Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Meet the woman who took advantage of Airbnb’s ‘experiences’ online – in just 2 weeks

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Hello, Broadsheet readers! Stacey Abrams is nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, the Fortune 500 only had 19 black CEOs and we meet the woman who runs Airbnb’s global hosting business. Have a thoughtful Tuesday.

– Online experience. Today’s essay is courtesy of Fortune Senior Writer Michal Lev-Ram.  

At the start of the pandemic, shortly after the Bay Area first moved into an on-site shelter, I booked a virtual cookie baking class on vacation rental site Airbnb. I’ve never really had an online class, or any pastry for that matter. But I was running out of options to entertain my three children. Their school and daycare were closed, the neighboring playground was closed, and even flag football (my eldest daughter’s favorite sport) had been canceled.

Yes, I could have baked cookies with my kids on my own, but I thought they were less likely to fight over who can stir the chocolate chips if a stranger was looking at them. I was right. Not only were there fewer arguments, but I was there too. The baking session host was located in San Francisco not far from us, but some of the other families who had joined were Zooming in from all over the world: Argentina, Switzerland and, uh, New Jersey. It made the experience even more special.

At the time, I had no idea that this online course, one of Airbnb’s new “Experiences” offerings, was in Catherine Powell’s domain – or who she was. Fast forward a few months, and I just finished profiling the Airbnb executive, who was originally recruited to manage the Experiences product in January 2020 and who was later promoted to oversee all of ‘global hosting’, from vacation rentals to online cookie making and more.

Prior to joining Airbnb, Powell had spent most of his career in Disney’s parks division, overseeing 120,000 employees. It was a huge career leap for her, a jump from a big, established brand to a much newer, more agile brand. And that was before the pandemic.

Shortly after the British-born executive joined the company from Silicon Valley, COVID-19 had made its way across the world, wreaking havoc on the travel industry. The tech company’s business has fallen 80% in just eight weeks. Airbnb has laid off 25% of its employees, borrowed $ 2 billion and delayed its IPO. (It finally went public in December.) “I’ve been through all the emotions,” Powell told me in an interview on Zoom.

Granted, she’s not the only leader to have taken a roller coaster ride this year. But in my interviews with Powell, I was struck by how she had kept her composure in the face of utter chaos and change – and a whole new gig and crew. (Due to the pandemic, she has only met about 30% of her direct reports in person.) The past few months have been a real test of our ability to improvise, to adapt, to accept only the job to which we registered is not the one we are currently doing.

Just weeks after starting her new job at the head of Airbnb’s Experiences division, Powell had to completely shut down the department for which she was to operate. Walking into someone’s house to learn how to cook sangrias or dance salsa just wasn’t safe or practical at a time when much of the world was entering refuge mode to ward off the virus. But Powell quickly turned around and turned the service into an online offering. In just 14 days, she was able to launch a virtual version of some of the experiences offered on the site, including the online baking class that I proudly used as a makeshift babysitter for my kids on a desperate afternoon.

Of course, some experiences don’t translate as well online. Visiting a petting zoo is just not the same when done virtually. But then again, everything is different these days. And we all have to accept it. My new motto: Keep Calm and Cookie On.

You can read my full story here.

Michal Lev-Ram

Today’s Broadsheet was organized by Emma Hinchliffe.


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