focused on in 2021, that would be, well, focus. So much so that the Airbnb co-founder and CEO said the word seven times throughout a roughly 20-minute interview during Bloomberg’s The Year Ahead online event last week.

“It’s going to be a year of focus,” Chesky told Bloomberg Television anchor Emily Chang. Not only has focus helped Airbnb withstand the coronavirus pandemic, he says, but it will also be what sets the company up to capitalize on travel’s rebound – which is “not a matter of ‘if’; it’s a matter of ‘when.'”

Importantly, focus is what also allowed Airbnb to go public last year, against all the odds.

“In the depth of the crisis, our stock was just a little over $20 a share,” Chesky says. “We got all hands on deck and said, ‘We’re not really going to worry about things we can’t control. We’re going to focus on trying to truly build a great company.'”

Market matters

When asked how life has changed for him following Airbnb’s IPO, Chesky equates the feeling to how couples often feel after getting married – not much changes; “everything just feels a little bit more formal.”

Although Chesky says Airbnb has been “operating like a public company for quite a long time,” now, “the sense of responsibility is so much more vast.”

“Certainly, when the venture capitalists and mutual funds and private equity firms are investing in you, you do feel the responsibility. But when there are hundreds of thousands of shareholders – who are kind of like the people you grew up with, especially our hosts – there’s a different level of gravity to it. It feels like a whole other stakeholder,” Chesky says.

“One of the benefits of having a great brand is a lot of people want to be a part of it and they want to own a piece of it. That just means your responsibilities increase.”

Of Airbnb’s staggering $113 billion valuation, Chesky says he does not like to comment on stock price – “I think it’s a dangerous pattern for me to start doing that” – but “the higher the price, the higher the expectations.”

What he’s not worried about is market volatility – a topic currently in the headlines thanks to what’s happening with GameStop stock.

“Our company is now used to volatility after last year. I mean, there are very few companies who have had more volatility than Airbnb last year,” Chesky says.

“We’re not going to be unnerved personally by volatility because we’re looking at the very long-term.”

The role of CEO has changed over the years, as well, Chesky continues. “The responsibility of a CEO in America today is different than it was maybe 10 or 20 years ago. A couple decades ago, very narrowly, most CEOs felt like their responsibility was solely and exclusively to shareholders. I don’t think there are many large CEOs today that feel that way.”

The responsibilities of online platforms have also shifted, Chesky says, referring to decisions Airbnb has made regarding safety, most recently by banning stays in Washington, D.C., for President Biden’s inauguration.

“When I came to Silicon Valley in 2007, 2008, the idea was we’re all platforms. The platforms should be hands-off … [the idea being] that the internet is kind of like an immune system: Build the community tools and they will moderate themselves.”

Airbnb learned its lesson quicker than other big tech companies “because we had people getting their homes trashed. We have people getting physically hurt or worse, and we started to realize that we had to take more responsibility for the activity on our platform,” he says.

“We’re not always right, but we want to be on offense.”

Return to roots

Throughout the pandemic, Airbnb has made much of it returning to its core home-share business while pausing investments in other units of the company, such as transportation and hotels.

Chesky says Airbnb plans to resume investment in those areas “down the road,” and the company has also rehired some of the 1,900 employees that were let go last year.

He says Airbnb intends to continue hiring back staff, “but I’ve told our employees you want to hope for the best and plan for the worst. And we don’t know what’s going to happen again. I don’t want to ever have to do another layoff.”

One perhaps surprising pivot to occur amid the pandemic is what happened with Airbnb’s Experiences division, which took tours and activities virtual.

“We found [online experiences] are a bit like dipping your toe into the water of Airbnb,” Chesky says. In other words, if a consumer’s first experience with the platform is taking a virtual cooking class, he or she might return to Airbnb to search for accommodations next time.

“It’s a really great introduction to the community and gets you more comfortable with what a host is, how the whole system works.”

As Airbnb readies for the inevitable return of travel, Chesky says another major area of focus is on customer service. To that end, in May of 2020, the company hired ex-Apple executive Tara Bunch to “take things to the next level.”

While other hospitality companies have scaled back investment in customer service, “we want to be doing just the opposite,” Chesky says.

“That’s part of what it means to be prepared. We don’t want to just have best-in-class service. You want to have truly world-class service.”

Future of travel

Although Chesky says he’s wary of making predictions on the future of travel – “anyone who’s in the business of predicting the future was humbled last year” – Airbnb has issued a new 2021 travel report.

Titled From Isolation to Connection – Travel in 2021, the study captures public opinion from research conducted in late December 2020.

People miss business travel the least and are prioritizing travel to visit family and friends. About 56% of travelers say they prefer a domestic or local destination, and one in five respondents say they want their destination to be within driving distance of their home.

The report also finds that there is a strong desire to avoid the crowds of popular destinations, with 51% of travelers saying they are more interested in being isolated beyond major tourist areas.

Due to remote work and learning, one-quarter of Americans say they are open to traveling during off-peak times of year and days of the week. One-quarter also say they see themselves taking longer stays in 2021.

“Americans miss traveling more than any other outdoor activity,” Chesky says. “What they miss the least is traveling for business and they don’t miss landmarks. They don’t miss crowded lobbies. The don’t miss double-decker buses.”

What they want, he continues, “is meaningful travel, not mass travel.”

Meeting travelers where they’re at will be Airbnb’s focus not just in 2021, but for many years to come.

“We are building a company for the very long-term,” Chesky says. “I know that probably sounds cliché, but I’m 39 years old. I do intend to be doing this for decades to come.”

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