Danny King
Danny King

This year, Los Angeles' iconic Orpheum Theatre will have featured acts ranging from Grammy Award-winning jazz vocalist Gregory Porter to singer-songwriter-harpist Joanna Newsom to My Morning Jacket frontman Jim James.

It's doubtful any of them received a longer standing ovation by merely walking on stage than the three founders of Airbnb did on Nov. 17.

Yes, Brian Chesky, Nate Blecharczyk and Joe Gebbia received true rock-star treatment from the 1,000-plus attendees of a Thursday morning keynote for the annual Airbnb Open conference, and the adulation didn't stop there.

Chesky's punch lines about Korean embroidery and his hometown of Niskayuna, N.Y., landed, while each facet of a 60-minute presentation that included film snippets on everything ranging from East Los Angeles marketplaces to Nelson Mandela's longtime prison guard was greeted with enthusiasm that bordered on the cultish.

It's safe to say that the company had the wind at its proverbial back during the Airbnb Open, which took place in and around downtown Los Angeles for three days last month. Sure, there seemed to be a sense of catharsis, whether because last November's Airbnb Open in Paris was marred by the terror attacks that killed 137 people or because the American host-attendees were just emerging from a divisive presidential campaign that likely left many in the liberal-leaning crowd stunned.

Remove those factors, though, and Airbnb still had a positive story to sell to both the attendees at the Orpheum and the press horde who had set up shop up the street at the Globe Theatre. They were also treated to a vegan breakfast buffet that was a study in contrast to the typical pork-and-sweets fare served at travel conventions but was oh-so-Airbnb.

For one, the company continues to grow rapidly, going from an air mattress out of Gebbia and Chesky's San Francisco apartment in 2008 to listings totaling 3 million homes and rooms, 80% of which are outside of North America. Seventy million guests have been hosted within the past 12 months, according to Blecharczyk.

Meanwhile, the company's leaders used the Open to announce a plan to add single- and multiday excursions to its offerings, giving yet a broader range of activities to enable guests to, as Airbnb puts it, "live like a local." The company launched its Trips initiative in a dozen cities worldwide, including Los Angeles, and announced plans to expand the option to 50 cities by next year.

All of which seemed to make the estimated 7,000 attendees from around the world visiting the Airbnb Open feel like they were part of some sort of movement that had invaded a rapidly gentrifying section of downtown Los Angeles.

Mere steps from an empty lot with a fence adorned with Airbnb posters advertising Trips with titles such as "Super Tasters," "Ocean Advocate," "Green Fields, Full Tables" and "Murder Mystery," and about a quarter-mile from the city's Skid Row, attendees spilled into Verve Coffee Roasters and milled about, introducing themselves to each other as baristas poured $4 hot chocolates and $5.50 mochas.

The enthusiasm might be well-founded. On one side, there were hosts who were making extra income from their Airbnb listings, while on the other, there were people who felt they could increase their travel frequency by taking advantage of the often cheaper (relative to hotels) nightly rates. In many cases, attendees were doing both. Add in the fact that about 10% of the excursions will be led by current Airbnb hosts and we may have the closest thing to a closed loop in travel.

So it's no wonder that host-attendees such as Paris-based Pierre Cipreano emerged from the Airbnb Open keynote beaming about what he called "a new way to travel."

Yet, amid all the exuberance, dark clouds could be gathering on the horizon. Since June, privately held Airbnb, which doesn't disclose revenue or earnings figures, has sued both San Francisco and New York City and state over recently adopted government initiatives designed to either crack down on illegal

Airbnb-host operations or force prospective hosts into what Airbnb alleges is a Byzantine and onerous registration process. Airbnb earlier this month dropped its New York claim, a move that may reduce business or at least slow growth in its largest U.S. market.    

In addition, some affordable-housing advocates are accusing Airbnb of worsening the housing crunch in some of the largest U.S. cities by spurring apartment landlords to boot tenants and turn their buildings into de facto hotels.

Moreover, while there seemed to be no shortage of diversity at the Airbnb Open, the company has faced allegations that some hosts have discriminated against minorities, an issue Airbnb attempted to address by tapping former U.S. attorney general Eric Holder to consult on the company's anti-discrimination policy in July. It ultimately beefed up that policy in September.

Most recently, Airbnb, along with Expedia's HomeAway division, was fined some $635,000 late last month by the Barcelona city government for what the Spanish city's officials said was the facilitation of unlicensed accommodations. (Airbnb said it plans to appeal the decision.)

Hotel lobbyists continue to pound away at Airbnb, arguing that the company's hosts don't pay their fair share of accommodations taxes or compete on a level playing field.

All of which forced Chris Lehane, Airbnb's head of global policy and public affairs, to inject a little edge into the proceedings when asked by reporters about the company's legal issues and allegations of unfair competition.

"I told them, 'Read my lips. We want to pay taxes,'" Lehane said. But cities, he said, refused to work out agreements for Airbnb to capture and remit taxes from its hosts.

"We could have collected $200 million [in occupancy taxes] just last year," Lehane said.

Granted, such nuts-and-bolts issues failed to overshadow a vibe that preached openness and inclusion as well as a world without boundaries.

Chesky's presentation was punctuated by a five-minute film about a gay Chilean traveler who visited San Francisco two years ago to find the kind of acceptance (courtesy of Airbnb, of course) that he yearned for in his home country.

Meanwhile, attendees were given 20-page newsprint Festival Guides outlining the Airbnb Open's slate of events, which concluded with its Belo Awards ceremony hosted by late-night talk show host James Corden.

And, two blocks away, the company had turned a parking lot into a temporary, two-level outdoor marketplace with overhead canopies printed with slogans such as "This is your invitation to take a deep breath, and a blind step forward."

Still, business is business, and, touchy-feely vibes aside, there doesn't seem to be a shortage of backbone in the company, whose leaders are conveying yet another message: Join us or get left behind.

"Ultimately, places like New York will want to move forward," Lehane said.

"Politicians are pretty good at counting to 50 plus one. This is where the majority is ... and this is the direction of where the world is going."


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