Traveling in the Age of Technology

In April, Jeff Hurst, BBA ‘01, was promoted to chief strategy officer at HomeAway, an Austin-based company that allows individuals to list and rent their second homes to people on vacation. With more than one million listings in 190 countries, HomeAway is a leading online marketplace for the vacation rental industry.

After a decade of living in San Francisco, where he worked for McKinsey & Company and earned his MBA at Stanford Graduate School of Business, Hurst returned to Austin in 2010 to work for HomeAway. Hurst and his wife wanted to raise their children in Austin, where they both had family.

In recent years, we’ve seen the rise of what has been labeled the “sharing economy.” Would you consider HomeAway to be part of the sharing economy?

Probably not as the sharing economy is defined by the popular media. HomeAway’s business doesn’t involve sharing things that people are using everyday. We are, by and large, investment properties that are outfitted for this particular use. So you’re not sharing it with someone, you’re renting it to someone. It’s more of a commercial transaction.

The sharing economy is often, “I’ve got a car and when I’m not driving it, someone else is” or “I’ve got a spare bedroom and someone can come stay in it.” I don’t think what they’re doing is necessarily sharing. The sharing economy is a bit of a misnomer, since people are making money doing it. When I encourage my kids to share with each other, I don’t encourage them to charge each other to use their toys.

What is HomeAway trying to accomplish?

What HomeAway is trying to do is to help families and groups take the best vacations of their lives. We think that a big part of doing that is introducing the world to a different way of travel.

At our properties, you can have your own kitchen, which helps people save money, but kitchens are also where you congregate. That’s where the family can cook together and spend time together and laugh together. Because you’ve got your own bedrooms, the kids aren’t fighting over sharing a bed or a cot, and you’re not all cramped into a small space. Then, you’ve got shared spaces — where you can spend the evening watching a movie without talking under people who are trying to sleep — and also a yard. It’s about having a unique space to call your own.

HomeAway has been expanding the number of its listings and locations. Do you think there is a growing demand for what HomeAway is providing?

The vacation home category is decades old. There are websites that are 30 years old and vacation homes have existed for most of the 20th century. But it’s absolutely the hottest sector in travel. I think people are increasingly realizing that they’ve got a lot of wealth in their second homes and so they want to get the most out of that investment. Complementary to that, travelers are realizing that it’s a great way to travel. We’ve got deals with Expedia and Kayak now, so it’s becoming more of a mainstream travel phenomenon. I think one of the biggest travel stories of this century will be how vacation homes became a genuine alternative for all travelers.

How has technology made people more inclined to travel?

Technology has demystified the world in that you can go anywhere and your smart phone’s map is going to work, you’re going to be able to get transportation, you’re going to be able to get to find wherever you’re staying, and you’ve got access to where to eat and what to do. So it’s made the world much more accessible. At the same time, there are a lot of flights and a lot of ways to get around the world on a cost-effective basis. Traveling is night and day different for my kids than it was for me — and even more so than it was for my parents.

Why is HomeAway based in Austin?

I think for personal reasons, and then over time as the city has grown, it’s become an increasingly smart place to do business, too. Our founders, Brian Sharples and Carl Shepherd, love it here. Brian had been at the Bay Area, and Carl had been on the East Coast, and they had both made their way back to Austin over the course of their careers, fell in love with it, and just thought it was a great place to have a company. There’s good access to talent, with the University of Texas at Austin here. Austin has a unique culture, and it’s possible to draw different talent from the West Coast and the East Coast, and also it was very accessible.

One of the things that is a nice benefit of HomeAway: We’ve got offices all over the world, and every employee is encouraged to take a month and go work in a different office. So we’ve talked about moving the family to Sydney or moving the family to France or moving the family to Singapore just to go experience the different offices of HomeAway but also experience a different way of living.

What did you learn at the McCombs School of Business that has continued to play a role in your career?

The course I remember most vividly was the Financial Analyst Programs that [Senior Finance Lecturer] Kelly Kamm now teaches. That exposure to how the equity markets work and how to think about a company’s value was a very important part of my education. Since I’ve gotten back to Austin, I go back and lecture at her class every year.

The other class that was probably the most helpful from a foundational perspective was accounting. Accounting is the language of business and it’s important to know how debits and credits work and how an income statement works and turns into a cash flow statement and turns into the balance sheet. The sooner you learn that in your career, the better because you’ve learned the fundamentals of a language.

What else do you think it’s important for students to learn?

Focus on what’s going to make you happy more than focusing on an end goal that might be, “I need to get this job” or “I need to make this much money.” What makes you happy is a product of conscious effort and thought. To boil it down to a word, it would be “introspection.” Be sure you know yourself so you can find a path that suits you.

If you know what you’re passionate about, go do it. If you don’t, find something that gives you option value, such as a company that exposes you to a lot of different industries or functions like consulting. It could be option value from going to work for a well-connected, established company in a place where you want to live. Be sure you’re doing something where you can find your passion.

What are you passionate about in your new position as chief strategy officer?

I am passionate about working at HomeAway because many of my favorite memories have been with friends and family in vacation homes, and we help millions of travelers similarly enjoy the best vacations of their lives. My new role has not changed what I am passionate about, but I do enjoy being able to take a broader view over how we can improve the experience for our travelers, home owners and property managers. It’s a category with such immense opportunity for improvement.

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