Bed-and-bath sector may move toward more unified voice

Robert Smith
Pawhuska Journal-Capital

Adverse pressures are motivating Pawhuska bed-and-bath establishment owners to communicate more with one another, and to move in the direction of having a more unified voice.

Discussions by the Pawhuska City Council this fall about possibly putting a municipal lodging tax on the ballot caused concern in the bed-and-bath sector of the local economy, and a recent conflict between Airbnb and a Pawhuska-area property owner has generated a fresh wave of anxiety. To clarify, no lodging tax has been added to the ballot in Pawhuska.

Joni Nash, executive director of the Pawhuska Chamber of Commerce, owns a cabin that she has rented to Osage County visitors through Airbnb. Nash became aware, because her potential customers communicated directly with her, that Airbnb was not letting them book the cabin, and was actively steering them in other directions.

Nash said she talked to representatives of the company and got different answers depending on the person to whom she spoke. Ultimately, the answer Airbnb gave her was to change the category of her listing to a bedroom in a home. She said that AirBnb representatives explained that they were trying to protect customers against attending parties that could lead to the spread of COVID-19.

"I wasn't trying to be a whistleblower," Nash said, emphasizing that she would not have discovered the problem if her potential guests had not communicated directly with her. "It just showed me how much control they (Airbnb) have over my property."

As a tourism promotion professional, Nash felt the need to make others aware of a problem they could face. She communicated with Lt. Gov. Matt Pinnell about the problem. Pinnell has taken a particular interest in supporting Oklahoma tourism.

Kelly Bland, the county's tourism director, said she thinks Nash did the correct thing in making public the problem she had with Airbnb, which is based in San Francisco.

"I wasn't happy about what Joni was going through but I was glad she went public with it," Bland said. "I stand by Joni on that 100 percent."

Bland explained she doesn't approve of the notion of business interests in other states -- in this instance, California -- effectively applying regulations to Oklahoma tourism. She voiced a willingness to connect people directly to bed and bath owners if they have trouble booking reservations online at businesses in the county.

Bland said the combination of potential travelers looking for rural destinations because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the possibility that production could begin in a matter of months on the film version of "Killers of the Flower Moon" put Osage County lodging businesses in a position to soon be doing a very lucrative trade.

"I think we're on the verge of seeing something we've never seen before," Bland said.

Michelle Loftis, for whom bed-and-bath lodging is the heart of her business, told the Journal-Capital she is working to organize a meeting for 5:30 p.m. Jan. 7 at her condo unit, 701 Prudom, Pawhuska, to bring bed-and-bath owners together for a meeting.

Loftis is concerned that the bed-and-bath sector may need to develop a unified voice in order to defend its interests. She also noted that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused significant changes in the business.

Loftis has had bed-and-bath rental units in Pawhuska for several years. Before this year, her properties generally were booked a month or more ahead of time, and people came from other states and countries.

This year, however, people are flying more by the seat of their pants, she said. More of her guests are from relatively nearby. Among the changes she implemented was to develop a more flexible cancellation policy to accommodate last-minute changes due to COVID-19.

Loftis, who sees herself primarily as a customer-service professional, sympathized with the difficulty that Nash faced in her recent conflict with Airbnb.

"Not everybody wants to stay in a room in your house" Loftis said regarding the change that Airbnb advised Nash to make in the way she listed her cabin. Loftis pointed out that customers may want more privacy than that. "Every direction you go, you're kind of in a lose-lose situation. Everybody is different."

Loftis said her lodging business -- and for her lodging accommodations are not a sideline or hobby -- was shut down for 75 days this year, beginning March 18, due to concerns about COVID-19. She received no loans to keep her going, and took a serious hit.

Loftis said she survived by having diversified business interests, but she is concerned that bed-and-bath operators in Osage County need to be prepared to speak up to protect their interests.