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Five Minutes with Kalyn Stephens

November 14, 2019

Five Minutes with Kalyn Stephens

In recent years the American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA) has expanded its mandate to take on a range of pressing issues, from employee safety to human trafficking, advocating for the hospitality industry in far-ranging conversations with the nation’s lawmakers and decision-makers and backed by an active and diverse membership. We checked in with AHLA Vice President of Government Affairs, Kalyn Stephens who, in conversation with TraknProtect’s Jeremy Wyatt, provided an insider’s update on the progress of those issues and more.

If Kalyn Stephens is initially uncomfortable about the tidiness of her desk it’s easy to see why. In common with many working in Washington DC, the large stack of business cards is a constant reminder of follow-ups from hard-earned appointments and meetings yet to be scheduled. It’s consistent with the ambitious agenda AHLA has set for itself in representing its influential membership across a range of topical issues, and when I asked Stephens what her typical day might look like, I was prepared for a long answer. Below are edited excerpts of the conversation.

TnP: What are some of the projects you’re currently working on?

KS: The two key issues I’m working on are human trafficking and our inbound international travel efforts, as well as a number of member engagement pieces we always have underway.

TnP: Are you working on all of those issues at a federal level?

KS: A lot of these issues are federally based but we’re also seeing them play out at a local level. So, for example, we’ve been working a lot on the reauthorization of Brand USA, which markets the U.S. internationally. It’s a public/private partnership, funded off of the ESTA fee that comes from Visa Waiver Program travelers and matched dollar for dollar by the private sector. In 2018, the funding became decoupled, so we’ve been working to reauthorize the program and fix the funding structure. We’ve seen a lot of bipartisan support for the program because so many members of Congress know the importance of tourism to their states, districts, and communities, and at a time when we’re seeing a loss of market share for inbound international travelers, they understand the huge impact that will have on the economy. We can only imagine how much worse it could be without Brand USA, which has an ROI of 25:1 and has brought in $6.6 million visitors since 2013, and are pleased to have over 100 co-sponsors in the House on the bill – nearly 40 in the Senate.

TnP: It’s been over a year since the 5-Star Promise was launched, what kinds of change have you seen in the industry?

KS: It’s been incredible, really from the time we started working on the launch of 5-Star, to see how the whole industry has been so passionate about employee and guest safety and we’re seeing some real progress as our members are working towards the 2020 deadline. 5-Star participation has grown by 230% – from seventeen brands to now over fifty-six member companies, and that’s amazing when you consider how segmented our industry is to see so many of our members raise their hands and ask how can we become more involved in this – that’s a really unprecedented show of support.

TnP: What do you see as the biggest challenge you’re noticing from the membership right now, and how can you help them with that?

KS: When you look at the hotel industry it’s hard to ignore that we’re such a major driver of economic activity – we’re in every community in the country, employing over 8 million people. So, a lot of what we’re seeing is an opportunity to help with labor and workforce issues and support our members in their efforts to protect employees and guests and be in front of those issues while also thinking about the business end of things. We also recognize that there’s no ‘one size fits all’ answer to that and while some of our members are really ahead of the curve, others are still figuring out their best solution. I think we have some great examples of how this can work now where there have been laws on the books – New York, Chicago and here in D.C. – and we’ve been working, along with partners like TraknProtect, to provide options and resources to help as the industry moves towards that deadline of 2020.

TnP: What led to this summer’s No Room for Trafficking initiative by the AHLA?

KS: Many in our industry, including a lot of our global brands, have been working on human trafficking initiatives for a long time and are totally committed to it, yet it wasn’t an issue the industry had necessarily rallied around with a unified message and a goal, and that really led to our launch of the No Room for Trafficking campaign. We held a strategic roundtable with our members, associations, government officials and law enforcement and discussed what we were seeing at the state level, how we could develop best practices for our industry and what could come next. We’re really taking the lead on a lot of those efforts both at the federal level and around the country, and part of that has been our partnerships with organizations like ECPAT-USA, Polaris, Department of Homeland Security Blue Campaign, Businesses Ending Slavery and Trafficking (BEST) and the D.C. Rape Crises Center here in Washington. Due largely to that kind of engagement, and the efforts of our members, we were one of the top URLs on this year’s

UN’s World Day Against Trafficking in Persons trending on Twitter. Our eventual goal is to train every single employee in human trafficking prevention, and while we know that’s ambitious, we recognize we’re on the front lines of this and our hotel employees are the ones who are going to be able to help identify, prevent and solve this problem.

TnP: Is human trafficking viewed as a problem only really relevant to Washington and the nation’s gateway cities or does it have resonance in the regions?

KS: I have to say everywhere we’ve been and everyone we’ve talked to at our state associations has a story about the impact it’s having on their community. Everyone wants to partner with us to help solve this issue because, unfortunately, no one has told us ‘that’s not a problem we have here.’

TnP: Given the current gridlock in Washington, how hard is it to advance the Association’s various agenda?

KS: It can be hard work, yes, but we’re up there on the Hill every day talking about our campaigns and the kind of impact we’re having and we’re seeing a lot of interest being shown. Eliminating trafficking, in particular, is something many legislators are really passionate about, so when we start to talk about our campaign and our efforts, they’re very much onboard on working with us and realize we’re here to partner with them and help them in advancing legislation.

TnP: What’s Ahead for AHLA?

KS: From my perspective, we’re doing a lot of work on No Room for Trafficking: I’m looking forward to January, which is Human Trafficking Awareness Month, and with the Super Bowl at the beginning of February we’ll be hosting an event in Miami on January 9th. We’ll be continuing to build awareness more broadly – we launched a public service announcement on July 30th and so far we’ve received nearly 20 million media impressions for the campaign so we’re definitely continuing those kinds of efforts to raise awareness, and we’ll be continuing to work on the Hill keeping up the noise there to make sure everyone knows what we’re working on. For instance, we will continue to work with the co-sponsors of a bill in the House right now, H.R. 1427, that would create a preferred list of hotels through the GSA based on certain criteria they would need to meet on human trafficking awareness. You’ll also see our industry continuing to focus on our work around illegal short-term rentals, and we’re making headway around the country and also with a bill federally that would prevent them from exploiting a federal loophole, using CDA230, to avoid complying with state and local laws. In addition to focusing on reining in illegal hotels, we will continue to work to protect consumers from fraudulent and misleading online bookings under the Search Smarter initiative and by advancing the Stop Online Booking Scams Act introduced earlier this year. And

of course, we’ll be continuing our efforts with 5-Star as we move towards the deadline making sure we’re helping our members as much as we can.

TnP: Given all of the key issues you’re working on what, in your five years at the AHLA, has been your best day so far?

KS: That’s a really hard question because we’ve done some great work that I’m so proud of, both personally and as part of the amazing team here, but maybe I’d have to say it was when we launched the 5-Star Promise last year. I worked very closely on the launch and having all the brand leadership, normally so competitive by nature, on the stage at one time working together and taking this issue head-on, it was hard not to step back and say this is an amazing moment – we started this. It really was a great day to be at AHLA.