EZRA CALLAHAN, AKA THE SOCIAL NETWORKER
CAUSE: Translating his past experience of building digital social networks into creating physical, socially engaging spaces.
ICONS: ARRIVE Hotels, Arts + Rec (a real estate and hospitality development company)
MOTTO: “When I left Facebook I got really interested in the idea of building physical social spaces where people can interact and have shared experiences, along the same lines of what happens online.”
Ezra Callahan’s first job was at the newspaper of Stanford University, scoring him a few early points for his CV. Turns out, he wouldn’t be needing them much: his next job was as one of the first employees of Facebook (number six, to be precise), after he was offered the role by former housemate and Napster founder Sean Parker in 2004.
At the time, Callahan thought it was a better option than moving back in with his parents in Pasadena. Fast-forward eight years to 2012, when the company went public, and his 0.08% stake was reported by the Los Angeles Times to be worth $80m.
So when you’ve become a multimillionaire and helped create a movement that has changed the everyday lives of over a billion people – and all before the age of 30 – what do you do next? For Callahan, the answer was as unconventional as his career trajectory to date: open a hotel.
ARRIVE recently arrived (natch) on to the scene in Palm Springs, the first hotel to open in the Uptown Design District. On the surface, it might appear like your average mid-Century, desert oasis dream – delve a little deeper however, and Callahan’s connection becomes clear. This is a hotel for the social media era, from design right through to technology and service.
“When I left Facebook I got really interested in the idea of building physical social spaces where people can interact and have shared experiences; along the same lines of what happens online but very focused, in the moment and direct,” Callahan explains. “The whole notion of experiences seems to be almost like the social currency on places like Facebook and Instagram…building physical spaces to accommodate that was really intriguing to me.”
Callahan is keen to stress that this “social traveller” isn’t defined by age (so don’t mention millennials), but by their desire for “real, local, authentic experiences… we’re trying to appeal to anyone who shares their life openly; who visits a city and wants to meet others.” Creating spaces that attract both locals and travellers is nothing new within hospitality, but where Callahan takes a more revolutionary approach is by building “for the neighbourhood, both to reflect but also welcome the neighbourhood.” He continues, “A core idea of our brand is to build our properties with the locals in mind…we want to create spaces that celebrate and are celebrated by our neighbours, so they doesn’t feel like a fake, tourist version. If they are popular with locals, they will naturally be attractive to visitors.”
This has resulted in a property centred on communal areas that act as a crossroads for locals and guests, including fire pits, an al fresco restaurant and a massive 20-foot Jacuzzi (to make the most of those Palm Springs rays, of course). If you had attended its soft opening earlier in the year, you wouldn’t have found international cool kids, paid social influencers or journos sipping cocktails by the pool; instead, ARRIVE made a quiet entrance by exclusively inviting a crowd of locals and employees for a test run. The intention was not to make a splash as a romantic getaway or crazy party spot, but instead to “earn the respect of the neighbourhood” and become a “social landmark” where the neighbours are as much a part of the scenery as the building itself.
Indeed, when it came to design, fellow partner and designer/architect for the project, Chris Pardo, had community at the forefront of his mind, favouring a “design that is very grounded in the mid-Century tradition that Palm Springs really exudes, with a distinctive modern twist.” In a further nod to the social media-minded traveller ARRIVE anticipates, Callahan explains that it was important to “create spaces that are naturally Instagrammable.”
With the digital age being such an influence behind ARRIVE’s philosophy, you might expect the hotel to be full to the rafters with cutting-edge tech – robot butlers and all. However, Callahan and crew have a refreshingly straightforward attitude to technology, stating, “It’s a trap that the hotel industry needs to be very careful not to fall into. We don’t want to adopt technology for the sake of technology: the goal is always making the guest experience better.”
What follows is a pleasingly practical approach that other hoteliers would do well to heed. Callahan is sceptical about replacing keys with smartphones, as it means “you have to have battery!”; so for now, ARRIVE will use RFID keys. In-room tablets “don’t really add anything” other than confusion; so ARRIVE will forgo them. Despite the fact that we all permanently carry around at least one screen, we don’t always want to watch things on a phone or laptop; so TVs will remain on the menu, albeit Apple TV-enabled ones where you can watch Netflix. And of course, “we will never, ever charge for WiFi”.
This isn’t to say ARRIVE is anti-tech; Callahan is admiring of Peninsula’s tech innovations, musing, “I think one reason they are having success is that they do a lot of R&D in-house and have a technology division. That is a luxury we would love to have in the future.” However until this happens, any technology should be targeted at integrating with the guest rather than the other way round. “A hotel room is ultimately a person’s temporary home, so we try to make it feel as much like that as possible…we have a lot of big brand ideas, but a lot of them stop at the guest room door.”
This intuitive rationale extends to ARRIVE’s service culture, which is about as far from white gloves as you can get. To reduce unnecessary friction, staff will be cross-trained to provide different services – so forget the traditional check-in desk. Instead, arrivals will be handled at the bar so guests can choose to either pick up their key and go straight to their room or have a friendly chat. As Callahan describes it, “It’s more a social conversation than a needlessly formal transaction, which a lot of times would be absolutely the last thing you want after a long journey.”
Similarly, getting hold of staff will be as simple as whipping out your smartphone, with all requests handled by text message as “the easiest thing that people do all the time anyway – why not try that with the hotel?” One final detail that will surely be appreciated by any traveller who’s accidentally broken the bank when breaking open the minibar: all items will be priced roughly the same as the adjacent 7/11. Callahan believes that “hotels have got into really bad habits of nickel and diming guests. You are just taking advantage of my laziness!”
Outside of the guest experience, Callahan intends to take one more thing forward from his time in a tech start-up: a true culture of sharing and empowerment that starts with its employees. He believes that a big part of Facebook’s success was its “very open, very participatory culture” in which employees were fully invested in and encouraged to freely debate the future of the company. Consequently, at ARRIVE all staff will be given a stake through “incentive equity” and be empowered to surface and take ownership of any ideas for improvement. “We have what we think is this great brand story, but at the end of the day, that doesn’t matter: it’s all on the grounds of how the staff carries it out,” Callahan says. “We want to really try and create that sense of ownership and sense of responsibility for thinking about the entire guest experience.”
Whilst the worlds of digital and hospitality may seem incongruous at first, talking to Callahan proves that there is a lot that hotels can learn from the success of companies like Facebook. Just like Facebook revolutionised our digital interactions, Callahan is looking to revolutionise the way travellers, locals and staff interact within the hotel environment with an approach that is perhaps truly rebellious in its simplicity.
So does it provide a potential blueprint for the hotel of the future? We’d have to say:👍