While there are many regulatory and legal changes hoteliers might hope for, it’s unlikely they will become reality without people within the hotel industry becoming advocates with their lawmakers.
This past September, hundreds of hoteliers converged on Washington for the fifth Legislative Action Summit, a two-day event that connects hoteliers and hospitality industry professionals with their congressional representatives.
As the interim president and CEO of AAHOA, I had the privilege of welcoming attendees and encouraging them to make advocacy an ongoing part of their business plans. In emphasizing “ongoing,” I wanted attendees to understand that political engagement and advocacy need to be much more than just ticking a box by attending an annual legislative event. Realizing our industry’s policy goals requires continued engagement with lawmakers in order to demonstrate our relevance, the value in our perspectives, and, most importantly, the incompleteness of policy crafted without our input.
Before I delve into the issues we addressed with our lawmakers, I want to highlight the parallels between my advice to LAS attendees and the advice I give to women in the hospitality industry, namely, that one must always make their voice heard and demonstrate the value and relevance of their perspectives. This year at LAS, things looked a bit different. First, the address by the AAHOA Chair was delivered by a woman, Jagruti Panwala, who is the first chairwoman in the association’s thirty-year history. Second, attendees met with Members of the 116th Congress which is composed of a record 106 women in the U.S. House and 25 women in the U.S. Senate.
2020 marks the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment’s ratification, which extended the right to vote to all women in the United States, and we still have far to go in terms of female representation in Congress. Women make up more than 50% of America’s population, yet only 24% of U.S. Representatives and 25% of U.S. Senators. Since Montanans first elected Jeannette Rankin to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1916, 235 women have been elected to serve, 63% of whom were elected since 1992. Of the 56 women appointed and elected to serve in the Senate, 29 took office in 2000 or later. These numbers grew significantly in the past three decades and stand as a reminder that a consistent presence and perseverance in the face of opposition are imperative to ensuring that our government reflects and benefits from the perspectives of over half the population. Women are rising to influential positions in Congress with Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) serving as Speaker of the House, Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY) serving as Chairwoman of the powerful Appropriations Committee, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) chairing the Financial Services Committee, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) chairing the Science, Space and Technology Committee, and Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-NY) chairing the Small Business Committee.
When I looked out into the crowd at this year’s LAS, I was pleased to see the number of women attendees. AAHOA continues to prioritize women hotelier engagement, especially in our advocacy efforts, because of the role that so many play in our industry. AAHOA prioritizes engaging women hoteliers and hospitality professionals because they make up a significant number of our membership and the industry. It is essential for women in hospitality to engage politically, not as a one-off, but as a sustained presence, because we are so underrepresented in government as a gender. This is crucial to giving voice to our perspectives as hoteliers and as women.
At the 2019 LAS, two issues drove our advocacy efforts—promoting tourism to the U.S. and addressing the challenges that online bookings and disruptors present our industry. Brand USA, a successful public-private partnership that promotes the U.S. as a destination for international travelers, requires reauthorization before its funding stream redirects to a general fund next year. The program is funded at no cost to taxpayers through fees paid by international travelers, which are matched dollar for dollar by hundreds of travel and tourism corporations. The program’s successful 25:1 ROI helps generate billions of dollars in tourism for the U.S., and for many hoteliers close to historic sites, parks and landmarks that are not in big cities, this program is vital to promoting these locations as destinations for travelers from abroad. Hoteliers met with key cosponsors of the bill as well as staffers in Rep. Frank Pallone’s office who, as chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee, is responsible for shepherding the legislation to the full House for a vote.
Our advocacy efforts also focused on two specific challenges posed by deceptive online booking sites and illegal listings on short-term rental platforms. Attendees demanded action on the Stop Online Booking Scams Act, which would make it easier for the government to prevent third-party online hotel booking sites not affiliated with a hotel from advertising listings that are deceptive or misleading. Hoteliers also pressed for congressional action on the Protecting Local Authority and Neighborhoods (PLAN) Act which would strengthen state and local governments’ abilities to regulate short-term rentals by clarifying a section of federal law that some claim exempts them from complying with state and local laws.
This year’s summit was very successful. LAS attendees met with over 200 members of Congress and professional staff and made the case for legislation that will have a direct impact on their businesses. Just as I encouraged more hoteliers to embrace advocacy as part of their business plan, I encourage the women of our industry to continue to make their voices heard both in hospitality and in advocacy. Both require a committed effort. As we’ve seen over the past 100 years of women voting and demanding agency in the political process, progress can feel like it is slow to be realized. However, the drive to be recognized, respected and represent our perspectives is irrepressible, and, with a consistent effort, the equality towards which we strive is inevitable.
Rachel Humphrey is the Interim President and Chief Executive Officer of AAHOA, the nation's largest hotel owners association. Rachel joined AAHOA in 2015 as Vice President and Managing Attorney for Franchise Relations after more than 20 years as a trial lawyer, representing franchisees and other small businesses. She was named as one of “Georgia’s Legal Elite: The State’s Most Effective Lawyers,” for general litigation in 2010, 2011, and 2013 by Georgia Trend Magazine. Rachel quickly rose to the position of Chief Operating Officer where she was responsible for AAHOA’s day-to-day operations, managing its franchise and industry partner relations, and overseeing the association's education initiatives. Rachel is also a member of AAHOA’s Executive Leadership Team and was named by Hotel Management as one of the “2018 Influential Women in Hospitality.”
Rachel serves on the Podium Committee at the Castell Project Inc., part of an effort to increase the presence of women speakers at hospitality industry events. She also serves on the HX Advisory Board, ALIS Planning Committee, and ALIS Law Planning Committee. Rachel holds a bachelor’s degree from Connecticut College and a J.D. from Syracuse University College of Law. She lives in Atlanta with her husband and two children.
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