The Team Leading Airbnb Through Crisis

Bessie LiuMeet the Team
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A person holding Airbnb logo in Rome, Italy. Image Credit: Kaspars Grinvalds, Shutterstock.

When the pandemic halted the travel industry, Airbnb was forced to pivot. The company reported losses of hundreds and millions of dollars and paused its ambitions to launch a flight service and TV production studio, laying off and furloughing 1900 employees. It is reported that Brian Chesky, the company’s Chief Executive Officer and Chairman, cried in front of his camera during this time.

Being a company that is well known for its welcoming, family-like culture, this was a difficult decision to make, and company morale suffered. Airbnb has since created a talent directory featuring previous employees so that other companies can easily tap into its talent and more recently, it has begun rehiring laid-off employees and restoring its bonus program.

Airbnb has so far managed to come back from the brink, and steering the company through this uncertain time has been its competent leadership team.

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Driving talent initiatives at the company is Vice President of Employee Experience, Beth Axelrod. Axelrod spent more than a decade of her career at eBay, where she served as Senior Vice President of Human Resources. She currently sits on the Board of Directors for the Compensation and Audit Committee. Prior to her career in Human Resources, Axelrod was a management consultant at McKinsey, where she progressed from Associate to Partner.

As the company entered survival mode, it began focusing on building virtual experiences like a new initiative to make virtual travelling more accessible for neurodiverse guests. Leading these changes is Catherine Powell, Global Head of Hosting. Powell joined the company in January 2020, overseeing homes and experiences in the organization. The British executive served 15 years at Disney, where she most recently held the title of President of Disney Parks Western Region.

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Online Experience Guided Meditation With Sleepy Sheep. Image Credit: Airbnb.

This is not the first time that Airbnb’s founders have been in a crisis. Unemployed and struggling to pay rent, Airbnb founders Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia decided to turn their San Francisco loft into a bed and breakfast space for visitors. They wanted to take advantage of the influx of designers visiting the city for the Industrial Design Conference.

“Airbnb was born in a crisis where my roommate and I couldn't afford to pay rent, but we saw it as an opportunity,” Chesky said in an interview with Insider.

The duo created a simple site, airbedandbreakfast.com, and charged guests $80 a night to sleep on air mattresses they had arranged in their loft. It was then they realized just how big their idea could be. They reached out to their old roommate, Nathan Blecharczyk, a technical architect and computer science graduate from Harvard, and worked on building their business. Fourteen years later, their company now operates in over 220 countries and has over 5.6 million active listings on its website.

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Brian Chesky at Airbnb Open 2016 . Image Credit: Airbnb.

With travel becoming more localized as a result of the pandemic, Airbnb focused on redesigning its website algorithm to show customers local destinations. The company reported that more than half of its guests made reservations for stays within 300 miles of their homes in July 2020.

Helping redesign Airbnb’s technology is Google veteran Ari Balogh. Balogh joined Airbnb in 2018 as CTO after serving as VP of Engineering, application storage, indexing and serving at Google. A graduate of Johns Hopkins University, Balogh also served as the CTO of Yahoo, where he oversaw engineering and product teams which consisted of over 8000 employees.

Airbnb released a report this year highlighting that almost 20% of Americans had rented a vacation home for at least 28 days since the start of the pandemic, and many more are considering longer-term stays.

Driving the company’s functional changes is Head of Global Operations, Tara Bunch. Bunch joined Airbnb in May 2020 and overlooks customer service, payments and safety. The UC Berkeley graduate previously served at Apple as VP of AppleCare for eight years. She replaced controversial but well-liked Belinda Johnson, who stepped down as COO in March 2020 to join the company’s board of directors.

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More people are renting vacation homes for over 28 days. Image Credit: Airbnb

During this time, Airbnb also established airbnb.org, an initiative by the company that focuses on partnering with community housing centres and not-for-profit organizations to provide free housing to people during times of crisis.

Aribnb.org Board Member, Professor Jennifer Bond, leads this initiative. Bond is the Founder and Managing Director of the University of Ottawa Refugee Hub and Chair of the Global Refugee Sponsorship Initiative (GRSI). She previously served as an advisor to Canada’s Ambassador to the United Nations and co-founded the Refugee Assistance Project and the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers.

“Airbnb has proven the power of connecting people and welcoming strangers. Airbnb.org aims to use that power to change lives and transform our world,” she wrote.

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