As Airbnb moves on from a hard-fought victory in San Francisco, where voters rejected a ballot measure that would have placed severe restrictions on home-sharing services, the company wants its hosts to fight for the right to share their homes.
That’s the clear message coming out of the second annual Airbnb Open in Paris, a conference for the home-sharing service’s hosts that is one part fan convention, one part workshopping seminar, and one part advocacy rally. At this year’s three-day Open, which began on Thursday, some 5,000 hosts from more than 110 countries (including this reporter, who has hosted on the site for roughly six years) converged at the Grande Halle at Paris’ Parc de la Villette to trade tips and attend classes with titles such as “Home Hacks” and “Be a Hostrepreneur”. For the company’s executives, the Open is also a prime venue to directly address thousands of their most active boots on the ground.
“Being a host, a lot of times we’re misunderstood and even attacked,” Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky said at the conference’s opening keynote. “A lot of people say: ‘I don’t want strangers in my building. I don’t want Airbnb in my neighborhood’. I think when they say that, they’re saying they don’t understand what we do as hosts. They don’t understand us.”
This is a crucial time for the company, whose rapid expansion has drawn critical attention from localities seeking to limit or regulate short-term rentals. According to Airbnb executives, the San Francisco ballot victory—which executives credit to a highly mobilized cadre of hosts—helped create a framework for fighting similar measures elsewhere.
”We won by double digits, we carried every district in the city, and we sent a message: Not only are you a community, but you are a movement,” Chris Lehane, Airbnb’s head of public policy, told the crowd of hosts.
“This is crazy: Our community made 270,000 phone calls and knocked on 285,000 doors,” said Belinda Johnson, Airbnb’s chief business affairs and legal officer. “That is incredible and made an enormous difference.”
The Open is also an opportunity for Airbnb to solicit feedback from its power users. Roughly 630 Airbnb employees are in attendance, including representatives from every one of the company’s more-than-a-dozen offices around the world. Booths around the venue provide a forum for hosts to point out bugs or features they wish they had; and the company is even giving hosts a sneak peak at future product updates.
It’s clear that Airbnb views its million-plus hosts—some of whom shared stories at the Open about how Airbnb-generated income has allowed them to start a business or avoid foreclosure—as a powerful ally for its cause. The company’s role then becomes bringing these myriad voices together, and giving them the vehicles and support needed to advocate for their and the company’s shared goals.
To this end, company executives discussed the creation of a new tool: Homesharing clubs that will serve as a focal point for local policy initiatives. Lehane described these clubs as tool for hosts to join forces in order to “organize, mobilize, and legitimize” within the framework of local communities and regulations.
“Airbnb was started as a people-to-people home-sharing network,” Lehane said. “From that perspective, it has evolved and become a people-to-people power-sharing network. Of the people, for the people, by the people.”
Airbnb executives frequently pointed to the conference site of Paris—which is now the largest Airbnb market in the world—as a model for how the company can successfully coexist with local communities and regulators.
“Paris is soil for big ideas to grow, from the French Revolution to union rights to the climate change issues we face,” Jean-Francois Martine, Paris’ deputy mayor in charge of tourism told the crowd. “But a big idea sometimes need regulation to protect it from people who want to use it in not a virtuous way. That’s why we founded a very close partnership with Airbnb and the city of Paris for tax issues. For few months now, all hosts on Airbnb collect taxes and are fully part of Paris tourism and accommodation.”
“It’s so wonderful to have a public official on stage endorsing Airbnb,” Chip Conley, Airbnb’s head of global hospitality and strategy, said after the deputy mayor spoke. “We’re gonna make some mistakes along the way, but we will do our best to iterate and get it right.”