More than 200 industry representatives are discussing issues surrounding travel and tourism, labor, the online hotel booking tax, and the Americans with Disabilities Act lift requirements on Capitol Hill today as part of the American Hotel & Lodging Association's 2012 Legislative Action Summit in Washington, D.C. In a year where election decisions will make a difference, attendees want to make their voices heard and reiterate the importance of the hotel industry.
In preparation for their appointments with the Senate and House, attendees received insight and feedback from a series of panelists and speakers yesterday, and went to a briefing at the White House’s Eisenhower Executive Office Building. The briefing included a discussion on the administration’s national travel and tourism strategy featuring Don Graves, the executive director of the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness and deputy assistant secretary for small business and community development for the U.S. Department of Treasury; and Douglas Smith, assistant secretary for the private sector for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
TRAVEL AND TOURISM
America's travel and tourism industry is responsible for generating $759 billion in sales, directly employing 7.4 million Americans, and paying $188 billion in wages and salaries.
In January 2012, President Barack Obama publicly declared the importance of increasing international travel to the United States and signed an executive order outlining a National Travel and Tourism Strategy. Building on the AH&LA-supported Travel Promotion Act of 2010, the work of the Corporation for Travel Promotion (now known as Brand USA), and AH&LA’s own Discover America Partnership, the president recommended promoting unique U.S. destinations, reducing wait times for visas in rapid-growth countries such as China and Brazil, and improving travel facilitation by coordinating activity among governmental agencies.
Industry representatives are asking Congress to streamline the visa application process by placing resources where they are in demand, extend visa validity, and create a video conferencing pilot program. They also are asking Congress to instruct the State Department to forecast visa demand in emerging markets based on exiting data and respond accordingly; use existing fees to hire more foreign service and limited non-career appointment consular officers at its missions in China, Brazil, and India to meet and maintain a 12-day visa processing standard; and expand the visa waiver program to include allies such as Poland, Brazil, Chile, Taiwan, and Argentina.
In response to America’s long, uncertain and costly visa process, numerous bills have been introduced over the past year. Among them is the International Tourism Facilitation Act introduced by Tourism Caucus Co-Chairs Sens. Roy Blunt (R-MO) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN). It calls on the State Department to respond to increased travel demand and provides incentives for the State Department to use its resources more effectively. Blunt and Klobuchar spoke to attendees yesterday about the upcoming election, reducing visa wait times, increasing travel to the United States to create millions of new American jobs and add billions to the U.S. economy, and supporting Brand USA and its mission.
In response to vocal opposition of the AH&LA and others, Congress rejected the Employee Free Choice Act (or Card Check). Despite this public opposition, panelists yesterday expressed their concerns that organized labor is attempting to enact the goals of EFCA through administrative rulings and regulations at the U.S. Department of Labor and the National Labor Relations Board.
Kyle Hicks, labor policy director of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee; Andria Lure Ryan, partner of Fisher & Phillips LLP; and Jade West, senior vice president of government relations for the National Association of Wholesaler Distributors, discussed “ambush elections,” micro-unions, the persuader rule, and NLRB “recess” appointments.
The NLRB issued an ambush election rule, scheduled to go into effect on April 30, that would have union elections take place in as few as 20 day or less after a union petition is filed. The panelists suggested that hoteliers be prepared and proactive, communicate with employees, discuss union-free philosophies in manuals and handbooks, and look for signs.
The “poster rule,” also scheduled for implementation April 30, mandates that every employer covered by the NLRB post an 11-by-17-inch poster about employees’ right to unionize. Failure or refusal to post is considered an unfair labor practice.
In Aug. 2011, the NLRB issued a decision that allows micro-unions. This allows unions to cherry-pick employees who are sympathetic to unionization and designate them as a bargaining unit within a larger workforce.
The DOL has proposed a persuader rule that would require employers to report detail about arrangements with lawyers and consultants engaged to assist in responding to union organizing and related activities, limiting employers from communicating with their employees during union collection campaigns. DOL has tentatively scheduled for the rule to be finalized this fall.
Congress is responding with hearings and legislation to halt the actions of the NLRB and DOL. Industry representatives are asking Congress to continue oversight of the DOL and NLRB, pass the Congressional Review Act in the Senate against the NLRB ambush rule, and pass the Workforce Democracy and Fairness Act, which would ensure a fair union election process.
ONLINE HOTEL BOOKING TAX
Online travel agencies (OTAs) charge customers the same or higher retail price as hotels do for rooms, but OTAs remit taxes based on their wholesale costs rather than their retail prices. Industry representatives are asking Congress to deny the tax loophole that OTAs are seeking, and to oppose pre-empting state and local taxing authority.
Attendees expressed concern that creating a special tax preference, mandating that tax may only be levied on the wholesale cost of hotel room rentals, would take taxing authority away from states and localities, jeopardizing funds for local responsibilities and tourism promotion.
Mark Carrier, president of B.F. Saul Company’s hotel division; Melissa Froelich-Flood, vice president of government affairs for Marriott International, Inc.; and Richard Turner, vice president and general counsel of the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association, emphasized that this is not a federal issue. They said it is related directly to state and local tax laws, and federal legislation is not necessary or appropriate. Tax equality fairness calls for balance between online resellers and the actual hoteliers that own the assets.
They also warned industry members to keep any eye out because proponents of federal legislation may attempt to insert language into must-pass legislation.
ADA LIFT REQUIREMENTS
On Jan. 31, the Department of Justice issued an interpretation that all pools and nearly all spas need to have at least one means of entry by March 15, and in most cases this will be a permanently fixed lift. AH&LA members expressed their opinion that the ADA rules are vague and overbroad, and the industry’s concerns that a permanent lift that is not being used might pose a safety concern for children and other guests. They also expressed the inability to obtain and properly install lifts by the deadline, but the DOJ did not consider these concerns.
Industry representatives would like Congress to take several steps to restore reasonableness to the ADA by allowing the business community the flexibility to meet their customers’ needs, ensure they are not in violation of the ADA and open to litigation, and meet the needs of travelers with disabilities. They also are asking Congress to extend the March 15 compliance deadline, to allow portable lifts under the ADA, and require DOJ to assist business owners in being compliant.