How to use the Airbnb 11-star experience framework to get raving reviews and repeat guests

Thibault Masson

How can you build a mind-blowing experience for travelers that they’ll want to tell everyone about it? Brian Chesky, Airbnb CEO, and co-founder has tried to provide an answer by presenting the Airbnb 11-star experience framework. While the company is getting back to basics with Airbnb hosts, it is good to revisit Airbnb’s guest experience principles.

The lesson seems simple: Serve your customers one by one. And don’t stop until you know what they want. In a podcast episode, Chesky explains the 11-star concept. This article reveals what you can learn from Chesky’s lessons shared for Masterofscale on how to win travelers and how to use Airbnb’s 11-star experience framework. 

The mental exercise presented by Airbnb co-founder could help you realize what factors could make that particular experience to meet all expectations or a total failure. It will help you anticipate what guests need. 

So get ready to brainstorm with your business partner or sit in front of your pc and start filling out the framework. Try to compare and contrast experiences that you add in different stars. And most importantly, be realistic. 

Try to answer questions such as: what kind of experiences would travelers have so they would put six or seven-star to your property? And what exactly would make the experience unforgettable? Don’t be afraid to go to the extreme of 11 as Chesky, as this would help you make a difference with a unique but realistic experience. The most feasible experiences are six and seven. 

Questions you might consider when brainstorming include: Do I welcome my guests? Do I provide small welcome gifts? Do I keep things clean and tidy? Do I add other “finishing touches”?

Another functionality of the 11-star framework is that you can conduct a small survey among your guests. Try to understand how many stars they would give to your rental property. Also, use the framework to ask your rental manager (if you have one), your family and friends, and even your cleaning staff what they think. 

What is the Airbnb 11-star experience framework? 

Airbnb 11-star experience framework
The Airbnb 11-star experience framework, as rendered by designer Jessica Pang

“If you want to build something that’s truly viral, you have to create a total mindfuck experience that you tell everyone about,” explains Chesky. Airbnb took one part of their product and extrapolated what would different star experiences be. 

Here is how Chesky explains the 11-stars experience: 

Below five-star experience

One to five experiences happen when your guests are facing the worse travel experience. Your guests sometimes don’t have access to your rental property, or when they do, they are shocked by dirty linens, vermin or insects, or even health hazards. Your place doesn’t look like on the lovely photos of your listing. Some key amenities in your property might not work or missing. One star experience often leads to a requirement for a refund. 

“One, two, or three-star experience is you get to your Airbnb, and no one is there. You knock on the door. They don’t open. That’s one star. Maybe it’s a three-star if they don’t open, you have to wait 20 minutes. If they never show up and you’re pissed and you need to get your money back, that’s a one-star experience. You’re never using us again”, explains Chesky

Five-star experience 

Airbnb 5-star experience

Travelers’ experiences with five stars are usually not beyond expectations. 

“So a five-star experience is you knock on the door, they open the door, they let you in. Great. That’s not a big deal. You’re not going to tell every friend about it. You might say, “I used Airbnb. It worked”, says Chesky. 

Six-star experience: Better than a hotel 

This experience would make guests feel that your property is more cozy and enjoyable than staying in a hotel. It means you are making your guests feel welcomed. The rental property is tidy. You are providing amenities and some “finishing touches,” such as a bottle of wine or a small gift. 

“You knock on the door, the host opens. “Hey, I’m Reid. Welcome to my house.” You’re the host in this case. You would show them around. On the table would be a welcome gift. It would be a bottle of wine, maybe some candy. You’d open the fridge. There’s water. You go to the bathroom, and there’s toiletries. The whole thing is great. That’s a six-star experience. You’d say, “Wow I love this more than a hotel. I’m definitely going to use Airbnb again. It worked. Better than I expected”, says Chesky

Seven-star experience: Amazing stay 

This experience is way beyond. It is a fantastic experience, and you are almost a perfect host. You are ready to take an extra step. 

“What’s a seven-star experience? You knock on the door. Reid Hoffman opens. Get in. “Welcome. Here’s my full kitchen. I know you like surfing. There’s a surfboard waiting for you. I’ve booked lessons for you. It’s going to be an amazing experience. By the way here’s my car. You can use my car. And I also want to surprise you. There’s this best restaurant in the city of San Francisco. I got you a table there.” And you’re like, “Whoa. This is way beyond”, explains Chesky. 

Ten-star experience: The Beatles check-in 

This experience seems unrealistic, but it’s there. But it is not the top experience in the framework. So think about what is beyond what you believe you can offer as a host. 

“A ten-star check-in would be The Beatles check-in. In 1964. I’d get off the plane and there’d be 5,000 high school kids cheering my name with cars welcoming me to the country. I’d get to the front yard of your house and there’d be a press conference for me, and it would be just a mindfuck experience”, says Chesky. 

Eleven-star experience: Going to space with Elon Musk 

Airbnb 5-star reviews

Okay, so ten seemed a bit like a Hollywood movie, and there is eleven!? What the hell! If you are competing in the luxury property rental market, maybe you want to try to skyrocket to an eleven-star experience and prove to Chesky that it is feasible. 

“So what would 11 star experience be? I would show up at the airport and you’d be there with Elon Musk and you’re saying, “You’re going to space.” The point of the process is that maybe 9, 10, 11 are not feasible. But if you go through the crazy exercise of keep going, there’s some sweet spot between they showed up and they opened the door and I went to space. That’s the sweet spot. You have to almost design the extreme to come backwards. Suddenly, doesn’t knowing my preferences and having a surfboard in the house seem not crazy and reasonable? It’s actually kind of crazy logistically, but this is the kind of stuff that creates a great experience.

What other lessons can you learn from Airbnb’s 11-star experience framework? 

The most important lesson is summarized in the following Chesky’s words: 

We had a saying that you would do everything by hand until it was painful. So Joe and I would photograph homes until it was painful, then we get other photographers. Then we’d manage them with spreadsheets until it was painful. Then we got an intern”. Chesky explains how Airbnb was not built overnight. They worked gradually to improve Airbnb. The two Airbnb-co founders started manually, by taking photos from hosts’ homes by themselves because they didn’t have money to hire a photographer. Next, they hired a photographer and manually upload the photos to the host’s website. Afterwards. They automated the tools to become more effective.

Chesky points out that it is important to make a difference between designing and scaling experience:

“The designing of experience is a different part of your brain than the scaling your experience. It’s a different skill set. The scaling experience is a highly analytical, operations-oriented, and technology-oriented problem. The designing of experience is a more intuition-based human, empathetic, end-to-end experience”. 

These lessons could help you learn how to have more stars in the 11-stars framework. 

Lesson 1: Put yourself in their shoes 

Airbnb best guest experience

This lesson is really about looking at your property through owners’ and guests’ perspectives. It might seem like a cliche lesson from every business book, but knowing your customers is essential. To apply Airbnb’s 11-star framework, you have to think from the travelers’ perspectives. 

Chesky explains how, in Airbnb’s early days, when they had around 10-20 bookings a day, they traveled to meet some of their hosts face-to-face and encounter the Airbnb’s experience first hand. 

“If I want to make something amazing, I just spend time with you…. Early on, Joe Gebbia and I literally commuted to New York from Mountain View [to visit our Airbnb hosts in person]. We literally would knock on the doors of all of our hosts. We had their addresses and we say, “Knock knock. Hello. Hey, this is Brian, Joe, we’re founders and we just want to meet you,” explains Chesky. 

During face-to-face talks, the Airbnb owners would find out how to improve their short-rental platform. For example, they discovered that photos published on the websites didn’t truly represent the offered spaces because the hosts were taking them with their phones. So the Airbnb owners took a professional camera and went door to door of their New York City listings to take better-quality photos of the spaces and talk to hosts. 

Home visits became ‘trump card’ for Airbnb. During the talks with hosts, they would understand what they need and how to improve Airbnb to serve these requirements.

“We’d find out ‘Hey, I don’t feel comfortable with the guest. I don’t know who they are.’ Well, what if we had profiles? ‘Great!’ Well what do you want in your profile? ‘Well, I want a photo.’ Great. What else? ‘I want to know where they work, where they went to school.’ OK”, explains Chesky. 

Lesson 2: Listen to the passionate users and get early feedback 

Airbnb 11 stars experience

When you meet property owners, if you are a property manager, don’t underestimate what they want to tell you, especially if they are passionate. A story told by Chesky proves how a simple conversation could give you a roadmap: 

“I remember we met with a couple hosts. It’s winter. It’s snowing outside and we’re in snow boots. We walk up to the apartment and we went there to photograph the home. And we’re like, “I’ll upload your photos to the website. Do you have any other feedback?” He comes back with a book, it’s a binder and he’s got dozens of pages of notes. He ends up creating a product roadmap for us, we should have this, this, this, this and this, and we’re like, “Oh my god this is our roadmap because he’s the customer.” I think that always stuck in our mind as, the roadmap often exists in the minds of the users you’re designing things for”, points out Chesky. 

It is vital to get feedback early when you’re still defining the product. And it makes a difference how you ask questions:

“We’d ask these questions like, ‘What can we do to surprise you? What can we do, not to make this better, but to make you tell everyone about it?’ And that answer is different. If I say, ‘What can I do to make this better?’ They’ll say something small. If I were to say, ‘Reid, what would it take for me to design something that you would literally tell every single person you’ve ever encountered?’ You start to ask these questions and it really helps you think through this problem.

Lesson 3: Be “all ears” on how to scale

best Airbnb guest experience tips

But how did Airbnb founders get to the idea to meet hosts? 

Chesky was admitted into Y Combinator in 2009, and he explains how valuable was his first meeting with Paul, who tends to stump people with deceptively simple questions. The conversation they had would probably make you wonder if you are doing enough:

He asked us, “Where’s your business?” 

And I go, “What do you mean?” 

“Where’s your traction?” 

And I go “We don’t have a lot of traction.” 

He goes, “People must be using it.” 

I said, “There’s a few people in New York using it.” 

And he said something I’ll never forget. He said, “So your users are in New York and you’re still in Mountain View.” I said, “Yeah.” And he said, “What are you still doing here?” And I go, “What do you mean?” He said, “Go to your users. Get to know them. Get your customers one by one.” And I said, “But that won’t scale. If we’re huge and we have millions of customers we can’t meet every customer.” And he said, “That’s exactly why you should do it now because this is the only time you’ll ever be small enough that you can meet all your customers, get to know them and make something directly for them.”

Lesson 4: Think about creative marketing ideas and hand serve your travelers

Airbnb experience framework

This advice is related to putting things in perspective and think about creative ways to marketing your offer to travelers. The Airbnb founders come up with an innovative solution on having an Obama and  McCain themed breakfast in 2008, an election year in the United States. It got them through a cash crunch.

Brian was at the Democratic National Convention, hatching a PR campaign for Airbnb, that might rescue the company and their credit card bills. 

“Joe and I look at each other and we said ‘We’re Air Bed and Breakfast. The air beds aren’t going so well. Maybe breakfast will.’ So we thought, what if we could sell breakfast? Maybe we can make some money. What’s a non-perishable breakfast? Cereal. So we thought the presidential campaign is coming up. We just launched at the DNC. What if we created a Barack Obama themed breakfast cereal? And we thought, what would a Barack Obama themed breakfast cereal be called? Obama O’s like Cheerios, “The breakfast of change.” We thought, “Well, we want to be a nonpartisan website so we’d also need a John McCain themed cereal.” John McCain was a captain in the Navy and so we came up with Cap’n McCain’s, like Cap’n Crunch: “A maverick in every bite.” We ended up making a thousand boxes of collectable breakfast cereal. We sold them for $40 a box.

However, Chesky and Gebbia had to make breakfast cereal themselves physically.  

“I literally had to hot glue 1,000 boxes of cereal. At one point in the middle of the night I remember thinking, I wonder if, when Mark Zuckerberg started Facebook, he had to hot glue breakfast cereal. The answer was no and this was not a good sign” says Chesky. 

Lesson 5: Find inspiration to storyboard the perfect experience

Airbnb UX customer experience

Chesky explains how he found inspiration from Hollywood to storyboard the perfect Airbnb experience: 

“I often find that to reinvent an industry, you do not take inspiration directly from that industry, you need to look at orthogonal industries. For us the orthogonal industry for travel was cinema. The best trips you’ve ever seen are the trips that characters in movies have and we would provide that analogy in real life. I actually literally hired a storyboard artist from Pixar. We had him storyboard the perfect Airbnb experience. When we did that we realized there was this two hour movie and only 20-minutes were in the home. There was all this leading up to the home, getting the airport, going around, going to dinner, or hanging out with friends out and about. Most of the trip was not in the home. We realized at that point, we need to be the end-to-end business of travel. So the same way that we did things that don’t scale, we called it “magical trips.” We decided let’s find one traveler and create the perfect trip for them”.

Lesson 6: When you’re small, you can make the most innovative leaps

According to Chesky, there is an advantage of being small. 

“I tell a lot of entrepreneurs who don’t have traction, I miss those times. Yes, it’s exciting to have traction, to have a company that’s huge scale, but the biggest leaps you ever get is when you’re small. Another way of saying it is, your product changes less the bigger you get because there’s bigger, more customers, more blowback, more systems, more legacy. The most innovative leaps you’ll ever make, especially if you’re a network, are going to be when you’re really, really small. You can change the product entirely in a week. Try doing that at LinkedIn or Airbnb today. That would be a huge disaster. So I think taking advantage of that subscale, designing the perfect experience, asking yourself what you can do, is amazing,” says Chesky. 

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