Chip Conley’s Influence at Airbnb

IF YOU WANT to make a private phone call in the office-free workspace of Airbnb’s San Francisco headquarters, you need to retreat to a tiny windowless room with a narrow couch nestled between shag-carpeted walls. It’s where Chip Conley, the company’s head of global hospitality and strategy, has chosen to talk to a visitor, and where Conley, a tall, lean man who brims with Zen-like energy (he meditates twice daily), settles in as he describes the approach to hospitality he formed as a 26-year-old, when he started Joie de Vivre Hotels.

“There were very few companies in the world whose name was also the mission of the company,” says Conley, “but our whole premise was celebrating the joy of life, for employees as well as guests. We wanted you to feel like we were entertaining you in our own home.”

Joie de Vivre even called its front desk clerks “hosts,” a notion that is not lost on Conley today. “That was 30 years ago,” he says, “and weirdly, I’m now at Airbnb, helping our hosts be great at hospitality.”

If Conley seemed an unlikely choice to guide Airbnb’s 1.4 million hosts worldwide in helping guests feel at home, he’s not. When the company hired him four years ago, Airbnb executives were looking for someone who could make their guest experience more consistent — and place Airbnb solidly alongside traditional hotels. Who better than Conley? He had bucked conventional wisdom before, proving his mettle as an entrepreneur with an unconventional 52-property boutique hotel chain and as a thought leader, with four books, including Peak: How Great Companies Get Their Mojo from Maslow, to his credit.

Even before then, Conley was used to breaking new ground. When he arrived in San Francisco 30 years ago, after completing his Stanford undergraduate and Master of Business Administration degrees, the Long Beach native planned to become a real estate developer. But finding the profession dry, he decided to open a boutique hotel instead — despite having no hotel experience. “I was looking for something more creative that also made people feel good,” he says. “Plus, I love to travel.”

It was 1987, when boutique hotels were hitting the scene in the United States. Ian Schrager had started his ultrahip (and expensive) hotels, and Bill Kimpton had created his more corporate boutique lodging. Neither felt right to Conley. “Chip thought boutique hotels didn’t have to be so hip and that they could be affordable,” says Oren Bronstein, former head of design development for Joie de Vivre and now owner of Oren Bronstein Designs.

To prove the point, Conley purchased a payby- the-hour motel in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district and transformed it into the Phoenix, in his words a “rock ’n’ roll hotel that would appeal to musicians on the road and creative types.”

With the Phoenix, Conley also created the formula he would use with all his Joie de Vivre hotels, from Costanoa in Pescadero to Hotel Erwin in Venice Beach. “Every hotel was based on a magazine,” says Conley. “We came up with five adjectives that defined that magazine, and created a hotel around that.”

For the Phoenix, the magazine was Rolling Stone, and the descriptors Conley and his staff came up with were funky, irreverent, adventurous, cool and young-at-heart. “Everything we did in the hotel, from the design of the guest rooms to the unique services to the staff we hired, all came back to those five adjectives,” Conley says.

He also hired Marin native Zio Ziegler to paint wraparound graffiti at the entrance of the hotel and filled each room with art from students at the San Francisco Art Institute. “We thought that art should be iconic and give you a sense of the place,” Conley says, “so we typically worked with local artists.” For three years, he also hosted an art festival at the hotel, ArtPadSF, co-founded with Maria Jenson, executive director of SOMArts Cultural Center.

It worked. The hotel quickly drew the rock ’n’ roll crowd, from David Bowie to Linda Ronstadt to Johnny Depp, and Conley used the formula to create another 51 completely unique hotels.

“The Hotel Vitale in San Francisco, for example, was Real Simple meets Dwell,” says Conley. “Dwell was modern and urbane and Real Simple was fresh, natural and nurturing.” In design terms, this translated to lavender sprigs in wood pallets at the door signage, as well as natural woods and stone in the rooms. It also meant soft blue patterns in the bedding and blue-green carpet, all of which mimicked the bay just outside the windows.

“What we found was that the people who fell in love with the hotel were people who might use those five adjectives to describe themselves,” says Conley. “Literally, in the design and habitat, we created something that helped guests refresh the sense of who they were.”

Conley sold the company in 2010 and was “sort of retired” when Airbnb approached him. He had planned to move to Baja (where he has a home), learn to surf and work on, his website devoted to festivals, a passion of Conley’s. A devoted Burner, he sits on Burning Man’s board and helps fund some of the festival’s art. “When Airbnb came to me, I said I’ll do 15 hours a week,” says Conley. “Within three weeks, I realized it was going to be 15 hours a day.”

Airbnb Headquarters
An atrium at Airbnb’s San Francisco headquarters is ringed by offices and meeting rooms that reflect the range of homes in the company’s repertoire.

Conley’s job was huge: to teach Airbnb hosts how to create “a great hospitality experience for the guest.” Toward that end, he created nine quality standards all hosts need to honor, including accuracy (your photos should actually show what the place looks like), communication (follow up with your guests after they arrive), cleanliness and amenities.

As part of the job, he also teaches a “Hospitality Moments of Truth” class, both in webinars and in person, around the world. Among his nuggets? The five-five-five rule. “Stimulate your guests’ five senses the first five minutes they walk in the door, using the five adjectives you’d pick to describe your home,” Conley says. “If someone walks in the door and there’s a bowl of apples they could actually eat, there’s Enya music playing in the background, and there’s an aromatherapy candle, that’s a positive experience.”

Since Conley has been on board, Airbnb hosts have made huge improvements in service levels, and now the company has a Net Promoter Score — the hospitality standard, used to measure guest satisfaction — that’s 50 percent higher than the hotel industry average.

If the concept of home is dear to Conley, it’s because he’s on the road about a third of the year and has visited 60 countries (with no Kindle, either; he still lugs paper books). Whether it’s to an Airbnb listing in India, the hot Nevada desert of Burning Man or a windowless room with shag rug walls in the company’s headquarters, he settles in quickly.

“Because he travels so much, the world is his home,” says SOMArts’ Jenson. “He’s at ease with a lot of different ideas and people, and he knows it’s about being welcoming and open. He likes to share the idea that you’re at home no matter where you are.” As evidence, his San Francisco house is filled with indigenous art and photographs he’s picked up in India, Morocco, Bali, Mexico and Japan.

Soon, Conley will be moving to another home. He’s about to semiretire (again) and move to Baja, where he plans to write a book on being a “modern elder,” exploring what millennials and boomers can learn from each other. The first thing he’ll do when he moves is open the boxes with the art and the books. “I don’t care about the dishes, the linens or even my own clothes,” Conley says. “But the art and books — they’re like breathing, educating things in my life. They are living for me.”