Modern Elder Academy's Chip Conley

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Chip Conley, the longtime hotelier and founder of one the original boutique hotel chains, Joie de Vivre, surprised many in the industry when he joined Airbnb in 2013 to spearhead efforts to standardize hospitality operations. In 2017, he reduced his role there to senior adviser and has now moved into yet another evolving travel sector, transformative travel, with this year's opening of the Modern Elder Academy, an upscale, boutique resort and retreat in Baja California Sur, Mexico, exclusively dedicated to midlife issues. Contributing editor Jeri Clausing spoke with Conley about his latest career transformation and the book he wrote that became the basis for his latest project.

Q: First, the must-ask question: What prompted your decision to reduce your role at Airbnb? Was it really just more work than you wanted or is there more to it?

Chip Conley
Chip Conley

A: I think that when I first joined, I didn't realize how fast they were growing or how much they needed. They had a lot of smart people but not with a travel industry or hospitality background. It was a surprise because I wasn't really looking for a full-time job. But I appreciated the fact that I had a front-row seat to the disruptors that they were.

Q: Since then, you have been busy. First with your upcoming book, "Wisdom @ Work: The Making of a Modern Elder," which I understand was sparked by your experience at Airbnb and was a basis of sorts for your new retreat project.

A: When you go to a company like Airbnb, and you're like twice the age of the average employee, it's noticeable. Most fascinating to me was how much they had to offer me, as much as I had to offer them. In the old days, it was the older people offering the young people guidance, mentoring. In the digital era, when it came to digital intelligence or technology, they knew a lot more than I did. But I certainly could help teach them emotional intelligence, knowledge of the industry ... and I think more than anything, the mature perspective and not making decisions rashly.

Q: What's the key takeaway from your book?

A: Weirdly, power. It's moving younger faster than ever before, partly because of the growing need in the business world to have digital intelligence, or what I call DQ. ... We have an irrelevancy gap, unless you remake yourself as a modern elder, where you are as much an intern as a mentor.

Q: Can you tell me about your Modern Elder Academy?

A: I think there is a new category of travel experiences under the umbrella of transformative travel. I think there's going to be a new category for middle-aged wisdom schools where people go to repurpose themselves. Mine is called the Modern Elder Academy. Just like Canyon Ranch was a catalyst for a new kind of hospitality experience 40 years ago, I'm hoping this will be the same.

Q: What are some of the activities and curriculum?

A: It will have yoga, a lot of mindfulness, healthy things and fun activities on the beach. The curriculum will focus on transition in midlife. Primarily career transition, but it could be divorce, losing a loved one.

There's a lot of discussion about how to work with millennials. One portion is called "Everything you wanted to know about technology but were afraid to ask," a twist on the old "Everything you wanted to know about sex but were afraid to ask." We also talk about how to become a counselor, how to become a coach.

Q: Do you plan to expand this concept?

A: I'm already working on a second one, although I can't say where yet. Based on my first six months of a beta period, it was so successful I'm now starting to look at more of them. I was lucky enough to be a pioneer in boutique hotels, a pioneer at Airbnb. I've got a pretty good track record, so we'll see. I really feel like this is what I am supposed to be doing now.

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