Both the hotel industry and Airbnb have employed public relations tactics to create faux “grassroots” campaigns to influence public opinion and lawmakers in the jurisdictions where short-term rentals have become contentious.SHARE THIS:
July 21, 2015: This story has been corrected.
One Airbnb host allegedly tripled the price of his condo without warning, nearly ruining a family’s trip to Austin to see a Formula One race. Another, in Cleveland, is accused of badgering his guests with sexist commentary. Other hosts reportedly misled prospective Airbnb guests with false promises of wheelchair accessibility in their New York City apartments.
These horror stories may be real, but the organization that is highlighting them on its website is not what it seems. Neighbors for Overnight Oversight — the purported “coalition of concerned neighbors” that provides talking points and a tool for writing letters to the editor — is in fact a creation of the American Hotel & Lodging Association, a century-old trade group that represents giant hotel chains such as Hilton and Marriott.
“When businesses face major threats that could potentially harm their whole industry, these kinds of ‘grassroots’ campaigns start to happen in a pretty serious way,” said Edward Walker, a University of California, Los Angeles sociology professor who studies corporate influence over the political process.
This public relations tactic is but one symptom of the new rough-and-tumble politics afflicting the traditional hospitality industry, which has been threatened by the explosive growth of short-term rental sites such as Airbnb, HomeAway and Flipkey. Many of these short-term rentals are operating in an unregulated limbo of questionable legality. They often aren’t required to pay occupancy taxes and surcharges or follow the safety and sanitary regulations that apply to hotels. The industry wants them to play by the same rules.
Now the dueling industries are jumping into the politics of cities and states: flooding elections with cash, lobbying and, at times, even manufacturing what looks like grassroots support.
At least 60 bills have been introduced in 23 states this year that would determine whether homeowners seeking to rent out spare rooms or unoccupied homes are hotels in disguise — and should be taxed and regulated as such. Dozens more are being contemplated at the city or county level.