‘I’ve seen cuts done poorly’: Airbnb’s lessons on leading through crisis

·3-min read
Airbnb Australia country manager Susan Wheeldon, Australian houses aerial view, Airbnb logo on phone. Images: Getty, Airbnb.
Susan Wheeldon joined Airbnb in October last year. Then the bushfires and pandemic hit. Images: Getty, Airbnb.

Susan Wheeldon, Airbnb country manager for Australia and New Zealand, will discuss leadership in uncertainty at the Yahoo Finance All Markets Summit on Thursday 17 September. Register here.

When coronavirus hit, Airbnb watched as first China, then Italy, then the entire world shut borders to try to prevent the spread of the global pandemic.

The holiday rental platform saw revenue plunge 80 per cent in eight weeks and the future of travel still remains incredibly uncertain.

But Airbnb country manager for Australia and New Zealand, Susan Wheeldon has a simple coping strategy: mix communication and empathy with a long-term view and adaptability.

Then add some chocolate and a daily run on top.

“All leaders actually have to fundamentally change in a crisis because you just physically can’t operate the way you have been previously operating, because so much has changed,” Wheeldon told Yahoo Finance.

“We had just come out of bushfire season and so that helped us as a team work out how to work together really well in crisis management.”

The summer bushfires saw Airbnb expand its Open Homes program, allowing Australians with space to open their homes to bushfire victims. At the same time, the holiday platform faced refund challenges as listings were affected by the unprecedented blazes.

Wheeldon, who joined Airbnb from Google in October 2019, said the key to leading through the bushfires and the pandemic has been never to lose a sense of direction, especially when there were decisions that weren’t unanimous, and to level up the communication.

That communication was especially important when it came to the last resort: lay-offs.

Airbnb in May laid off 1,900 staff - or around 25 per cent of the company, with co-founder and CEO Brian Chesky breaking the news in a direct address and a letter.

Chesky was both praised for his “master class in empathy and compassion”, while also receiving criticism from staff for what they saw as a betrayal of the company’s family-based ethos.

Wheeldon defines the layoffs as her hardest moment at Airbnb.

“When you work with a really close knit and amazing team which I'm incredibly fortunate to lead here in Australia, when decisions are made about cuts and that affects people’s lives, that for me is the toughest thing to do.

“I worked through the GFC, and I’ve seen cuts done poorly. So I was so grateful that I sat in an organisation that genuinely had care and empathy.”

Looking to the future for Airbnb

International travel is off the cards for the foreseeable future, and even interstate travel isn’t a sure thing. But that doesn’t mean Australians aren’t still hungry for a getaway.

Airbnb has seen a surge in bookings for holidays within a three hour drive and whole-home listings, Wheeldon revealed.

Groups of friends and families are packing up for long weekends together, with there also being a spike in demand for pet-friendly bookings.

It’s a story being repeated worldwide, Wheeldon added, as the ability to work from home also sees the increasing popularity of destination offices.

But while Airbnb can track current demand, mapping out future trends is tricky given the huge uncertainty.

“Part of that process is really accessing all of the information on what things are going to look like so you can plan,” Wheeldon said.

“Part of that is also about understanding that Australians love to travel domestically and it’s a great opportunity for us to continue to help Australians - at this point - to discover their own state.”

An Oxford Economics report found that Airbnb guests spent $9 billion in Australia in 2019, with $6 billion coming from Australian pockets.

Wheeldon said that that alone shows the power of mobilising Australian travellers.

Susan Wheeldon will discuss leadership in uncertainty at the Yahoo Finance All Markets Summit on Thursday 17 September. Register here.

All Markets Summit
All Markets Summit