Danny King
Danny King
True to form for members of the so-called "sharing economy," leaders of the largest peer-to-peer companies in the travel sector wasted little time sharing their thoughts about president Donald Trump's executive order banning citizens of seven majority Muslim countries from entering the U.S


With Trump signing a Jan. 27 executive order temporarily barring people from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Sudan and Yemen from entering the U.S. (a federal appeals court is deliberating the ban this week after Washington State and Minnesota sued to have it rescinded), executives of Airbnb, Lyft, Uber and other peer-to-peer companies sprang into action immediately, as only the heads of young, privately held companies can.

The results were decidedly mixed.

On the positive side, Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky on Jan. 28 tweeted that Airbnb would provide "free housing to refugees and anyone not allowed in the U.S." The company followed up the next day by adding a page on its website where prospective hosts could sign up to volunteer their homes for refugees in need of accommodations.

Within two days of the announcement, Chesky's Twitter account had received almost 3,000 replies and 192,000 "heart" symbols indicating support of the move. (The company didn't respond last week to an inquiry from Travel Weekly about whether or how Airbnb was reimbursing those host volunteers who put up refugees).

And earlier this week, Airbnb said it was setting a goal for its hosts to house as many as 100,000 people “in need” during the next five years, or about 55 people a day, and established a social-media hashtag #weaccept. The closely held company, which ran a Super Bowl ad promoting the effort, also pledged to donate $4 million during the next four years to the International Rescue Committee.

With Uber, the response was murkier. Granted, the ride-hailing service was already on thin ice among the profoundly liberal tech community after CEO Travis Kalanick (along with Tesla Motors' CEO, fellow tech heavyweight Elon Musk) said in December that he would join the then-president-elect's economic advisory board. That move provoked some to protest in front of Uber's headquarters on Inauguration Day.

The day after the order was signed, Kalanick expressed his concern over its ramifications in a Jan. 28 Facebook post while vowing to use his newfound relationship with the president to address the order.

"While every government has their own immigration controls, allowing people from all around the world to come here and make America their home has largely been the U.S.'s policy since its founding," Kalanick wrote in the post. "This ban will impact many innocent people -- an issue that I will raise [Feb. 3] when I go to Washington for President Trump's first business-advisory group meeting."

But things got even funkier at New York JFK, the country's fifth-busiest airport and a primary gateway for international travelers. First, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance staged a one-hour strike at JFK the night after Trump signed the executive order. The self-described "largely Muslim" group said the president was "sanctioning bigotry with his unconstitutional and inhumane executive order." Uber responded by letting it be known that despite the resulting jump in demand, the company would not enact its "surge pricing" that it usually puts into effect during periods of particularly high demand.

And while Uber said the move was designed to help stranded travelers, the decision drew backlash by those who viewed the announcement as an attempt to essentially break the taxi strike. As a result, mentions in social media of #deleteuber surged, forcing the company to address the situation.

"We're sorry for any confusion about our earlier tweet," the company said in a Jan. 29 statement. "It was not meant to break up any strike. We wanted people to know they could use Uber to get to and from JFK at normal prices, especially last night."

With the backlash continuing to mount, Kalanick dropped out of the Trump committee late last week, noting that his decision to join the committee "was not meant to be an endorsement of the President or his agenda but unfortunately it has been misinterpreted to be exactly that.”

Meanwhile, Lyft appeared to use both the executive order and the backlash against Uber to clarify its stance by announcing its intention to donate $1 million to the American Civil Liberties Union over the next four years.

"Banning people of a particular faith or creed, race or identity, sexuality or ethnicity, from entering the U.S. is antithetical to both Lyft's and our nation's core values," the company said in a Jan. 29 blog post. "We stand firmly against these actions and will not be silent on issues that threaten the values of our community."

Granted, it's worth noting that all three of these companies are based in heavily left-leaning San Francisco, where just 9.2% of the county's voters (not a misprint) cast their ballot for Trump last November.

Still, the reaction to Trump's executive order may reflect a wide gap between how peer-to-peer travel companies are addressing the political and social issues brought about by the new president and how traditional travel companies are doing the same.

In fact, Kalanick, along with executives with Airbnb and Lyft (though not the companies' CEOs), were among those in a group of more than 400 executives called Tech: NYC who signed a Jan. 30 open letter asking the president to rescind the travel ban.

Trump's executive order was issued just two days after the conclusion of the Americas Lodging Investment Conference (ALIS) in Los Angeles. There, hotel-industry executives appeared to betray little concern about Trump's potential impact on inbound travel or the country's reputation among overseas travelers. That reputation seems to have rebounded from what travel industry veterans have termed "the Lost Decade" of years following the 9/11 terror attacks, when homeland security was beefed up. Indeed, the U.S. welcomed a record 77.5 million international visitors in 2015, the most recent year tracked.

And with Trump having refused to financially extricate himself from his businesses, which include his brand of luxury hotels, hotel executives appeared confident that the new administration would do little to slow down the influx of international travelers and, in fact, would relax banking requirements enough to spur an uptick in new hotel development.

Meanwhile, the American Hotel & Lodging Association (AH&LA) treaded very lightly in responding to the ban.

"While we recognize the importance of reviewing the processes surrounding visa issuance as a means to enhance national security, any action must also be balanced," AH&LA CEO Katherine Lugar said in a Jan. 30 statement.

While Marriott International CEO Arne Sorenson had previously expressed concern that either increased border security or the wall Trump has promised on the Mexican border would hurt the travel industry from both demand and staffing perspectives, Sorenson kept his comments at ALIS broad and positive. He noted that national security officials need to take better advantage of technology to speed up the immigration process for international travelers, but he concluded that "there's never been a more exciting time to be in the hotel business."

Still, it took less than a week for the president to throw one of the country's largest travel suppliers under the proverbial bus. With the effects of Delta Air Lines' computer glitch compounded by the efforts to comply with the executive order and Jan. 28 protests at LAX, Chicago O'Hare and JFK, Trump tweeted Jan. 30, "Big problems at airports were caused by Delta computer outage, protesters and the tears of Senator Schumer" (a reference to New York Sen. Chuck Schumer). By the end of the day, Trump had fired acting attorney general Sally Yates after she refused to legally defend his executive order, which by Jan. 31 had spurred protests in the U.K.

All of which throws the words of CNN senior political analyst Ron Brownstein into stark relief. Addressing Lugar at ALIS, Brownstein sounded a warning of sorts for anyone convinced that the president could be depended on to make an extra effort to protect the travel industry.
 
"He has no permanent allies or adversaries," Brownstein said. "There's no permanent alliance."

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