It’s no secret the hotel industry is less than welcoming toward Airbnb. But now we find it goes beyond normal opposition. So upset over the popular home-sharing website is the hotel industry that it has propped up a shell "grassroots" group as part of its ongoing effort to antagonize the most popular home-sharing site in the country.
AirbnbWATCH calls itself a neighborhood watch group made up of “concerned individuals and organizations.” But leaked documents show one group in particular -- the hotel industry -- has thrown much of its weight into a purportedly "locally-organized" group of concerned activists criticizing Airbnb.
The group's Florida chapter popped onto the scene last year in an effort to “bring attention” to illegal hotel operations in residential areas in the Sunshine State. The group alleges the “illegal operations” are infringing on the way of life of local communities and wreaking havoc on the lives of Floridians statewide.
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, which represents hotel giants like Hilton and Marriott.
A recently-leaked document found the AHLA propped up AirbnbWatch last year as part of its continuing strategy to squash the company and bury the competition.
The New York Times recently featured a five-page outline from the 2016 AHLA “board book” which describes the hotel industry’s plans to push out Airbnb in the coming year. In the manual, the AHLA highlights its successes in New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles, all places where the hotel industry successfully lobbied against Airbnb, resulting in significant crackdowns on the booming short-term rental industry.
According to the Times, the association's plan also includes lobbying politicians to cut the number of hosts and funding studies to show Airbnb is "filled with people quietly running hotels" out of their residences as well as highlighting how Airbnb hosts skirt the law by not collecting hotel taxes.
Included in the AHLA’s long-term plan is a “research and national narrative” section which explains how the hotel industry continues to change the narrative of the short-term rental debate.
Midway through the section, the guide outs its involvement in the AirbnbWATCH “grassroots” group.
The document reads:
“Working with our partners, AHLA also stood up AirbnbWATCH.org, an online portal dedicated to gathering stories of short-term rental harms and highlighting Airbnb’s lack of transparency.”
This isn’t the first time hotel industry giants have apparently propped up a cohort of “concerned groups” to speak out on Airbnb and short-term rental companies.
In 2015, the Center for Public Integrity blew the lid off of a similar astroturf group called Neighbors for Overnight Oversight, a self-proclaimed “coalition of concerned neighbors” which gives residents an “action template” to demand elected officials fight back against short-term rentals.
ProPublica discovered the “grassroots group” was actually created by the AHLA as part of the ongoing effort to fight back against the short-term rental industry.
“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,” Edward Walker, a University of California, Los Angeles sociology professor who studies corporate influence over the political process, told ProPublica at the time.
The AHLA didn't deny its involvement in the group.
"AirbnbWATCH is a broad and diverse group of stakeholders who care about this issue and the need to rein in commercial operators," AHLA Vice President of State and Local Government Affairs Troy Flanagan told Sunshine State News.
AirbnbWATCH’s Florida arm has been working for nearly six months to aggregate a series of anti-Airbnb articles focused on the dangers of short-term rentals in the Sunshine State.
The clips posted on the website feature editorials slamming Airbnb and frequently highlight the ongoing “dangers” facing consumers using the site, like discrimination and a lack of transparency.
Representatives from Airbnb criticized the group for having no Florida connection and hinted the hotel industry was lurking behind the shadows of the organization.
“It seems a bit counterintuitive that an organization purporting to be a ‘Florida neighborhood watch group’ is operated out of Washington D.C.,” Ben Breit, spokesperson for AirBNB Florida, told FloridaPolitics at the time. “This is simply a poorly veiled front group for the national hotel lobby.”
Other sources said the AHLA might have found their cause "more legitimate" if it appeared it was coming from a grassroots organization rather than from the AHLA's national arm itself.
Sunshine State News asked Sarah Bascom of Bascom Communications, which represents AirbnbWATCH Florida, who employed her firm to spread the word against the short-term rental company.
Bascom scoffed at allegations of being being hired by a “Washington D.C. group,” but offered no further details on which group specifically hired her communications team to work for them and where that group came from.
“We don’t detail who our clients are,” she told SSN. “We work for AirbnbWATCH.”
When asked which coalition members make up the group, AirbnbWATCH Florida spokesperson Kristen Bridges said the groups include American Family Voices, Keep Neighborhoods First and the AHLA.
Two of the groups Bridges mentioned -- American Family Voices and the AHLA -- are based in Washington, D.C. The remainder of the groups AirbnbWATCH says make up the organization are D.C.-based or are local groups from New York City or Los Angeles.
None of the groups have an apparent Florida connection.
Bascom told FloridaPolitics at the time that the group had been transparent, and trashed Airbnb for making accusations the group was a front for any D.C. corporations.
"It is a broad and diverse group of stakeholders who care about this issue and the need to rein in commercial operators," she said. "Opponents are simply trying to distract from the real issue, which is that they are fostering activity that is outside of the confines of Florida law on their platform and they could take simple, transparent steps to stop it."
Florida has been at the center of the heated controversy over Airbnb and the flames only seem to burn brighter and hotter as weeks go by.
In South Florida, the home-sharing site has been involved in a lengthy battle with Mayors Tomás Regalado and Philip Levine of Miami and Miami Beach, who say Airbnb is a public nuisance ruining their cities.
Regalado and Levine have tried to outlaw short-term rentals, declaring Airbnb an "illegal nuisance" and imposing fines as high as $20,000 on homeowners caught renting out their properties to tourists.
Airbnb fired back last week, taking their battle from the streets of South Beach to the courtroom.
On Friday, a group of five Airbnb hosts filed a lawsuit in the Miami-Dade County circuit court, alleging the City of Miami is infringing on their First Amendment rights and breaking state law by imposing harsh regulations on vacation rentals in South Florida's largest city.
"Competition is the hallmark of our industry and the economy, and we thrive when everyone plays by the same set of rules," Flanagan told SSN. "That’s why the lodging industry is as strong as it has ever been. However, it’s clear that short-term rental companies are moving beyond the so-called 'sharing economy' and are becoming increasingly dominated by full-time commercial landlords who use internet platforms to avoid regulatory obligations."