Pando

Pando goes to Airbnb's "Open Air" conference (fire marshal be damned)

By Dan Raile , written on June 9, 2016

From The Sharing Economy Desk

I’ve written a lot lately about Airbnb’s battle with San Francisco lawmakers.

That battle culminated on Tuesday with a 10-0 vote by the Board of Supervisors to require all Airbnb (and other housesharing) hosts to register with the city, or remove their properties from the Internet. As I wrote earlier this week, that decision has potentially huge consequences for the company in the Bay Area and beyond

What will Airbnb do next? It seems almost inconceivable that the company would take this hardship lying down, but its options are few. Time to innovate!

Yesterday, just hours after the decision, Airbnb hosted its Open Air annual developers’ conference at the Metreon in SOMA. My invite must have got lost in the mail, but I went along anyway.

I was drawn by the prospect of hours of onstage programming in the immediate aftermath of a major regulatory impact on the company here in its hometown. So, as a member of the working press, I decided to show up and ask for credentials.

I was greeted at the press desk by a friendly third-party PR person, who promptly informed me that the conference was at capacity, as set by San Francisco’s fire marshal. There was a long waiting list for press and so there was absolutely no way your humble correspondent could possibly be allowed inside.

The old “fire regulations” routine -- an excuse familiar to journalists everywhere, but one made somewhat more ironic coming from Airbnb, a company that hasn’t always been so keen to obey San Francisco's various codes.

I found a seat in the lobby while I planned my next move. Promptly a second external PR person approached. Summoned by something in her ear or on her phone, she already knew my name. She explained that they really had “no wiggle room” when it came to fire codes, offered me a glass of water and all the pertinent event press releases. She assured me that there was no need for me to attend the event as all the news had “already been announced.”

Well, fire codes are fire codes, and even the mighty Airbnb must comply with those.

I called my editor, Paul Carr, and asked for his advice. He was puzzled: Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky has been a guest at Pando Monthly and, unlike Travis Kalanick, Chesky has tried to cultivate a less antagonistic relationship with the media. Paul sent a note to my Airbnb PR contact and Chesky, asking if there had been some kind of mistake or if the fire code problem was for real.

It turns out, there had been a mistake. A third PR person was soon at my side.

“Dan? Alright, let’s get you badged up,” she said, and led me back to the press table, where my two earlier interlocutors refrained from making eye contact. I was promptly credentialed.

This third third-party PR rep personally escorted me into the event, to the designated press area. I asked whether they were still at capacity.

“Yes, and there is still a long waiting list. You should feel pretty lucky for jumping the line.”

I’m not sure lucky was the right word, but it was somehow fitting that Airbnb’s CEO had somehow been able to find “wiggle room” in San Francisco’s strict fire code.    

I was trailed by a fourth PR person throughout, who served in the dual role of looking after my needs (I had none) and stepping in each time I tried to engage with Airbnb employees, providing cover for their quick escape.

Throughout the remaining afternoon programming, no mention was made onstage of government regulation. This code of silence was made easier to enforce by a ban on questions from the audience during all but one of the sessions. And ban is the correct word: When one unwitting speaker asked for questions, she only got to answer one before an Airbnb handler curtly informed her, on mic, that she wasn’t supposed to do that.

You could say I was naive in hoping a developer conference would bother with something as meaty as local politics, and normally I’d say you were right. But this particular developer conference was overwhelmingly concerned with issues of diversity and discrimination, a recent bugaboo of the Airbnb brand. The gist of this programming was as follows: discrimination is not a problem specific to Airbnb, since discrimination on the Airbnb platform maps closely to that found everywhere else. Furthermore, Airbnb is doing everything it can to combat discrimination on its platform, and in the world at large. The conference took on the feel of a mass sensitivity training for engineers, swaddled in PR.

Not a word was spoken into a head-mounted microphone about the troubling new developments at City Hall. Until finally, at the end of Paypal mafioso Max Levchin’s speech entitled “Unstoppable Trends,” the floor was finally opened to questions. Soon I had a microphone in my hand.

“Yesterday San Francisco passed a law that would require Airbnb only list registered units…” I began.

“Ridiculous. But go on,” Levchin interjected.

“...And Austin mandated fingerprint background checks for Uber and Lyft. Given your definition of regulatory arbitrage, do you see any opportunity arising from this sort of regulation?”

Levchin (who, by the way, will appear at the Pandoland conference in Chicago next week. Fire codes permitting) had included “regulatory arbitrage” among his five titular “unstoppable trends.” He clarified that he wasn’t excited by emerging opportunities in tax avoidance, but by those created by either “good or dumb laws,” citing Tesla’s taking advantage of mandated electronic car incentives, Affordable Care Act compliance, and new data centers popping up in response to the European Union’s “horrible new laws.”

“History has shown,” Levchin answered, “that feeble attempts to block consumer-demanded services tends to benefit incumbents, who can afford to comply with them while smaller innovators cannot.”

“With these kinds of ridiculous laws you get things like Austin, which was a bonfire where nobody won, and they booted ridesharing out of the only city in Texas with any aptitude for startups.”

“But here in San Francisco, we tend to learn our lesson, after a while. I see this new law as a negative step on the long road to compromise.”

Airbnb has about a month to adjust before the new law goes into effect, feeble and ridiculous as it may be. Let the wiggling begin.