Danny King
Danny King

With the combination of increased inbound spending from countries such as China and India and a resilient U.S. economy continuing to drive domestic travel numbers, the resulting impact on both traditional hotel companies and peer-to-peer accommodations leader Airbnb should bring to mind the Turtles' flower-power-era hit "Happy Together."

Instead, as the late Notorious B.I.G. put it in his 1997 hip-hop anthem, it's been a case of "Mo Money Mo Problems."

For years, the hotel industry has used the good cop/bad cop method to address the steadily broadening presence of Airbnb and its hosts: While leaders of the hotel companies themselves expressed little concern over the increased competition for the travel dollar and in some cases have been complimentary of Airbnb's approach, their trade group, the American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA), has been steadily peppering the public with complaints about how Airbnb tilts the playing field.

The AHLA charges that Airbnb is giving a platform to some of its wealthier users to turn apartment complexes into de facto hotels while enabling hosts to avoid occupancy taxes and the type of building-code and accessibility regulations required for hotels.

Airbnb has responded by sticking to its message, positioning itself as a champion of the middle class by giving people a chance to meet rising housing costs by renting out rooms or homes for a few nights a month and funneling travel-spending directly into the local community.

Last month, something seemed to snap at Airbnb, and the 9-year-old company went on the offensive, eschewing its old touchy-feely culture in favor of a brass-knuckle approach.

Speaking on a Nov. 15 conference call, Airbnb's head of global policy and communications, Chris Lehane, turned what had started as an overview of the company's growth into a broadside against the hotel industry. He accused companies such as Marriott International of profiting off of residents displaced by the September and October hurricanes in the southeastern U.S., and he estimated that hotel developers, owners and operators have collected almost $5 billion in tax-funded subsidies in the past decade.

The company followed up by sending scathing letters to the hotel companies themselves, taking them to task for everything from positioning hotels as a safer alternative to Airbnb units to overpaying high-level executives, all while reiterating the subsidies figure.

"Our analysis of 10 major jurisdictions around the U.S. finds that each taxpayer contributed $100 dollars to subsidize your industry and, in many cases, executives' pay and bonus packages," Lehane wrote to Hyatt Hotels CEO Mark Hoplamazian in a Nov. 21 letter provided to Travel Weekly. "Public records indicate that you personally took home $10 million in 2016. Additional reports have found that the top 10 hotel CEOs earned a combined $122 million in 2016 alone."

Naturally, the AHLA responded in kind, peppering its official response to Airbnb's claims with descriptions like "shameful," "pathetic" and "sad."

Meanwhile, even hotel executives like the usually unflappable Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson are sounding a bit peeved.

"They're spending a lot of money on government affairs, and they're playing pretty aggressive," Sorenson told Fortune magazine in an interview published last month. "I've had letters from Airbnb directly, demanding my response about some charge -- I don't even know what it is -- within hours. That's pretty aggressive, and I'm not going to respond to that."

The bickering is a far cry from a few short years ago, when Airbnb tapped boutique-hotel veteran Chip Conley as its first global head of hospitality and strategy (Conley stepped down earlier this year).

And even as recently as this summer, hotel executives like Hilton CEO Christopher Nassetta were speaking highly of their less-traditional counterparts, saying that they were good for business.

"Competition is a good thing. And my fundamental belief is that it's just a different travel occasion. We are not directly competitive with what they're doing," Nassetta said on his company's earnings call in July. "So more competition, I think, is good there."

The timing of the latest rhetorical sparring is curious, as everything has pointed to an ever-expanding lodging-industry pie. According to Bloomberg, closely held Airbnb doubled its third-quarter revenue to about $1 billion and, unlike Uber, the leading peer-to-peer ride-sharing service, the company has been steadily profitable for the past year and a half.

Bloomberg cited people familiar with the financial figures as its sources for that report.

Meanwhile, U.S. hotel occupancy continues to hover near record highs, pushing more dollars to hoteliers' bottom lines. Marriott's net income through Sept. 30 more than doubled from a year earlier, to $1.17 billion.

And while Hilton's net income during the same period was down 43% from a year earlier, to $419 million, that drop was solely the result of discontinued operations boosting 2016 earnings.

Hyatt's net income through September rose 6.1%, to $173 million.

If the stakes seem higher, it may be because the lodging industry is approaching what many analysts see as the imminent end to the longest up cycle in its history.

Even so, the peer-to-peer challenge is not going to go away, much as hotels might wish it would.

Bjorn Hanson, clinical professor at New York University's Preston Robert Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism and Sports Management, observed that "Airbnb is at 5% to 6% of room supply in some of the most important markets. Something that is 5% to 6% of supply can't be ignored. It's here to stay."

Whether hostile rhetoric will be good for business remains to be seen. The AHLA was sanguine about the potential impact of the tax-reform bill passed by the Senate earlier this month, estimating that it could generate as much as $57 billion in additional business- and leisure-travel spending at hotels, restaurants and stores in the next five years.

Factor in the additional wages and salaries needed to meet that increased demand, along with higher local and state tax revenue, and that economic impact number more than doubles in the next decade.

AHLA CEO Katherine Lugar said in a statement earlier this month that the tax bill currently making its way through Congress "is key for the industry's small businesses in particular. Not only will small-business owners benefit but so will their employees and guests, strengthening the industry and the overall economy."

Still, demand growth continues to flatten as prospective guests are presented with both increased room inventory and ever more peer-to-peer offerings. U.S. hotel revenue per available room (RevPAR) through September rose 2.6% from a year earlier, down from 3% through June, while occupancy was little changed.

And while Airbnb's Lehane said last month that the company had just completed its "single strongest-performing quarter," Morgan Stanley forecasted in a report it compiled with AlphaWise last month that the percentage of U.S. and European travelers using Airbnb will increase three percentage points this year, to 25%, after jumping eight percentage points in 2016.

Regardless, the continued growth of Airbnb and the efforts by municipalities to properly govern and tax home-sharing activity is bringing Airbnb closer in principle to the established players it's recently started to attack with vigor, according to Cornell School of Hotel Administration professor Chris Anderson.

"All of those things are slowly getting worked out as more and more cities are getting the infrastructure to properly tax and zone the sharing side," Anderson said.

"And I think that will legitimize it more in the eyes of the hoteliers. But the mudslinging is going to go on."


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