Case Study: Scaling Our Disaster Response and Relief Program

Categories: Case study

The Airbnb community has a proud history of opening their homes to people in times of disaster. When Hurricane Sandy hit New York in 2012, Shell, a long-time Airbnb host, felt compelled to take action. She listed her Airbnb space for free so those displaced had a place to stay and feel comforted, during such an uncertain time. This act of generosity ignited a movement—over 1,000 hosts ended up offering their space for free to their neighbors.

It was also the genesis of our Disaster Response & Relief program. Inspired by our hosts’ generosity, we decided to build out a dedicated team of experts, product support, and strategic partners. To date, Airbnb hosts have welcomed over 11,000 people in need into their homes, and we want to enable our community to do more.

We have one of the largest communities of hosts and guests to activate in a disaster who have available space to share for those in need of temporary accommodation. These spaces are often neighbors and people who may not consider hosting otherwise, but are more than willing when their neighbors are in need.

– Kellie Bentz, Senior Manager, Disaster Response & Relief 

How it all works

There are two parts to the Disaster Response & Relief program: One is proactive and triggered ahead of a disaster, the other is reactive. Both are critical to helping our community stay safe.

First, we provide our community with the resources and information they need to better prepare for a disaster. We regularly send proactive communications to hosts and guests with best practices on how to prepare and stay safe in the event of a disaster. We also work with local governments and expert partners to lead preparedness workshops for hosts.

Often people believe “it will not happen to them.” Thinking through personal, family, and business response plans is critical to being more prepared and resilient should something happen.

Kellie Bentz, Senior Manager, Disaster Response & Relief

Our strategic partnerships and relationships with nonprofits and local governments are integral to the success and efficacy of our program. We work with agencies around the world like the Australian Red CrossMercy Corps and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)These partnerships help guide our strategy for when and where we activate our host community, and how we can best support them in the event of a disaster.

We also provide travel credits to help relief workers book temporary accommodations in the areas where they deploy. This helps amplify relief agencies’ impact while continuing to provide local hosts with income, which is essential to a local economy’s recovery.

One of our Airbnb hosts went above and beyond, installing a generator for us to provide electricity and internet when that was a luxury. He made a tremendous effort to find goods and provide contacts for us. It was a huge help and we were able to work much more effectively as a result.

Jerónimo Candela, Director, Mercy Corps Puerto Rico

We activate our response tool, anytime we determine there is a need our host community can meet. The tool automatically contacts hosts in proximity to the impacted area, asking them to provide free, temporary housing to their displaced neighbors. Hosts who choose to participate have their space listed for free on Airbnb. In addition, Airbnb waives all fees, and guests and hosts continue to have access to Airbnb’s 24/7 customer support.

Our hosts do more than just put a roof over people’s heads. Their hospitality and compassion can mean everything to someone going through a hard time in their life.

The Orlando hosts who responded after the Pulse Nightclub shooting went above and beyond. They filled fridges with food, brought flowers to each listing to welcome families coming in after being through such an incredibly traumatic loss. Many came to the airport to help us translate and build accounts for guests. The guests were incredibly grateful. Many have stayed in touch for years after.

Kellie Bentz, Senior Manager, Disaster Response & Relief

Designing a 21st century response strategy

As the desire for our community to host for good scaled, we felt compelled to scale alongside them. We dedicated a team of engineers and designers to build a stronger and more efficient version of our disaster response tool. The team faced a myriad of questions and challenges. The first version of our response tool was very basic, which required our Disaster Response team to be scrappy and manually manage aspects of our response efforts, which can be incredibly challenging when dealing with a disaster that requires contacting thousands of people . Our goal was to automate the elements of our program that our team was doing manually, in order to respond to more disasters with increased efficiency and impact. We specifically needed to:

  1. Define regions that accurately captured the impacted areas, factored in geographic nuance, and helped us reach the correct guests within each area.
  2. Automate email communication—including content, translations, audience, and delivery.
  3. Find a seamless solution to coordinate with our customer support teams, so they had all the information and resources they needed to respond to each incident.
  4. Build an Open Homes host community ahead of a disaster.

Our team began by mapping out the full lifecycle of the disaster response process—from when we first learn about a disaster, to when all of our response efforts are complete. We considered the user journey for all parties involved: our internal team, hosts, guests, and partners. We then walked through the mainframes of those journeys to identify pain points and opportunities for improvement. This became the overall framework for the features we would build in the new tool.

One key aspect of this process was collaborating with our disaster response team. They’re the experts that informed the user journeys and opportunities mentioned above. In order to make sure our products would be impactful, we worked closely with them as we designed and built the new tools, incorporating feedback throughout the process.

Eric Ruth, Product Manager

There were a number of technical and logistical challenges the team needed to overcome. Working in a reactive space creates an overwhelming number of variables to solve for. Accurately identifying which users were impacted by a disaster and which hosts might be able to offer help was mission critical. In moving away from a manual process to scale up our response efforts, we still needed to make sure that we could connect with our community and not come off as robotic or impersonal. The size of our community also required us to build support for large-scale queries, where the affected community could potentially be hundreds of thousands of hosts and guests.

The new product has mechanisms for defining nuanced geographic regions relevant to a disaster, and quickly provides geography-based statistics about the scope of the disaster as it relates to the Airbnb community. This accuracy, along with new dynamic email previewing, allows the disaster response operations team to easily contact all of the users within disaster zones, with confidence that they’re reaching the right people with the correct messaging. There are also a number of other features that were adapted to be automatic, like our system for flagging reservations and users affected by a given disaster, allowing our customer support teams to respond appropriately.

The journey ahead

The marriage between technology and human generosity presents incredible challenges, but also unlocks an amazing potential for people to do good. We’re humbled by our community, and are committed to continue building tools that empower them to do good.

On the horizon, we’re exploring how this technology can be leveraged to help other people in need, like refugees and medical patients. As we embark on these efforts, we’ll be working alongside our existing Open Homes hosts, who’ve pioneered this program from the very beginning. We’re hoping to bring them into the design process, hear about their experience, and continuously ask for their feedback. After all, this program was inspired by them.



Get involved

Open Homes is a program that lets you share your extra space for free with people in need of temporary housing. Our community of hosts believes that everyone should have a safe place to call home. If you want to be part of this movement, and we hope you do, consider opening your home.

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