By now, many of us have accepted the idea that office life as we know it is never coming back. At least not for the foreseeable future. And even if it does, it may look very different to what we’re used to. Remote working has been our reality for the last six months, and it may well continue to be until a COVID-19 vaccine is developed.
Back when we thought this was only a temporary glitch, many of us made do with what we had. We bought standing desks and back pillows from Amazon and got creative, turning corners of our apartments and homes into makeshift home offices. (Sometimes with amusing results.)
But these setups were only ever meant to be temporary. Faced with a reality that will likely include years of remote work, many people are now seeking long-term solutions. Faced with a sluggish travel market, companies like Airbnb are trying to pivot to focus on local stays in business-friendly properties. This may work as a one-off, but it lacks the convenience and peace-of-mind that, say, a hotel or furnished rental would provide. Both those options are superior; sadly, they’re also much more expensive.
Enter Sonder. The company has marketed itself perfectly for the post-pandemic age: stylish, fully-furnished rentals in 39 cities across the world with contact-free service and a flexible pricing structure designed to favor long term stays of a month or more. Each rental comes with a fully-equipped kitchen and in-unit laundry, and is stylishy appointed by Sonder’s in-house design team with custom furniture and artistic touches. After that, the Sonder app takes care of everything else, from check-in and check-out to service requests and insider info on local dining hotspots.
I spoke with Sanjay Banker, CFO at Sonder, and Christina Higham, Sonder’s senior interior designer, about Sonder’s plans to disrupt the way we think about travel, work, and living.
How do Sonder properties set themselves apart from hotels and other furnished rentals?
Sanjay: Sonder was created to provide a flexible, elevated stay option for all different kinds of travelers, from families seeking multi-bedroom apartments, to business travelers looking for a consistent and elevated experience, to digital nomads searching for a comfortable space for an extended stay. Previously, travelers had to choose between unremarkable hotels and unreliable home-sharing options. We knew that we could offer something that’s simultaneously consistent and unique.
COVID-19 has disrupted the way we travel, and the effects of the pandemic on our travel habits will be felt for a long time to come. How has Sonder responded to the pandemic, and how has the business been impacted?
Sanjay: One of Sonder’s greatest strengths is our ability to rapidly innovate and execute at scale, which has allowed us to pivot our approach to meet travelers’ current needs and changing habits. In addition to introducing elevated cleaning and safety standards based on WHO and CDC guidelines, and with guidance from experts like the Cleveland Clinic, we launched an extended stay initiative in March to meet the rising demand for self-contained, safe, and comfortable places to stay for long periods of time. We found this was a strong fit for not only doctors and nurses seeking an isolated place to stay, but also for people looking for a temporary place to live in between moves, for staycations and road trip destinations, for students, and many others.
We’ve been fortunate to have occupancy rates of about 80% during the pandemic, which is significantly above the industry average. We’re also grateful to have closed a $170M round of fundraising in June, which will allow us to continue growing thoughtfully and responsibly with new properties.
Let’s talk about Sonder’s design philosophy. Every property seems to exude the same effortless style—luxurious yet comfortable. How do you maintain the same quality and level of style/design across Sonder properties? What are the key metrics you use, and how does this process unfold?
Christina: We realized early on that in order to scale our operations while maintaining high quality designs, we’d need to manage our own supply chain. To do this, the interior design team at Sonder partners with our in-house merchandising and sourcing teams to create a pre-vetted assortment of furniture. We store our assortment in warehouses that we manage, and when designing a project, our team selects products directly from these warehouses. It’s like having our own mini Amazon.
That pre-vetted product—everything from sofas to plates to artwork—is then packed and shipped to a property in as little as a week. This process allows us to design quickly, while maintaining high levels of consistency and quality throughout the process.
Can you run me through a few of the key tasks that you tackle daily as Sonder’s senior interior designer?
Christina: Our team works closely with building developers and teams on the ground to review floor plans, evaluate architectural finishes, and assess the specific location and guest needs of a project so that we can create a unique design direction for each property. The design team then selects inventory to support the direction from our pre-curated furniture assortment, and the designs are then shipped out from our warehouses, installed, and photographed. Our in-house design team is involved in each one of these steps, from the initial design direction to the final photo shoot.
From a psychological point of view, how does design help to ground someone in this idea of home, and help them adapt better and quicker to new environments and surroundings?
Christina: Studies have shown that your physical surroundings and the interior spaces you occupy have a direct impact on your subconscious, contributing to your emotions and perceptions through the part of your brain that reacts to the geometry of the space you inhabit. While a sparsely furnished Airbnb may exude a feeling of sterility and coldness, a room jam-packed with furnishings, tchotchkes, paint and art on every wall will likely make you feel overwhelmed and stressed. Our goal from a design perspective is to strike that balance—merging the comforting elements of home with the reliability and accountability of a hotel. A comfortable sofa to relax on after a long day, a cozy chair for curling up with a book, a clean and crisp bed that will provide a good night’s sleep. While it may seem basic, these elements allow guests to enter a Sonder and immediately feel like they can take a breath and relax, as if they’ve arrived home.
What were some of the challenges you faced in coming up with this unified design philosophy?
Christina: Designing one home or building is easy, but the questions our team faces are all about scale. We’re always asking ourselves, “How do we provide a consistent, repeatable experience for our guests, while creating unique designs that avoid the pitfalls of a bad hotel chain or rental property?”
We realized early on that in order to scale, we’d have to design and source our own product. But what is that product? We know that guests want a strong sense of home, so we work hard to source a variety of armchairs and rugs and art pieces to make our properties feel unique. But we also know that guests are looking for a level of reliability and accountability unavailable in the peer-to-peer market, and so our mattresses and sheets and kitchen supplies and toiletries are the same no matter where you’re staying.
It’s striking this balance between home and hotel, between consistency and surprise, that we’re always trying to perfect.