New York Times Story Finds Hotel Lobby Funding Research to Justify Industry Goals
A recent New York Times story about the American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA), the primary lobbying arm of the hotel industry, highlights the organization’s extensive plans to combat home sharing and its reliance on Penn State Professor John W. O’Neill to implement its strategic plan.
But new documents uncovered by Checks and Balances Project show that O’Neill has long been an ally of the hotel lobby.
According to AHLA’s 2014 Board of Directors meeting book, O’Neill was engaged by the lobby to produce, “Extreme Wage Initiatives & The Hotel Industry: Impact on Local Communities and the Nation.” Our review of the 2014 board book, coupled with the Times’ story, highlights how O’Neill has peddled hotel-industry talking points as scholarship while failing to disclose his longstanding, commercial relationship with AHLA.
O’Neill is the lead academic supporting the hotel lobby with research and in the media. And his academic credibility allowed AHLA President/CEO Katherine Lugar to declare in numerous media outlets, including NBC News, Yahoo Finance and CNBC, that the research conducted by a seemingly impartial Penn State professor bolstered her organization’s arguments against increasing the minimum wage.
In 2016, Professor O’Neill produced an anti-home sharing report for AHLA that also garnered media coverage in Bloomberg and The Guardian, among others. In every case, O’Neill was positioned as simply an impartial researcher.
Did Professor O’Neill violate basic research ethics surrounding industry-funded research?
Based on the AHLA board books, which detail the hotel lobby’s predetermined goals for O’Neill’s research, as well as his apparent failure to abide by well-established research ethics and norms, specifically failing to disclose obvious conflicts of interest, it appears that he did.
“A More Aggressive Lobbying Force”
Although O’Neill was appointed director of Penn State’s School of Hospitality Management (SHM) in 2011, it wasn’t until Katherine Lugar became CEO of AHLA in 2013 that this industry/academic partnership was taken to a new level.
Seeing a number of “threats” to the hospitality industry on the horizon, Lugar focused on turning AHLA into “a more aggressive lobbying force.” With the help of high-powered industry allies, including top executives from the largest hotel chains in the world, AHLA crafted a “Campaign to Beat Back Local Living Wage Initiatives.”
To give this agenda a patina of academic respectability, AHLA tasked Professor O’Neill to produce a report on “extreme minimum wages” that argued against increasing the national minimum wage to $10.10. In fact, Professor O’Neill uses the word “extreme” more than 60 times in the final work product he produced on behalf of the lobbying group, as you can see in the image below:
Although AHLA scrubbed many records and documents from its website, C&BP located the AHLA Board of Directors book from its March 31, 2014, meeting. You can access the entire board book here.
Here’s an excerpt from p. 101 that specifically discusses Professor O’Neill:
Pivot to Home Sharing
Their collaboration was so successful that Lugar enlisted O’Neill’s services a year later to launch an attack on a new, perceived threat to the hotel lobby: sustainable home sharing.
In AHLA’s 2015 Annual Report, Lugar writes about her organization’s success at “shaping the national narrative on the growth of, what are in many cases, illegal hotels operating short-term rental platforms.”
Lugar’s success in “shaping the narrative” against home sharing platforms can, again, be attributed, at least in part, to the lobby’s partnership with Professor O’Neill. Following the blueprint established by the minimum wage report, the hotel lobby enlisted O’Neill to produce an anti-Airbnb study titled, “From Air Mattresses to Unregulated Business: An Analysis of the Other Side of Airbnb.” But this time he went a step further, incorporating the Penn State branding and logo on his work product, blurring the lines between industry-funded research and university-supported, independent research.
In most news reports about the “extreme minimum wage” report and the anti-home sharing report, O’Neill is only identified with some variation of “the report’s author and director of the School of Hospitality Management at Pennsylvania State University,” or, after 2015, “director of the Center for Hospitality Real Estate Strategy.”
Yet according to his CV, Professor O’Neill has been, and may still be, a paid consultant for many of the corporations comprising its executive board such as Hilton Worldwide and Marriott International, among others.
He fails to mention his longstanding, commercial relationship with AHLA and the corporations it represents, his work integrating the hotel lobby with the School of Hospitality Management and that Kalibri Labs, which worked on the Airbnb report with Professor O’Neill, employs Matt Carrier as Director of Client Engagement. Mr. Carrier is the son of Mark Carrier, AHLA’s Chair of the Board.
Professor O’Neill was also actively involved in AHLA’s press campaign to highlight city-specific data from his report. This includes participating on an AHLA conference call with reporters about the Phoenix report, commenting to Lodging Magazine when AHLA released the Philadelphia report, as well as providing quotes to Fortune and Business Travel News when AHLA released the national report.
A study published in The Journal of American Medical Association about the conflicts of interest in research funding found:
“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.”
The United Kingdom’s Economic and Social Research Council discusses conflicts of interest in its Research Ethics Guidebook, stating:
“the independence and impartiality of the researchers must be clear, and any conflicts of interest or partiality must be explicit.”
While recognizing “that it’s not always possible to prevent partiality or conflicts of interests,” the ethics guidebook still contends:
“The critical point is that any conflict of interest or partiality is explicit – and this means that participants, and all those concerned, should have this information:
“Have any potential conflicts of interest (personal, academic or commercial) between researchers and the funders, the REC, the research aims, or the participants been explained?”
And Penn State By-laws Section 8.13 declare in part:
“Employees shall disclose to the administrative head of the college or other unit in which they are employed, or other unit which they are employed, or other appropriate superior officer, any potential conflict of interest which they are aware before a contract or transaction is consummated.”
Reopen the Investigation
According to a terse email we received from Vice President Neil Sharkey, the university’s Conflict of Interest office has exonerated O’Neill and found him in compliance with ethical standards.
In light of the AHLA Board of Directors strategic campaign plan, Penn State’s investigation of Professor O’Neill should be reopened.
Evlondo Cooper is a senior fellow with Checks and Balances Project, a national watchdog 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.
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