Airbnb’s aspirations of becoming a true end-to-end platform and a dominant travel brand got a significant boost with the company’s latest major executive appointment.
The company announced Tuesday that it is hiring Greg Greeley, an 18-year Amazon veteran responsible for creating Amazon’s wildly popular Amazon Prime membership service, to head its Homes division. In his role as president, Greeley will oversee Airbnb Plus, Airbnb Collections (homes that are identified for certain travel types/occasions), the Superhost program, and the upcoming Superguest program, and he will report directly to CEO Brian Chesky.
Homes represent the core of the $31 billion company’s business, and since June 2017, this business unit has been personally overseen by Chesky and Airbnb vice president of product and homes operations, Vlad Loktev.
Greeley begins his new position at Airbnb March 18, and it’s likely that his experience in building Amazon Prime was a major determining factor in his appointment. However, he also comes to Airbnb without having had any previous hospitality experience.
In a statement, Chesky said, “Even among an amazing and diverse slate of candidates, Greg stood out for his phenomenal customer-first approach, global operations excellence, and a decades-long commitment to developing and mentoring talented leaders.”
Greeley said, “Words can’t express how excited I am to join the Airbnb team. I’ve used Airbnb for years, and the chance to work here and expand the positive impact its community is having around the world is a once in a lifetime opportunity.”
Bringing an Amazon Approach to Airbnb
Amazon Prime is one of the world’s most popular membership programs, and to develop and execute it requires a tremendous amount of operations and logistical expertise, as well as an understanding of appealing directly to consumers. With Prime, Amazon revolutionized e-commerce and extended the company’s reach even further into areas far removed from what Amazon originally started with: services such as free grocery delivery from Whole Foods, music, entertainment, complimentary two-day shipping, and more for its members.
Greeley played a key role in helping to create Amazon Prime when it launched in 2005, and returned to lead the Prime team in 2013. In between, he led Amazon’s European business, based out of Luxembourg, from 2007 to 2012. During his time in Europe, some people said Greeley was asked to be CEO of Booking.com. Prior to that, he led Amazon Worldwide Media (books, music, video, software, and games). At Amazon, Greeley also helped the company expand into new markets that included India, Brazil, and Australia.
Most recently, Greeley was tasked with spearheading Amazon’s recently acquired Whole Foods business and today, on the same day Greeley announced he was leaving Amazon, the company revealed that it would offer free delivery from Whole Foods to its Prime members in San Francisco and Atlanta. While Amazon has lofty ambitions for what it can do with Whole Foods, the transition period has not been without its challenges, either.
No doubt, the buyer-seller marketplace model upon which Amazon was built should provide a solid foundational example for Greeley in his new role at Airbnb, where he’ll be working not only with individual home owners, renters, hoteliers, and professional vacation rental managers, as well as consumers. But while he has plenty of expertise in marketplaces, will he have enough hospitality expertise to lead Homes?
And as Airbnb works on enhancing its Superhost program for hosts, as well as launching its loyalty program for guests, called Superguest, Greeley’s expertise in crafting membership programs may prove useful.
Another useful work experience of Greeley’s that could also be beneficial to Airbnb is the fact that he once worked for an airline. That airline was United Airlines, where Greeley worked in its operations division from 1991 to 1997.
Airbnb has been rumored to be working on launching some sort of aviation product since November 2016, and having Greeley’s background in aviation could be helpful for the company as it mulls what strategy to take to enter into that field.
In 2015, Greeley told The Washington Post that when it came to launching Amazon Prime, “People originally came for all-you-can-eat two-day shipping, then found out the menu included so much more. Having the menu of benefits allows us to do all we can for those tens of millions of members. … Over the long term, we’ll want to be able to unlock benefits across the whole ecosystem.”
That desire to build an entire ecosystem or end-to-end platform is also one shared by Airbnb and its CEO Brian Chesky. In 2017, Chesky said that by 2020 he expects more than half of the company’s revenue to come from businesses the company currently isn’t operating in. Former Airbnb executives, including former CMO Jonathan Mildenhall and current Airbnb advisor Chip Conley have often described the company’s aspirations to be “the super brand of travel.”
Last year, Andrew McConnell, CEO of Rented.com, made a prescient comparison between Amazon and Airbnb, saying he sees Airbnb wanting to become the Amazon of travel.
“Amazon started with books and then ended up owning e-commerce,” McConnell said. “Airbnb may have started with accommodations, but this isn’t all that different. It’s just about owning the travel space. Airbnb isn’t necessarily about accommodation. They can be about inspiration, discover, search, booking, travel events, experiences, post-travel communities, and photo sharing — there’s just so much they can do.”
When he learned of Greeley’s appointment, McConnell wondered if Airbnb can do for travel what Amazon has done for e-commerce, and whether a subscription-based or membership-type model will eventually be adopted by Airbnb.
“Amazon just used to be a place you shopped on the Internet, and with Prime, you don’t really need to comparison shop anymore,” he explained. “I just shop at Amazon now. Can Airbnb do something similar? Is that what they’re intending to do here?”
Other sources whom Skift has spoken to have even suggested the possibility that Amazon may one day want to acquire Airbnb to build up its travel business. Regardless, Greeley’s appointment no doubt highlights the obvious synergies between the two companies.
In his new role, Greeley will have to confront some challenges. The role he is filling is a fairly new one, created after the company reorganized its business units into four sectors in 2017: Homes, Trips, Lux, and China.
In June 2017, Airbnb promoted Vlad Loktev to serve as a sort of interim head of the Homes division, working together with CEO Chesky. Prior to that, in October 2016, Airbnb’s head of global operations, Varsha Rao, left the company and in January 2017, veteran hotelier Chip Conley left the company.
Conley, who served as global head of hospitality for Airbnb from 2013 to 2017, played an influential role in strengthening the company’s relationship with its hosts, and using his hospitality experience and expertise to help develop better hosting standards, as well as playing a role in the development of Airbnb’s Superhost program and the Airbnb Open conference.
While Conley remains a strategic advisor to Airbnb in the areas of leadership and hospitality, Airbnb has not appointed anyone to fill the leadership gap or hospitality expertise gap Conley left behind. And with Greeley’s appointment as the head of Homes, some longtime Airbnb hosts may be wondering if Greeley’s appointment is yet another sign that the company is evolving further away from its roots, that it’s becoming more of an online travel corporation versus one rooted in hospitality.
McConnell noted how Greeley’s appointment is “much more of an e-commerce experience move” and that, like Airbnb’s newest product, verified homes via Airbnb Plus, it would feed into Airbnb’s “getting away from being a mom-and-pop type of operation to a much more scalable and scaled corporation that’s more like a corporation than a family.”
The fact that Conley however, still serves as an advisor to Airbnb in the realm of hospitality, is one sign that the company hasn’t forgotten about hospitality, McConnell also noted.
Airbnb itself has also seen a number of major leadership changes, not only within its Homes unit but throughout the organization.
Last month, former CFO Laurence Tosi, who’d long been rumored to be eyeing the company’s COO position, left the company after it was announced that chief business affairs and legal officer Belinda Johnson had been named COO.
Earlier this year, Airbnb’s former managing director for Europe, Middle East, and Africa and former director of global strategy, Olivier Grémillon, left Airbnb to join online travel platform Booking.com, a company which Chesky has noted as one of Airbnb’s main competitors. Booking Holdings CEO Glenn Fogel’s recent remarks have also made it clear that the company wants to be “a leader or the leader” of alternative accommodations.
Last year also saw the departure of CMO Jonathan Mildenhall and no replacement for him has been announced. Airbnb still needs to hire a CFO and a president for its China business, which is now being overseen by Airbnb co-founder Nathan Blecharczyk.
In a post on LinkedIn, Johnson said that in her new role as Airbnb COO, she would focus on the business units that support the company’s four major divisions: Trust & Safety, Customer Experience, and Payments, as well as legal, policy, and communications matters. Johnson noted that Airbnb’s four core business units, of which Homes is one, will “continue to operate as their own businesses” which implies that Greeley, in his new role, will have some autonomy.
In his new role as the president of Airbnb Homes, Greeley will also have to work closely with Airbnb head of global policy, Chris Lehane, addressing the company’s many regulatory battles and challenges worldwide.
He’ll also have to focus on increasing Airbnb’s supply of homes, which is currently at 4.5 million listings and counting, but faces some challenges, including stagnation in some more mature markets, and efforts to build up supply from vacation rentals and hotels.
And he’ll also be tasked with overseeing the integration of Airbnb’s new products, including Airbnb Plus. By year’s end, the company hopes to have 75,000 Airbnb Plus homes in 50 destinations worldwide. To date, they have just 2,000 in 13 destinations.
However, Chesky noted, “Twelve thousand eligible hosts have already applied to be Airbnb Plus hosts in our 13 launch markets. Guests are excited about Airbnb Plus, too: we saw a 95 percent increase in nights booked for Airbnb Plus homes in the first week, which far exceeded our expectations.”