The Hill: Will hotels destroy faster than Airbnb builds?

by Dan Rene | The Hill

Morton Blackwell, founder of the conservative Leadership Institute, is well-known for establishing the “Laws of the Public Policy Process.” Blackwell’s rules have guided countless successful political and policy campaigns since the institute’s founding in 1979. Despite the long track record of success of those that heed Blackwell’s counsel, powerful businesspeople, lobbyists, and some of the most seasoned communicators on Capitol Hill either forget or willfully ignore his tried and true advice.

Success rarely comes to those who break the rules. Consider Blackwell’s law #23, which states in part, “a builder can build faster than a destroyer can destroy.” Now consider how the largest hotel chains and their trade association were revealed this week to be attempting to thwart the growing success of home-sharing marketplace Airbnb by throwing up political roadblocks.

Documents obtained by journalists show how the American Hotel and Lodging Association (AHLA) is waging an all-out political war on Airbnb. Hotel chains like Marriott, Hilton, and Hyatt are pumping millions to lobbyists to fight Airbnb on Capitol Hill, in state capitols, and even in local communities. Rather than discuss the benefits that the traditional hotel industry offers consumers, the multi-billion dollar industry has banded together to fight an exponentially smaller, yet very successful innovator.

The hotel industry’s actions show that the giants like Marriott, Hilton, and Hyatt see competition as a threat. While it is natural for any business to want to beat the competition, the consumer only wins when the fight is fair. By utilizing established political power, and pouring even more money into Washington, the industry can cause a lot of trouble for Airbnb. But these headaches will not be enough to put an end to the competition.

Successful competitors and communicators have something in common – we are in favor of something. It simply isn’t enough to just be against a company or policy – we must be the builders in Blackwell’s law #23.

In the ongoing hospitality industry battle, Airbnb continues to claim that builder role. In a blog post released soon after the hotel industry documents were disclosed, the company beautifully told its story, exposing why the industry is seeking to tear down Airbnb instead of competing fairly. The communication from Airbnb speaks much more about the benefits the service offers consumers – lower prices, more consumer choice, flexibility, etc. – rather than dwelling on negatives.

From beginning to end, the Airbnb post builds favorable public sentiment and support for the business. The service positions itself as a vindicator and the hotel industry as the villain. The opening states, “Airbnb has long believed that for us to win, no one has to lose. Even as more people share their homes, traditional hotels continue to take in robust or even record profits. Home sharing helps more people travel and that should be good news for everyone.” It closes with a call to action: “We hope you’ll read the hotel industry agenda for yourself. If you’re an Airbnb host and don’t like what you see, join a Home Sharing Club and speak out.”

When juxtaposed against the defensive statement issued by AHLA, Airbnb’s blog seems even more magnanimous. The AHLA instead discussed its “clear mandate and mission to vigorously advocate on behalf of the hospitality industry and its millions of employees.” Furthermore, it argued that “it should come as no surprise that AHLA’s political action committee, HotelPAC, makes political disbursements in a strategic, bi-partisan, bi-cameral fashion to support pro-lodging members of Congress and candidates’ campaigns. We stand firm in support of our shared goal: to protect communities and travelers from the commercial operators who use websites like Airbnb to run illegal hotels in residential properties.”

When statements sound defensive, the audience thinks there is a reason to be defensive, perhaps something to hide. However, here, AHLA and the hotel industry do have a valid point to raise. An attempt to level the playing field for fair competition is something everyone can support.

Steve Shur, president of the Travel Technology Association, of which Airbnb is a member, makes a great point that “competition in the marketplace, encourages innovation and preserves consumer choice. It is up to the hotel industry to decide how it wants to communicate its value proposition in this new marketplace.”

There are many positive differences to staying in traditional hotel versus an Airbnb. Predictable accommodations, staffing, room service, and an accountable “brand” are important differentiators. However, when communicating what is wrong with Airbnb, the industry loses an opportunity to communicate what is right with these choices, and the benefits they offer consumers.

With the growing popularity of Airbnb, the hotel industry should be expected to react now that it is facing new competition. The documents exposed this week, however, could be a great wake-up call to switch strategies and start communicating its value proposition directly to the consumer. Public trust is better than political power any day.