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Airbnb’s Tara Bunch discusses Gen Z travel, inclusive corporate governance, and one memorable road trip

Airbnb’s Tara Bunch discusses Gen Z travel, inclusive corporate governance, and one memorable road trip

The out and proud lesbian and mother of five knows first-hand what the next generations seek in travel experiences.

When Airbnb recently analyzed its data and discovered a staggering 300 percent increase in bookings by Gen Z travelers in the last five years, there was one Airbnb executive who was not surprised.

“I’ll put it out there that I’m a mother of six,” Tara Bunch, Airbnb’s Global Head of Operations, told Out Traveler via Zoom during Pride month. “I have five kids in college and so I’m familiar with this particular generation.”

Defined loosely as individuals born from 1996 to the early 2000s, Gen Z-ers are “naturally adventurous” and tend to seek out new travel experiences, especially during Pride. And Bunch, a happily married lesbian raising a quintet of highly active young’uns aged 11 to 23, again uses her own family to shed light on this generation’s travel trends and motivations.

“They are I think – especially kind of during and even maybe more so post-COVID certainly when I look at my kids and their friends – they are wanting to get out and see the world, and I think it’s even more important post-COVID,” Bunch continues. “I mean, this was a generation that missed out on a lot of kind of normal things – graduation trips, grad nights, spring break trips – that were kind of messed up by the lockdown of COVID, and they are eager to get out and explore the world. And by their nature they’re adventurous, they’re curious. And my kids have traveled all over the globe on Airbnb. They're frequent users of Airbnb. And my son, he got in his jeep and drove across the United States with a friend, and they stayed in Airbnbs all the way across and all the way back, eventually showing back up in LA to hang out with us.”

Tara Bunch, Airbnb's Global Head of OperationsImage courtesy Airbnb

While admitting the exact numbers of LGBTQ+ travelers using Airbnb is difficult to quantify, Bunch has no issue declaring that “travel is alive and well” with Gen Z-ers as well as Millennials (born 1980 to 1995).

“This is the next generation of travelers. I think they are eager, as I said, to get out and, you know, basically be exposed to a lot of different cultures and environments and communities,” she says.

And based on her personal experiences traveling with her children, she doesn’t think these generations are interested in a traditional hotel environment or experience.

“They like to travel in groups. They’re very social,” she says as if checking off boxes on a list. “And so I think a platform like Airbnb, especially a platform that espouses the values that Airbnb does, is a perfect way for young people to travel.”

More on those values later.

The Rainbow House in Joshua Tree, CaliforniaImage courtesy The Rainbow House/Airbnb

The Rainbow House in Joshua Tree, CaliforniaImage courtesy The Rainbow House/Airbnb

Rainbow House | Art Experience | Featured on HGTV

Airbnb’s data showed that Gen Z-ers sought out newer Pride celebrations and experiences, while Millennials tended to be more traditional in their travel choices.

“If we look at our millennials, they continue to be kind of the lead bookers for traditional Pride celebrations during Pride month, but we’re seeing this new Gen Z group kind of go a bit off the beaten path,” Bunch explains. “Some of them are obviously going to traditional Pride destinations, but they’re also going to new ones like Wynwood and outside Miami or in the Miami neighborhood. Kind of smaller venues that are, you know, maybe some of the activities are a little bit more focused on younger travelers. But we’re seeing lots and lots of Gen Z and millennials traveling for Pride.”

Bunch recalls one family vacation during the height of the global economic shutdown that encapsulated both the travel experiences preferred by the younger generations as well as the closeness of her own family. In a nutshell, her entire family had an acute summertime case of cabin fever. Unable to play sports or go hiking or biking or do anything outdoors, the family decided to escape Southern California and spend the summer with relatives out of state.

Tara BunchImage courtesy Airbnb

“And so we booked Airbnbs every 500 miles or so and made our way across the country to Texas,” she recalls with a warm smile. “I’d never driven cross country with my kids. It was fun because we were all stuck in the car together. So we were talking and, you know, listening to music together and doing stuff together and then, of course, occasionally you have to go to the bathroom, and there’s nowhere to go to the bathroom. So you find some foresty-like area and you find a way to go to the bathroom, make your way to your Airbnb. And we always get ones that have pools, or some, you know, something like that, so we could swim and cool off. And so we went all the way out there, and we spent a good chunk of summer there, and then drove all the way back. And I will tell you that that’s some of the best memories I have with my kids is just that adventure and driving across what, honestly at times felt like we were driving across the surface of the moon. There were so few people that we saw along the way.”

Foresty-like areas aside, Bunch says she joined Airbnb four years ago not just because it provided a quality product for consumers (and her family), but because of the aforementioned values and social consciousness of the company, especially when it comes to meeting the needs of its LGBTQ+ employees.

This year Airbnb was again honored with the Human Rights Campaign’s Equality 100 Award for earning a perfect score of 100 on its annual Corporate Equality Index (CEI). Such a progressive corporate mindset perfectly meshed with her ideals and experience affirming LGBTQ+ employees.

Airbnb hosts Kit Williams and John Halbach recognized the importance of inclusive LGBTQ+ language in their listing for Benecia Oasis in Yucca Valley, California, near Palm SpringsImage courtesy Benecia Oasis/Airbnb

Benecia Oasis in Yucca Valley, California, near Palm Springs

Benecia Oasis

Prior to stepping into her current role, Bunch was the executive sponsor of Pride in her previous positions at Apple and Hewlett-Packard and described herself as “eager to get plugged into the LGBTQ+ community here at Airbnb as soon as I joined, and fortunately, they were in need of an executive sponsor, so I stepped in and I am the executive sponsor for AirPride and Trans@.”

Bunch says it’s been exciting to use her experience in expanding Airbnb’s robust and inclusive employee network that welcomes and affirms the LGBTQ+ community. She proudly touts the benefits of Airbnb’s sponsorship of Lesbians Who Tech and the employee advocacy group Out & Equal, as well as their yearly participation in the latter’s summit.

“What we do is we bring a cross-section of our employee resource group [ERG] leaders together, so not just AirPride and Trans@, but all of our ERGs will have leaders from all those different groups travel to Out & Equal and be there together, and the same thing at Lesbians Who Tech. And the value of that is that it’s really helping us to foster kind of that intersexual sexuality of you may be Hispanic and gay, or you’re maybe Muslim and bi. It’s like people are not necessarily in one box, and it’s giving us this opportunity to build kind of these connections across all these communities and support one another and learn about each other’s communities and cultures.”

The colorful exterior of The Andersonville Hooch Parlor in Chicago, IllinoisImage courtesy Andersonville Hooch Parlor/Airbnb

The Andersonville Hooch Parlor

This commitment to inclusion isn’t limited to the company’s workforce. Every host and guest who wants to do business with Airbnb must sign the Airbnb Community Commitment which states, “I agree to treat everyone in the Airbnb community – regardless of their race, religion, national origin, ethnicity, disability, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, or age – with respect, and without judgment or bias.”

Perhaps not coincidentally, Airbnb recently saw a 90 percent increase in the use of inclusive LGBTQ+ listings by Airbnb hosts.

“I think it’s indicative that our hosts, and I think the travel community in general, see the LGBTQ+ community as a really important group of travelers, and they want to be a community that’s welcoming of that,” Bunch says.

This intersection of corporate responsibility, a great business model, and her positive personal experience as a guest made working for Airbnb a no-brainer decision.

“One of the reasons I joined Airbnb was just I felt the values and the mission of the company were both really unique, but really resonated with me,” Bunch says. “It’s really a company whose value is around bringing people together, creating community, creating belonging, addressing something that I think has had a pretty major impact on people, particularly during COVID and since then is just people feeling isolated and lonely, and we particularly see that in young people. And I think Airbnb is doing its part to really bring people together, to create communities, to create travel experiences where you can travel as a group, you can meet hosts, you can meet other travelers. And I just think there’s never been a time where that's been more important than today, and it’s exciting to be a part of a company that obviously we’re proud of the product that we offer, but I think we’re also having an impact on the community, on young people, on mental health, on people feeling connected to each other. And I think that’s equally important.”

Tara BunchImage courtesy Airbnb

Ultimately, though, Airbnb is in the travel business, and that too resonates with Bunch.

“I think it expands people’s minds to travel,” Bunch concludes. “I think Airbnb is a unique way to travel, and that you have an opportunity [to] explore neighborhoods, to get kind of off the beaten path, to meet people, to go to new places that are not necessarily like big tourist destinations or just big tourist destinations. And I think it’s terrific. It opens their minds, and they’re exposed to a lot of different communities and cultures. And so I think it’s wonderful to see.”

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Donald Padgett

Managing Editor at OutTraveler. Also write for Out, The Advocate, and Plus magazines.

Managing Editor at OutTraveler. Also write for Out, The Advocate, and Plus magazines.