The Profile: Chip Conley

By Brittany Shoot

The Joie de Vivre founder and Airbnb adviser is building something wholly unique to bridge generations of experience, from the Bay Area to Baja.

Photo by Marc Olivier Le Blanc

Sitting on an interior balcony in the Airbnb offices in SoMa, Chip Conley is quoting an elder.

Conley is fond of speaking in aphorisms, and under the bright late summer light filtering through the building’s skylights, he explains that he’s on a quest to liberate the idea of the elder from the idea of being elderly. In fact, it’s his idea. He’s the wise elder, quoting his own new book, [email protected]: The Making of a Modern Elder.

But it’s more than a book to Conley, who is trying to build an entire Modern Elder movement by expanding it into a midlife education and professional development academy that he’s creating from the ground up.

As many in Bay Area business circles well know, hospitality guru Conley is used to building things. At the tender age of 23, the SoCal native came out of Stanford with a bachelor’s and an MBA. He stayed in San Francisco to be close to the natural beauty of the area and the intellect of its business community. He went to work for a real estate developer. But like many creative young people, he wanted to make his mark. 

In 1987, on his 26th birthday and with investment from his family, Conley founded Joie de Vivre. Boutique hotels were just beginning to take off in the United States, and his fledgling hospitality company started small, with one punk rock Tenderloin property, the Phoenix, that blossomed into a small chain of unique accommodations over the next two-plus decades.

What many didn’t realize was that along the way, Conley struggled behind the scenes. In his 40s, he ended a long-term relationship and survived the death of several friends. And at 47, Conley survived a sudden heart failure and was briefly pronounced dead. In 2011, he sold Joie de Vivre, where he’d been chief executive for more than two decades. He wasn’t sure about his next chapter, but he knew he needed time to write it without distractions.

As luck would have it, all that wisdom, from life and work, would pay off. And Conley’s natural curiosity combined with his business acumen meant he was still very much in demand despite bowing out of the hospitality business.

In 2013, a young entrepreneur behind a new company called Airbnb was looking for a mentor with deep hospitality experience. Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky was just 26. At the time, Conley was 52. In fact, Chesky was the same age Conley had been when he started his own fledgling hotel chain.

Describing those early days at Airbnb, he gestures around the whitewashed lobby bathed in fog-softened natural light. Conley had been optimistic, but he also knew he wouldn’t fit in with a younger crew. “What I didn’t realize was how clueless I was, or how little of the lingo I understood,” he says ruefully. He calls it a trade agreement of emotional intelligence for digital intelligence.

In a bit of synchronicity, the real estate company where Conley worked out of Stanford had owned the very same building where Airbnb HQ is located, at 888 Brannan. If that sounds like a movie plot, it’s because something similar happened in the Anne Hathaway film The Intern. Robert De Niro, the elder-as-intern, ends up working for a fashion website housed in the same building where his character used to be employed. Conley chuckles at the similarities, and he appreciates the differences in how his real-life story has evolved. After four full-time years at Airbnb, he remains a strategic adviser who is also building his own new enterprise.

These days, Conley has other physical spaces on his mind. A longtime Potrero Hill dweller, he now spends half his time in Baja on a three-acre complex that he acquired two years ago. He also spends a bit of time in Texas. Conley is the father to two sons, ages three and six.

Conley’s Baja home serves as his writer’s retreat. But as of a year ago, it is also the site of a new project: the Modern Elder Academy. The idea, he says, was the result of writing
the book.

In [email protected], Conley explains how the modern elder is both a mentor and an intern. While it might seem obvious that one continues to learn and share experiences, he says older people are undervalued. “The elder of the past was held in reverence,” he reminds.

The Modern Elder Academy translates those ideas into a practice to rejuvenate professionals at a crossroads, or simply anyone in middle or later age seeking some inspiration as well as practical advice. After testing the concept with beta applicants who stayed for free in exchange for their feedback and testimonials this summer, he opened the academy this fall.

A core curriculum built on the Modern Elder principles — for example, you can grow without growing old — is the foundation of the one- and two-week immersive retreats, half of which will be funded by scholarships to ensure socioeconomic diversity. That set curriculum distinguishes the academy from other popular sabbatical spots such as Esalen in Big Sur, where Conley sits on the board. There, a rotating calendar of educators bring their experience and instructional materials.

The Modern Elder Academy stands apart for another reason: its luxury accommodations. It might seem obvious, given Conley’s expertise, that the academy mimics the best boutique hotels, including massage and bodywork services and three freshly prepared, mostly organic meals each day. There’s an onsite library, bikes to borrow and a 25-foot pool. Self-care meets self-improvement.

The day we meet, Conley notes there was a Joie de Vivre reunion just days prior. “I miss the people,” he says fondly. One thing he doesn’t miss: the 24-7 nature of the hotel biz.

As we talk about Conley’s change of pace, a group of at least 100 people streams into the lobby. He smiles as he says that people whose livelihood has been dramatically improved thanks to renting out an extra room or home regularly visit the company that makes their lives better. 

And then, as quickly as he’s held court, the idea man is out of his seat and on his feet. 

Conley doesn’t follow the crowd — but as ever, he’s on to the next big thing. 

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