Meet Startup @TW

FROM THE WHITE HOUSE TO AIRBNB: An Interview with Top Exec Chris Lehane

Last year, Airbnb execs signed memorandums of understanding that aim to promote local tourism with local governments in Hualian, Taitung and Hsinchu. In the latest wave of what can only be described as a charm offensive, Airbnb’s Head of Global Policy and Public Affairs, Chris Lehane, alighted on the island in December.

Heading straight for Hsinchu and Beipu, Lehane experienced local tourism first hand, sacking down in a traditional B&B, admiring the Buddhist Maitreya statue, and sampling many a heady brew of tea.

But it wasn’t all fun and games. In an interview with BNext, Lehane said that he was here to “negotiate humbly and respectfully with the [Taiwanese] government and express our willingness to pay taxes and share our platform’s data.”

New task for the old guard

Negotiation is certainly one field where Lehane has no dearth of experience. The qualified lawyer was already working in the White House when he was just 25 years old, subsequently becoming one of Bill Clinton’s most trusted advisors.

As such, he played a crucial role in mitigating PR crises like the Whitewater and the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Lehane was also a core member of Al Gore’s team in the democratic bid for the presidency in 2000.

Uber and Airbnb, the titans of the shared economy, have recently been hiring a wealth of experienced talent from the political arena.

Under pressure from governments and industries worldwide that view them as a threat to existing businesses, newcomers have turned to the old guard of the public sector for help with their PR woes. And as Lehane emphasizes, he is thankful for the opportunity.

“While working in government, I experienced so many setbacks...I wanted to find a job that would involve connecting people, and have a long-term impact. Housing embraces culture, economics and politics.”

Airbnb in numbers

Though Lehane was unable to disclose the precise nature of his talks with the Taiwanese government, he revealed some statistics.

In Taipei, Airbnb hosts typically rent out their house for 37 days, bringing in approximately $4200 per year. The average for the whole of Taiwan is 19 days, with an annual income of $2000.

As for Airbnb users, there are three key groups that are the driving force behind the company’s growth.

The first is the millennials. In the Asia Pacific region, 53% of people between the ages of 25 and 34 used either home sharing or ride sharing in 2015.

The second group is composed of urban middle class members, who are culturally open, socially hungry, and without moral qualms about, well, making a tidy little sum on the side.

The last group is perhaps the most interesting of all: senior women. After the children have flown the nest, they often have a room to spare and appreciate the social interaction. According to Airbnb statistics, senior women earn on average $8,350 per year through the platform.

Settling disputes

When broaching the sensitive topic of Airbnb’s legal disputes, Lehane was keen to delineate the various types of home sharing.

  1. Renting out a room or sharing the house while in residence.
  2. Renting out a room or house while away on holiday or business.
  3. Renting out an unoccupied property.

The third has been the subject of most legal controversy. Lehane, however, highlighted recent attempts to carve out a niche for Airbnb within existing laws.

In New York, for example, it is illegal to rent out buildings in the short term. It is, however, legal to rent out rooms. After talks with the local government, Airbnb agreed to distinguish between hosts renting out a room and hosts who sought to let a whole building.

Airbnb’s future

In 2015, tourism accounted for 10% of the global GDP, which is more than the oil industry. The value of Airbnb is currently estimated at $30b, roughly three billion more than Hilton Worldwide.

In an industry of gigantic proportions, Lehane’s company is already a world leader. What’s more, it is also developing other branches of business like tour guides, where locals introduce tourists to nearby highlights. Additionally, Airbnb has recently revealed plans to sell airplane tickets.

When asked whether Airbnb was becoming a sort of travel agency, Lehane replied “you could say that, but we’re going to be providing more end to end services.”

It looks like Airbnb has many more tricks up its sleeve.