Airbnb’s CEO Plans to Disrupt More Than Just the Hotel Industry

Brian Chesky is our Digital Executive of the Year

Chesky is particularly proud of Airbnb Trips, the company’s first travel app with rentals, restaurants and city guides.
Courtesy Airbnb

In the span of eight years, Brian Chesky has taken an air mattress in San Francisco and blown it up into a multi-billion dollar business—only with much nicer beds.

Chesky, the CEO of Airbnb, has rapidly disrupted the powerful and highly regulated hotel industry while empowering millions of people to open their apartments, homes and tree houses to guests they’ve never met. In less than a decade since its founding in 2008, Airbnb has become one of the most valuable private companies in the world, and with $1 billion more raised this month and a potential IPO in sight for next year, it seems Airbnb has every intention of increasing its curb appeal.

Airbnb created a Trips app for planning travel to restaurants and events.

“Brian and the management team have done an extraordinary job of on the one hand being this incredible brand and this vision of the global accommodation community of trust among private individuals,” says Douglas Quinby, vp of research at Phocuswright, a travel research firm. “But on the flip side they’ve also done an incredible job of growing this business at an incredible rate.”

Indeed, under the leadership of Chesky, Adweek’s Digital Executive of the Year, Airbnb has grown at a rapid clip. Last year, the company became profitable for the first time and now has a total valuation of around $31 billion. Santosh Rao, a research analyst at Manhattan Venture Partners, credits Chesky as one of the “pioneers” bringing the sharing economy into the mainstream. While the co-founder wasn’t the first to come up with the age-old tradition of sharing (or selling) what someone already has, he’s helped make it both culturally and financially successful. According to Rao’s estimates, nights booked through Airbnb jumped 56 percent last year to around 125 million, which he expects to increase to between 190 million and 200 million in 2017. Based on his economic models, Airbnb could do as much as $18 billion in booking value this year, with $2.5 billion in revenue.

"He is truly a creative visionary, with a ferocious—and sometimes insatiable—appetite for innovation … He is redefining how we experience the world, and helping bring people closer together."
-Jonathan Mildenhall, CMO, Airbnb

“The secular tailwind of the sharing economy cannot be overturned now,” notes Rao. “It’s a very powerful force, these peer-to-peer services.”

So what’s helped these services catch on, especially when it requires strangers trusting strangers with their most intimate places like homes and cars? A collection of good hosts, good digital products and good marketing. Besides a series of critically popular spots last year urging travelers to live like a local, Airbnb has been a pioneer brand in making use of  the latest social media tools including 360-degree live video, video carousel ads on Instagram and customized Twitter profiles. It’s also come up with promotions for people to live for a few days in the desert, in a tree house, or even underwater. And in February, Airbnb put its cultural clout behind a Super Bowl ad promoting inclusivity and acceptance of all people—a perhaps risky but clear rebuke of President Donald Trump just weeks after he took office.

Airbnb ran a last-minute Super Bowl LI spot to respond to President Trump’s immigration ban.

“He is truly a creative visionary, with a ferocious—and sometimes insatiable—appetite for innovation,” says Airbnb CMO Jonathan Mildenhall. “And at a time when so much feels uncertain and divided, he is redefining how we experience the world, and helping bring people closer together.”

All that marketing could also help navigate past regulatory roadblocks and continued opposition from the hotel industry. Such pressure could intensify as the company begins getting into other verticals such as luxury and long-term rentals through active acquisitions and internal innovation.

Airbnb, Leo Burnett and the Art Institute of Chicago recreated and rented out Van Gogh’s bedroom.

So which market does Airbnb call home next? Chesky’s own tweets might provide some hints. Last Christmas Day, he took to Twitter for a digital town hall of sorts, asking users what Airbnb should add or do differently. Suggestions included services such as meals, flights, rental cars, cleaning services and chefs. (Chesky said many of those are already in the works or could soon be.)

Ask him what he’s most proud of from the past year, and Chesky points to the launch of Airbnb Trips, the company’s first travel app with itineraries for rentals, restaurants and city guides.

“With the launch of Trips, we wanted to make travel magical again by putting people in the heart of every trip,” Chesky tells Adweek.

This story first appeared in the March 20, 2017, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.