Airbnb hires maverick hotelier Chip Conley as its head of hospitality, hoping for better hosts, happier customers

A few years ago, I got a chance to listen to hear Chip Conley, the enigmatic founder of Joie de Vivre Hotels, address a group of founders and share his journey. Intrigued and inspired by his talk and, I ended up buying his book Peak, and reading it in one weekend.

Chip_7191_re_smallAfter reading Conley’s book, I had one big realization — great customer service is core to the success of any (not just in hospitality industry) business. And that customer service isn’t a set of rules but an attitude that adds up to a joyous experience across all interactions with those customers. That lesson from Conley made me appreciate companies such as Virgin America and Apple a little bit more than usual.

And now he’s doing something very interesting. Conley is joining San Francisco-based hospitality industry disrupter Airbnb as their head of Global Hospitality and will help educate Airbnb hosts on what they need in order to build great experiences for the guests. As part of the effort the company is creating a Hospitality Lab in Dublin, Ireland and the development of a training program to support cohesive standards for hospitality within Airbnb’s host community.

“Hospitality is at the very heart of what we do at Airbnb. When people think about the meaningful experiences they’ve had through Airbnb, their hosts’ warm welcome or thoughtful gestures are always at the core. No one in the industry is better qualified than Chip to help our hosts redefine hospitality.” — Brian Chesky, CEO of Airbnb, in a press release.

“I became a boutique hotelier because I wanted to shake up the conventional wisdom that – in order to offer quality – hospitality had to be conventional. Nearly 30 years later, Airbnb is now on the forefront of a new type innovation built from the same components: meaningful host connections, great design and local experiences.” — Chip Conley in a press release

From my standpoint this is a big deal for the company. In making this move, Airbnb tacitly indicates that, yes, it is in competition for hospitality dollars with hotels and yes, that it need to keep creating better experiences both for travelers and renters in order to stay ahead of the hospitality business. (We’ll have Airbnb co-founder and Chief Product Officer Joe Gebbia at our RoadMap conference in November to talk more about this shift.) Conley is the man for the job, even though he doesn’t really need the gig.

He started his company in 1987, less than three years out of Stanford Business School. He was 26 years old. His modus operandi was to find rundown properties and create great experiences that made them unique. In October 2011, Joie de Vivre Hospitality (including its flagship hotel, San Francisco-based Hotel Vitale) merged with Thompson Hotels of New York.

The company today also announced that it saw 4.5 million guests use Airbnb’s network in 2013 so far (bringing the total to 8.5 million guests.) The company said that during on a peak night this summer about 175,000 people were staying in AirBnB properties around the world. Growth has its challenges and the biggest one is ensuring quality of hosts, host properties and speediness of response. These are issues that often crop among AirBnB users and I have personally heard some horror stories.

This is a great step undertaken by Airbnb, which like Uber has become one of the two shining examples of the sharing economy (aka collaborative consumption) — not just because of the money it has raised or its valuation (rumored to be $2.5 billion) but because the ire they have earned from the incumbents and the local politicians.

The only way they can beat this political and incumbent pressure is by having happy customers. And Conley certainly knows how to do that.