CHIP CONLEY, AKA THE BLACK SHEEP
CAUSE: Bridging the gap between hotels and shared economy travel by pulling inspiration from each model into a new precedent for hospitality standards industry-wide… And ruffling a few feathers along the way!
ICONS: Joie de Vivre, Airbnb
MOTTO: “The diversity of boutique hotels and the diversity of Airbnb listings is a reflection of the diversity of travellers out there; People see a hotel as a mirror for the aspirations of themselves.”
“You are where you sleep,” says Chip Conley; and when you’re the Head of Hospitality for the most valuable hospitality company in the world, there’s more to where you sleep than just a bed.
I’m on the phone to the founder and one-time CEO of boutique hotel group Joie de Vivre, who three years ago emerged from under the duvet of retirement to step into a newly created position at Airbnb. As he does an interview on hands-free while driving between meetings, I imagine his slippers and dressing gown are a distant memory.
The self-proclaimed “black sheep” of the industry, Conley admits that accepting this role made him “an even blacker sheep”. But while many of his peers consider the move treacherous, I can see why it would make sense for the creator of a brand hailed as “delightfully schizophrenic” – Joie de Vivre prided itself on having no two hotels alike, so for Conley the dissemblance of Airbnb’s offering must have been appealing.
“I think boutique hotels are very reflective of the idea of people wanting choice, and wanting a hotel that is reflective of the neighbourhood in which they’re travelling to. I actually think Airbnb just took the boutique hotel phenomenon like ten steps further… The diversity of boutique hotels and the diversity of Airbnb listings is a reflection of the diversity of travellers out there; people see a hotel as a mirror for the aspirations of themselves.”
Since 2013, Conley has been tasked with turning an innovative tech company into a bona fide hospitality brand. With over 500,000 homes and 350,000 hosts sprawled across 34,000 cities worldwide, this is no mean feat; but Conley is quick to deny that sheer numbers are their greatest obstacle.
“Some people would say the challenge would be how to get people who are not your employees to focus on these things, but that’s not our challenge – partly because these are micro-entrepreneurs whose livelihood quite often rests on great reviews, so they are actually more engaged than the average employee is.”
“A bigger challenge”, he says, “is that the rules and laws around what we can and can’t do are very complicated.” Because Airbnb’s hosts are not employees, Conley and co. are forbidden from actually training them; instead, they are limited to providing “educational tools”, which must be carefully tailored to meet the laws in each part of the world where the company operates (that’s 190 countries, by the way).
So, how do you go about giving 350,000 pupils the hospitality 101? “The first step we needed to do was to get really clear on some minimum standards around hospitality.” In collaboration with guests and hosts, and with an injection of extensive hospitality experience from Conley, the team identified a set of criteria that Airbnb listings should meet – including accuracy; communication; cleanliness; location; check-in; and value.
It’s all very well putting such standards in place, but in the absence of some all-seeing GM, how are they enforced? “One big difference between us and a hotel is that about 70 to 75 per cent of our hosts and guests review each other, where as in a normal hotel, only about 10 per cent of guests actually fill out an online survey.” What this means, in essence, is that the Airbnb community – and that’s what the network of users on the site has become – is self-regulating, with Conley simply nudging things in the right direction.
This “very robust peer-to-peer review system” is central to his grand plan for the Airbnb brand. “We are incredibly focussed on how we encourage and reward our best hosts, so we created a Superhost programme. About seven and a half per cent of our hosts globally make the Superhost programme. And that’s a way for our guests to be able to evaluate quality.” Aside from a medal hanging from their profile image, one thing all Superhosts have in common is a five star rating – a detail somewhat reminiscent of luxury hotels.
This comparison is a prickly one, with many in the hotel industry seeing Airbnb as the enemy. But when I ask if Conley considers Airbnb to be direct competition for hotels, he cites a recent study by Smith Travel Research Group; “They asked to collaborate with us and to review our data in Manhattan in New York, which is our strongest market… we gave them access to all of our data and the article came out in Hotel News Now – basically they said Airbnb has almost no effect on the hotel industry.”
Unbelievable? To some, maybe. But Conley – who still owns more than a dozen hotels and thus also wears the “hotelier hat”, as he is quick to remind me – has a vested interest in ensuring that Airbnb doesn’t wipe the market clean. “In New York almost 60 per cent of the room nights for Airbnb are people staying for a week or longer; and, in fact, almost 20 per cent are people staying a month or longer – so, generally speaking, that’s not who stays in hotels… Hoteliers’ bread and butter is often the business travellers staying two nights who need to be downtown, or near a convention centre – that’s not our customer.”
“I think the bottom line is that hotels and homes can coexist. The ultimate evidence of this is that in markets like London and San Francisco, like Tokyo, the hotel industry is showing record occupancies at the same time that Airbnb is growing very swiftly. I don’t think it’s a zero sum game.”
When I address Airbnb’s published plans to double their number of business customers (currently at 10 per cent), Conley points out the many different types of business travellers. For example, short stays looking for location and convenience might be better off at a hotel, where their array of services provides pampering and efficiency “that Airbnb will be only good at, never great at… what a hotel does well, Airbnb could never replicate”; while for extended stays or corporate relocations looking to ‘test drive’ a neighbourhood, Airbnb could be a better fit.
That’s not to say there’s a strict formula that differentiates the two, though. “People seem to think there’re an Airbnb traveller and a hotel traveller and they’re not the same, but actually they’re very much the same. There are a lot of business travellers who travel for business in hotels and then take their family and stay in a home on Airbnb.”
This is a reference, of course, to the ever-blurring line between business and leisure where today’s creative class traveller is concerned – ‘bleisure’, as it’s known. “One advantage [of Airbnb] is that in major cities about 70 per cent of Airbnb listings are in the non-hotel areas… someone could actually get to know a neighbourhood and get to know it really well because they can actually live in a neighbourhood where others live.”
This is telling of Conley’s belief that Airbnb will succeed by delivering guests unique, local experiences. So how is the brand better equipped to do this than, say, a hotel? The power of Airbnb, suggests Conley, lies with its people. “You build a relationship with your host… you go and you’re either staying in someone’s home and they’re there, or you’re staying there because they’re gone for a little while, but you start to build a rapport online with the hosts.”
“Hosts put together guest books – sort of local, neighbourhood suggestions of things to do – so at the end of the day you’re turning a stranger into a friend when you’re going to an Airbnb; you’re building a relationship with someone who is giving you one-to-one attention, which is really hard for a hotel to do.”
So, what can hotels learn from “the new disrupter” in the industry? “I think a lot of people, even in a luxury environment, are trying to book things themselves; so, while it’s great to have a concierge help, the best thing a hotel can do often is to direct you in the right direction – to give you access to things you might not have been able to access otherwise.”
“Instead of putting people on packaged bus tours, have a collection of locals who are aficionados or specialists in that particular subject and get to know your guests before they get there, then make some recommendations of who they should see – in essence, matching people who have similar interests.”
In fact, Conley is so proud of Airbnb’s people that he thinks their hosts deserve to win a Nobel Peace Prize. “I do believe that Airbnb is helping to break down the perception of the ‘other’. Since more than half of our Airbnb guests are international travellers, we’re sort of creating kitchen table diplomacy, where people are getting to know others from around the world and we’re actually helping to build up the amount of trust that there is in the world.”
“The travel industry overall is a positive in terms of the noble purpose, being that you want to go travel the world to get to know people different than yourself – now that is a great purpose, and it helps to create a little bit more of a world where people can actually be more empathetic toward each other. I’m a big believer that travel can provide for that.”