As Legislative Battle Looms, Airbnb Focuses on Building an API and Working With Brands

CEO wants the service to be 'more of a platform'

CANNES, France—There are 5,125 people using Airbnb here this week during the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, and Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky is one of them. Adweek sat down with the 34-year-old executive at his relatively spacious, temporary pad along the Croisette in this French Riviera town to discuss the future of his business—including the possibility of an API (application programming interface) and data-based partnerships with airlines and other brands.

But perhaps most importantly, the conversation addressed a bump in the road back in Chesky's home state of New York. The New York State Assembly passed a bill on Friday that criminalizes the act of advertising entire unoccupied apartments for short-term rentals in NYC, and it awaits Governor Andrew Cuomo's signature or veto. New York represents Airbnb's biggest market, with thousands of apartments listed. The Hotel Association of New York City is the chief supporter of the bill, which Airbnb is criticizing as a late-session rush job.

"I am disappointed there wasn't more of a due process, hearings, with participation from both sides," Chesky said. "We learned about it, like, about 24 hours before it passed. We weren't even able to inform our community. By the time we were informing our community, the legislature was already voting on it. I think [the legislature] was in a hurry to get home for summer, so there wasn't really an appetite for a really long debate. We are looking forward to having a seat at the table, and having our community represented. We have 400,000 members in New York."

Since many of those members earn at least a partial living by renting apartments on Airbnb, expect the company to encourage its legions of users to influence Cuomo's decision later this year.

Chesky said, "I am disappointed that I am from upstate New York, and this is becoming one of our most-challenged markets. But I am optimistic about the future. I think three years from now, five years from now, unquestionably, you'll be able to go to New York and you'll be able to book a home on Airbnb."

An Airbnb API?

Airbnb has a ton of data from its 60 million users in dozens of countries that marketers in adjacent travel niches would love to have access to. Is Chesky open to forging data deals, with, say, airline brands?

"We would absolutely consider really interesting partnerships with companies," he answered. "I think going forward, Airbnb can become more of a platform. Today people would probably call us more of a marketplace. … But companies cannot plug into [it] very easily.

"We don't have an API that companies can plug into. I think going forward, though, we are really interested in becoming a platform. What companies plug in probably remain to be seen. But we've been pretty open that we see ourselves moving beyond just the home, toward an end-to-end-trip [platform], so you can probably connect the dots on where that leads us. But we don't have any tangible things around airlines that we are ready to announce."

Not yet, anyway. So is an API part of Airbnb's future? "I think so," said Chesky.

Meanwhile, he understands that any data-marketing partnership with brands will have to make sense to Airbnb users, or risk angering them when it comes to digital privacy.

"They got to feel that it's something they signed up for," he added. 

During an interview on stage at Cannes Lions earlier today by Cosmopolitan editor-in-chief Joanna Coles, Chesky announced an initiative with The Art Institute of Chicago. The two parties are renting out an apartment inside the Windy City museum that copies the details of Van Gogh's iconic bedroom painting. Even brands can book the room on Airbnb for activations.

"It was one of the most popular things we've ever done, and we just wanted to up open it up," Chesky explained. "Why would brands want to do that, you may ask? But they can stay overnight and bring their brand to life."