Skift Take

It's all about its anticipated public offering at Airbnb these days. Shore up the plethora of safety issues, make peace with regulators, and bring in seasoned operational executives that the Wall Street crowd will look favorably upon. Was Belinda Johnson a casualty in that push?

As Airbnb readies heading to the stock market in 2020, the homesharing company announced that Chief Operating Officer Belinda Johnson will be exiting her post in March.

Johnson, who joined Airbnb as general counsel in 2011 but has served as chief operating officer for less than two years, cited personal reasons for the move. Johnson, one of the highest profile women in online travel, will take a seat on the Airbnb board of directors.

“As I said, we’re just at the beginning of the Airbnb story and I’ve never been more confident about our future,” Johnson said, according to an Airbnb statement about the move.

As important context to Johnson’s departure, The Information reported that privately held Airbnb posted a $100 million loss in the second quarter of 2019 before taxes and interest, compared with a $10 million profit in the same period a year earlier.

Although Airbnb’s revenue jumped 37 percent in the second quarter, expenses for  sales and marketing jumped 47 percent to $390 million, blunting the revenue leap, according to The Information story.

It’s clear that Airbnb is emphasizing top-line growth as it prepares for a public offering in 2020.

Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky said Johnson was the first executive he ever hired.

“Once Belinda transitions out of her role as COO, she will join our Board of Directors. Though we intend for her to serve on our board for a long time to come, I have told Belinda that she can return to Airbnb as an executive if she ever wishes to do so,” Chesky said in the statement.

The decision comes at a key time for Airbnb, which recently suffered a setback in Jersey City, New Jersey when voters adopted tighter restrictions on short-term rentals despite Airbnb reportedly devoting more than $4 million toward defeating the measure.

Airbnb, which has had to cope with heightened marketing costs in 2019 that may sink it into the red after recent years of profitability, will likely do a direct listing instead of an initial public offering in 2020. Chesky has acknowledged publicly that the company doesn’t need to raise money.

But is Johnson’s transition part of a reshuffling of the ranks in the run-up to going public next year? Would Wall Street demand a more high-profile chief operating officer with a venerable track record at a public company?

In another personnel move, Airbnb announced that Joe Zadeh, who ran the company’s Experiences business since its launch three years ago, will step aside. 

The Experiences business is an important one for Airbnb because it needs to tap into a new growth opportunity as the increases in its large homes operation begins to slow.

Airbnb is also facing a platter of challenges on a variety of fronts. Several U.S. congressional representatives wrote a letter to Chesky this week demanding answers about reports that hosts are abusing the platform with scams, and the proliferation of limited liability corporations renting out apartments on the site despite Airbnb’s origins of individuals offering up their homes for short-term stays.

After a rash of safety and privacy incidents, including a shooting and deaths in Orinda, California, Airbnb has vowed to verify its millions of home listings, as well as its experiences offerings as a way to revive trust in the platform. Skeptics have wondered how Airbnb can verify ever-changing listings at such scale.

A Skift story found that a group of hosts from Airbnb, Vrbo, and other platforms were ridiculing guests in closed Facebook Groups that had thousands of members as a way to weed out allegedly problem guests.

Airbnb recently entered into a multiyear marketing partnership with the International Olympic Committee, and has faced some backlash. French hoteliers are objecting to the deal; France will see the Olympics take place in the country in 2024.

An Airbnb spokesperson declined to comment on who might replace Johnson as chief operating officer.

The Information reporter Cory Weinberg tweeted that Airbnb is expected to recruit a vice president of operations to replace Johnson.

UPDATED: This story was updated to reflect new information about Airbnb’s losses in the second quarter.

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Tags: airbnb, alternative accommodations, ipo, regulations, safety, short-term rentals

Photo credit: Belinda Johnson will be leaving her post as chief operating officer of Airbnb in March. Airbnb

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