TripAdvisor hopes lavish new headquarters in Needham will boost hiring

At TripAdvisor's new headquarters building in Needham, an open atrium serves as both stairway and meeting place.
At TripAdvisor's new headquarters building in Needham, an open atrium serves as both stairway and meeting place.

The travel site TripAdvisor made a key hire last October, and the individual wasn’t a coder, designer, or salesperson.

The company brought on a veteran of the Ritz-Carlton and W Hotel chains, Matt Gabree, as “Director of Office Experience,” giving him free rein in outfitting the new 282,000-square foot TripAdvisor headquarters in Needham, which officially opens today. The result is one of Boston’s most luxurious office environments; if it were ranked on TripAdvisor’s own site, it would approach the apex rating of five green circles. (Reviewers might hold back half a circle for the location, several miles from public transit and wedged between a Coca-Cola bottling facility, a parking garage, and Route 128.)

The hope is that the swanky new office will be an advantage in an intensely-competitive hiring market for tech employees: TripAdvisor currently has 100 open positions at its headquarters. Nearly 1,000 people moved into the building earlier in July, and it has room for about 500 more, according to Brooke Ferencsik, TripAdvisor’s director of communications. There is also room for additional buildings on adjacent pieces of land, he adds.

Visitors to the new facility first encounter a large salt-water fish tank — the denizens came over from TripAdvisor’s old office in Newton — and a wall decorated with a giant world map and several vintage suitcases. The first floor is home to amenities like a 3,000-square foot fitness center, with 10 instructor-led classes each week and an array of high-end workout gear; a large meeting space called Boston Common that will be available for community events; a game room with videogames, shuffleboard, ping pong, and billiards; and a lounge with craft beer on tap, comfy seating, and flat-panel TVs for watching big events like the Boston Marathon or Red Sox opening day. The lounge opens up onto a central plaza with an outdoor fireplace, brightly-colored Adirondack chairs, and an open-air amphitheater that Ferencsik says will eventually host outdoor concerts and movies.

Each floor takes a different continent as its theme, so an Australia / South Pacific floor has “neighborhoods” like Queensland, Fiji, and Samoa. There are rope fishing nets hanging overhead, and snippets of TripAdvisor user reviews from that part of the world hanging from cubicle walls. Every desk has a button that can adjust it from sitting mode to stand-up mode, and there are indoor and outdoor casual seating areas for ad hoc conclaves. Gabree says that 90 percent of employee areas get natural light. Baker Design Group of Boston handled the interior design.

The building’s heart is the four-story atrium, which can host all-hands meetings. There are moss walls and a giant drop-down screen for videos and presentations. Soundproof glass and thoughtful landscaping conceal the fact that Route 128’s traffic is only a few feet away. Behind a wide staircase that doubles as a seating area is The Hungry Owl, a cafeteria named for TripAdvisor’s mascot. A full-time chef and a staff of twenty serve free lunch five days a week; on the day I visited, the theme was German food — but in addition to bratwurst and red cabbage, Indian food and thin-crust pizza were offered. Gabree says that the company is trying a “stealth health” approach to encouraging workers to eat well. That means no cafeteria trays that encourage loading-up. And a beverage case has two doors: one is frosted to conceal the sugary sodas, the other is clear to sell the flavored water, V-8, and Honest Tea.

The guiding ethos of the new headquarters, Gabree says, is that “you are working super-hard with super-smart people, and having fun. We wanted to enable people to be social and active.”

Will TripAdvisor’s new spread give it a leg up when it comes to hiring? Paul Blumenfeld of Genero Search Group, an Arlington tech recruiting firm, says that an eye-popping office may now be table stakes. “You have to compete against Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft in this town,” Blumenfeld says. Those companies are typically vying to land employees who have several options to choose from. “At some level of consciousness, the workplace vibe is sinking in, along with the job the person will have, the compensations, and the benefits,” Blumenfeld says. “Maybe the facilities are the thing that sways them, but all of those things will play into their decision.”

“Office environments do count,” says David Hayes, founder of the Cambridge recruiting agency HireMinds, “but probably not as much as companies think they do.” The company’s culture is a big factor, as is location, Hayes says, with some candidates preferring the city, and others the suburbs. (To try to overcome objections related to commuting, TripAdvisor has contracted with a bus company to shuttle employees from Cambridge, North Station, and the Needham Highlands commuter rail stop.) Hayes quips that for many software developers he works with, “the ability to work from home is still the best office feature of all.”

TripAdvisor operates the world’s most-visited collection of travel sites, reaching 340 million unique monthly visitors. To attract TripAdvisor to Needham, the town offered about $1.8 million in reduced taxes over 13 years. While the company was previously based in Newton, it was originally founded above Kostas Pizza & Seafood in Needham, in 2000. TripAdvisor also has a satellite office in Boston, near North Station.

Here’s some audio from a conversation I had last fall with TripAdvisor chief executive and co-founder Steve Kaufer.

Scott Kirsner writes the Innovation Economy column every Sunday in the Boston Globe, in which he tracks entrepreneurship, investment, and big company activities around New England.
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