Airbnb CEO expects 'pent up demand' once COVID restrictions ease: 'We want to be ready for that'

Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky joined Yahoo Finance Live to discuss his thoughts on how COVID-19 has impacted the travel sector, along with Airbnb's booming business model.

Video Transcript

MELODY HAHM: Welcome back to Yahoo Finance Live. We are in conversation with Airbnb's co-founder and CEO Brian Chesky. Brian, I want to pick right up with hosting. I know that's been a passion area for you. And of course, Airbnb wouldn't exist without some of the hosts on your platform.

You know, you have Superhosts. You focus on the individuals, right, not the corporations or third parties. Do you ever anticipate really incentivizing superusers? How do you think perhaps a subscription model in the future as we think about this flexible remote workforce continuing to evolve, could that be part of a product in the years to come?

BRIAN CHESKY: Yeah, absolutely. We actually were working on that before the pandemic. And we have a Superhost Program. And so we thought, what-- what would it look like to have a Superguest Program, kind of a loyalty or membership program?

And we were working on designs before the pandemic. And then when the pandemic occurred, we had to add a necessity focus. And so we scaled back and paused a number of efforts, including that. But we are absolutely looking at different membership models, different community models.

And I definitely think you'll see something in the future, not in the immediate future. Right now our focus is on this travel rebound. And so we want to make sure that we've perfected our core service, because we are expecting that the vast majority of people want to travel. We've asked Americans-- we-- we've done surveys around the world.

But we just published an American travel report last month, and it said the vast majority of Americans want to travel, and they are going to travel as soon as they feel safe to do so. And we think they're not going to be traveling for business. They're not going to be traveling to mass tourism destinations.

There may going to local communities, staying in homes. And you know, I think that's going to be a very predominant activity. I think that's what some of the results have shown. And so we want to be ready for that.

But we are absolutely, like, a company rooted in discovery and blazing a trail and trying to do new things. And so one of the things I'm very excited about is how can we make a guest on Airbnb feel even more like they're members of our community? I think that's a very important thing to focus on, and that's something we're really excited about.

MELODY HAHM: And Brian, of course, you mentioned on the call yesterday that most of your hosts end up starting as guests, right, so that seems to be kind of a funnel for folks to get in the system. Actually, I conducted a straw poll on my very limited Instagram right before our conversation about where people are planning to travel, even in 2021. I got Norway, Tokyo, Greece--


MELODY HAHM: --the Swiss Alps, Singapore. And these are all US-based folks. So--


MELODY HAHM: --you talk about how it may be a misnomer, right, that international travel is dead, If Anything, cross-border travel seems to be kind of the last point of recovery. But from what I'm hearing, it sounds like people are desperate to get back on planes as soon as they can. What is your timeline, if you were to sort of label it? Do you really anticipate that picking back up in the second half of this year?

BRIAN CHESKY: Maybe. Not the first half of this year. I think that international travel was hit really hard. I mean, the way to understand our business is to look country by country. And the countries that have strong domestic travel are doing well. United States, France, Mexico, Brazil, these are countries that-- where they have a fairly vibrant domestic travel market, where people are traveling in that country.

People are not yet comfortable crossing borders. When will they be comfortable crossing borders? Maybe a health professional, more than me, would have a better answer to that question, but certainly not in the first half of the year. And I think it's pretty clear that people will eventually go back on planes. And I think travel, I think-- I think there's going to be essentially quite a bit of pent-up demand.

I mean, I think that people-- we sometimes value in life things more when they're taken away from us, right, because then you realize maybe I was taking it for granted. Travel might have been one of those things. It's been basically taken away for most people from a practical standpoint. And so I do think people want to travel internationally.

But the first trips people want to do probably are not international travel. The first trips people want to do are probably closer to home, probably by car, probably in smaller towns and communities, and likely with their friends and family, people they haven't seen over the last year or so. That's probably the first trip most people will do.

But I think what you're going to see is people are now dreaming. They're dreaming of other places they can go. And what I think is really going to be interesting is this, in a world where more people can work from their laptop on Zoom remotely, what does that mean for where people live? Maybe people will travel around the world more.

People may not just work from home. They may work from other homes, and those homes might even be in the same country as their company. And these are going to be personal choices people and companies are going to have to make. But I think there is a whole new world of travel just waiting for us, but I don't think it's going to look like travel of past. It's going to be something different and I think very dynamic.

MELODY HAHM: And when you think about the opportunity for hosts, right, I found it actually very surprising that the average host on Airbnb makes under $10,000 a year. And you talk about how you want to really make sure that everyone has the opportunity to do this, perhaps full time if they want to. What are the ways you're able to facilitate that and sort of bridge that chasm between those who are doing it as a hobby and those who seem to be flourishing on the platform?

BRIAN CHESKY: Well, it's a really good question, Melody. And we have 4 million hosts on Airbnb. 90% are individuals. These are everyday people. The number one-- I think the top profession of people in the United States that are hosts are actually schoolteachers.

We also have health care workers. We have students. So we have a number of, like, really interesting, like, kind of people that are hosts, and they come from all walks of life. I mean, it's really, really interesting.

Now, one of the things we're trying to do is what we've done is we've tried to make it as easy as possible for someone to be a host. You can do it, ideally, in minutes from your phone, you can start listing. And we tried to build all the tools that an everyday person would want to be a host.

But we also want people to feel like they can grow with us. And so we've continued to invest in pricing tools, advanced calendar tools, and other types of tools and dashboards to allow hosts to be able to grow their business on Airbnb. So they can get started very casually, but if they do want to grow on Airbnb, I think we've provided the tools and the path for them to do that.

MELODY HAHM: You know, one of the really fascinating things with Airbnb is it sort of rose with the ascension of Instagram, right, whether you want to be posting really fantastic artwork or the view. And I have to say during the pandemic, there has been a level of shaming that happens with people who are deciding to travel. And to your point, even if it's in the safety of your car, even if it's with your own pod, people aren't necessarily keen on oversharing in the way that they perhaps did pre-pandemic. Do you think this will be a potential negative to the business that people are not necessarily as eager to do so and all those habits that have changed?

BRIAN CHESKY: I think that if you look at what happened nearly 100 years-- over 100 years ago with the Spanish flu, what-- what kind of came right after it was the roaring '20s. I think you're going to see something probably not dissimilar from that now. I think that people are just waiting to get out. And I think that-- I don't think people are going to be-- I think once it's safe to travel, I think people are going to burst out and travel.

Now, I think it's going to be slow. I think it's going to take some time. I don't think you're going to have a light switch flip and then all of a sudden it's like the 1920s again. I think it's going to take some time. I don't think people are going to cross borders right away. I don't think people are going to be entering other countries and getting on planes right away.

But I do think that as it gets warmer this spring, you are going to see people get in cars and travel nearby. That will be, again, I said, the first trip. I think over time as people get confident, then they're going to travel and venture forward more.

But I think this is, like, an unusual, unprecedented pent-up demand that we're going to be seeing. I mean, just anecdotally, just look what people are doing. How much longer can most people just stay in their house? A lot of people are going to want to get out. And I think this is going to be, like, nothing we've seen probably.

MELODY HAHM: Yeah, you're getting me nervous, Brian. Now I'm-- I'm afraid to travel given all this stir-craziness that's at play. Thank you so much, Brian Chesky, the co-founder and CEO of Airbnb. Talk to you soon.