Brian Chesky’s story is the kind that start-up kids murmur to themselves at night in their parents’ basement, praying for a big break. Fresh out of college, Chesky and his roommate Joe Gebbia – both struggling industrial designers – couldn’t afford their rent one month in 2007. Because a big conference was taking place in San Francisco at the time, all hotel rooms were booked solid.
Spotting a cheeky chance to make some cash, Chesky and Gebbia bought three air mattresses and advertised their apartment as up for rent. “Airbed and breakfast” was born, complete with breakfast consisting of untoasted Pop Tarts. Ten years later, Airbnb is worth around $30-billion, making it the most valuable hospitality company in the world. The likes of Hilton Hotels, InterContinental and Marriott trail behind.
The New Yorker behind this tech behemoth is just 35. When he walks into a Cape Town studio, pulls out a chair and starts scrolling through his phone, it takes me a good few minutes to clock who he is. Initially I assume he is just one of Airbnb’s travelling entourage of international millennials, until someone brings him a takeaway coffee. Chesky is from the Mark Zuckerberg school of tech fashion: jeans and sneakers. He counts the Facebook billionaire as a personal friend.
It’s little wonder that Chesky is glued to his phone before we begin to speak, because he lives and breathes the digital space. Example A: he met his girlfriend of almost four years, Elissa Patel, on Tinder. Patel, a fellow tech maven, accompanied Chesky on his South Africa trip, but passed on the interview portion. It must have been a much-needed breather: the couple had just under two days to spend in Cape Town, as part of a whirlwind tour of six countries to spread the Airbnb gospel.
When I suggest that Chesky must be tired, he cracks: “Why, because I’m sitting here with a cup of coffee in my hand at 5pm?” In reality, the fatigue isn’t showing at all. Chesky’s speaking style is fast and intense. He’s done his homework, rattling off facts and figures about South Africa at an impressive rate. At one stage he asks: “What’s the population of Cape Town again?” Shamefully, I rack my brain in vain. Not to worry: it’s a rhetorical question. He has the numbers at the top of his head.
There’s a good reason for Chesky to be au fait with Cape Town’s vital statistics. The city is one of the fastest-growing Airbnb hubs in the world, as locals wise up to the money to be made from letting strangers pay to stay in their homes. There are 17,500 Airbnb listings in Cape Town currently, and the expansion is exponential: an annual growth rate of 100%.
Chesky raves about Cape Town, calling it “one of our most vibrant cities but also one of our most diverse”, featuring “unbelievable culture and heritage”. And then there’s the scenery: Chesky says there are only a handful of other cities worldwide that can compete with Cape Town’s topographical gifts.
While in town, he’s staying at an Airbnb. He always does. This one is in Gardens, and he says it’s “amazing”.
“I think it’s the home of an architect or designer,” he muses, and approvingly mentions that there’s a ping pong table. When he’s searching for Airbnbs to stay in personally, Chesky’s main criterion is design. “I like spaces that are eclectic. Places that have got light. I don’t care if it’s modern or old. I like places that feel super local, that feel like a home.”
One of Airbnb’s philosophies is about making travel more immersive than mere tourism. Chesky is wedded to the idea that when people rent an Airbnb home, they get a taste of what it’s like to live in a particular place that’s more authentic than the experience one could obtain from a hotel. That’s what he’s hoping will happen in Langa, the Cape Town township which is the major justification for his trip.
Airbnb is partnering with women entrepreneurs in Langa to expand opportunities for tourists to visit and stay in the township. By the end of the year, Chesky says, they hope to have 50 Langa women signed up as Airbnb hosts.
In the past, the notion of township tourism has come in for its fair share of criticism: parachuting rich foreigners in to gawk at poor black South Africans. When I bring this up, Chesky nods.
“I asked the same questions, because I’m not an expert and I was concerned about it,” he says. “A lot of [tourism projects] treat townships like human safaris. Poverty porn exploits the community. But when you go and stay in that community, you actually understand the community. You’re equals.” He describes his trip to Langa, where he was shown the Langa Quarter – an area trying to revitalise itself through social enterprise and tourism – as the highlight of his stay.
It’s not just Cape Town that Chesky has his eyes on. South Africa as a whole has 35,000 Airbnb listings, and listings for Africa generally are on the rise. “The whole continent is growing faster [in terms of Airbnb take-up] than the United States,” Chesky says. Nairobi and Cape Town are the two rising African stars.
Disruptive technologies usually face opposition from the sectors they enter, and Airbnb is no exception. While it has managed to avoid the scale of controversy currently being faced by Uber, Airbnb is fighting regulatory fires in a number of major cities. The room-rental website has been banned from operating in Berlin, after concerns that it was driving up the price of rentals to unaffordable levels. New York last year opted to fine landlords who rent out flats for less than 30 days. In London, no property can now be rented out on Airbnb for more than three months a year without planning permission, amid complaints that hosts were breaching the terms of their mortgages and building insurance.
Asked if Airbnb’s entry into South Africa and Africa faces similar challenges, Chesky demurs. “I’m not aware of any major hostilities,” he says.
Cape Town Tourism, which traditionally helps represent the interests of local hotels, recently put out a diplomatic statement on the matter. While acknowledging that globally “there has been a mixed response to innovative business models such as Airbnb”, it concluded: “Airbnb and similar environments can provide much-needed income and employment opportunities for more locals in a challenging economic climate.”
For locals who decide they’d like a piece of the Airbnb pie, does Chesky have any advice on how to make a success of it?
“Make sure that you merchandise your home well, in terms of taking good photos [for the listing],” he says. “Particularly if you don’t have any reviews at first, start with low prices and increase over time.”
Chesky’s own time is up: after a quick dinner in Woodstock with a local artist, he’s due to board a plane. Destination: Delhi, where another Airbnb will be his home away from home. DM
This article was first published by Daily Maverick on 23 March 2017.