Miami-Dade County

How the hotel lobby planted an Airbnb question at the mayors’ opening press conference

Mayor Levine promises fellow mayors a good time in his home city

Mayor Levine shares a few light-hearted concerns with fellow mayors in town for the United States Conference of Mayors Friday, June 23, 2017 at the Fontainebleau. The conference, that runs thru Monday, June 26, 2017, kicked off Friday with a press
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Mayor Levine shares a few light-hearted concerns with fellow mayors in town for the United States Conference of Mayors Friday, June 23, 2017 at the Fontainebleau. The conference, that runs thru Monday, June 26, 2017, kicked off Friday with a press

Signing up as the main sponsor of a convention brings significant perks: branding exposure on all materials, prime speaking spots on panels, and generally VIP treatment for the getaway.

Then there was Friday in Miami Beach for Airbnb, the title sponsor of this weekend’s U.S. Conference of Mayors gathering in the resort city.

“I love, love, love Airbnb,” said Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, who serves as official host for the four-day event. “I just don’t love Airbnb in Miami Beach.”

Levine, who tried to prevent the online home-stay company from operating in Miami Beach, made his remarks at a Politico breakfast in the Eden Roc. But Airbnb wasn’t spared from its foes at the Fontainebleau, either.

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.

“Mayor,” Kelly asked Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett, who is president of the Conference, “who is in the best position to deal with the sharing economy when it comes to short-term rentals: local government or state government?”

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 and the group it backs to fight short-term rentals, called Airbnb Watch.

Carson Chandler, a partner at the firm, was there in the press room helping coordinate interviews with mayors. “We’re trying to capture different mayors’ viewpoints on how they’re dealing with short-term rentals,” he said.

Miami-Dade County is one of the top five Airbnb destinations in the country, with 6,800 hosts renting their homes. But for the past year, Miami Beach has been fining locals who rent on platforms like Airbnb $20,000 for each violation.

The awkward pairing of Airbnb sponsoring a conference hosted by its fiercest Florida critic comes largely thanks to the economics of the convention itself. The Mayors Conference is a national membership group consisting of mayors, government vendors and other organizations, and each year it raises conference dollars by signing on a set of sponsors. Airbnb took the top spot for an undisclosed sum.

Levine lobbied fellow mayors to bring the Conference’s annual meeting to Miami Beach in 2017, and securing the event required him to form a host committee and raise more than $4 million in cash and donations to woo attendees and put on the event. (Among the giveaways: customized Shinola watches, framed Romero Britto prints and new versions of Guitar Hero Supreme Party Edition.)

This weekend’s host committee, run by Levine, signed its own set of sponsors. One of them is the American Hotel & Lodging Association, the primary trade group fighting Airbnb.

“We wanted to find a way to show our support for Mayor Levine and his aggressive action to crack down on Airbnb and illegal hotels in Miami Beach,” said Troy Flanagan, the hotel association’s vice president of state and local government affairs.

The question from the anti-Airbnb group set off a behind-the-scenes tussle between the two sides. Irked Airbnb executives said they were stunned by the press conference incident, and Chandler said the conference asked his group to stop filming mayors. Chandler agreed, but said the interviews could continue elsewhere in the hotel. “We have express permission from the Fontainebleau to do this work inside the hotel,” he said.

Tom Martinelli, Airbnb’s head of public policy in Florida, said the company has no complaints about the close quarters at the mayors conference for warring sides in the short-term rental debate. He said Airbnb has been a top mayors conference sponsor for multiple years, and that the company would have been the main backer of the 2017 event no matter where it was held.

“Our whole plan is to work with local governments,” he said. “That why we’re here.”

As part of its sponsorship, the hotel association provided mini suntan lotion bottles for delegates’ welcome bags. They include the message “Hotels Support Communities” with statistics of jobs and spending generated by the lodging industry.

Both sides previewed the political fight expected for the weekend gathering of nearly 300 mayors from across the country. On Thursday, dueling polls from Airbnb and the hotel industry sought to define how Miami-Dade County residents feel about home-stay rentals. The poll from the hotel lobby found 49 percent of Miami-Dade residents didn’t want their neighbors allowed to rent their homes for short-term periods. The Airbnb poll found 48 percent of Miami Beach residents oppose the city’s stiff fines for homeowners using the online rental service, while only 33 percent support them.

Like Uber, Airbnb is lobbying state lawmakers to intervene and prevent cities and counties from enacting local regulations for short-term home rentals. Levine and others argue that local governments are best equipped to decide which rules make sense for their communities.

After Kelly asked his question about local regulations during Friday’s press conference, Mayor Cornett said he resented having to hire lobbyists to “protect ourselves from our own state government.” For a specific answer on Airbnb, he called Levine to the microphone.

“Statewide preemption of local [rules] really is not the way to go,” he said. “What works in Miami Beach may not work in Pensacola.”

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