Comment:  Government must level the playing field

David Weston, chairman of the Bed & Breakfast Association, says government must act on MPs’ report and level the playing field 

In my 30 years in travel, the biggest changes have been brought by technology.

The rise of the internet in the mid-90s was the biggest, but in the last few years, the accommodation sector has seen the rise to global dominance of the biggest online travel agents (OTAs) and the exponential growth of “peer-to-peer” platforms such as Airbnb.

Power has shifted from accommodation owners to online intermediaries: the biggest OTA (Booking.com) is now worth more than the world’s top four hotel groups combined ($100 billion).

The biggest peer-to-peer platform, Airbnb, is worth $31 billion and now has more than 168,000 listings in the UK (compared to some 25,000 B&Bs).

Airbnb listings in London are a third of the size of the hotel sector, as there are about 64,000 Airbnb-listed properties London, compared to 197,970 hotel rooms.

The industry has been slow to react, but that is nothing compared to governments and regulators, who are decades out of date.

Revolution

When there has been a revolution in how people book travel, there needs to be a revolution in how the industry is regulated and how consumers are protected. Yet we are living with rules written long ago for a very different world.

Does that matter? Yes, because small, highly-regulated businesses in our country are being undercut and damaged by new competitors whose business models were designed to avoid those regulations.

And because the safety protections brought in over many years no longer protect today’s consumers, depending on how they book.

The business playing-field needs to be levelled and the consumer needs the security they wrongly think they still have.

The B&B Association is here to fight for the interests of B&B, guesthouse and independent hotel owners, so we have been pressing this case for years, making the voice of these small family businesses heard in Westminster, Edinburgh and Brussels.

It’s been a frustrating battle, but this year we have seen encouraging moves by the UK competition regulator (Competition and Markets Authority), taking enforcement action against OTAs, and by the European Commission, demanding last month that Airbnb change its “illegal” terms and conditions (for instance, denying its hosts’ responsibility to the guest) by the end of August.

And on 18 July, the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Tourism released its long-awaited final report on the so-called “Sharing Economy”.

It calls for “a level playing field for all tourism businesses”, and declares “all visitors are entitled to a minimum level of safety, regardless of the type of accommodation they use and method by which it is booked”.

Registration scheme

The APPG calls on the government to consult on “a low-cost statutory registration scheme for tourism accommodation businesses”. We will be happy to play a constructive role in that consultation.

One of the APPG’s key asks could be implemented immediately by Airbnb if it chose, rather than waiting for government to force it, to “ensure that hosts have, as a minimum, undertaken a fire safety assessment, a health and safety assessment and, where relevant, have Gas Safe certification. Accommodation providers should not be allowed to register properties without proof of these assessments”.

Are you surprised that this is not the case already?

It has been routine for tour operators since 1992, when the EU decided that they should not be allowed to shrug off responsibility for the properties they market, and made them 100% liable for the performance of their services.

The 2015 recommendations of the Wakefield Coroner, following the tragic death by carbon monoxide poisoning of Christi and Bobby Shepherd in Corfu in 2006 in accommodation let through Thomas Cook, have been ignored by the “sharing economy”.

Airbnb is now a far larger provider of such tourism accommodation than Thomas Cook, yet still no checks or inspections take place, and Airbnb (unlike Thomas Cook) can still claim not to be responsible for the safety of its accommodation. Is that right or fair?

History repeats itself, and sadly that battle now needs to be re-fought, so the peer-to-peer platforms at least share responsibility for the safety of their listings, and check them out, as tour operators have done for a generation. They should stand behind their product, as our members do.

We call on the government to lose no time in implementing the recommendations of the report, to ensure fair competition for small businesses, and the safety of consumers.

David Weston chairs the Bed & Breakfast Association, the UK trade association for B&B, guest house and independent hotel owners. He is a member of the government’s Tourism Industry Council, and a Fellow of the Tourism Society.

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