It was like a breath of fresh air and a punch in the face all at the same time, if that’s possible.
This was the moment when Brian Chesky, co-founder and CEO of Airbnb, started into the final minute of his keynote at the PhoCusWright Conference last November in front of nearly 1,500 travel executives and entrepreneurs.
This audience is arguably one of the most ego-filled and experience-heavy of any in the industry, and is a tough crowd for sentiments that can be easily brushed off with an eye-roll or a wave of the "welcome to the big leagues, rookie" hand of tenured travel industry indifference.
But for those still planning to stick around a decade or two from now and run this place while those eye-rollers are long gone sipping on pina coladas beachside, what Chesky said might have piqued your interest just as it did my own:
"For us to win, nobody has to lose... I heard that there was this stupid thing on the screen that had Brian Chesky versus Brian Sharples. I think that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. This idea that there has to be a battle between us and HomeAway, or between us and the hotel industry, is absurd."
"It’s not about us versus anyone else, the battle is about [all of us] versus the economic environment that is changing so fast… I hope to see us all back here in five years... for us [AirBnB] to win, everyone else can win because ultimately the travel industry is undervalued… it’s so much more than we ever thought [it could be]."
It struck a chord that was buried deep under now five of my eight total years in travel where dysfunction has seemingly blended into some strange version of our industry’s definition of normal.
The same perspective is true for many of the most talented of my peers – both startup divas and corporate types alike.
We all together suffer from the same disease that was birthed many decades ago industry-wide amidst a stodgy, secretive and silo-driven corporate culture from the airline hayday of the 60s and 70s.
I know what you’re thinking: has that much really changed? And I think the answer to that is partially why Chesky was shocked enough by what he witnessed to call us out on our crap.
My Chesky-inspired challenge to us all this new year
His intent and underlying motivation behind that statement I can’t fully speculate on beyond his actual words, but for me personally his statement highlighted something incredibly important in my own eyes based on which I wanted to challenge us all in this new year.
In my personal experience, interacting with peers from hundreds of companies in travel – both large in size and tiny in startup nature - I’ve learned a ton in five years thanks to so many willing to share what they know when asked.
But there’s also the other side of the coin - there are few in this industry I’ve found readily and willing to admit to not knowing the answer to just about any question, not having mastered a topic area or not having thought of already that idea just shared, only in a much bigger and better form than you even considered over ten years ago.
We’re all so darn defensive and prideful it hurts - both us and our customers.
And thus, I’ve found as a result that there are so many willing to tell you what they know, which can be great, but very few people left still willing to ask questions, willing to form new relationships previously not considered, or voluntarily open themselves up to engage in honest debates with opinions 180 degrees opposite of their own.
But that is where the magic happens. That’s where we learn, collaborate and resolve to do something better... to achieve our true value as an industry.
The most valuable thing startups have done for our industry
Personally, I believe that’s the single most brilliant example startups have set for the rest of us by infiltrating our industry – their willingness to ask questions shamelessly and listen closely to every word in every answer seems like such an obviously valuable task to even the most mediocre entrepreneur.
But to those working in one of the many hundreds of companies whose peak of success was defined by actions taken when leg warmers were first popular, this skill doesn’t seem so obvious.
What we witness all too often is likely what Chesky saw – posturing, criticizing, misdirected competition, and misplaced arrogance.
Yet, what we rarely witness is the one thing I believe companies on that bubble between reinvention and extinction desperately need: a humble, collaborative spirit with an unquenchable thirst for new knowledge, desire to seek out creative partnerships and a relentless focus on less talk, more execution.
Back to square one... with new dancing partners
The difference will be in which established companies and emerging players were both willing to roll up their sleeves to plan the next decade or two of success by stepping back into square one together.
Who was man or woman enough to go back to a place where egos don’t exist, humility reigns, questions and answers abound, collaboration is rampant, learning is the default state of mind and where the future will be defined by the companies willing to step through it all collaboratively and creatively together.
This has little to do with technology or business models or corporate strategies, and everything to do with our mindset and approach to openly working with others to get creative in solving new and increasingly challenging customer problems.
Approaching their needs with reckless abandon and relentless determination while shamelessly asking questions every step of the way is one heck of a way to start.
Don’t add to the suck-factor
In 2013, be that guy or girl who doesn’t add to this industry’s suck-factor. We have plenty.
Resist the habits embedded for decades to offer the first criticisms, or to snub a meeting with someone who can do nothing for you, or refuse to learn something from those we’ve historically disliked or disagreed with.
Instead, choose to be one of the people connecting dots for others, mentoring rookies who don’t know their way around this industry, and simply working toward making travel what it has the potential to collaboratively become for travelers, for suppliers, for agents, for corporations – for whomever your customer may be.
That’s the kind of legacy I hope we each being to leave around here and the kind of progressive maturity I’m certain someone like Chesky would be blown away to ultimately witness in five years.
Our own worst enemy no more – go do something crazy
As he said, our industry is severely undervalued – he’s right. And we’re our own worst enemy to realizing our true potential for all the reasons I’ve already belabored.
So, this year, how will you take steps to shake off the anti-collaborative habits of our past?
Go do something crazy.
Explore working with someone new or a company you never would have dreamed of talking to just five years ago. It’s the unexpected partnerships that are almost always the most valuable.
Ask a question or two to a startup you called out of the blue. I promise they’ll call you back and gladly answer your questions, but be prepared to also answer a few of their own – with a smile.
Contact that jerk who wrote the piece-of-crap editorial about you or your company and sincerely try to understand & learn from his perspective without calling him a name he’ll quote you on next time.
Dare to ask any startup what’s wrong with our industry, or introduce yourself to the CEO of your most hated competitor.
The perspective from which we make the most critical decisions for our own company's future will be as flawed as the corporate walls are thick that separate us from outside viewpoints.
With that in mind, we must invite and embrace new perspectives into our point-of-view this year – they are a hidden goldmine of valuable insight most brush off all too soon as simply "wrong".
But in fact they open the door to unforeseen collaboration opportunities that very well could push us forward as an industry or define our second powerful wind as an established company.
In 2013, simply put, let’s commit to shake off the ghosts of travel’s silo-ridden past, find a new goldmine of unique industry insights and help someone else do the same... or, kindly, get the heck out of the way.
NB: Dummy/pacifier image via Shutterstock.