Checking In at HomeAway

The dust was still settling (literally) in HomeAway’s new office when the company moved in this October.

In fact, it was settling in such interesting patterns — a group of swirls on an office window made it semi-opaque, for example — it seemed almost purposeful.

That could be because almost everything about the style of HomeAway’s new space near the Domain has been created with considered intent. The same can be said about all of its spaces. Founded and headquartered in Austin, the world’s leading vacation rental marketplace has seen phenomenal growth in its nine years; it started with six employees and now has 1,700 (920 of them in Austin), has offices in 13 countries and runs 50 global brands.

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While two floors have yet to be to be finished and ground-floor retail is still to come, the finished spaces are already full of workers and outfitted with HomeAway touches, old and new.

Unlike Airbnb – the San Francisco-based company that brokers online arrangements between owners and guests, usually for the short-term rental of all or part of the owners’ primary residences – HomeAway focuses on vacation and second homes and does not handle the financial arrangements between guest and owner. The company has been moving in the direction of hotel-style efficiency with its new online booking feature.

HomeAway’s Domain site, the company’s fifth permanent office, was designed with local growth in mind, according to co-founder and CEO Brian Sharples, who says the company will “continue growing our headcount in Austin for the foreseeable future.”

HomeAway’s workforce includes all the roles you’d expect of a publicly owned travel-industry company: leadership, marketing, finance, human resources, legal, sales, and so on. But since the company is an aggressive competitor in an online marketplace, the majority of its employees work on the site and mobile app — designing, building, and innovating to expand its services and features.

Sharples is as involved in growing the workspace as he is the labor force. An art and architecture enthusiast, he was instrumental in creating the company’s trademark birdhouse logo and graphic theme, as well as some of the art in its buildings. “He was very passionate about how our business could be exhibited through design, finishes, art, photography, and graphics in our workplace,” says Ronda Stahl, HomeAway’s senior manager of facilities. “With each new building, Brian continues to encourage this concept with our design teams. We make sure his vision for each office has its own personality and displays the fun vacation theme, which is the backbone of our business and culture. The ultimate goal is to have a dynamic and fun workplace, but also be reminded that our work helps families and friends create lasting vacation memories.”

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Choosing a location was as important as the design. The new office is situated nicely between The Domain’s retail complex proper and the nearby Whole Foods. “It is conveniently located, with easy access to public transportation, provides plenty of options for lunch and shopping, and we were able to build a brand new space that meets our desires,” says Sharples.

In keeping with HomeAway’s other buildings, each floor of the new space has a theme. On the “Home” floor, meeting rooms are named after streets and neighborhoods in Austin — North Loop, Brentwood, Allendale. The “Away” floor, meanwhile, features spaces christened “Abbey Road,” “Champs Élysées,” and “Bourbon Street,” as well as a lecture/learning room that, despite its state-of-the-art projection screens, lighting, and general setup, is dubbed simply “Old School.”

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While two floors (“Coastal” and “Nature”) have yet to be finished and ground-floor retail is still to come, the finished spaces are already full of workers and outfitted with HomeAway touches, old and new. Well-lighted nooks filled with souvenir snow globes, vintage maps, keychains, and trademark birdhouses (many made by employees) line the walls; between are quotations from happy travelers. Screened on abundant glass walls and windows are pictures provided by guests — some of them HomeAway staffers — so well-curated, they look like professional promotional photos, with all of the beauty and none of the stiffness.

It’s not surprising that HomeAway’s brand is so thoroughly woven into its offices’ décor. Sharples was already a branding expert before he co-founded the company, There are cafeterias with top-notch espresso machines, cold drinks and snacks, plus foosball, ping-pong and shuffleboard tables. There are bike lockers, showers, and a gym. And there are gathering areas of various sizes that feature the modern, quirky comfort of a college dorm: rocking chairs on fake grass, multi-leveled sitting areas with thick floor pillows, an outdoor deck with a fireplace, and several smaller spaces for impromptu meetings. While all of the company’s offices have things in common — travel themes, outdoor spaces, breakaway rooms, and other aspects meant to reinforce its “Let’s Stay Together” ethos — says Sharples, “the Domain office is the largest HomeAway office thus far and has unique design elements that can’t be found in any other offices.”

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Having the right surroundings influences that innovation, that collaboration, and that culture.
Charles Wanger
Director of Software Engineering

HomeAway’s Director of Software Engineering Charles Wanger, a UT grad who started with the company as a contracted programmer while still in school, is pretty pumped about the whole thing. As he shows visitors around the new workplace (currently populated primarily by employees working on site functions and innovation, to be joined by customer support and finance teams later), he points out everything from the workers’ individualized desk lighting to the balance between private and open space, to the fact that all of the closed offices are the same size. All of these details, he says, reflect the company’s values and foster innovation.

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Wagner points to a number of features he likes about the space: the gym, the businesses within walking distance, his standing (or sitting, if he chooses) desk, and the inspiration that comes from “reminders that we are making vacations for families and all of our travelers.”

What gets the engineering expert and manager going, though, is the way the space and the employees work together. “A really important thing is to be able to change the way your mind is thinking throughout the day,” he says. “Having outlets to change the way that you’re thinking is pretty valuable: changing the scene, being able to have my record player in my office, being able to walk out to a different room and sit on a comfy couch for 30 minutes.”

“Having the right surroundings influences that innovation, that collaboration, and that culture,” he continues. “When it comes to bringing that together — ‘staying together,’ as we like to say, let’s stay together, let’s work together — for that type of environment, it’s wonderful to be together in one place.”

Home Away Domain

Written by: Cindy Widner
Photography by: Chris Perez


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