Drinking the Airbnb Kool-Aid

One of my lesser-known tourism hustles is the Airbnb I run in my basement. My TV room, to be exact.

This little space is comfortable, clean, centrally located, and a great way to offset the fact I’m a single mom carrying a Vancouver-sized mortgage. It also doesn’t displace any long-term rental inventory since, seriously, it’s a TV room in my basement.

So imagine my delight when our dean suggested that faculty and a handful of students attend a Greater Vancouver Board of Trade luncheon featuring Chris Lehane from Airbnb. Chris is the senior VP for policy and, frankly, a dynamic and cool speaker.

It’s clear that, in his own words, Chris has started drinking the Kool-Aid at Airbnb, and as a host I’ve been enjoying it for some time. Here are some of the points raised during his presentation.

We live in a time of significant global challenge. 

The first challenge Chris mentioned was that of economic inequality. Today the 26 richest people on earth own as much as the 3.8 billion poorest … a divide that is growing as we see the emergence of AI and the loss of up to 40% of jobs to automation.

The second challenge he addressed was that of conflicts, whether intra-state (Venezuela, Syria), through cyberattacks, the online polarization of people and viewpoints through social media, and the displacing of billions of people due to unrest.

The last challenge he mentioned was that of global climate change, which in the last four years has seen the hottest temperatures on record, and closer to home (both ours in BC and his down in California) has contributed to annual ravaging wildfires.

It’s no wonder, according to Chris, that the world is now sinking to a ten year low in happiness.

Travel has a a role to play in addressing these challenges. 

Chris explained that travel has a rich history of contributing to migration and immigration and cultural exploration. He shared a picture of Burnaby-born hockey hall-of-famer Joe Sakic explaining that the movement of people has real benefits (in this case helping the Colorado Avalanche win the Stanley Cup, twice).

He then shared the Confucian quote that “Wherever you go, go with all your heart”. Bonus points for going from Sakic to Confucius! This part of Chris’ presentation resonated with me — as some of you might know my father is an immigrant and I’ll spend part of this summer going back to the town of his birth.

Chris talked about historical names for travel and its impacts including the Ancient Greek “philoxenia” – the opposite of xenophobia, a love for strangers and an eagerness to be hospitable.

This is where Airbnb comes in.

Airbnb’s mission is that anyone can belong anywhere. Chris was quick to address the fact they’re a disruptor and that new technologies always lead to disruption. And he was clear that in this new digital era we’ve seen the emergence of platforms that are larger than any one country in terms of population and yet, at times, highly unregulated.

He presented different platform models — hierarchical, ad-based, the short-term labour model, and finally the community-based model (people to people) that tracks back to the original model of capitalism, in his opinion.

Chris shared the story behind Airbnb, of a couple of students offering air mattresses on the floor of their San Francisco apartment to pay their rent. In his view, the core of Airbnb has always been about disrupting FOR humans, not being disruptive TO humans. He credits the founders’ art student backgrounds in that they wanted to build something 100 people would love instead of something that 1000 people would like.

I’d say, in that regard, they’ve been successful. Today on Airbnb:

  • Six guests check in every second 
  • There are over five million listings
  • They’ve seen 15% growth over the last year in Vancouver alone

Their future, according to Chris, is as an end-to-end travel platform that facilitates how you get somewhere, and where you stay, who you spend time with, and what you do while there. The ‘Airbnb experiences’ catalogue alone has grown to 20,000 experiences in 1000 cities since it was launched.

It was the transportation vertical (how you get there) that got my attention. Airbnb is proposing to use existing infrastructure to help legacy businesses tap into wider consumer markets (e.g. rail travel) while encouraging innovators to bring their ideas to market.

Another passion of mine is destination development policy. Chris’ particular area of work focuses on exactly this — Airbnb’s commitment to help evolve policy, pay their share of taxes, and share data.

He says their next focus will be the office of healthy travel. Tourism already makes up 10.4% of Global GDP, so why not grow the industry sustainably? Chris spoke about Airbnb contributions including:

Investing in community development, like in Maharashtra India, where they partnered with government to help locals start up immersive homestays in the region.

Enhancing experiential authenticity while increasing spending in neighbourhoods —44% of which stays in the micro community where guests spend the night. In 2017 that meant an increase of  $107 million in spending to Vancouver restaurants.

Supporting diverse experiences by providing guests an opportunity to stay in non-hotel districts and rural areas.

Being inclusive, where currently 55% of hosts are women, and the fastest growing cohort of hosts are seniors.

Creating traffic to underserved areas through initiatives like their Cape Town partnership, and working with the NAACP to develop hosting capabilities in urban communities.

His final words were on the ways in which Airbnb is creating sustainable options simply by using existing buildings (millions of empty homes), in the place of new construction. For example massive events like the Rio Olympics saw an increase in hosting, which diverted the need to build up to 257 new hotels for the event.

Chris Lehane clearly “drinks the Kool Aid” on Airbnb. Vancouver is drinking it too. In 2018 the City and Airbnb signed a historic agreement to recognize and regulate home sharing, which was shortly followed by an announcement of a first-of-its-kind partnership in Canada with Tourism Vancouver.

I’m starting to drink this Kool Aid too. Are you? Share your thoughts in the comments. 

The future of tourism: social cultural enterprises

One of the best experiences of my trip to Vietnam was participating in a cooking class called Oodles of Noodles run by Streets International in Hoi An.
Doang was the first up from the Oodles of Noodles team. She taught us about the program and asked us to “please correct our English so we can learn”. Throughout the experience all the hosts were very good at interacting with the group. “We need your help to learn. You will do that, yes?” “Yes!” we all promised.
Next we watched a short documentary about Neal Bermas’ vision for Streets International. They conducted research to find the right city and chose Hoi An due to the high levels of visitation and its history as a multicultural port and culinary destination. Their goal is to launch careers in hospitality.
The program provides participants with full health care, lodging, and three meals a day. These are orphans, children from HIV backgrounds, or formerly trafficked and prostituted people. The facility has a working kitchen, a classroom for culinary lessons (both internal and external, like ours), and a 16-station computer lab for learning English.
The cooking class that followed the program description was immersive and entertaining.
Nho
Nho the noodle expert

A young woman named Nho taught us about noodles and I now consider myself a rice noodle expert. Dai from Hanoi did a demo which was also broadcast on a TV for the people at the back.
M Nhi is from close to Sapa. She taught us to count down in Vietnamese as well as guided us through the noodle making process at our table. Our noodles were combined with a charcoal broiled variety to make a smash cake which made a delicious appetizer.
The tables were then wiped down and we were served the local specialty prepared by the culinary students.The entire group agreed that the meal, the service, and the cleanliness of the facility far exceeded anything we had experienced so far.
Streets International also runs a restaurant, one that is designed to stand on its own. The servers, hosts, and culinary team are all program participants.
Recognizing that front-of-house trainees receive the lion’s share of immersive language and hosting experience, Streets International also partners with local tour operators to offer tours led by back of house staff. These tours allow budding chefs to take guests through Hoi An, where they practice English and share the culinary history of the destination.
Intake for this program is every nine months. So far 250+ youth have graduated and there are more job offers (high end restaurants, resorts, etc) than graduates. A second location recently opened in Hanoi.
My experience of Hoi An was one of a busy destination, one where popular sites were choked with tourists barely grasping the significance of what they were seeing. While at times I experienced the dreaded ‘overtourism’, the afternoon spent at Ooodles of Noodles was educational and entertaining – all while making a difference in the lives of young people.
This is the future of the industry as far as I’m concerned and a model for tourism done right. I’ve already challenged my soon-to-be tourism graduates back home to explore this model and see how they could bring it to BC.