In April, leaked documents from an American Hotel and Lodging Association board meeting revealed a detailed national campaign to curb the growth of the short-term rental industry. Miami, one of the top cities in the country for Airbnb, was listed as a critical market.
Also mentioned in the five-page document was Florida International University, one of four universities in the country working on research the association planned to use in its anti-Airbnb campaign. According to the memo, FIU’s research on safety and security in the hospitality industry would “support our fundamental argument about the harms that short-term rental companies pose to consumers and communities, and provide data to buttress testimonial campaign.”
Meanwhile, Airbnb was working on a campaign of its own, funding a watchdog blog, the Checks and Balances Project, beginning in October 2016 to investigate the hotel industry’s campaign against home sharing (Airbnb would not say how much it gives the blog in funding). “New documents raise question of what role hotel lobby’s chair played in Penn State pay-to-play scheme,” a recent blog entry headline reads, referring to a pair of Pennsylvania State University studies funded by the hotel association about the growth of full-time short-term rental operators.
This research will support our fundamental argument about the harms that short-term rental companies pose to consumers and communities, and provide data to buttress testimonial campaign.
Leaked American Hotel and Lodging Association memo
Most recently, the Checks and Balances Project turned its focus to the other schools on the hotel association’s list — Rutgers University, the University of North Carolina and FIU — requesting information on their proposed studies.
At FIU, the result was a public document containing the executive summary for assistant director Eric Beckman’s upcoming short-term rental research, funded via a grant from the American Hotel & Lodging Education Foundation for $68,209.50.
How could the university’s research be unbiased when it was paid for by the hotel industry, the blog questioned when it approached the Herald about its own findings. What the watchdog group didn’t say: its own research was paid for by the home sharing industry.
Since October 2016, Airbnb has been funding a watchdog blog, the Checks and Balances Project, to investigate the hotel industry’s campaign against home sharing.
It’s yet another illustration of the tension between the two competing industries. Although publicly each often says the greater hospitality business has room for both, behind the scenes they often go to great lengths to discredit their opponent.
In Miami-Dade County, the battle around the growth of Airbnb and similar platforms has been playing out for more than year, since Miami Beach imposed $20,000 fines on illegal short-term rental hosts. Miami then banned renting on platforms like Airbnb in suburban areas.
But the FIU study, as the Penn State studies before it, will likely thrust home sharing into the national spotlight again — bringing a new kind of Airbnb battle to South Florida. \
The FIU study
FIU professor Beckman said the short-term rental report was the university’s idea.
His executive summary calls for a study that determines “if there are any gaps in the perceived and real-life safety-security of short-term rentals and hotels through a content analysis and a survey of the general public.” (The full proposal is confidential, FIU said. Its original proposal was denied by the hotel association because it didn’t have a “well-defined scope;” it was then amended, according to AHLA.)
Beckman, who teaches at FIU’s Chaplin School of Hospitality and Tourism Management, said he expects to finish the research by September or October. The study will survey residents in a handful of cities, including Miami and Nashville, about their perceptions of safety and security at hotels and short-term rentals.
$68,209.50 Cost of a grant to FIU from the American Hotel and Lodging Associaion for a study on safety and security in the hospitality industry
According to the hotel association’s abstract of the project, residents will be surveyed in face-to-face interviews or email questionnaires. They also will be asked what security and safety features are most important to them. The study will provide recommendations on guest safety, but neither the executive summary nor the abstract call for measurement of actual safety records.
Under law, hotels have to abide by a laundry list of safety regulations, including fire codes and ADA guidelines, but short-term rentals don’t. A proposed ordinance for unincorporated Miami-Dade may impose some regulation on rentals, including screening potential guests for sexual predators, regulations Airbnb said it agrees to.
Beckman said he has not been in communication with the hotel association and has not yet been paid for the study, although FIU said it expects to be funded, according to public documents. The grant for the report was issued in March.
Asked how he will remain independent when the hotel association expects a certain outcome from his research, Beckman said, “that’s a challenge, but it’s one that we are willing to meet and we are willing to address.”
We go out of our way at the university level to be unbiased and we look through the lens of how can we help consumers.
Eric Beckman, FIU associate professor
“We go out of our way at the university level to be unbiased and we look through the lens of how can we help consumers,” Beckman added.
The hotel association said an independent committee reviews grant proposals, and that researchers are not required to share information on the study prior to its publication. Still, 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.
Scott Peterson, executive director of Checks and Balances Project, questioned how independent the school will be able to remain.
“We know that industry-funded research can often lead to biased conclusions,” Peterson said in a statement. “Will AHLA get what they seem to expect for their $70,000? FIU should condemn the hotel lobby’s attempt to manipulate a respected academic institution.”
You will see the study when we see the study.
Rosanna Maietta, AHLA spokeswoman
The association agreed to fund FIU’s study because it strongly believes the research will show short-term rentals are not safe — but not because it’s manipulating the data, said AHLA spokeswoman Rosanna Maietta.
"When we put [the five-page board memo] together, it was to let our board know what research is out there,” Maietta said. “It's simply to say that we know this is an issue and there is a study going to be conducted to quantify what is actually happening."
“You will see the study when we see the study,” she said.