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Katherine Lugar: Our Woman in Washington

Katherine Lugar: Our Woman in Washington

This was most evident in 2010 when the Department of Justice brought out new ADA compliance standards without fully considering the impact they would have on hotels across the country. “We believe in accessibility, of course, but if you ask 7,000 of our hotel owners [the ADA lift mandate] was an oversteer,” says Eric Danziger, president and CEO of Wyndham Hotel Group. “Now if you ask the people who need a lift in a pool they’ll say it’s not an oversteer. But you never know if Washington is going to do something that’s a piece of consumer friendliness to some constituents but anti-business too.”

In order for the lodging industry to make its voice heard, it first needs to be more effective in its lobbying efforts, and Lugar has an approach she feels will pay off big in the long run. It involves taking a page from political campaigns and developing a strategic narrative that can be propagated in the media. She calls it creating a surround sound effect. Lugar points to the online travel company tax issue as an example. “At RILA, we led the charge on making sure that online companies played on the same playing field as brick and mortar retailers when it came to sales tax collection obligations,” she says. For many years, online retailers have been required to collect sales tax but it has been up to individuals to pay it on their annual returns, which never actually happens. “So the messaging we used at RILA on this issue was much different than what had been used before,” says Lugar. “We essentially said that we were all about competition, but the government should never have its finger on the scale of one industry or sector over another. If you give us the same set of obligations and let us thrive in a competitive environment the customer will always win.” And, she says, this same narrative can be adapted to the contentious relationship between hotels and the online travel companies. “They are an important partner and they need to play on a level playing field when it comes to sales tax collection and remittance obligations,” she says. “It’s just that simple.”

And given the dysfunction in Washington, a clear industry narrative is necessary. David Kong, president and CEO of Best Western, says, “We have a need to educate our leaders in Washington regarding the unintended consequences of their actions.” He references the shutdown as a prime example, noting how it had a tremendous effect on the hotels near national parks, with business declined by an average of 10 percent. Hotels in the D.C. area experienced a reported loss of $2 million in revenue during the shutdown, with 13,000 fewer bookings and occupancy rates falling 12.1 percent. “For whatever reason [the people in Washington] don’t understand the impact on the economy, on our industry, and on the jobs here,” he says. “So we have to do a better job telling them.”

But telling the broader story of the lodging industry means more than just lobbying the Obama administration and the members of Congress. “Twenty years ago a lot of things got done based on relationships, but in this environment you aren’t going to get things done that way alone,” says Lugar. In the current era of a 24-hour media machine, new tactics are necessary—ones that leverage the unique strengths of the business interests tied up in the lodging space. For the immigration reform debate, this has meant putting together an information packet, called a toolkit, for AH&LA members full of research, talking points, and sample letters to the editor. “All these members run businesses for a living, so we have to develop tools that allow them to engage quickly and effectively,” says Lugar. She says the letter to the editor is often the most effective way to influence the debate because most senators and congressmen start off their day by flipping to the back of their local paper and reading the opinion pages. And these efforts are paying off. “Up until the August recess, the anti-immigration forces were outworking us,” she says. “But the tide shifted back in our favor.” Sure, the situation in Syria and the shutdown pushed immigration to the back burner for a while, but there’s still time to get it done before the next election cycle starts up. “We’re still hopeful that the House will act—albeit in a more fragmented approach—with the ultimate goal to get to a conference committee where we can get comprehensive immigration reform.”

And the association isn’t solely focused on national issues either. “The two-way exchange between our state partners and us is important because so many of the national issues or pieces of legislation begin in the states or the localities,” says Lugar. “We have to deal with every level of government.” She says that AH&LA will be developing more tools for partner state associations that will help them be even more effective. A good example of this is the living wage initiative, which popped up in Washington, D.C., earlier this year and recently in Seattle and is expected to show up in local voter propositions across the country. She says AH&LA is preparing a single toolkit that contains all the tools necessary to combat this and then passing it along to every state association so they can put their own spin on it. “We can be much more effective when each of our partners aren’t recreating these tools.”

In the end, the return on investment is huge when the lodging industy’s interests are being recognized on all levels of government. “Driving consensus and advancing things legislatively can be more challenging,” says Lugar. “At the same time it’s easy to see why we need to do this.”

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