Airbnb names new China head, rumored in talks with local rival Tujia

After nearly two years in China, Airbnb finally appointed someone to head its China business: Ge Hong as vice president. This is another big move to accelerate its push into the country’s lucrative short-term rental market worth an estimated RMB 12.52 billion in 2017 (in Chinese).

06066
Ge Hong

Ge will report to directly to Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky. He worked at Facebook and Google before he joined Airbnb in 2016, taking on product and technology-related roles.

Graduating from Tsinghua University and Yale University, Ge, who set up a local technology team in China with a batch of Silicon Valley-returned engineers last year, “has unparalleled knowledge of our product and what it needs to be in China, combining a deep technical expertise with an understanding of the local market,” Airbnb said in an emailed statement.

Breaking into the Chinese market has never been easy; American tech giants including Google and Uber have fallen out of favor in China in succession despite their great successes elsewhere in the world.

Along with the new appointment comes an adjustment to the company’s business strategy. The global short-term rental service has extended its focus beyond spreading awareness of the company’s brand among China’s vast number of outbound travelers to further expanding its Chinese presence by growing its technology and product team in the country starting last September.

Last year, Airbnb announced its decision to triple the size of its team this year in China, which is the only market that has its independent product and technology team outside the U.S.. In addition, the company has been making efforts to develop services designed just for the Chinese market and connect local payment methods including WeChat Pay and Alipay.

On March 22 Airbnb China was renamed as “爱彼迎” (aibiying) which the company claims to mean “to welcome each other with love”, as part of its efforts to further localize its operations in the country.

These are signs that Airbnb has been paying more attention to the Chinese market and quickening its localization drive there.

Yet a lack of efficient localization, smaller housing supply and limited payment channels, among others, have restricted Airbnb from realizing its grand ambition in China, according to Zhu Zhengyu, an analyst at market research firm Analysis International.

These factors are also increasingly putting Airbnb at a disadvantage when it competes for market supremacy with local rivals Tujia (途家) and Xiaozhu (小猪).

Cooperation rumors

There have been rumors that Airbnb is in talks with apartment rental platform Tujia on capital cooperation (in Chinese). The rumored talks were reportedly prompted by their investors Neil Shen and Ctrip.

Shen is the founding managing partner of Sequoia China, and also a cofounder of online leisure travel company Ctrip. Sequoia China is one of Airbnb’s investors, while Ctrip, which is also backed by search giant Baidu, is one of Tujia’s largest shareholders.

The rumor, if true, will help Airbnb gain access to more housing resources in China, while Tujia may expand its global presence by harnessing Airbnb’s international influence.

Tujia, which rose to unicorn status in series D+ funding in August 2015, claims it had a housing supply of over 450,000 apartments available for rental as of this February, whereas Airbnb has 80,000 listings in China, only accounting for around 3% of the American company’s global housing supply.

Tujia announced its strategy of sharing housing inventory data with seven other online platforms including Mayi (蚂蚁短租), Ctrip (携程), Elong (艺龙), Qunar (去哪儿), 58 (58同城) and Ganji (赶集) at a news conference on March 23. These platforms have short-term home rental businesses and maintain close ties with Tujia after rounds of investment deals in 2016.

That means a home rental advertisement posted by a landlord on any one of these platforms can be seen on the rest of them. Additionally, the interconnection can help drive traffic to Tujia’s website and make it gain more potential customers.

Also at the March news conference, when asked whether Tujia will form a partnership with Airbnb, Tujia CEO Luo Jun made no comment, but added Tujia will give everyone a surprise in good time.

Earlier there were rumors in March that Airbnb was in acquisition talks with its Chinese equivalent Xiaozhu (小猪). This was denied by Xiaozhu CEO Chen Chi, who admitted the firms did have talks on business development and technological cooperation but their talks never involved capital cooperation.