Belinda Johnson on the Future of Regulation

For Belinda Johnson, Chief Business Affairs and Legal Officer at Airbnb, the future of policymaking isn’t about deregulation, it’s about smart regulation. She intimately understands that brands can’t simply ignore innovation and advancements, but they can adapt in ways that please both consumers and company stakeholders. As our ideas around home ownership, family roles, and travel increasingly evolve, Belinda is hopeful that Airbnb will continue to facilitate cross-cultural interactions and thoughtful community engagement.

How do you imagine Airbnb is shaping the future of regulation?

Airbnb is still relatively new, so it doesn’t really fit within the pre-existing, historic regulation out there that’s been meant for hotels and traditional lodging providers. We’ve been working with policymakers all over the world to try and develop and revise outdated laws that were created long before home sharing ever existed. I believe that we have a responsibility to help educate cities and understand their concerns, and that’s why we spend a lot of time talking to local governments about what our community is and what they’re doing and the benefits that they’re bringing. We’re really committed to being constructive partners to cities and regulators, and we’ve already made a ton of progress with this all over the world – even in cities like London and Paris that have had very complex home sharing regulations in the past.

You mentioned that you’re educating these regulators on what home sharing can be. Can you talk a little bit about how you do that?

There are so many compelling reasons for home sharing in cities. We explain how hosting allows residents to use what is really one of their greatest expenses, their homes, to create additional income and be able to make ends meet. Hosting doesn’t just benefit the host and their community, it also helps spread economic impact of tourism to parts of cities that have not historically got to participate in those benefits. 75% of our hosts are located outside of hotel districts, and that means more spending is being brought into these areas of cities where there are small, local businesses that haven’t gotten tourism traffic before.

We often do economic impact studies to show the benefits of hosting in particular cities and, where we can, we try to partner with cities on housing for big events. For example, we worked with Philadelphia to come up with smart regulations that would help people share their homes during the Pope’s visit.

We really believe home sharing makes cities and communities stronger, and my role is to engage with, educate, and collaborate with policymakers and stakeholders around this.

The idea of the home has shifted over time from a place that a family invests in and owns to a place that is more flexible and that can earn additional income. How do you see the concept of the home changing even more over the next 30 years?

Just like how notion of travel is shifting, the notion of home will continue to evolve. We’re seeing certain things that Americans have always assumed are true not being true anymore. We’re seeing different behaviors and different lifestyles that involve shared spaces and a more transient view of work and travel. People can travel for a year at a time using Airbnb, and they’re not retired yet – these are people who have jobs that are flexible, and they use Airbnb as their home.

How will notions of family change as well?

Our hosts are often families that are not necessarily traveling with their kids, but get the benefits of being able to travel by hosting people from all over the world in their home. Bringing cultures from all over the world into your home is a different kind of way of experiencing travel for families who might otherwise not be able to bring their kids outside of the country.

Airbnb is a way for families to expose their kids to many different cultures and formulate connections with people all around the world.

When we’re thinking about the kind of future that might evolve in the next three to five years, what are some other key issues or challenges outside of Airbnb that are top of mind?

I think the pace of innovation is incredible. When I first started my career, there was barely the internet or video technology. Whether it’s self-driving cars or microchips implanted in our brains, there’s so much cool technology being developed all the time. My daughter recently said to me, “I’m so bummed that I won’t be alive when all the cool technology happens,” and I was like, “Are you kidding me? We are living in the time of cool technology right now!”

I think innovation is going to allow us to see things we couldn’t have even imagined. The challenge, as a parent, is that I think of my daughters’ futures and the challenges they’re going to face. I’d love to see my daughters enter their careers with all kinds of opportunities that I might not have had. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have a husband who’s stayed home to take care of our kids, which has given me a lot of flexibility. We’re seeing more and more of this. More and more couples are having conversations around “role reversals.”

I’d love to see, when (and if) my daughters decide to start families of their own, that these aren’t role reversals – they’re just roles.

We’ve talked to a lot of “executive moms” in a similar position who feel like they’re not represented fairly by the media and they have to forge their own way. When thinking ahead about motherhood, do you see this changing in the future?

I hope that the conversation about equality and sharing roles will be much more central to couples’ dialogue when they’re starting their families. I see a lot of women approaching the stage in their lives where they’re starting families and they’re discussing with their partners who will take on what. There’s starting to be a lot of flexibility and I love to see that. There will need to be new kinds of support and infrastructure in place to facilitate this kind of shared responsibility, but I think it will result in a lot of new opportunities.

The aspirational notions of marriage or even owning a home seem to be shifting at some level as well. When you think ahead and think through the concept of home ownership and what that might mean for millennials and Gen Zers, how will their ideas around this be different than your own?

We certainly know that people travel differently and that there’s more of a desire to experience than to own. When I think about this shift, I think about people wanting to have access to a home, rather than owning it. This is totally different than when I grew up. There used to be this idea that if you follow along a certain path, one day you’ll become a homeowner. But now people think about this differently and their priorities have shifted.

Beyond Airbnb, there’s a lot of talk around deregulation and the impact it could have on innovation in legacy industries. I’m wondering if you’re thinking about other sectors that could be disrupted by deregulation, aside from travel and hospitality.

We’re not necessarily trying to work on deregulation, but on smart regulation. Sure, there’s a lot of disruption out there, but I think it’s incumbent on us to help design the regulation of the future. Of course we want to enable innovation to happen, but we also want to protect stakeholders. We work to find a balance in regulation that works for our community but also works for cities as well.

How are you integrating the stories of real people from all different kinds of cities into how you design regulation around Airbnb?

The conversations are most often about our hosts, and the hosts actually tend to speak with policymakers quite often as well. They’re the people in the cities and in the communities having conversations about their experiences and telling their stories – and this is crucial to how we work with regulators. And, when our hosts are not physically present at the meetings about our regulations, they are very active online, making sure their voices are heard.

When your hosts are working with regulators on their own, do you offer them any guidelines?

Oftentimes these conversations are organic. We have a team of people who work with our hosts and get to know them so we can get to know their concerns. There’s definitely a sharing of information. There’s definitely a lot of passion in the community; we have annual events for hosts all around the world about different topics. We had 5000 hosts from all over the world in Paris last year for a three-day event so we could get their feedback on how to improve our product.

What is the most surprising insight that your leadership team learned from your hosts?

We are always humbled by the time we spend with our community. They are so passionate and creative. I’m always so interested in how often our hosts talk about giving back to their own communities and how they can do more to participate in our philanthropic efforts.  

the author

Emily Empel

Emily Empel is Head of Futures at Idea Couture.

the author

Mira Blumenthal

Mira Blumenthal is lead editor, communications at MISC.