Airbnb is betting big on China, but its leadership there is in flux

Will drop in every month.
Will drop in every month.
Image: Reuters/Philippe Wojazer
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Airbnb sees huge opportunities in China, and it’s investing its time and resources accordingly. But it’s also seeing some tumultuous changes in its leadership there.

The company recently lost Hong Ge, its vice president in charge of the China market. Ge was promoted into the role in June after a long search for the right person. A former software engineer with Facebook and Google, Ge seemed to have just the right mix of Western expertise and local knowledge. Yet he left just four months into the job, with Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky sharing the news with employees in an Oct. 21 email.

Meanwhile, on Oct. 19 the company announced that Nathan Blecharczyk, Airbnb’s co-founder and chief strategy officer, was becoming chairman of Airbnb China. A computer-science graduate from Harvard, Blecharczyk has been with the company for nearly a decade and is an active Airbnb host. In September he said that China was the market he felt most excited about.

Certainly, Airbnb is betting big on China. Ge recently told the South China Morning Post that China was a “fundamentally important market” the company was determined to crack with “as much investment as it needed.” Chesky announced in March that Airbnb would adopt the localized name of “Aibiying” in China as it doubled investment in the country and tripled its local workforce. It now has 120,000 listings in China, a 50% increase from March. Its domestic bookings tripled from a year ago during China’s Golden Week break.

But the company’s leadership changes come in a market that’s been tough on other Western internet firms. Last year Uber left China and ceded victory to local rival Didi Chuxing. Just as Uber did, Airbnb faces difficult government regulations and fierce local competition.

Airbnb must deal with a heavy-handed officials in China. Starting on Oct. 18 Airbnb, along with rivals, had to halt its listings in Beijing while the capital hosted the 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party. (The company said cited “external circumstances” as the reason its service would be unavailable in Beijing until Oct. 31.) It’s also had to comply with controversial laws giving local authorities access to user information.

The strongest competition, meanwhile, comes from Tujia, which has 650,000 listings worldwide and this month raised another $300 million, valuing it at $1.5 billion.

In its announcement, Airbnb said Blecharzyk would start traveling to China on a monthly basis. Local rivals will be making major strides between his visits.