Behind the scenes: Florida and the big hotels

Florida sits squarely at the center of the home sharing movement’s strong national momentum. Airbnb has now secured tax agreements with 39 of the 63 Florida counties that assess a bed tax, up from 31 in just the past six months. Halfway through 2017, Airbnb has already collected and remitted more tax dollars to Florida local governments than in all of 2016 combined. And Florida cities are now working to make it simpler and more efficient for their residents to take full economic advantage of their most valuable assets — their homes. Unfortunately, not everyone is nearly as enthusiastic about the economic opportunity Airbnb provides for middle class Floridians. The big hotels in Florida have long fought Airbnb’s efforts to collect more tax revenue for local governments in the Sunshine State. With more Florida counties ignoring these lobbying efforts and instead collaborating with Airbnb on bed tax agreements, the hotels appear to have pivoted to an increasingly secretive and dishonest strategy aimed at attacking Florida hosts.

Hotel-funded front groups

First, after a mysterious anti-Airbnb “neighborhood watch group” launched in Florida, observers found it curious that the coalition had no apparent people associated with it outside of a public relations agency. A report from Sunshine State News revealed why — the coalition was nothing more than a shell group fronted by the American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA):

“The newly-organized site’s first press release in December does not list which, if any, individuals or organizations are behind the “grassroots” organization’s Florida operation — and it may be because those individuals and organizations don’t exist at all. AirbnbWATCH’s origins can now officially be traced back to one group which has had a long-standing vendetta against the home-sharing site: the American Hotel & Lodging Association.”

Fake reporters

Then, the U.S. Conference of Mayors held their summer meeting in Florida, with hundreds of American mayors descending on Miami Beach to share learnings and best practices. Rather than promoting their industry in a transparent manner, the hotel lobby instead opted to sneak PR professionals posing as journalists into the Mayors’ press conference to inject anti-Airbnb questions. Unfortunately for the AHLA and their PR agency, the Miami Herald exposed the scheme:

“During the event’s opening press conference, with dozens of mayors lined up before local and national media, the final question came from Sean Kelly and a cameraman wearing a “PRESS” badge. […] If the question seemed teed up to the hotel lobby’s opposition to Florida and other states blocking local crackdowns on Airbnb, it was. Kelly works for Align, an Orlando public affairs firm hired by the hotel lobby.”

Pay-for-play research

Perhaps the AHLA stooped to such shady lengths because it felt the walls closing in on another of its dubious practices — funding specious academic studies intended to mislead and manipulate. The New York Times previously blew the lid off of internal AHLA board books which referenced a Florida International University study that would “support our fundamental arguments about the harms that short-term rental companies post to consumers and communities.” Despite the conclusive nature of the AHLA’s description, the Miami Herald obtained public records indicating that the study had yet to even begin:

“Asked how he will remain independent when the hotel association expects a certain outcome from his research, [FIU Professor] Beckman said, ‘that’s a challenge, but it’s one that we are willing to meet and we are willing to address.’ […] According to the leaked memo, AHLA expects the short-term rental studies it funds to ‘drive earned media’ and build on the Penn State reports.”

Copy and paste legislation

Finally, earlier this year, eyebrows were raised when the City of Miami introduced new home sharing legislation that appeared to be identical to neighboring Fort Lauderdale’s highly restrictive ordinance. Last week, newly public emails from Miami’s mayor — obtained by the Miami New Times — revealed why:

“[Mayor] Regalado claimed for months that the crackdown was designed to protect residents from living next to de facto hotel rooms. But according to emails New Times obtained, the real story might have been that Regalado was working to protect hotel industry profits: An email chain that began last November reveals that a close version of the ordinance Regalado proposed was forwarded to him from a hotel industry lobbyist. […] Now emails confirm that Miami officials literally copied-and-pasted the law — on the hotel industry’s behalf.”

Sadly, the hotel industry plan to fight against Florida’s middle class isn’t new. What is new are desperately shady strategies like astroturfing, fake reporters and pay-for-play “research.”

Looking ahead

Florida’s counties count on bed tax revenue to better market themselves globally as hubs for family-friendly tourism. Airbnb and our 35,000+ Florida hosts invite the hotel lobby to drop the underhanded tactics and join us in the push for tax agreements in all 63 counties across the state.

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