Airbnb addresses discrimination, announces new features at OpenAir conference

Responding to recent criticism that Airbnb hosts discriminate against minority guests, the company’s CEO on Wednesday promised that he is working on re-tooling the platform to stamp out bias.

“First, let me make clear we have zero tolerance for any amount of racism or discrimination on our platform, and we take swift action whenever we hear about anything,” co-founder and CEO Brian Chesky said during Airbnb’s annual OpenAir conference in San Francisco.

Airbnb also used the stage time to announce three new product features intended to make it easier for groups of travelers and people traveling for business to book rooms on the platform.

A study by Harvard Business School earlier this year found travelers with African-American-sounding names were 16 percent less likely to be given a room than travelers with white-sounding names. The study sparked a national outcry and the #AirbnbWhileBlack Twitter hashtag, which African-American travelers used to share stories of discrimination they experienced on the home-sharing platform.

David King, Airbnb’s new director of diversity and belonging, laid out some general steps Airbnb is taking to tackle discrimination, but didn’t reveal specific things the company would change. He said Airbnb plans to train hosts on unconscious bias and make sure internal Airbnb employees have the tools and training to handle instances of bias. King said Airbnb is conducting a review of its platform to assess what needs to change, which will conclude in September.

Conference attendees also heard a panel discussion on “building an inclusive company,” which featured King, gender discrimination activist Ellen Pao and Slack Director of Engineering Leslie Miley.

Miley said the CEO has to be the one to set the tone, and take a hard-line stance that makes it clear discrimination will be dealt with swiftly and with certainty.

For example, he suggested how Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg should have responded to an employee famously crossing out a “black lives matter” slogan on a wall where employees traditionally scrawl various messages, and replacing it with “all lives matter.” Miley suggested Zuckerberg should have taken a strong stance: “We will find you, and we will fire you.”

Airbnb Vice President of Engineering Mike Curtis also announced new product features Wednesday. Collaborative Wish Lists make it easier for groups to plan stays together, by allowing them to share and vote on potential listings via a collaborative thread on the platform. And Airbnb’s new multi-party review system allows each member of a group to review an Airbnb host, and vice versa.

Another feature, geared toward business travelers, allows secretaries or co-workers to book an Airbnb stay on someone else’s behalf — a practice that previously was frowned upon.

The number of nights booked on Airbnb for business travel tripled in the first quarter of this year, Curtis said, and 50,000 companies have used the platform for business trips.

“We think it’s going to have a huge impact,” Curis said of the new business booking feature, “in terms of the experience and the number of companies that will choose Airbnb as the best way to travel for business.”

Photo: Airbnb co-founder and CEO Brian Chesky addresses the crowd during Airbnb’s annual OpenAir conference in San Francisco on Wednesday. (Marisa Kendall/Mercury News)


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