THE UNTETHERED TRAVELER

Un / te / ther (v): to free from restraints

Michael Singer’s bestselling book, “The Untethered Soul,” asks a provocative question, “What would it be like to free yourself from limitations and soar beyond your boundaries?” This question has been at the heart of my thirty years in hospitality getting inside the mind, heart and soul of the traveler. I closed escrow on my first hotel (okay, truth be told, it was a pay-by-the-hour motel in a seedy ‘hood) on December 31, 1986. My first night of occupancy at what was then known as The Garden Inn (and, formerly, the raunchy Caravan Lodge) was a full-house of raucous, untethered partiers and I thought I’d struck it rich. But, once the unsightly afterglow of New Year’s Eve appeared the next day, I had an empty hotel. A clean slate, but a dozen mouths to feed with my staff of what would become known as The Phoenix. As the proverb goes…

As a boutique hotelier starting with that humble motel, I realized I needed to attract travelers who didn’t mind straying from the common, innocuous path. My company was the kid brother to the founders of the boutique hotel movement in the US (Ian Schrager and Bill Kimpton). We believed that there were a growing number of travelers more focused on experience than predictability, and local flavor than brand standards. While the establishment took the path defined by Gandhi when describing how the Brits addressed the upstart liberation movement of India (in our case: first ignore the boutiques, then ridicule them, then fight them), ultimately we won when the establishment jumped on our bandwagon. Starwood created W. Intercontinental bought Kimpton. And Ian Schrager now works for Marriott. Boutiques helped travelers untether themselves from the big, bland chain hotels.

Then, nearly four years ago, I joined the founders of Airbnb to help create a hospitality company that strived to untether travelers even further. Moving from one hospitality movement (boutique hotels) to another (home sharing), I was once again struck by the fact that it was outsiders – two young designers and an engineer (Brian, Joe, and Nate) – who recognized this new opportunity. And, I’m deeply proud that Airbnb is not just a hospitality company today. It’s a hospitality company with guest satisfaction scores that are nearly 50% higher than the average for the hotel industry (based upon the Net Promoter Score metric) and the company’s valuation is now worth as much as Marriott and Starwood combined. Airbnb has proven that travelers want lots of options and don’t necessarily need all of the additional services (including daily housekeeping) that can create a more expensive hotel bill. But, at the heart of Airbnb’s appeal is the idea that travelers can live untethered like a local as creatively showcased in our “Live There” ad campaign.

As I mentioned in my blog post of October 5, our third annual Airbnb Open (AO) in LA last month showed our commitment to helping our hosts become master hospitality entrepreneurs. It was an opportunity to experience “pure Airbnb” while also learning about our new business – Trips – that allows the traveler to further untether him- or herself. The Airbnb Open was my brainchild, an IRL (In Real Life) experience for a company known for its URL. This year we evolved the concept of this annual pilgrimage into more of a festival than a conference with 20,000 members of our community from more than 100 countries joining us. While I’ve thrown many good parties in my years as a hospitality vet, I don’t think I’ve ever topped this one!

First of all, there was serious business as we did a product launch on day one that would have made Steve Jobs proud. We wanted the world to know about our new Trips product that allows travelers to untether themselves from tour buses and tourist traps so they can find local experiences and like-minded hosts who can help introduce them to the hidden treasures of their city. Here’s a 45-minute video of the whole, unconventional keynote as well as a 1-minute video that artfully explains this new offering.

The online hospitality magazine Skift gave a strategic perspective (based upon interviews with me and Trips leader Andrea La Mesa) on our launch and how it moves the company in the direction of becoming the superbrand for travel. Vanity Fair wrote an extended story on what Trips means for both the company and the untethered traveler.

You can watch more AO videos here, but here are three more worth seeing: Gwyneth Paltrow and Brian Chesky talking about the importance of design and taste, Ashton Kutcher’s impromptu response about creating a world where we can all “belong anywhere” after a protester came on stage. And, here’s a lively short reel of Day 3 which gives you a sense of why this was more of a festival than a conference. Airbnb Open LA was an untethered festival rather than a conventional conference. Perhaps we’ll see you at the next Open.