By Lee Foster
My recent visit to the Airbnb worldwide headquarters at 888 Brannan in San Francisco ranks among the more enlightening cultural experiences of my recent life.
Airbnb now has a major influence on travel, communications, and corporate culture.
Could Airbnb transform travel journalism (its Places tab) and travel experiences (its Experiences tab) just as it has transformed lodging in 190 countries?
In travel, Airbnb has three significant influences.
First, Airbnb has changed the way many travelers now seek lodging, allowing personal transaction accommodations, direct from provider to traveler, in its 190 countries.
Second, Airbnb also has a major effect on what we experience in travel, with its Experiences offerings on its website. This is a growing sector of Airbnb. This allows the traveler to hook up with a local experience provider, for a price. The result is often a personal off-beat adventure or insight into local culture.
And third, Airbnb also exerts a growing effect on current and future travel publishing. The Places component on the Airbnb website for each destination has its local lodging and experience providers doing write-ups on their community. This database will eventually become a major source for traveler information and insight worldwide.
Look at San Francisco on Airbnb as an example of the future of listings everywhere.
All this occurs because of the remarkable development of software that allows person-to-person mini transactions worldwide.
Aside from its influence on travel, Airbnb also exerts a major effect on American corporate culture. It is an example of the dot com culture par excellence, focused on how to motivate employees with a pleasant work place and perks. It helps, of course, to be a highly successful, growing, and prosperous enterprise, able to lavish resources on employees.
The public can’t tour Airbnb in San Francisco. You need to know someone there, who will invite you and give you a personal tour. I was invited to look the place over because of an acquaintance who works there.
Here are some aspects of what I learned:
-The building at 888 Brannan, four stories around an airy atrium, is in the booming design area south of Market, with many new apartments and condos going up in the vicinity.
-Airbnb corporate is the world of the young. It appeared to me that almost everyone I saw was roughly 21-30, though some might have been 30-40. At age 74, I easily could have won the award for the oldest person present that day, as far I could observe.
-Your workspace at Airbnb is an ample desk area in large clusters of desks with many other workers adjacent. You can sit at your desk or raise it up and stand. You are issued a Macbook Pro upon entering employment and have a large monitor at your desk area. There is no paper and no printing. Every document is an e-document, on your computer and in the cloud.
-You can bring your dog or child to work. The dog or child hangs out with you as you work. On Fridays you can work from home if your manager approves.
-There are two heroes in the Airbnb system: the first is the lovely lodging place worldwide that you can rent and the second is the host that customers love. In the four story building, there are perhaps 100 small conference rooms, for meetings of 5 to 20 people. They are each literally set up with the décor of an actual rentable place in the Airbnb worldwide system. A small computer outside the door of the conference room shows the actual room, and you could book it right there with a couple of clicks if you wish. The décor inside mimics the place on the small monitor outside, with the necessary meeting monitor on the wall, plus a table and chairs. A presenter can plug a laptop into the room monitor. There are also maybe another 100 small getaway rooms, for 1-3 people. They all have place and décor themes and place names from the worldwide Airbnb lodging system.
-The second hero in the Airbnb system is the worldwide host that people love. Celebrity-size poster photos of selected hosts line some walls, along with touching tributes from reviewers. The company’s progressive stance on social issues is also in evidence. There is a wall celebrating hosts who occasionally open up their room gratis to refugees. Photos of hundreds of such hosts and pointed comments on the worldwide refugee issue are the décor on one wall. Airbnb is a huge social network worldwide.
-Food and drink is a major aspect of Airbnb culture. My host for my personal tour, an Airbnb worker, invited me to lunch. No money changes hands when a worker or their guest desires food or drink. We walked around the building from 11-12 and then went to lunch at the ground floor restaurant. As a worker, one employment perk is a free chef-created breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and any food or drink at any other time. The featured lunch on my day was a Thai salad with vegetables, and Thai tofu (deliciously spicy), and a Thai baked fish dish. Another special chef creation for that day was a Thai sweet rice custard dessert. Tomorrow would be different. Beyond that, there was an elaborate salad bar and soup bar. There were about 50 different wines and beers that could also be poured, all from spigots. Aside from the ground floor restaurant, there were small restaurants with specialty items on the three upper floors, plus little alcoves where coffee, tea, and snacks could be sourced at any time.
-In one tea alcove corner, there were a half dozen select teas, plus brewing instructions for each tea. A machine in the alcove could deliver your tea water at the precise temperature desired, maybe 195 degrees or maybe 210 degrees, as was suggested in the brewing instructions for your individual tea varietal.
-One significant aspect of the entire food operation at Airbnb is that there are no disposable utensils/plates/glasses. You eat off a glass plate, with metal silverware, and sip your wine or lemonade or tea from glasses or cups. In the main restaurant, everyone returns their plates etc to a washing area on the way out. Everything is washed and re-used. There is no waste. The parallel in the office area is that there is no printing on paper and no discarding of paper.
-As I left Airbnb I walked up 8th Street to my parked car. A concrete post held up the freeway above me, and the lot beyond the street was sectioned off with a chain link fence. There were a couple of feet between the post and the fence. An elderly homeless man had pitched a tent and tarp there as his homestead. He sat in a lawn chair in front and glared at me, as if I might threaten his home. I could not help but feel I had just left the fortunate world of the talented and gifted young. These young people at Airbnb were well educated, had probably worked very hard to get there, and likely enjoyed good health and strong family support. They lived in a hopeful world with a bright future. This elderly homeless man was at the other end of the spectrum, suggesting how uneven real life can proceed for different citizens.