Airbnb CEO: We had to rebuild our business from scratch

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Airbnb has been on a wild ride. Many doubted he could survive as Covid cases skyrocketed and the company lost 80% of its business. But now things are changing for the vacation home rental industry, with users booking longer stays thanks to more flexibility in the way we live, work and travel.

Co-Founder and CEO Brian Chesky spoke to CNN’s Erin Burnett about the company, his vision for the future of work and the company’s promise to provide temporary housing to 20,000 Afghan refugees .

Burnett: Your words here are “travel revolution” and you think the industry will come back bigger than ever. Some people look at this and say, “Wait, things have fundamentally changed and business travel has changed and the way people view travel has changed. What do you see that makes you so optimistic?

Chesky: Well, they’re right. Everything changed. The world will never go back to how it was in 2019. Before the pandemic, we lived in one place or house, worked in another place or office, went to a third place – travel. Now all three places are in the same place. And they can be anywhere we want to be. And as long as employers allow people to live hybrid lives, not all of us have to come back to work five days a week. What it means that millions of people are now more flexible. They are more flexible about where they can go, when they can go. And so, I think it’s going to open up tremendous flexibility, and therefore a lot more travel for people.

Burnett: Ok, so this trip then, part of it is… longer stays or longer weekends.

Chesky: Absoutely. So I’ll give you an example. Half of our booked nights are now a week or more. Half of our activity is now a week or more. It’s well outside of what was generally considered a typical travel trip, which only lasts a few nights.

A fifth of our activity at night lasts more than a month. It’s not even a trip. It would never have been possible because you had to be back in the office.

Burnett: Okay… you usually had to plan for a week’s vacation, which by the time you get there and settle in and go, that’s right, it’s a few days.

Chesky: Exactly. And you don’t have to believe the world is going to stay like this forever. All you have to believe is that not everyone is going to go back to the office five days a week to believe that everything has at least changed a little, and that is what we are seeing.

Burnett: Ok, so now let me tell you about it, because that’s what it is: it’s about work too. It’s interesting how you talk about work, travel, home, all in one place.

Chesky: They are totally linked.

Burnett: But what about you? So Airbnb, the last time I checked you don’t require people to come back for a year. And even then, you described the lifestyle as “live anywhere”.

Chesky: Yeah.

Burnett: Okay, so that’s very different from what we hear from other companies. The Morgan Stanley CEO has now said that if you can go to a restaurant, you can come back to the office. So if I see you there, I’d better see you here. You feel different. Tell me why.

Chesky: Well, I don’t think CEOs are going to dictate how people work in the future. I think the employees will. Because if a CEO says you have to go back to the office, they’re going to have a choice: do I want the whole talent pool, or just the people willing to come to my office?

I think at the end of the day, as leaders, we will have to fight for the best talent. And after compensation, the next most important benefit will probably be flexibility. And so I think at the end of the day, employees are going to drive the future, not employers.

Burnett: Which is fascinating. And when you think about it and pay attention, I know it’s permanent in your mind about how you’re going to allow people to work.

Chesky: Yeah, absolutely.

Burnett: But there is it all, well I wanna see [my employees] sometimes.

Chesky: Me too. I don’t think anyone predicts that they’re going to bring their employees back five days a week, or anyone that says they’re 100% distant – those two positions are probably going to converge to somewhere in the middle.

So we’re going to want to see employees from time to time, and we’ll have to figure out how often that is. But you know, you can save money on real estate. You can also hire a much more diverse talent pool. We are based in San Francisco – San Francisco does not represent all the talent in the world – especially in the country. So I think there is a huge opportunity here.

Now there are risks. The risk of the remote control is that it can also be very insulating. It can be very lonely. So I think one of the risks is that many physical communities are disappearing. Physical offices, not as many people who go to restaurants, not as many people who go to churches, malls. So we’re going to have to design ways for people to connect. And I think one of the things we’re trying to do with our business is inspire more… outside of venues, family gatherings, ways for people to connect.

Burnett: Law. So larger groups. So now it becomes a business affair – you do an offsite for a group or something like that.

Chesky: Absoutely.

Burnett: So at the level of your activity, [the pandemic] was an existential threat when it first happened. Now it’s like “I look back, and I think okay, Airbnb has become a great place to go because I wanted to go somewhere and I couldn’t go far.” But, at the beginning, it was “Airbnb, it’s over”.

Chesky: There were articles – Will Airbnb exist? Is this the end of Airbnb? Can Brian Chesky Save Airbnb ?. Those were all the headlines. And that was crazy because just eight weeks earlier we were preparing for an IPO.

We were a high-flying tech startup. And then eight weeks later, we lose 80% of our turnover. It’s like a Mack truck going 80 miles an hour and then slamming the brakes – usually nothing good happens. We had to rebuild our business from scratch. And by the way, we’ve done everything on Zoom. We have gone public on Zoom.

Burnett: [You went] Public on Zoom. Hired 1,000 people on Zoom.

Chesky: Hired 1,000 people on Zoom. And we are more productive than ever. Again, I don’t think we should all be living remotely 100% of the time. But we have to recognize that this is part of the future.

Burnett: So let me ask you another question, and that is temporary housing for Afghan refugees. And I noticed that when you announced that, you said free temporary housing for 20,000 people. And it came from your foundation, it came from you personally, but it also came from the hosts who were ready to do it. So where are you right now? How many of these refugees found Airbnb accommodation?

Chesky: So we probably have about 700 people that we have found accommodation for, but we would like to house 20,000. And it looks like there are going to be a lot more than 20,000 refugees.

So we are working as hard as possible to get as many hosts as possible to open their homes across the country. We started these efforts about 10 years ago, actually initially with people who were temporarily displaced by disasters like Hurricane Sandy. Finally, we started to accommodate refugees. And so if anyone is really interested in providing accommodation for a refugee, you can go to Airbnb.org. We provide all the tools. And you can choose to open your seat for free, but if you want to get paid we’ll refund you anyway.

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