For its annual conference of Airbnb hosts in Los Angeles, arguably the entertainment capital of the world, Airbnb turned to some major Hollywood players: actor and successful tech investor Ashton Kutcher, and actress and entrepreneur Gwyneth Paltrow.
Both spoke on Saturday, November 19, during the Airbnb Open, to packed theaters filled with Airbnb hosts, revealing their personal thoughts on travel and on Airbnb itself.
Their appearances confirmed the festival’s overall theme of star power, reinforcing the cinematic nature and marketing of Airbnb’s newest product launch, Trips, each of which is showcased with a short film and a vintage-film-style poster.
This was confirmed by Airbnb Open organizer, Chip Conley, who also serves as the company’s global head of hospitality and strategy. “We spent two years getting to this place, and a year ago, we knew that the cinematic reference was really important here,” he said.
At the Open, he said, the true stars weren’t just the celebrities like Kutcher or Paltrow, or even Lady Gaga who made a concert appearance later that night. They were the more than 7,000 hosts who came from more than 100 countries around the world. “The full element is that travel is a dramatic experience, sometimes good, sometimes bad,” Conley added.
Kutcher’s Defense of Airbnb
And like any good film, there was also a bit of drama, especially during Kutcher’s one-on-one interview with Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky. Kutcher, who is an investor in Airbnb, has invested in more than 120 different companies, including Uber and Spotify.
Only a little more than a minute into his talk, a protestor from Code Pink stormed the stage. The protestor, Ariel Gold, opposed Airbnb’s listings in Israeli-occupied territories in the West Bank as well as the company’s role in contributing to the affordable housing crisis.
At that point, Kutcher rose to his feet, and spoke directly to Gold, asking her how she was doing, and then launching into a passionate defense of the company.
“What the people in here are doing is focusing on bringing people together,” Kutcher said. “It’s a community that doesn’t have borders. That we can all belong in a world together without borders. I can appreciate that this doesn’t happen seamlessly. I can appreciate that it doesn’t happen easily. I can appreciate that where there is change there will be a fringe case that feels objectified, but this company is about bringing people together … and I know this man, I know his heart, I know his initiative, I know when a problem gets brought to his desk that says there is a discrimination or there is a displacement, I know he cares. The first thing he does is try to look at the system holistically and change it to make it better. You are welcome in a world where we all belong, and if you want to sit down and have a conversation about it, I’m happy to have that conversation with you.”
After the protestor was escorted off the stage, Chesky and Kutcher continued their conversation and, at one point, Chesky brought up the company’s regulatory challenges in cities like New York, asking Kutcher: “How have you thought about this, and how did you navigate this when you were investing?”
Kutcher replied, “I had the great fortune of naiveté. And I’m also an eternal optimist which sends you down some roads and battles you don’t think you’re going to get into. The way I think about it is, I think that anytime that you try to do something new and you start to be successful, there will always be incumbents who want to push back against something that which is new because of fear. I think there are, most certainly with this platform, edge-case issues that I’m guessing, when you were starting out, you never thought you would be up against or even have to consider. I’m 100-percent sure anytime you build something like this there are going to be those edge-case issues. As a responsible company, you address those expediently, and I think that’s what Airbnb does.”
He continued, saying, “As I look at it, I believe in the spirit of this company. And I believe that there is nothing more powerful than the Airbnb community, than the travelers and the hosts, and we get to regulate it. We get to regulate us. We get to say what we want and how we want it. We have to be responsible in dealing with the fringe-case issues that are going to come up and come up in any industry. As long as we’re responsible in dealing with those, and we tell our legislators what we want and what we need, the tide will change and the tide will shift and this company will be around for decades to come.”
Kutcher’s basic argument? That Airbnb should be allowed to regulate itself and that it should be trusted to do so.
Given recent developments in cities like Chicago and San Francisco, where Airbnb global head of public policy, Chris Lehane, has expressed a willingness to work more with cities, and to even exchange information about its hosts and listings with those cities, the tide, as Kutcher suggested, does appear to be changing.
Yet even now, as Airbnb tries to work more with cities and to regulate itself, the company also faces other challenges, including hosts who claim that Airbnb’s decision to hand over their private information to local governments is a violation of their privacy and should be deemed unconstitutional. Regulation, whether instituted by local governments or the companies themselves, is a complicated matter.
Beyond a celebrity investor’s passionate defense are real-world challenges that are less touchy-feely. In some cases, Airbnb hasn’t been as transparent as it had claimed to be, such as when it omitted 1,500 questionable listings in a data dump from New York City in 2015. Or when the company has been, by its own admittance, slow to respond to serious issues, as was the case of dealing with racial bias and discrimination on its platform.
Airbnb’s role in contributing to affordable housing crises in cities like New York and San Francisco is an incredibly complex matter, too. And while Airbnb isn’t the only contributing factor, by any means, its impact in certain destinations that have long battled this problem cannot be denied.
Kutcher later said, “The thing that will ultimately shift the tides is that the more and more people experience the Airbnb experience and that global experience, as either hosts or travelers, that narrative will become the enduring narrative, and the other narrative will disappear and no longer be bought into by those people.”
Paltrow’s Own Airbnb-Like Ambitions
When Chesky interviewed Paltrow, the conversation was less about regulatory challenges and more about the challenges of being an entrepreneur. Paltrow told Chesky that, for the time being, she was primarily focused on building her lifestyle company, Goop, and that she’d also recently launched her own travel app, called G. Spotting.
“I would love to integrate some kind of social component,” Paltrow said, which is exactly what Airbnb’s recent product launch included: multiple ways for travelers to connect with one another, whether by booking tours and activities or learning about local meetups through the newly updated mobile app.
When Chesky asked Paltrow for her thoughts on Airbnb, she said, “I love Airbnb. I’ve used it in a few places: Mexico and France. I love it. I think it’s funny, too, because I thought Airbnb actually was air mattresses on the floor. Then I stayed in my first Airbnb and I thought, ‘Damn, this is a really nice house.’ I just want to thank you for conceiving of this business. It’s solved so many problems for so many people. It creates this amazing community. It creates human connection at a time when we’re all so disparate.”
Paltrow’s advice for Airbnb hosts? “I just think the reason that people to choose to go to an Airbnb … well, one of the reasons is because the idea of being in a home somewhere is less lonely. Anything to augment that feeling of hominess [is important]. It’s so nice to have something from your favorite restaurants. Or maybe a cookie from your favorite bakery around the corner. I think those tiny little touches make such an impact on the guests.”