MY FIRST AIRBNB OPEN
I became a host in late 2014, which was around the time that Airbnb was gaining notable momentum. In early 2015 I became the self-proclaimed “Airbnb Expert,” so when I learned about the annual international gathering of Airbnb hosts, known as “Airbnb Open,” I wanted to attend. The event took place in Paris, which features over 78,000 active listings on Airbnb, beating London (with 47,000 listings) by a long shot. While I absolutely adore the City of Amour, the idea of being there as a single and newly divorced woman made it difficult to convince myself to go. Moreover, the thought of having to spend a lot of money to be cooped up in a germ-infested airplane for 12 hours was not helping matters.
During the time that I was considering enduring the brutal cross-Atlantic flight, I spent a number of hours online searching to learn what it might be like to attend the Airbnb event. I was disappointed that all I managed to find were some news articles and photos of people that I was unfamiliar with conducting presentations. Back then, the Airbnb Community Center did not exist and I could not find one single personal account from an Airbnb host who had attended the event the previous year. Based on my frustrations and this void, I decided to write about my first Airbnb Open to help others who might be considering attending the next magical gathering of the kindest and most hospitable people you’ll ever meet.
November 2016 marked the third and largest gathering of Airbnb hosts from around the world. The first humble gathering of 400 or so people took place in 2013 at Airbnb’s head office in San Francisco. The event was an informal affair, where hosts could easily mingle and chat with the founders and Airbnb staff. The first “official” Airbnb Open was held in 2014 (also in San Francisco) and attracted about 1,500 hosts. As I mentioned, Airbnb Open 2015 took place in Paris, boasting 6000 attendees. This year a whopping 15,000 tickets were sold!
Since I reside in Los Angeles, California, I was thrilled to learn that our city was selected for the site of Airbnb Open 2016. I was also honored to be asked to conduct a presentation on how to build a personal Airbnb brand, with the author of Get Paid For Your Pad, Jasper Ribbers. Jasper’s book ranks number one on Amazon when searching the word “Airbnb.”
The event was scheduled November 17 – 19, in downtown LA.
PRE-EVENT: WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 16, 2016
Presenters, known as “Host Educators,” were given the chance to register at a private function the night before the event commenced. It was nice to not only avoid the massive registration lines the next day, but to also meet so many of the Airbnb-related people that I had become aware of in my role as the Airbnb Expert, but had never seen, let alone met. We arrived in the evening at the Pattern Bar in Downtown LA. Upon registering at the funky watering hole, Host Educators were issued photo ID to wear around their neck and a techno bracelet that allowed attendees to share their contact info by simply pushing in the middle of the button until it lit up. The info was then easily retrieved on a designated Airbnb Open online portal. These gizmos also blinked colored lights to the beat of the music played at the beginning of all the large presentations, adding to the hip pageantry throughout the event. They also served to subtly, if not unconsciously, remind us of a few of Airbnb’s core brand values – we are all together, we all belong and we are all one.
THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 17, 2016
I arrived at the Orpheum Theatre at 9:00 AM, where many of the major Airbnb Open presentations were being held. When I got out of my Uber, I was stunned by the massive line of people and all the buzzing about the “big announcement” Airbnb founder Brian Chesky was about to make. Since I read every single online article about Airbnb, I had a pretty good idea what the announcement was likely to be about.
The founders (from left to right) Nate Blecharczk, Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky took to the stage to almost deafening applause and shrill whistles. Nate welcomed the crowd, shared a few words and then passed things over to Joe who talked about how thrilled the entire team is with the growth of Airbnb and how appreciative they all were about how many of us attended Airbnb Open 2016. Joe then introduced Brian, in what felt like Apple’s Steve Wozniak introducing Steve Jobs.
While the trio likens themselves to three equal sides of a triangle, with unique and complementary skills, it’s clear that Brian has reached more notable rockstar-like status. When he was introduced, Brian had to give the excited crowd a few minutes to quiet down. When watching him on stage, it’s no surprise that Brian is a huge fan of the Apple brand and seems to have taken a page or two from their late founder’s folksy yet spellbinding presentation skills. He spoke about the growth of Airbnb much like Jobs once did when he introduced the next great Apple product. But what makes Chesky unique (and certainly different from Jobs) is his willingness to be vulnerable on stage. This willingness served to steadily reinforce Airbnb’s core brand value of “belonging” with the crowd. As much as the audience embraced him, Brian embraced us all right back.
As he walked the crowd through the highly successful “Live There” campaign, he unveiled Airbnb’s “World of Trips” platform to incredible fanfare.
This video gives you a sense of what it was like to be in the audience during the announcement.
As Brian explains, “World of Trips puts homes, experiences, and places together in one place.”
Experiences are the most notable offering on the new Airbnb app. Experiences allow travelers to book a local activity, guided by a local person. Users can select from either “multi-day immersions” or “single-day experiences.” During his presentation, Brian showcased one Experience called “Shooting Stars,” where an experience seeker can learn how to, “capture the real stars of Los Angeles with astrophotographer, Martin Cohen.” Guests begin the Experience by enjoying cocktails at his photo studio near Malibu beach and then learn the basics of “photographing the heavens” from his mountainside home in Malibu. This three-day Experience is priced like most offerings on the new Airbnb platform, at under $200.
The next offering is “Places,” which features guided tours by locals of places that you won’t find in almost any guidebook, such as a Bohemian Hangouts, Tattoo Shops or All Things Drag. If you prefer to just wander around an area, you can use Airbnb’s new Audio Guide that allows you to listen to a guided tour of areas that are usually outside the typical tourist traps. One neat feature for Audio Guide users is that the map of the area you are touring is dotted with comments from locals. Soon Airbnb users will even be able to make restaurant reservations through the Airbnb app!
The new initiatives are now available in 12 cities, including London, Paris, Havana, San Francisco, Capetown, Florence, Miami, Tokyo, and LA, to name some. Brian announced that Airbnb plans on being in over 50 cities by the end of 2017, with the goal of being around the world in the next 5 years. I have no doubt, now that the genie is out of the bottle, Airbnb will achieve these objectives and more.
Below is an example of few Experiences offered on Airbnb.
The video below is the Airbnb production of Brian Chesky’s entire presentation. If you’d like to pick up where my video leaves off, forward to 14:14. You may have noticed the Flights and Services icons above in the image on stage with Brian and the app icons; while he didn’t go into detail about these offerings, he did express that they are more than on Airbnb’s radar and are being developed. No doubt we’ll be hearing more about these initiatives at the next International Airbnb Open, which I predict will take place in London, England. Rumor has it that Airbnb might be considering doing a number of smaller gatherings around the world in 2017 and might not have another international gathering until sometime in 2018.
As I exited the theatre, it dawned on me that Airbnb was not only changing the way people think about travel (by encouraging them to experience “authentic travel” through “living like a local”), much like Apple, they are now truly changing the way people live around the world. It also occurred to me that as government authorities scramble to simultaneously attempt to stifle Airbnb, – while trying to stick their greedy hands in the Airbnb pie – the introduction of Experiences (and all of the other new initiatives) shifts Airbnb into a galactic growth rate that can only result in putting policy makers in the perpetual position of playing catch up.
Below is the Airbnb Open 2016 map. This helps give you an idea of the set up that Airbnb referred to as “Festival of Hosting.”
After I left Brian Chesky’s presentation, I stopped by the area that was handing out Airbnb swag bags, which had been unavailable during our pre-registration.
As I walked through the compound, I came upon the well-traveled wooden Airbnb logo that I had seen in so many photographs. Since I was carrying a few more pounds (that’s “stones” for anyone from the UK and “kilograms” to the rest of the world) on my frame than I like to have, I avoided having my photo taken at the event. The next time I’m at an Airbnb event that features this wooden logo, I hope to be in ship-shape and will get my photo with the logo then. In the meantime, I snapped this pic of two happy Airbnb Open goers.
Since I still had the demands of my career to attend to, I headed to a huge restaurant called Clifton’s, which Airbnb had commandeered for the event.
I had heard that Airbnb had kindly designated an entire floor of the massive and awe-inspiring eatery, for Super Hosts. With my Super Host pin proudly displayed on my jacket lapel, I settled into a chair, threw open my laptop and began to catch up on my work for the remainder of the day.
After that I packed up and headed home to work again into the wee hours to catch up on the work I didn’t get done during the day.
FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 18, 2016
There were so many Airbnb Open talks that I wanted to attend, but my work demands (along with this annoying little thing called “sleep”) prevented me from attending everything I wanted to see at Airbnb Open. I was particularly disappointed that I didn’t get the chance to see Chip Conley, Head of Global Hospitality and Strategy for Airbnb, not to mention hospitality entrepreneur, author, speaker, philanthropist, visionary and all around amazing person. The closest I could get to listening to Chip speak was attending the Elizabeth Gilbert talk. Many of you have likely heard about the Eat, Pray, Love author. I didn’t know much about her, but I knew that Chip greatly respected and valued her, so that was enough for me.
Her presentation was scheduled right before mine and could not have been better timed because I walked out of her talk feeling completely empowered and connected to what matters. She describes her “religion” as a combination of mindful living and a constant quest for authenticity – most notably her own. It should have been obvious to me, but as Elizabeth Gilbert was speaking I realized that much of what she was talking about dovetailed with Airbnb’s brand messaging about “authenticity,” and thus her talk served to support one of Airbnb’s brand attributes. One thing that makes great brands great is how they examine and consider everything, right down to the finest detail. As an unabashed marketing geek, I was absolutely giddy at the thinking behind it all.
On the way out of the Orpheum Theatre, I picked up a complimentary copy of her new book, titled Big Magic. This coming holiday will be the first Christmas in over a decade that I have put my foot down and insisted on not working throughout. Even though I cringe a bit (ok, a lot) at the thought of being the quintessential sounding 50+ divorcee woman, snuggled up with my dog, a blanket, a cup of tea and an Elizabeth Gilbert self-help book, I absolutely cannot wait to do so! Heck, I might even really, really go crazy and sleep for a whole eight hours on a few nights.
I went straight from the Elizabeth Gilbert talk to the Pattern Bar, where our presentation was being held. When I arrived there an hour before the presentation a line was already forming. Forty-five minutes later, the line went right around the block. It turned out that we could easily have filled the room 3 times over and sadly had to turn away most of the people who lined up to see our presentation. Many even asked the organizer to pass along their contact info to us and asked if we could reach out to them after, which we made certain to do.
The organizers wanted us to stand and present from the floor, but we thought sitting on the bar would be more fun. My co-presenter began the presentation welcoming everyone to the “Airbnb Yoga Session,” which is why our legs were cross and why I and the audience were laughing.
Our event was very well received, with many hosts approaching Jasper and me afterward to express that they felt they got a lot of value from our presentation, which we were really pleased to hear.
After the event, Jasper and I were also both approached by many people like us, who either had an “Airbnb sideline” or a business that targeted the Airbnb audience. In this photo, from left to right is David Ordal from Everbooked, which is an online service I personally use to help my Airbnb listings rank higher in search findings. Then there’s me (If I didn’t want to show the guys so much I would not have added this photo, as it only reminds me of the extra weight I’m carrying. That’s ok, it will give you something to compare to when you see me at my fighting weight at next year’s Airbnb!). Next is my presentation co-presenter, Jasper Ribber, followed by Danny Papineau from Quebec, Canada, founder of Airbnb Secrets.
This photo was taken at Clifton’s, just after we all enjoyed the chance to have lunch together. I was not used to being around other rabid Airbnb business model aficionados, so it was great fun to yammer with people who were equally in the know about Airbnb.
The event was held in the Los Angeles theater district, which is peppered with these majestic beauties, which were all built just after the Gilded Age. It was such a treat to take in the various stage presentations from the plush red seats in these magnificent theaters. The three main theaters, included the Orpheum Theatre, the Los Angeles Theatre and the Palace Downtown.
As much as I loved the Airbnb Open site, I was perplexed by the heartbreaking amount of homelessness which spanned blocks from just outside the edge of the event area. Someone I met at Airbnb Open mentioned that he went for a run in the morning around the site and was shocked by the amount of destitute people he saw. LA’s moderate weather is part of the reason we have so much homelessness. After all, it’s a lot easier being homeless in Los Angeles in January than it would be in a cold city like New York or Chicago for instance. The other reason is America’s lack of mental health resources and medical care.
I was thrilled to learn that Airbnb donated $38,000 USD to the Centrepoint Young and Homeless Helpline in the UK.
In the future, I hope that Airbnb will consider making homelessness their number one charitable focus since the company is in the business of sheltering people and since homelessness has become such an issue around the world. I know that the Airbnb community would appreciate knowing that some of the company’s earnings, in small part went to helping to get people off the streets and into a nice warm and comfortable bed of their own.
SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 19 2016
Leading up to and during Airbnb Open, attendees could access the full schedule of event activities on a dedicated event website. Event-goers could go through the schedule and “favorite” a presentation or workshop that they wanted to attend. The system would then create a personal agenda based on the user’s selections, that they could refer to on their mobile device. For those who still appreciate newspaper, the site was well populated with daily event papers that provided event schedules, event descriptions and other event details. One of the most coveted presentations on the schedule was, “Q & A With The Founders.”
Other than not finding a husband at Airbnb Open, this presentation was my only disappointment. The host, seen to the left of the founders, told the audience that Airbnb had invited attendees to submit questions which then might be selected for this stage presentation. As a person rather plugged into Airbnb, I must have missed that memo. When I heard the questions asked, it appeared to me that nobody else seemed to have received the memo either. For instance, the host (who was very lovely) asked questions like, “When did you first have a feeling of belonging?” Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a little Kumbaya as much next Airbnb host, but I would wager that there were many other questions that the audience wished had been asked that weren’t.
Given how people all but stomp over one another to get into the theatre for this presentation, I don’t think I as alone in thinking that there would be an opportunity for audience members to ask the founders question, on what I imagined would be various microphones set up throughout the theatre isles. Had they done this, I think the audience would have made an even deeper connection with the founders. I also don’t think I’m alone in feeling that this presentation made the founders appear fearful of interacting with Airbnb hosts. As an incredibly loyal person, it’s difficult for me to say something negative about a brand I’m so connected with. But in the name of being authentic and in the belief that my observations and feelings are shared by others, I hope this feedback might change a future Q&A With The Founders.
When the presentation ended, Nate, Joe and the host left the stage, but Brian Chesky made his way to the front of the stage to shake a few hands. Since I was sitting in the third row, I was able to make my way to the stage before security cut people off.
In life, I think it’s so important to be grateful. I also think it’s important to make a conscious effort to share our gratitude with those we appreciate. I simply had to tell Brian Chesky how much I appreciate his efforts and to thank him for changing my life.
As I waited while others met him, I was close enough to be able to listen to Brian speak with the people he was greeting and was impressed by what a gracious person he is. I always say, “The fish rots from the head.” This means that whatever is at the top, moves to the rest. Since Brian and his partners are all kind people at heart, kindness is core to the Airbnb brand. The rule in marketing is that the leader embodies the brand and Brian definitely does that in spades.
In my hand, I held an envelope sized card (rack cards for you marketing folk reading this) that featured my Airbnb Expert bio. These cards came in handy when I met someone at Airbnb Open who usually began our conversation with asking how I became the Airbnb Expert and what I do in that role. Rather than telling my spiel over and over again, I would give them a card so that we could use the limited time we had between attending presentations to talk about other things. Most hosts usually asked me for tips attracting more booking. The card also came in handy when I met Airbnb brass — I took up less of their time and didn’t keep others from waiting longer to say hello. And, if they wanted to learn more about me later they had an easy way to do so.
While I’m pretty good at taking photos when the camera is pointed away from me, I never practice taking selfies. I was glad I had the chance to snap this photo of my first meeting with Brian Chesky, but I wished I had Kim Kardashian like experience in doing so. Even though both our heads are cut off, I’m grateful I was able to capture the moment.
Another presentation I’m so glad I was able to attend was Brand Evangelist and Chief Marketing Officer for Airbnb, Jonathan Mildenhall’s talk about the Airbnb brand and the future of Airbnb marketing. The combination of someone of Mildenhall’s stature, talking about the marketing of a brand I adore, was almost too much to bear.
Jonathan began his career in the advertising world in 1990 when he became an Account Manager at the world-renowned ad agency, McCann Erickson. By 2000 he was Managing Director at TBWA London, before leaving to attend Harvard Business School. In 2006 he became Vice-President for global advertising, Senior VP for marketing and design for Coca-Cola (I think that’s the longest title I’ve ever seen!). Then in 2014 he joined Airbnb and describes his mandate for the company as helping to “reach an audacious goal: that one day, all 7.5 billion people will feel they can be trusting and open up their homes.”
This year he was honored by being named as one of OUTstanding’s LGBT Top 10 executives.
Mildenhall spoke about Airbnb’s love of my three favorite brands, Apple, Disney & Coke, and how these iconic three have influenced Airbnb’s marketing. Be still my heart!
Airbnb and Mildenhall work TBWA\Chiat\Day, which was formerly known as Chiat/Day, the agency who famously produced so many of the iconic ad campaigns for Apple, including the 1984 Think Different campaign. Chiat/Day also replaced David Ogilvy as the number one position on my top-ten list of all-time favorite advertising agencies. I could write a whole other blog about Jonathan’s presentation but given how long you have been reading this (for those of you still hanging in there), I’ll jump to the end.
Jonathan ended his speech with an invitation to anyone in the audience interested in meeting him to head over to the Bunker, spelled BNKR on the map (which was oh so easy for texting “Meet me at BNKR” – They thought of everything!). Then he invited hosts to submit their stories to the 2016 Airbnb Story contest, where the first prize winner will take home $12,000 USD!
I arrived at the BNKR, which featured places to sit like you see in the photo above. The space also featured actual tents with chairs, lights and tables in them that looked like they came off the set of M.A.S.H. — that’s an old TV show for any millennials still reading this. While I was waiting for Jonathan to arrive, I sat down in one of the many comfy armchairs available in the pop-up hang out and submitted a story. The contest ends December 16, 2016, with winners announced in January 2017. I’ll keep you posted.
While pounding away at my keyboard, I overheard someone talking about the protester who stormed the stage during Ashton Kutcher’s presentation with Brian Chesky. When I started posting as the Airbnb Expert, I made a decision to avoid discussing politics and overly contentious issues on any of my online platforms. That’s why when someone tweeted @TheAirbnbExpert my guests are actually feeling safe with Trump as President. Trusting he will keep us all “safe and secure,” all I responded was “I hope you are right!” That’s why I won’t share my views here about the protester. I wanted to share this tidbit to give readers an idea that unexpected things happen at Airbnb Open. Another example is that Airbnb 2015 in Paris took place during the series of coordinated terrorist attacks. Airbnb’s response to the attacks was to cancel many of the presentations in order to turn their attention to securing free housing to those in need following the tragedy.
After I submitted my story to the contest, I peeked around the corner to see a swarm of enthusiastic hosts surrounding Jonathan Mildenhall, who had just arrived. I watched as he listened attentively to each and every person and said goodbye to each of them by giving them and Airbnb t-shirt just like the one he was sporting. When the line thinned I said hello. Since my mother is from the same part of England Jonathan grew up in, we chatted about that for a bit and then I shared how grateful I am that Airbnb is smart enough to hire people like him and Chip Conley. After all, a brand steeped in “authenticity” people could not grow if the executives were egomaniacs. All Airbnb executives I met are exceptionally professional as well as humble and wonderful people.
After I left the BNKR, I met up with Jasper Ribbers to attend the Bélo Awards. CBS Late Late talk show host, James Corden was the Master of Ceremonies at the black-tie affair which was attended by celebrities such as Mariah Carey, Dancing With the Stars – Julianna Hough, Kelly Osbourne and more.
The awards show included super-fun-to-watch dance numbers, along with lots of laughter at James Corden’s humor (that’s “humour” for the people from the commonwealth reading this).
Airbnb is all about stories, so it was great to watch the videos about the award recipients before the winners took to the stage to accept their award.
Right before the awards, I was only a few rows back from where founder Nate Blecharczk was sitting with his family. Since one of my quests in attending Airbnb Open was to voice my thoughts about the Airbnb referral code policy, I decided to cease the opportunity to talk to Nate about it.
I introduced myself and asked if he would mind if I shared a concern. When he graciously agreed, I explained that with over 100 million Airbnb users, yet only 38% brand awareness in the USA, it is difficult to understand why Airbnb does not allow Airbnb users to ever post their referral voucher code online (social, blog, website, etc), since doing so only results in adding new Airbnb users. While it’s true that people do it, the rule forbids it entirely.
I’ll be writing more about this particular issue in a future blog, so I won’t make this one even long that it already is. When I thanked Nate for his time, he thanked me for sharing my concern and said he’d “look into it.”
The weather was ideal for the outdoor and beautifully lit Airbnb/Maroon 5 Concert that closed out Airbnb Open, immediately following the Bélo Awards. The surprise of the entire event was a guest appearance by Lady Gaga, who took to the stage to perform her brand new single, “Million Reasons” as well as“Joanne” and “Bad Romance.” Gaga and her “Born this Way” inclusive attitude was another perfect fit for the brand that states, “At the heart of our mission is the idea that people are fundamentally good and every community is a place where you can belong.” ~ Amen
To get another sense of what it was like to experience Airbnb Open, check out Airbnb’s recap video below.