How radical is Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky’s vision for the future of travel?
Radical enough that last November, at the Airbnb Open—a gathering of some 5,000 hosts—the opening act for Chesky’s keynote included an earnest celebration of a rarely celebrated breed of traveller: The sex tourist.
"It’s totally normal," said Alan de Botton, a British pop philosopher and friend of Chesky’s, who addressed a crowd at Paris's Parc de la Villette. "One of the most wonderful things to do when you’re traveling is have sex with a local."
De Botton, whose 2003 book The Art of Travel was reissued last year with a foreword by Chesky, was being intentionally provocative, calling attention to the fact that most people travel not because they want to eat in a fancy restaurant or see a museum, but because they’re seeking some sort of deeper fulfillment—which yes, often includes meeting romantic partners.
In addition to celebrating the single traveler, however, de Botton suggested that hosts try to cater to the needs of families by suggesting culturally relevant kid-friendly activities that go beyond theme parks and costumed characters. "It’s very hard to be part of a family," de Botton said. "There are resentments, a sense of being neglected, a sense of loneliness." And yet, he noted sardonically, "Most of the travel industry suggests one answer: a water slide."
In his own remarks, Chesky built on de Botton's ideas. "Every year, 30 million people go to Paris," he said. "They look at everything, and they see nothing. We don’t need to go to monuments and landmarks to experience a culture. We can actually stay with people."
At the end of his talk, Chesky showed a teaser video for an ad campaign that Airbnb is currently developing and plans to unveil sometime this year. "Don’t go to Paris," a woman’s voice intoned. "Don’t tour Paris. And, please, don’t do Paris. Live in Paris." The pitch: Airbnb offers an experience that is more authentic than a typical cookie-cutter hotel room.
This idea underscores why Airbnb is shaking up the hotel industry—many believe that Airbnb’s rise helped prompt Marriott's decision to acquire Starwood for $12.2 billion—and it is informing the company's recent moves. In December, Airbnb began testing a new product, Journeys, that packages a three-day homestay in San Francisco with an airport transfer, meals, and day trips for $500. On stage in Paris, Chesky urged hosts to offer their guests extra services, such as airport pickups, walking tours, and snacks. "What’s special in your world isn’t just the home you have," he said. "It’s your whole life."
During my interviews with Chesky for Fast Company’s current cover story, he declined to comment specifically on Journeys but acknowledged that it represented a broader shift in approach. Airbnb guests, he told me, "are looking for experiences where they connect with people and connect with the culture." If Airbnb can deliver those experiences reliably, Chesky will have gone a long way in justifying his company's $25.5 billion valuation.