Purpose is to buttress testimonial campaign to undermine home-sharing in South Florida

Florida International UniversityLast October, Checks and Balances began investigating the university-corporate partnership between Penn State University and the American Hotel and Lodging Association (AHLA), the primary lobbying arm of the hotel lobby. In April, we expanded our inquiry to three additional universities, including Florida International University (FIU), based upon AHLA’s pay-to-play research campaign uncovered by the New York Times.

We’ve now learned from a public document provided to us by Florida International University (FIU) that the American Hotel and Lodging Association (AHLA), the hotel industry’s primary lobbying arm, will pay $68,210 to FIU to conduct a study titled, “Safety and Security of Short-Term Rental Properties in Multiple Cities.”

Although the executive summary of FIU’s document reads soberly,

“We wish to determine if there is [sic] any gaps in the perceived and real-life safety/security of Short-Term rentals and hotels through a content analysis and a survey of the general public”

AHLA revealed its true intentions for this research in its 2016 executive board book, which the New York Times reported on in April:

You can read FIU’s complete document HERE. It is further evidence that the hotel lobby is attempting to replicate its pay-to-play research scheme that began at Penn State.

The Penn State Model

There, the hotel lobbyists successfully engaged Professor John O’Neill to produce “research” with predetermined outcomes. The first, in 2014, was called, “Extreme Wage Initiatives & The Hotel Industry.” In 2016, O’Neill produced, “From Air Mattresses to Unregulated Business,” along with numerous other city-specific reports. He then supported AHLA CEO Katherine Lugar in multiple national and local media interviews and briefings without explaining their relationship.

Hotel Lobby’s Focus on South Florida

In the greater Miami area, this effort began in earnest with the May 2016 release of a Miami-specific city report based on O’Neill’s original anti-Airbnb report. Discussing peer-to-peer rentals in Miami, Ms. Lugar stated,

“This problem is particularly acute in Miami, where — more than in any of the 14 cities studied — multi-unit and full-time operators drive Airbnb’s revenue. Policymakers in Miami, in Florida and across the country should act to ensure a fair travel marketplace by closing the illegal hotel loophole.”

This pay-for-play campaign has netted the hotel lobby some success in framing the debate against home-sharing, as well as a few policy victories. According to the Daily Business Review, “Miami has certainly made headlines and can be viewed as a poster child for its relentless attempts to squeeze out and ultimately ban short-term rentals in a substantial portion of its neighborhoods.”

But AHLA’s attempts to procure pay-to-play research to advance its sector interests in cities such as Miami is fraught with ethical concerns.

Conflicts of Interest in Research Funding

For example, a study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association about conflicts of interest in research funding finds:

Strong and consistent evidence shows that industry-sponsored research tends to draw pro-industry conclusions. By combining data from articles examining 1140 studies, we found that industry-sponsored studies were significantly more likely to reach conclusions that were favorable to the sponsor than were nonindustry studies.”

Our reporting at Penn State highlights how industry-funded research creates conflicts of interest that incentivize researchers to circumvent well-established research ethics and norms.

As the fight for the future of sustainable peer-to-peer rentals of apartments, homes and spare bedrooms heats up in South Florida, FIU administrators informed C&BP they are currently waiting for AHLA to send them the $68,210 award check so its professor can begin the study.

That’s a Challenge

When asked by the Miami Herald how he will remain independent when the hotel association expects a certain outcome from his research, FIU Chaplin School of Hospitality & Tourism Management Professor Eric Beckman said,

“that’s a challenge, but it’s one that we’re willing to meet and we are willing to address.”

Although the hotel lobby has a predetermined outcome for the study, we will have to wait for the results to determine if FIU faculty and staff will uphold the university’s commitment to the highest research ethics standards, which is something that Penn State administrators and Professor John W. O’Neill have failed to do.


Scott Peterson is executive director of Checks and Balances Project, a national investigative blog that seeks to hold government officials, lobbyists and corporate management accountable to the public. Funding for C&BP comes from sustainable economy philanthropies and donors. 


You Might Want to Read:

Penn State Professor O’Neill Hired by Hotel Lobby for Pay-to-Play Research

C&BP Expands Probe of Hotel Lobby Influence To UNC-Chapel Hill, Florida International University and Rutgers

Anonymous Tip from Penn State: “There is a bigger story here.”