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Merilee Karr: Be prepared for regulation

During Episode #1 of the HCH Podcast we spoke to Merilee Karr, CEO and Founder of UnderTheDoormat Group, and Chairperson of the Short-Term Accommodation Association (STAA).

During a wide-ranging interview, Merilee discussed her journey in the industry and the prospect of legislation for short-term rentals in the UK and globally, among many other topics.

Click here to listen to the podcast, which was hosted by HCH Founder, James Varley. Below are some key excerpts from the interview.

James Varley: Where are we heading in terms of regulation and what do hosts need to be aware of in the coming years?

Merilee Karr: I think everybody needs to be aware that regulation globally is tending to head in one direction, which is that more regulation is coming in. I think what we are seeing is a general trend towards additional regulation in several forms. One is around standards and making sure the right standards are in place when people are operating a short-term or holiday rental. The second one is they [legislators] are trying to address challenges around housing. Now, I think we all know…that our industry is not causing housing shortages. Housing shortages are caused by government not building enough houses, and other parts of the broader housing industry, like long-term rentals and [the fact] landlords have been disadvantaged due to the changing rules in that sector over time. Amongst that landscape, we have to understand, as an industry, that it's easier for them to call us out and say, ‘let's put more regulation in’, than it is to build new houses.

The VRMA [Vacation Rental Management Association], which is our sister association in North America, did some research which shows that actually COVID is a bigger driver of increased rents than anything the short-term rental industry is doing. But of course, all these things get mixed up and politicians also play to local fears and local desires, some of which are, ‘I don't want “Airbnbs” next door to me’. So, as an industry, we have to recognise that and we need to find data and we need to invest in research. Another reason to be involved in the [Short-Term Accommodation] Association is to get involved in that PR, get involved in the research, so we've got better data to fight these conversations, not just nationally, but also at a local level – because data is really powerful.

James Varley: In terms of PR in the sector, we all read the negative headlines over and over – whether the story is about noisy neighbours or housing shortages. As an industry, what can be done to fight back and tell the positive stories of short-term rentals?

Merilee Karr: It's an interesting one because at STAA we do a lot of PR. I've been on BBC News and Sky News and talked to journalists from most of the major publications. Of course, the challenge is that they love a negative story.

But what we want to be talking about are the positive stories. We want to be talking about how the industry helps people afford the homes that they want to have. We want to be talking about how this is a way that people can retire, and this funds people's ability to live when they might not have a pension. We want to be talking about how this helps people to reinvest in areas that might otherwise be more deprived.

Also, as an industry, we help people go and spend money in local shops, local restaurants, in local businesses, and we create jobs in local areas that otherwise might not have the industry to keep people there.

So, there are all these benefits that we provide as an industry, and we need to be getting those stories out. And I think what's really important is that we need to be telling those personal stories. We all hear about the Airbnb party, but what about the story of someone who is employed and has the flexible employment they need as a cleaner to work around their kids’ school schedule when there would otherwise not be jobs in their local area? Those are the stories that people need to hear. The local pub that stayed open because more people come there on a regular basis because there are holiday rentals in the area. Those are the positive stories.

We also need to be getting data in to some of these negative stories to combat the headlines with facts. [Despite] the sensational headlines, often if you read good journalistic articles, they are more nuanced and a bit more balanced. And smart people, I would like to believe, are able to see past those headlines and understand the benefits that our industry provides.


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