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Airbnb Taps a Former Disney Theme Park Exec to Run Its Experiences Business

Dennis Schaal , Skift
Airbnb Taps a Former Disney Theme Park Exec to Run Its Experiences Business

Airbnb is turning to a former Walt Disney Co. theme park president, who abruptly left the company in September in a shakeup, to lead its Experiences business.

Catherine Powell, a Disney veteran who most recently served as president of Disney Parks Western Region, including Walt Disney World, Disneyland, and Disneyland Paris, replaces Joe Zadeh as head of Airbnb Experiences. Zadeh, who led this Airbnb’s tours and activities business from its launch in 2016, transitioned out of the post, and is now chief stakeholder officer.

Powell’s position at Disney was eliminated in September when attendance numbers at two recently opened Star Wars lands fell short, and the financials did likewise at Disneyland and Walt Disney World. Powell also takes a slot of Airbnb’s executive team.

Powell’s appointment comes as Airbnb co-founder and CEO Brian Chesky set high expectations for the company’s Experiences business as Airbnb is poised to go public in 2020.

Catherine Powell

“I believe Airbnb Experiences will be a massive business,” Chesky said in a statement announcing Powell’s appointment. “Not everyone has a home to rent out, but everyone has a story, a passion or a talent they can share.”

That’s hyperbole, of course, but is geared to fit into an appealing narrative as Airbnb will try to convince the market that it has new revenue streams to supplement slowing growth in short-term rentals.

No public company that sells lodging has so far built a tours and activities business that overshadows it, as Chesky’s statement might be interpreted to mean.

Chesky noted that Powell has managed “tens of thousands of people” around the world at Disney as they engaged in immersive experiences, citing her creativity and operational skills.

Powell said Airbnb’s mission “sits at the heart of the Experiences economy.” She added that the potential for Airbnb’s Experiences business, which now counts some 40,000 activities in more than 1,000 cities and has expanded into adventures, cooking, and animal experiences, has a potential that is “virtually unlimited.”

In the announcement, Airbnb cited a Morning Consult poll that found more than half of survey respondents in Mexico, France, Australia, India, the UK, the U.S., Germany, and Brazil indicated they would prefer to spend money on experiences rather than physical goods.

Whether that turns out to be true or not when it comes to actual purchases, that is certainly a trend that many researchers are seeing, especially when considering the avowed preferences of millennials and Gen Z.

As a private company, Airbnb has not released any of the financials about how its Experiences business is performing.

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