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Umbrella - SeattleInitiative 124 (aka I-124), the ballot measure approved by voters in November 2016 that establishes several new purported "safety and health" standards for hotel employees in the city of Seattle, opens the door for unprecedented exposures for Seattle's hotel operators. Since its enactment last December, Initiative 124 has given rise to several questions about how, if at all, insurance policies might respond to allegations under the new law.

The future has arrived, and it has a strange sense of humor.  Pokémon Go — an “augmented reality” game that requires players to travel to real world locations to capture imaginary monsters through apps on their mobile devices — is changing how millennials choose their travel destinations and hotels.  These games have inspired a new generation of travelers, and present novel opportunities to businesses in the hospitality sector.

Hospitality industry stakeholders who host sites for online reviews or rely on review sites such as Yelp, Trip Advisor, Urban Spoon, or Oyster, may take comfort in the recent Ninth Circuit decision regarding the liability of the publishers of those reviews. See Kimzey v. Yelp! Inc., No. 2:13-cv-01734 (U.S.D.C. Wash. Sept. 12, 2016). But, there is an argument to be made that the protections afforded under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (“CDA”) may be wearing thin. As the industry looks for more ways to leverage data harvested  from online reviews, it is slipping out from the protective umbrella afforded to “passive hosts” of user generated content.

On Monday, July 25, 2016, the Seattle City Council unanimously voted to place Initiative 124 (“I-124”), entitled the “Seattle Hotel Employees Health and Safety Initiative,” on the November 2016 ballot. Many voters will likely not even bother to look beyond the title before casting their vote. But they should. There is much more to this initiative than the title suggests.

I-124 is comprised of five substantive parts, plus definitions and a “miscellaneous” section (containing perhaps the most important piece of the entire initiative – more on that in the following paragraph). Each of these parts has an admirable statement of purpose (e.g., “Protecting Hotel Employees from Violent Assault and Sexual Harassment”), and a slew of requirements that are allegedly aimed at achieving that purpose. But, as with the title of the entire initiative, each part contains language that prompts countervailing concerns.

The annual HSMAI Digital Marketing Strategy Conference was held in New York, NY on February 17, 2016. 

For those of you who attended, or did not attend the conference, my presentation, “Distribution Parity: Where Do We Go From Here?”, is available below. It features an update on recent worldwide parity developments (through December 2015) as well as some practical distribution contracting recommendations.

Distribution Parity

 

 

 

 

 

 

Free to contact me if you have any questions.

Knife_fork 2015 on chalkboardSince their official unveiling in December 2014, the FDA’s final menu-labeling rules have given rise to a multitude of questions from hospitality businesses who wonder how to comply or whether they must comply at all. The FDA, in turn, appears to be trying its level best to provide enough time and guidance to ease these businesses’ transition to the new rules. First, the FDA extended the deadline for compliance by a full year from December 1, 2015 to December 1, 2016, citing the agency’s extensive dialogue with chain restaurants, grocery stores, and other members of the hospitality industry. 

Collective bargainingBernice Johnson Blessing is an Associate in GSB’s Labor and Employment, and Hospitality and Corporate Law practice group.  She is also the newest member of the hospitality team and has had a distinguished career in leading human resources teams for hotel management companies and major hospitality brands for more than 15 years. You can reach Bernice at bblessing@gsblaw.com or 206.816.1465.

From franchisers and companies hiring workers through staffing agencies, to participants in the so-called “sharing economy,” companies and individuals today enter into a variety of contractual arrangements to reduce costs and to maximize available capital, flexibility, talent and efficiency in delivering goods and services. The recent decision of the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB” or “Board”) in Browning-Ferris Industries of California, Inc., 362 NLRB No. 186 (2015), may change how many of these relationships function, and even, whether some of them are now too risky for some participants.

Cork ScrewEmily Harris Gant is an alcoholic beverage attorney, and an Owner in GSB’s national Hospitality, Travel, and Tourism Group. You can reach Emily at egant@gsblaw.com or 206.816.1454.

A distributor is knocking on your hotel restaurant’s door, offering key chains from a hot new distillery for your customers. A brewery just dropped off coasters for use in the restaurant’s bar. And a winery offered cork screws for your sommeliers.

As a responsible retail licensee, you know that most states tightly govern the relationships among liquor retailers, manufacturers, and distributors.

But where’s the line? What kind of “swag” and other valuable items can your hotel restaurant accept for free without running afoul of the law? To find out, read on.

Our friends (and former contributors) at Seattle-based BrandVerity produced an infographic showing that the average hotel brand is losing 26,500 website visitors on direct web traffic each month, leading to a real loss in revenue as these bookings are made elsewhere. Their findings are based on the information found in the hotel selection of their quarterly report on The State of Branded Keywords in Paid Search.

The report assesses the paid search landscape on branded keywords of over 250 consumer-facing brands. Looking at Q1 2015, it found that trademark bidding has cost the typical brand tens of thousands of visitors each month. The full report is available for download today at https://www.brandverity.com/branded-keywords/.

Hotel-Infographic

 

businessman pushing button five rating starsThe Competition & Markets Authority (CMA), which investigates business practices and enforces anti-competition and consumer protection legislation in the UK, just released a report and call for information that signals more scrutiny for online reviews and endorsements. Though the report does not identify companies or sites that will be the subject of investigation, it expresses a general concern that a number of businesses are breaking the law. The report does not point fingers, but it’s worth noting that the hospitality industry is mentioned several times as an area of particular interest, based in part on a survey conducted by the British Hospitality Association in March of this year. Consumer reliance on reviews for vacation travel, the relatively higher cost for hospitality related services, and the sensitivity of the hospitality related services to negative reviews were cited by the CMA as reasons why the industry is an area of particular concern.

UK regulations are, of course, aimed at protecting UK consumers, but U.S. companies are well advised to take heed of the report’s warnings and recommendations because, as the report notes, the CMA plans to assume the Presidency of the International Consumer Protection and Enforcement Network (ICPEN), of which the U.S. is an active member. And, the practices flagged by the CMA, as well as the steps businesses can take to address the CMA’s concerns, closely parallel those identified by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

So, whether your customers are here in the States or abroad, the following practices may result in an investigation by the CMA (or FTC):

  • Writing or commissioning fake negative or positive reviews.(Your marketing firm could also be on the hook for setting up fake Twitter or Facebook accounts to submit reviews).

  • Cherry-picking positive reviews or suppressing negative reviews. (Your website user agreement or comments policy may well allow you to edit or delete user content containing expletives or other inappropriate material, but if those expletives all happen to be in negative reviews of your product or service, you need to consider what disclosures may be necessary to ensure the reviews as a whole are a fair and accurate representation of the actual comments received).

  • Failing to disclose paid reviews or endorsements. (Whether its cash, a free dessert, or award points, you need to disclose compensation or incentives given to individuals submitting reviews or endorsements).

The best practices recommended by the CMA similarly echo the FTC’s guidelines:

  • Be clear with your marketing department or outside marketing firm that they may not write or solicit reviews. Documenting that parameter in a letter or agreement will provide a paper trail that could prove handy down the road.

  • If you do provide compensation or incentives for reviews or endorsements, be sure that that fact is clearly disclosed, e.g., by using a hash tag like “#paid ad.”

  • Promptly publish all reviews, even negative ones. If reviews have been edited or deleted (e.g., to remove expletives), clearly disclose your policy or basis for doing so.

  • Establish a procedure (whether in house or with your marketing firm) for detecting and removing fake reviews.

In conjunction with the report, the CMA published summaries on how to comply with UK consumer protection law on online reviews and endorsements.

Ultimately, the CMA and FTC share a common purpose: to protect consumers from unfair or deceptive business practices by protecting the consumer’s ability to make meaningful choices.  Disclosure of the connection between a review or endorsement and its source (i.e., an independent individual or a sponsoring company) is essential to meaningful consumer choice. So, in devising your marketing strategy, especially if it includes a forum for consumer reviews, ask whether you’ve given your customer the information necessary to make a meaningful decision about your product or service.  Doing so not only helps build brand loyalty, it could help avoid an investigation by the CMA (or FTC).

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Greg Duff, Editor
Greg Duff founded and chairs GSB’s national Hospitality, Travel & Tourism group. His practice largely focuses on operations-oriented matters faced by hospitality industry members, including sales and marketing, distribution and e-commerce, procurement and technology. Greg also serves as counsel and legal advisor to many of the hospitality industry’s associations and trade groups, including AH&LA, HFTP and HSMAI.

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