Articles

Here to Stay: The Modern World of Hospitality [Fourth Branch]


I think my passion for hospitality came from Disney and I really saw the special experience that they were trying to create for guests and it really can be a magical experience, especially when you read guests’ comments and you realize how you’ve changed that one day for them and just made it a little extra special. But what’s really unique about a bed and breakfast, it encompasses the history of a location. So really, the place comes alive when you walk through the door. There’s this new thing called the sharing economy or the gig economy and it sounds new and fancy, but I like to think of it as a sector of the economy that allows people to do very familiar things more easily. Before I started looking into it, to me home-sharing was Airbnb. The more it matured and the more I talked to people, especially my fellow commissioners who use it extensively when they travel, and they say it’s great. But we have a whole lot of hoteliers a few miles from here. They don’t think it’s so great. I think that it opens up a new type of accommodations for people, and it’s good as long as they’re held to the same accountability because they’re playing in the same playing field as a short-term rental. Before the rise of Airbnb, there were much clearer distinctions between private homes and hotels, and now there’s this third category that Airbnb fits into and regulators have really struggled to figure out how to deal with this, and not always in the best way. Now, how does the government get involved in it? If we do the ordinance and we register the owners doing the Airbnb, then we have the ability to monitor what goes on and that monitoring will come from the neighborhood or it’ll come from the sheriff’s office and police departments and we will know if something’s going on that shouldn’t be going on and then we would have the ability then to go in, along with law enforcement, to take a look at it. I mean you can’t just go in and shut it down, we’d have to have a reason, but I think that would give it a little extra layer, just like in the hotels. I would categorize the main opponents of companies like Airbnb into two main groups and one of them is not particularly surprising, it’s the market incumbents. These are the people who have to face competition. So, these are traditionally hotels, inns, those kinds of institutions. But the others are, of course, neighbors who don’t like the emergence of Airbnb. These are people who don’t like the fact that houses on their streets can be occupied by hundreds of people throughout the year. Those are mainly the people who have complaints about Airbnb. There are also complaints sometimes about the effect that Airbnb will have on house prices. That kind of objection though, I think, really misses the forest for the trees. I think there are ways that we should be, there are policies that we should be implementing to address housing prices, but it doesn’t start with banning Airbnb. There are zoning regulations and houses to be built, which would do far more it seems to me to improve house prices than banning Airbnb. “How do you assure public safety?” I think is one thing we need to take a look at. In the big hotels and more traditional, they will say, “Well we have security and we do certain things.” As you go down to Airbnb and some of the others, I know they vet their properties, they vet their owners to make sure that whoever is going in is going into a safe environment. And, so how do we make sure people are safe if they do Airbnb or couch-surfing? Well, you do it through vetting. I think you do it through the companies being on the hook. When you’re looking at, and I looked, there’s like 2.5 million home-shares out there. 3 million. I mean, that’s going to be tough. So first, we have to be a registered business with the state. So then, of course, you have taxes that you must comply with. So, you’re doing sales tax, you’re also doing your county tax and there’s local licensing as well as state. So, you have your lodging license, which is just the same as any hotel that’s in business and we also have a restaurant license. So, we are held to the same standards as big chains, small chains — all held to the same standards. There’s a big instinct or a natural instinct for regulators to think, “Okay, we should try to make this kind of like a hotel.” Whereas people on the other side of the debate are arguing that actually this is a private transaction that’s working quite well — people are happy — so it’s better to have more of a hands-off approach. Airbnb, understandably, is a company that has an incentive for its users not to get hurt or to have their hosts have break-ins or items stolen. So, it seems to me that a lot of the safety concerns are actually handled quite well by these private companies. This is our home but it’s also a licensed business. So, it’s regulated by the state of Florida and we’re also affiliated with professional organizations that you would not find in unlicensed properties. We are members of the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association and we are also members of their sub-chapter for the Florida inns. So, we are constantly kept updated on new regulations, policies, and making sure that our place is as safe as it can be for our guests. The average person can use these economies to maybe make a few extra dollars and do it legally — that’s the key, we need to make sure it’s legal, make sure that everybody is protected — but it’s kind of what this country’s based on, is the ability for people to be ingenious, to look at ways to provide a service, provide a product, but then the government needs to step in and make sure that it’s not something that’s going to be deleterious to health and safety and that the public safety piece of it’s there. And what that means is there’s revenues. You need revenues for additional police officers and sheriff’s deputies. How do get that? Well, we charge them. The interesting debate is really about private property rights. So, if a friend of a friend flew in to where I live in northern Virginia and wanted to stay in my bedroom, that’s actually not something that the government would get involved in. I just do hope that local lawmakers and officials realize that Airbnb actually has a lot to offer. It’s not just a competitive force to an old incumbent industry like hotels. I think if I had to summarize what’s at stake for a traditional bed and breakfast owner, I would say it’s their livelihood. I mean, a traditional bed and breakfast, that’s their reason for being. That’s how they feed their families. That’s how they get by. So, I really think that when they’re losing business to short-term rentals, it’s taking away from small business in the community. Let’s build an environment where we do what’s necessary to protect the individual, but not cause the person to lose their business because they can’t comply with a bunch of rules that make no sense. There’s not necessarily a need for local lawmakers to get involved in promulgating safety regulations because Airbnb, and also other companies in the sharing economy like Uber, really not only provide a safe environment but also have many, many incentives to make sure that their users are safe. So, we’re in a world where everything is rated and you rate your Uber driver and he or she rates you. You can go to a restaurant and leave a review on Yelp, and similar things happen in the home-sharing space and that, I think, is a good thing. We’re living increasingly in a world where your reputation is sticky and difficult to shed, and in a world in which people seem to think that the gig economy is on-net a good thing. That’s a definite added value. And we might pass an ordinance or we might not pass an ordinance, and you always ask yourself, “What are the unintended consequences of what you’ve just done?” What’s going to happen either because of your action or because of your inaction? And usually, it’s because of inaction. I really believe that regulations help us because every day is a learning experience and we’re finding things that we’re really thankful that we learned of while an inspector was here. I think regulators need to realize that this can’t be put back in the box that it came from, that the sharing economy is here to stay, and that there are an entire generation of people who are going to grow up with this and think that it’s normal. So, the answer should be: let’s rethink the regulatory models we have in place. Are they appropriate for the 21st century and, if not, how can we make sure that innovation flourishes and that competition is also in the economy? The communities just need to be a little different in terms of regulating these vacation rentals. I think it would just make a much better guest experience. Guests know that the city is looking out for them, the state is looking out for them. They can feel comfortable and secure that they know this is an environment and community for them to visit.

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