The morning of the third and final day of Airbnb’s annual gathering of hosts, the Airbnb Open, held in downtown Los Angeles this past Thursday through Saturday, featured a Q&A between Brian Chesky and actor, producer, and tech investor Ashton Kutcher that turned heated when a protester crashed the event and made it onto the stage. Kutcher then delivered an impromptu and impassioned appeal for the disruptive, and sometimes controversial, company.
The gathering, Airbnb’s third annual, had already been infused with excitement. The announcement of the company’s planned launch into Trips, a new platform for one-of-a-kind, individual “experiences” offered by Airbnb hosts, had been received by standing ovation and media fanfare earlier in the week.
Now, on the last day, the company was rolling out its star power: Kutcher’s session was preceded by a keynote by Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert and would be followed by a chat with actress and entrepreneur (and Airbnb user) Gwyneth Paltrow. Thousands of Airbnb hosts and guests who’d been attending the event lined up around the corner and filled the Orpheum theater in downtown Los Angeles.
There had already been some signs of friction. Outside the theater, the local arm of Unite Here, the hotel union that vociferously opposes Airbnb, had staged a protest, and some 50 or so members and activists were marching down South Broadway, banging a drum, honking horns and shouting loudly and forcefully against Airbnb. The event was expected, and Airbnb had sent an email out to attendees alerting them to the possibility. (“We, of course, respect the right to protest,” the email said, advising attendees to remove their credentials and not engage with the protesters.)
But the real surprise was the unexpected storming of the stage that came in the middle of the Kutcher session.
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Kutcher, who rose to fame on That ‘70s Show and now stars in the Netflix (nflx) series The Ranch, was an early investor in Airbnb, and there was deafening applause when he took the stage with Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky. Chesky began by asking Kutcher how he first became interested in technology, and Kutcher was midway explaining how he had first invested in Skype (msft) when a woman started slowly walking down an aisle in the audience, approaching the stage and holding a big pink sign. She was from Code Pink, a woman-led protest group focused on peace and human rights.
Her sign read “Airbnb out of Settlements,” objecting to the fact that the Airbnb platform includes listings in Israeli-occupied settlements in the West Bank. It was hard to make out her words, but she spoke loudly and piercingly against the company’s presence in the settlements.
As soon as she made it onto the stage, Kutcher sprung into action, rising from his seat, walking over to her and offering his hand and a friendly greeting. “How’s it goin’?” he said. “How are you? How are you?” She shook his hand, at which point the audience roared with laughter, rose to their feet and cheered. She went back to her chanting, until he interrupted: “You actually don’t have the stage,” he told her, as the audience booed the protester.
Soon two security officers came onto the stage and walked the protester down the stairs and up the aisle to the exits, but Kutcher was just getting started, launching into an impromptu soliloquy about Airbnb. “What the people are doing here is focusing on bringing people together,” he said, turning to face the audience, which erupted into more applause upon hearing Kutcher preach Airbnb’s mission of “belonging.”
“Because unless you can understand the inside of someone’s home, you cannot understand their hearts,” he said. He talked about how Airbnb lets people get to know each other, and if more people shared their homes with one another, “we can “get to know each other and bring each other together in a peaceful unity that doesn’t have borders.”
By now, the audience had fallen quiet and an impassioned Kutcher had the stage. “And while I can appreciate that this doesn’t happen seamlessly,” he continued. “I can appreciate that it does not happen easily, I can appreciate that where there is change there will be a fringe case that feels objectified. But this company is about bringing people together and about loving one another. And I know this man,” he said, walking over to Chesky. “I know his heart I know his initiative and I know that when a problem gets brought to his desk that says that there is a discrimination or there is a displacement, he cares, and the first thing he does is to try to look at the system holistically and change it to make it better.” He addressed the protestor, who had made her way to the exit doors. “You’re welcome to a world where we all belong,” Kutcher said. “And If you want to sit down and have a conversation about it I’m happy to have that conversation with you.”
He walked back over to his chair and sat down. “This just got a lot more interesting,” Chesky said.
Kutcher turned to the audience and confessed to an ailment he’d mentioned at the beginning of the session: “HANGOVER!” he announced. “I’m sure I would have been a lot more eloquent” were it not for his late night the night before, he said. He picked up right where he left off, explaining how he first became interested in consumer tech around 2007 when the iPhone was launched.
Later in the discussion, Kutcher talked about how he became interested in Airbnb. He said he’d become intrigued by the idea of home-swapping after seeing the Cameron Diaz/Kate Winslet vehicle The Holiday, and when he later came across Airbnb, he felt it demonstrated a “whimsical approach to a real problem.” He was particularly interested in how it democratized travel, recalling growing up in Texas in a family that couldn’t afford vacation. “We just knew that rich people got to go on vacation, and people like us got to go fishing,” he said. He remembered the pride he saw on his father’s face on the rare times he was able to “put six people in an AMC pacer and drive us down to Texas”—and how Airbnb affords that opportunity to more people. “If this thing existed then,” Kutcher said, “My dad, who worked his ass off in a factory every single day, could have felt that pride of being able to take his family on vacation.”
Kutcher also spoke about using Airbnb after his divorce (from actress Demi Moore). “I just started living in Airbnbs,” he said. He recalled one experience in Europe, where he had booked a listing called the Olive Mill, and arriving at 2 a.m. to find that his “host” had left him dinner and a glass of wine. “And it was like, the magic and the love that I needed in that moment and I was shocked,” he said. “I was shocked that someone would care that much about a total stranger. That changed my perspective of what we do and to this day I’ll never forget it.”
Other than the protester, Kutcher didn’t need to convince anyone in the room: he was preaching to the converted. The attendees represented a highly concentrated core of Airbnb’s most engaged community, some 6,000-plus hosts and travelers who paid their own way, flying from all over the world, for three days of immersion in talks, seminars, and events all around the culture of hosting.
“If TED, Burning Man, and Sundance had a baby, it would be #AirbnbOpen in LA,” the company’s head of global hospitality and strategy and chief orchestrator of the Open, Chip Conley, tweeted leading up to the event.