While election season is upon many local communities across the country, polls are not the only place where vacation rental operators are changing policies and perceptions of our industry. A more recent movement gaining momentum is vacation rental community leaders acquiring seats on their local tourism boards.
While some tourism boards and destination marketing organizations (DMOs) are private entities, many are public or semi-public entities tied to their local governments. Charged with promoting the destination and managing sustainable tourism in the community, public tourism boards are often funded by local tourism taxes, such as hotel or lodging taxes.
For public boards, seats are allotted by local elected officials. Outside of vacation-rental dominant destinations, seats reserved for lodging representation have been awarded almost exclusively to traditional hoteliers and B&Bs, but board makeup has slowly started to adopt more vacation rental voices.
“Historically, the only lodging representation has been from hotels,” said Dana Lubner, head of leadership development at Rent Responsibly and founding board member of the Mile High Hosts for Community Advocacy in Denver, Colorado. “The fact that more seats are going to the STR community not only acknowledges the economic value that home sharing (or STRs) brings to the destination but provides an opportunity for the STR community to have a voice in tourism policies and spending.”
Reasons to join a tourism board
Tourism boards and DMOs may or may not be vocal in vacation rental regulatory discussions, but even if they do not take a public stance on legislation, their reports and programming can influence regulatory outcomes. With the rapid pace of new regulations across the country, it is a crucial time for property managers to be part of the discussion on how communities will promote and manage tourism in their markets.
“Suppose a local tourism board is only populated with [hotel operators], local politicians, and administrative leaders,” said Larry Mallard, CEO of Alpine Lodging, a vacation rental property management business in Telluride, Colorado. “In that case, vacation rentals can get lost in the discussion and not be managed in a way that benefits everyone.”
Mallard serves on two tourism-related boards in addition to a hospital board. He was chairman of the Telluride Tourism Board and the Colorado Flights Alliance for several years and continues to serve on both boards.
“My partners and I serve on local boards for a couple of reasons,” Mallard said. “First, our company has always felt it was important to give back and be visible leaders in the community.”
“In Telluride, we’re one of the largest employers in the area and want to ensure we are as involved in the direction of the community as possible,” he said. “Tourism is the largest driver of the economy in a destination resort town like Telluride. Lodging and vacation rentals are some of the most important pieces within that space. Our concerns and goals must be part of the discussion as they often align with the business community.”
Ryan Tigner, owner and manager at iTrip Vacations, a nationwide vacation rental property management company, joined Oregon’s Travel Portland Board of Directors in May 2022.
“I wanted to join so I could educate and bring a different perspective of short-term rentals to the board and community,” Tigner said.
About 80% of Travel Portland’s board members are hotel operators.
“Often it is the hotels that are lobbying against short-term rentals,” Tigner said. “If I can educate them and change their perception on STRs and they learn that most short-term rentals are not competing with hotels – they are a completely different experience – maybe it would help our industry be more welcomed.”
Changing perceptions of short-term and vacation rentals
Shannon Hiller-Webb, the first host to sit on Oregon’s Travel Portland Board of Directors, said “having STR representatives on the Travel Portland board has legitimized us in the tourism travel space.”
“It took a couple years being on the board [to correct] the old patterns and behaviors of vilifying the STR rental industry, being reductive of our legitimacy, or just negligent that we were a significant audience for consideration,” Hiller-Webb said, “but as I departed the board I had recognized a shift in acceptance, support, and dare I say, advocacy, which took time, relationship building, and education.”
Sharon Harley, CEO of Jeeves Florida Rentals, has been on central Florida’s Experience Kissimmee Board of Directors for six years and is currently chair-elect.
Over time, Harley said she has been able to demonstrate that vacation rentals offer accommodation and services that compete with the best hotels and have a stake in tourism promotion and spending.
“At challenging times such as when vacation rentals were banned during Covid, I was able to use [tourism] resources to bring awareness of the true professionalism vacation homes offer,” Harley said.
“Too many people … don’t understand the compliance we have to follow and the licensing that is required,” she said. She tries to enhance awareness of how many STR homes pay extra taxes in the exchange for the privilege of operating, how they contribute to the local tax base and economy, and how they create and sustain jobs.
How vacation rental seats have made a difference in tourism
It’s important to remember that when serving on a tourism board, you represent all vacation rentals in your community and not just yourself.
“My advice would be to never go into any decision with a personal agenda,” Mallard said. “Instead, be there to represent the vacation rental space as a whole and don’t make decisions that benefit only you or a select few.”
Thanks to their representation on their local tourism board, hosts in Portland had some say in choosing which neighborhoods would be featured in promotional materials. The new focus on STRs also resulted in a partnership between Airbnb and Travel Portland to promote the city through an email campaign.
“The fact there was a representative from the STR industry on the board and given the impact we had shown the Travel Portland board on how resilient STRs were during Covid in providing tax funding to Travel Portland helped usher in the Travel Portland investment in the Airbnb campaign,” Hiller-Webb said.
In Telluride, where vacation rentals have long played a recognized role in the tourism economy, STR representation helps the tourism board stay in tune with high, moderate, and low peak seasons and better target marketing on the right demographic and over the right dates, Mallard said.
The Visit Telluride website has an entire page dedicated to aggregating and promoting vacation rentals in the community.
Tigner, who joined the Travel Portland board in May, said “it has been great to bring some insight to the group at Travel Portland about what short-term rentals are, the way we operate, our target market, and measures we use to be good actors in the community,” Tigner said. “Obviously, everyone has heard of the extremely rare instances on the news when something goes wrong at a short-term rental, but they don’t hear about the other million stays where families had a wonderful vacation.”
How to join your local tourism board
Adding an STR seat to your local tourism board may require a concerted effort by your STR community.
In Portland, Oregon, hosts had almost no say in regulations and taxation that the city was imposing on them. In mid-2018, members of Host2Host, a trade association for STR hosts, organized to speak out on new STR fees proposed by the Portland City Council. During their advocacy push, they made a case for adding an STR host to the Travel Portland board. They were able to demonstrate their industry’s economic contribution – especially STRs’ role in fueling Portland’s love affair with eating and buying local, as Portland hosts commonly direct guests to their favorite local establishments.
The STR industry now has two of the 28 seats on that tourism board.
Other strategies include getting involved with your local tourism board, attending events, getting to know board members, and showing your interest in serving. Serve on other boards and organizations that could help you make connections on the tourism board or recommend you for a position.
“Once people know who you are and what you stand for, you get recommended to certain positions through somebody who knows somebody,” Tigner said “That is how it happened for me.”
Photo courtesy Campaign Creators