IHIF Day 3: Airbnb exec talks innovation, 'magic'

BERLIN—During the third and final day of the International Hotel Investment Forum (IHIF) in Berlin, Airbnb executive Greg Greeley found himself "on the grill" during a Q&A with Omer Isvan, president of Servotel, that examined how creative thinkers are changing the hospitality landscape.

Titled “Think Differently: The Companies Innovating in Hospitality,” the one-on-one session began with the admission that innovators rarely start out trying to break new ground. In the case of Airbnb, its founders created the company as a way to pay their rent, but their novel approach to home sharing helped elevate the segment.

“At the time, [Airbnb’s founders] weren’t thinking about disruption, they were thinking about the connection they had with customers, which they described as ‘magical,’” said Greg Greeley, president of homes at Airbnb. “That connection has driven all the innovation they have done.”

When asked by Isvan to describe the business Airbnb is in, Greeley avoided including the company in the hospitality sector altogether, opting instead to refer to Airbnb’s segment as the “magical travel business.” To Greeley, Airbnb’s purpose is to connect travelers and locations on a personal level; however, his company’s mission statement shares much of the same language used by boutique hotels all across the industry: local, authentic and homelike feature heavily in his descriptors.

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Though the company avoids the trappings of many hotel organizations, last year saw the launch of Airbnb Plus, a curated home-sharing platform required to offer a standard set of amenities. The company also is expanding into the vacation-rental market, and even lists boutique hotels on its booking portal.

“We opened our arms to boutique hotels last year, and our phones are ringing off the hook,” said Greeley. “We grew our boutique listings 150 percent, and our bookings more than tripled. Any boutique hotel providing a local experience should not think of us as competitors.”

Growing Outward

At this point in a hospitality company’s growth, it usually starts launching different brands, but in which direction can Airbnb grow? In February the company hired Fred Reid, founding CEO of Virgin America and later president of both Delta and Lufthansa airlines, as its global head of transportation. Greeley said Airbnb has no plans to launch an airline, but Reid’s presence in the company will serve as a means to inform its relationship with airlines.

Would Airbnb ever consider a brick-and-mortar business? Greeley said the company is open to the idea, with some developers building homes with multiple entrances designed exclusively for home-sharing in the future.

“I do envision Airbnb is an open platform. Developers who want to create a unique short-term rental experience can do so on our platform. There is lots of development happening, and we want to be as open to it as we can," said Greeley.

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Greeley also was reluctant to consider Airbnb a true competitor of the hotel industry, arguing there is room for both in the market.

With the global travel industry there are going to be a lot of winners, he said. “There are a lot of different needs. Airbnb is driving for community. Some are driving for efficiency or luxury, but Airbnb is here to address that segment of travelers who are looking for local experiences.”