How Airbnb Open Is Changing the Attendee Experience

The peer-to-peer sharing platform has disrupted the hotel industry. Are meetings next?

Author: David McMillin       

Brian Chesky, co-founder and CEO of Airbnb, took the stage at the Orpheum Theatre to announce Trips — the company’s official entry into the world of online travel agencies.

“Belong Anywhere.” It’s the invitation that Airbnb has used to instill its sharing spirit both in the hosts who list their homes on the peer-to-peer accommodations marketplace, and in the guests who use it to book stays. But in planning the third annual Airbnb Open, the company narrowed that approach to one specific place: Los Angeles. During the Nov. 17–19 event, more than 7,000 members of the Airbnb community from more than 100 countries took over an eight-block stretch of downtown LA. And just as Airbnb has redefined what it means to be a traveler, Airbnb Open 2016 created a new idea of what it means to be a conference attendee.

Actually, forget conference, convention, or any of the typical terms associated with participating in business events. “Based on the passionate nature of the people who come to Open, you could almost call it a pilgrimage,” Chip Conley, Airbnb’s head of global hospitality and strategy, wrote in a letter posted on Airbnb’s blog in July. “Many hosts have told us that Open is much more transformational than a conference. So we’ve decided to call it a festival this year, and not a conference.”

When I arrived on South Broadway in downtown Los Angeles, I immediately saw that Conley was correct. The atmosphere combined the creative energy of C2 in Montreal with a laid-back vibe that would appeal to concert-goers at Coachella. Attendees come to Airbnb Open for a variety of reasons: to find tips on how to make more money hosting, to share their perspective
on improving the platform, and to hear from some of the most respected names in hospitality in more than 50 educational sessions. But regardless of their individual motivation for register-ing, they all share one thing: a serious passion for travel. When Brian Chesky, co-founder and CEO of Airbnb, took the stage at the Orpheum Theatre to announce Trips — the company’s official entry into the world of online travel agencies — the glow of smartphone screens capturing the moment paired with the roar of a standing ovation made it feel more like an Apple product launch than an opening general session. Over three days, Airbnb Open distinguished itself as a truly one-of-a-kind event, borrowing some lessons from traditional conference design while breaking with many others.

The Airbnb Open team capitalized on LA’s weather and remade “what is normally a run-of-the-mill parking lot” into a lively, informal, outdoor gathering spot.

A NEW SENSE OF BELONGING

As you might expect, Airbnb did not have a room block at a host hotel. Instead, attendees were scattered across Los Angeles, booking reservations at lofts and condos, and sharing rooms in the homes of their fellow Airbnb hosts. Likewise, instead of putting every attendee under one roof for its daytime program, Airbnb Open divided its sessions among four historic venues: The Orpheum Theater, Downtown Palace, Los Angeles Theatre, and The Theatre at Ace Hotel. Sarah Goodnow, global lead for Airbnb Open, acknowledged that creating a unifying feeling among attendees without centrally locating them came with challenges. But the idea was that members of the Airbnb community would bump into each other on street corners, or introduce themselves to each other while waiting in line for sessions, all of which were first-come, first-served.

“We wanted to encourage serendipitous and casual encounters by designing incredibly welcoming environments,” Goodnow said in an interview. “We also saw a lot of attendees loving the neighborhood restaurants, bars, food trucks, and coffee shops, and that was part of what we’d hoped [would happen]—to enable small businesses to benefit from the influx of visitors.”

Some of those neighborhood venues were integrated into the fabric of the program. Attendees came together to discuss their pain points about the design of the Airbnb platform during workshops in a clubhouse at Clifton’s, the oldest cafeteria-style restaurant in the city. Others joined their peers for conversations at Pattern Bar, where bartenders mixed cocktails named after designers—the festival was in the middle of LA’s Fashion District—in between sessions. “We really wanted to reflect the senses of downtown Los Angeles,” Goodnow said. “[We aimed] to not feel overly produced, but authentic to the local community.”

 

EMBRACING THE OUTDOORS

In Los Angeles, authenticity means palm trees and California sun, and Airbnb Open offered plenty of opportunities for both. Check-in was located in the Valley, an outdoor area behind the Orpheum that featured sponsor booths and a range of live-music performances from up-and-coming artists such as singer/songwriter Clara Chung and electro R&B group the Wav.

Brian Chesky, co-founder and CEO of Airbnb, took the stage at the Orpheum Theatre.

More action waited across Main Street in the Oasis, the central gather-ing hub for the festival. Imagine taking the typical prefunction space in a convention center, moving it outside, and dressing it up as a haven for hipsters.

Throughout Airbnb Open, the Oasis buzzed with attendees participating in one-on-one “brain dates”—knowledge exchanges made possible by Montreal-based E-180’s networking platform. When they weren’t having focused conversations, they tested Airbnb’s newest products, chatted with fellow attendees in lounge seating, and grabbed fresh fruit from a vintage pickup truck.

While the Oasis was used primarily as an informal gathering place, it also hosted two educational sessions and broadcast Chesky’s opening keynote address for overflow attendees who couldn’t grab a seat in the theater. Most impressive was the Airbnb Open team’s ability to envision such a lively area in a space that most organizers would use for valet service. According to Goodnow, it was “built on the site of what is normally a run-of-the-mill parking lot.”

In addition to creating outdoor environments, Goodnow and her team focused on helping attendees get away from the bustle of downtown LA with a series of homegrown opportunities on the first day of the conference. Local hosts opened their residences and offered tours of their favorite hidden gems around the city. “We knew from our research that hosts and guests attending Open are interested in exploring the neighborhoods of wherever we are,” Goodnow said. “This year in LA, we had an incredible amount of neighborhood explorations and open houses to ensure that folks were able to see what is such a large, diverse city.”

HIGH-TECH WITH A HUMAN TOUCH

Airbnb has earned a place among the tech stars in Silicon Valley, so it’s no surprise that Open featured the latest in digital innovation. Your typical business-card handoffs were rare sights. Instead, attendees received near-field communication wristbands at check-in that were synced with their Airbnb accounts. Bumping hands automatically loaded information from new contacts onto their online Airbnb profiles. But the wristbands were more than networking devices. Outfitted with mini LED lights, they served as reminders when sessions were beginning by blinking five minutes before start time, and they brought the final-night celebration to life, pulsing in rhythm with Maroon 5’s stage show in the Oasis.

However, some of the most memorable elements in the experience required no plugging in or logging on. Instead of a mobile app built for the festival, Airbnb partnered with LA Downtowner, an insider’s guide to the city, to print a 20-page festival guide that included a daily schedule, recommendations for eating and drinking, a map, and other helpful information. The map guided me to my favorite part of Airbnb Open—an environment called Share Your Story @BNKR. Airbnb rented out the recently opened retail destination for Australia-based BNKR—pronounced “bunker”—to deliver a rarity at face-to-face gatherings: time to think. Artists greeted me with an invitation to contribute to a massive mural on one wall. Next, I painted my own watercolor postcard.

The highlight of my visit to BNKR was a Zen-like journaling station where a series of questions prompted attendees to craft their own entries about how Airbnb had affected their lives: What kind of travel has hosting afforded you? Where in the world have you traveled to meet one of your guests? What is your ultimate dream travel itinerary? I jotted down notes about my own experience in Los Angeles. I had rented an apartment downtown from a host named Maya, and each day, my 15-minute walk to and from the festival gave me opportunities to see more of the city. While most conferences I’ve attended tout the “short walk to the convention center,” that convenience comes with a cost: I usually fail to discover much of the destination. The Airbnb experience opened my eyes to a new side of Los Angeles and a new way of immersing myself in a host city during an event.

ASHTON KUTCHER GETS IT

While Airbnb Open reinforced the most promising aspects of peer-to-peer rentals, Airbnb itself has run into plenty of problems during its rapid rise. Lawsuits regarding short-term rental regulations in two of the company’s biggest U.S. markets — San Francisco and New York — have made big headlines over the past year. To its credit, Airbnb has tried to address those concerns, working with cities to create registration systems for hosts, and devising programs to ensure that hosts pay taxes equivalent to hotel properties. Airbnb Open’s education program got in on the act, too, with sessions such as “Building Relationships With Landlords and Neighbors” and “Working Together With the Travel Industry.”

But despite the company’s efforts to address some of these issues, the negative attitude surrounding the rise of Airbnb cut through the air on South Broadway on the final day of Airbnb Open. Protesters marched down the festival’s main thoroughfare with signs confronting the company on charges of discriminatory practices—another battle that Airbnb has faced in recent months. It was a noticeable disruption, and it became even more of an issue when Ashton Kutcher, Hollywood star and Airbnb investor, took the stage at the Orpheum to discuss his approach to entrepreneurship with Chesky. One of the protesters had managed to sneak into the session, and her distaste for Airbnb was loud enough that she needed no microphone to voice her frustrations when she charged the stage. In what would have been a nightmare for most meeting professionals, Kutcher managed to turn the situation into a teaching moment.

“Let me explain to you what Airbnb means to me,” Kutcher said as he stood up to shake the protester’s hand. “What the people here are doing is focusing on bringing people together and open-ing our homes and our hearts to each other. We can get to know each other and understand that we all can belong together in a world without borders.”

As the capacity crowd at the Orpheum jumped to their feet and cheered Kutcher’s comments, it seemed clear that Airbnb had instilled the same belief in the attendees who had traveled to Los Angeles. And while they may indeed be able to feel like they belong anywhere, their standing ovation suggested that they had discovered a true sense of what it means to feel at home at Airbnb Open.